Monday, July 5, 2010

Jesus and Me?

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been arguing against the Teachers who came to his churches in Galatia after him to preach a "gospel" which required Gentiles to follow works of the Jewish Law, which Paul says is really no gospel at all.  Having addressed this "no-gospel", Paul now turns to addressing its effect on community life in Galatia.

With two opposing authorities in Galatia (Paul and the Teachers), it is easy to see how division and strife would develop within the community.  The Teachers were telling the Galatians that Paul's gospel was incomplete and in order to be truly spiritual they had to follow the Law.  This could easily breed a kind of spiritual arrogance among those who did choose to follow the Teachers and become obedient to the Law.  The Law observant believers likely would have looked down upon their non-observing brothers and sisters who would have in turn likely resented their condescension.  It is possible, if Paul's argument won the day in Galatia, that his letter may have even reversed and exacerbated these circumstances.  Perhaps upon receiving Paul's letter, the non-observing Gentile believers might now feel that they were spiritually superior since they had not placed their trust in the works of the Law.

In response to all this, Paul says
"Bretheren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself so that you will not be tempted."
Paul wants his churches to be free of this spiritual arrogance so he attaches spirituality to responsibility.  In other words, Paul claims that to be spiritual is not a matter of status or privilege; it is not something to be used to raise your own standing in the community.  To be spiritual means to have a responsibility to your brother and sister in Christ.  Paul is in essence saying "If you really regard yourself as the spiritual one, then it is up to you to take responsibility for the growth and maturity of those who are less spiritual."  One's spiritual health is not something to be compared to or lauded over the the spiritually immature.  It is to be used to make them healthy as well, to restore them.

However, just as important as restoring that brother or sister is how one goes about restoring that brother or sister.  Paul says it must be in a spirit of gentleness.  To point out someone else's spiritual weakness to them in a reckless or uncaring way is just another form of spiritual arrogance.   The purpose of Christian accountability is not to tear others down by reminding them of all that they've done wrong.  The purpose is to bring them back on the right path.  Therefore, as Paul alludes to in Ephesians 4:15, it is important not only to speak the truth but to do so in love.  We certainly must speak the truth to a brother or sister we believe to be headed down the wrong path but we must do so in a way that has the good of that brother or sister in mind.

Paul also says that this restoration must be done "each one looking to yourself so that you will not be tempted."  That is, the process of restoration must not only include gentleness on the part of the one doing the restoring but also humility and self-reflection.  Before we try to restore someone else from their sin, we must take an honest look at ourselves to make sure that we are not being tempted by precisely the same thing we are attempting to correct in someone else.

After speaking of bearing one another's burdens in this way, Paul says in v. 5
"For each one will bear his own load."
At first glance, these statement might seem contradictory.  How can Paul say "carry each other burdens" and just a few verses later say that each one will carry his own burden?  As is often the case with Paul, the important difference between the two statement is their place in the timeline of God's salvific work in history.  In v. 2, Paul speaks with a present imperative, telling the Galatians to bear one another's burdens now.  In v. 5, Paul uses a future tense verb to say that "each one will bear his own load".  Often when Paul speaks of the future, he has the final judgement in mind.  That future judgement is the day when everyone will finally be responsible for their own lives; we will each bear the load of our lives before God.  But, Paul says, until then we are to bear one another's burden.  That is part of the very purpose of the Church's existence; to hold each other accountable and to restore each other when we have fallen short.  Furthermore, the extent to which we give ourselves in that of bearing each other burdens is part of our own "load" which will be judged on that final day.

The kind of accountability that Paul envisions here is certainly a challenging and difficult thing.  It is sadly a rare thing in the Church today.  For many of us, it is difficult to get up the courage to hold our fellow disciples accountable for fear of coming off as "holier than thou" (and too often we have also made the mistake of actually acting as if we really were holier than the person we were calling to repentance).  To make matters worse, when these rare instances of accountability do occur many Christians respond defensively by saying "That's none of your business.  That's between Jesus and me!"  At best, this is only a half truth.  There will indeed be a day on which all of our deeds are only between us and Jesus and we will be held accountable for those deeds.  At worst, a statement like this one reflects a complete failure to understand the Church and its crucial role in our salvation.  If everything about the Christian faith really is just between me and Jesus, then why bother with Church at all?  The whole truth is that God has designed our salvation in such a way that it is wrapped up with the salvation of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  God meant for us to be on this journey together.  To try to walk this path alone is to be sure that we have wondered down the wrong path.  To be on the right path is to find ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are willing to have their course corrected by those with whom they journey.

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