Galatians 6:1-10 – ‘Bearing burdens, reaping and sowing’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
The section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we heard today is so rich with things we could go deeper with that I have split today’s reflection into two, just to try and avoid the temptation to try and pull them together and thereby risk losing more than we might gain.
There were two predominant themes that pulled me in, and I want to start with the first of these now. I was drawn by the thought of restoring one another in a spirit of gentleness, and bearing one another’s burdens. It seems to me that we could do with hearing this message, loud and clear, in our world today. Have you noticed how, when someone transgresses, or misbehaves in some way, the rush to blame is quickly followed by outrage as a reaction? How quickly do we hear judgement and the call for punishment, usually long before there is any thought of restoration, gentleness, or even understanding? And when this becomes a pattern and someone comes at us in a hardened manner, then we are encouraged to fight back with an increasing level of hardness. This seems to only reinforce the hardness, polarise those involved, and hurt more and more people. I wonder if this way of responding might be a natural outcome of our humanity and it takes an unnatural act of grace to pull us into another way of being. That spirit of gentleness that Paul refers to isn’t something we all have readily available. It has to come, surely, from another source; a source beyond the whims of our own natures. Grace is generously and unconditionally God-given. Our response is to operate in and with, a gracious framework. If we have wobbled in the past, and have been the recipients of grace, we know all too well what a gift grace is! We also know what it can do to the lives of others when we pay this grace forward.
When people get something wrong, what does it mean to restore them in a spirit of gentleness? When we get something wrong what would it mean for us to be restored in a spirit of gentleness? I suspect that when we are wronged, we either stay quiet, or we avoid the wrongdoer, or we are quick to judge, or lash out. Maybe this is because the option to do the work of restoration just looks too difficult. As a culture we have a lot to learn about dealing well with conflict, and that difficulty is even more challenging in a church setting. For me, personally, restoring in a spirit of gentleness often gets distorted into ‘ignoring the issue’ in a spirit of gentleness. There is a level of courage required in addressing destructive behaviour and a lot of energy used up in trying to nut out the best way through so as to get the best outcome for all. And sometimes it’s easier to just let it go, which of course means the behaviour is never addressed, therefore never attended to. I think the point to note here is where that spirit of gentleness comes from – in whose spirit are we equipped to do this hard work? If we have to do it in our own strength then we will soon wear out or give up. Understanding our strength in these situations, as coming from another source, i.e., God’s spirit within, calls on us to lean into our trust in God. But a note of caution here, it also requires some deep searching within to ensure we are not shoehorning our own ideas of who is wrong and who is right into something we then empower by calling it God’s spirit.
Bearing one another’s burdens is not straightforward either. We do it, of course we do, it’s part of being in community, it’s about being in a family, it’s what we do for those we love. This surely lies at the heart of what community is. However, sharing one another’s burdens is also something that we might readily do for others but find it a whole lot more difficult to let others do for us. I have met characters like that. Very giving to others but staunchly self-reliant about their own affairs. True community requires us all to give and take in the spirit of openness and gentleness. Our welfare system is a good example of bearing one another’s burdens. We pay in so that others who are struggling can have their burdens carried for them. Another alternative approach is to slag them off as ‘bludgers’, but I can only see an absence of restoration by a spirit of gentleness in that approach! To bear one another’s burdens we have to let go of the preoccupation with our own ‘rights’ and be more concerned for the rights of others. It means being prepared to go with a little less so that someone else doesn’t have to. That’s part 1! Here’s a question for you to ponder as we pause; what helps strengthen you, in your life, to bear the burdens of others?
The second phrase that caught my eye was the line ‘you reap what you sow.’ Did you notice that one too? It’s a trite phrase we use regularly and often without thinking too much about what we are really saying. Sometimes we expand on it by saying ‘what goes around comes around’ or, ‘you get back what you give out’, or ‘love and you will find love’, and other such cliches. As there often is, there is a measure of truth in these sayings, they’re designed to make us stop and think about the consequences of our actions. However, without much thought we stretch these words of Paul’s into a destructive way of seeing the world. We can turn the gospel of grace into something very close to the idea of karma. Karma is the idea that you get back what you give out, or getting what you deserve. With karma when good things happen to us, they can be understood as a result of good behaviour, and bad things are understood as a result of bad behaviour. Where karma gets ugly is when something bad strikes and we can quickly get to wondering what the person did wrong. We experienced this after the earthquakes hit Christchurch a few years back. Some unhelpful characters came from overseas to tell us that the earthquakes were the outcome of some decisions made around how we function as a society. We got what we deserved, they said, and they dared to say it in the name of Jesus!!! So, when Paul writes that whatever one sows, is what will be reaped, is he really saying that this is the same as karma? Was he really trying to sell us a system of divine tit-for-tat?
No. Of course, Jesus has never been about karma! In fact, the witness of Jesus directly contradicts such teaching. Jesus came to bring life, not to try to get even. Life in the kingdom of God is about freedom and grace; a life rooted in karma is one of fear and condemnation. The definition of grace is undeserved favour, not getting back what we had coming. What sets Christianity apart from karma is God’s desire to freely forgive. Love keeps no record of wrongs, writes Paul. With karma, life will conspire to keep us locked in negative experiences until our moral balance begins to swing the other way. That is, until we have stored up enough good experiences to outweigh the bad. I guess we are meant to know when we have reached the magic point, because this will be when good things begin to happen. But Jesus, on the other hand, vehemently challenges any assumption that our suffering is because of our sinfulness. We know this because when the disciples asked Jesus whether a man was born blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin, Jesus replied, “neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jn 9:2 Jesus goes to great trouble to make the point that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. And that falling short is not the end – we are not left to fate. Instead, God wants to know us, forgive us and restore us, in a spirit of gentleness, and in God’s strength.
The biblical language of reaping and sowing is meant to encourage, in that because what we sow we will reap, therefore to keep reaping we need to keep sowing. It is also a way of describing the natural consequences of one’s choices and behaviours. Consequences are natural and reasonable. If you constantly ridicule and put-down a friend, he or she will eventually end the relationship. If you place a hand on a hot stove, you will be burned. We cannot avoid such consequences. They are experienced as the natural outflow of our lives.
But where karma attempts to explain life’s randomness by providing a fate-filled answer for what happens to us, it leaves no room for grace and us left with no choice but to blame ourselves for whatever occurs in life. The gospel, in contrast, tells a different story. Jesus is not watching over us with some sort of divine bookkeeping ledger in case our stocks of goodwill are dwindling and we need a shot of disease, accident, or tragedy to encourage us back onto the right path. Nor is Jesus waiting for the day where he can finally smite us for all the mistakes or sins we have committed. Rather, Jesus is directly opposed to this. The way of Jesus is not condemnation. It is the way of redemption, grace, and love. Jesus is only interested in raising and restoring us. No matter what has occurred in your life, or what may be occurring now, Jesus is always with you. The consequences of life have no bearing on his utmost and unyielding love. He will not revisit your old mistakes asking for payback, and what a gift to celebrate that is! He is so much more interested in offering us life, and life to the full. That fullness of life is what we are invited into each and every day, despite what happened yesterday.