Last week I encouraged everyone to do a take-home assignment based on Galatians 5:19-23. I asked each of us to do an honest self-inventory to see where we are living faithfully by the Spirit and struggling with living by the flesh. That’s a pretty hard assignment if we take it seriously and give it the time and attention it deserves. Most of us are probably doing reasonably well in most areas most of the time, and we each have areas in which we struggle. Everything can be strained when we are tired and under stress. And for many of us, being tired and under stress are daily realities. That creates a constant challenge.
So what then to do when – not “if” but when – we fail? By the law, there are consequences. Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of ordinances and consequences for failure. Many of them are harsh and highly punitive. But Paul is deeply into teaching the Galatians about the salvation by grace through faith that has arrived through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
He carries that argument into today’s reading from chapter 6 (Galatians 6:1-19).
“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2)
Does that mean we should suspend all judgment? No! Does that mean that there should be no consequences? Of course not! But we are to have our hearts, minds and spirits aligned with Jesus so that discipline and correction are borne out of love and always directed toward the goal of bringing the person closer to Jesus and becoming the person Christ is calling him or her to be. I’ll illustrate with a personal example.
When I was a boy around the age of 11, I was running around our neighborhood with a pack of kids that were all younger than me. There were about a dozen of us. There was an empty house across the street from ours and over one. The owners had moved out of it and it was for sale. It drew our attention. We wanted to get in. We checked all the doors and they were locked. We went around the back and there was a small window to its basement. I coerced a younger boy to kick and break that window so we could turn the latch, open it and drop an even smaller kid through the window, who then opened the back door for us. Then we all went inside and ran through the empty rooms. It felt wildly free. We were running around forbidden space, no furniture, just open. And it was great fun – right up until we saw the blue and red lights flashing in the driveway.
The policeman herded us all into the driveway. I remember the sight of my father walking up that driveway. This particular house sat at the very back of a deep lot so it was a really long driveway. It seemed like it took forever and the whole way his eyes were locked on mine.
I felt my father’s disappointment. I had committed a crime, a real crime. And worse, not only had I done a very bad and stupid thing, I had led a whole group of younger kids into real trouble.
I felt my father’s judgment. And I felt his love – a love that would suffer my mistake, a love that would bear my burden. Because of my father taking responsibility for me, I wasn’t arrested. There were consequences. I was “grounded” for a long time. I had to work and pay him back for the repair cost and apologize to our former neighbors and the parents of the other kids. His love would correct and redirect. It would receive my repentance and forgive and restore me in a way that would help me grow. (I gave him lots of opportunities to demonstrate all of those gifts and attributes.)
If we go back to the very moment I instigated the breaking of that window, we can see very clearly the choice I had before me. I knew better, better for myself but it was worse in that I led other children into a wrong act, a sinful act, an evil act. I don’t mind sharing that story now because it doesn’t end there. It may even be a little self-serving because, see, I turned out ok! Or at least I am turning out to be better than my 11-year-old self in terms of breaking and entering and hopefully other things.
In hindsight, it brings smiles and even laughter because so many of us have been there, and by grace we hopefully moved beyond such errors and into responsible living. And responsible living very much puts us in position to love and serve the Lord.
You see the very strong distinction between punishment for an offense and discipline for the sake of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, growth and development. That is why Jesus went to the cross for us, to bear our sin and free us to become children of God. That is the way God’s love works for each of us and the way he intends for our love to help each other grow closer to God’s vision for us. That is how God invites us into his saving work in our broken world.
When Jesus sends the seventy out into the surrounding cities and villages (Luke 10:1-20), he is commissioning each of them to represent him and to do that as purely as possible. He wants them to rely entirely upon God for their needs, as he does. He wants them to be vulnerable, as he is, to go where they are received, eat what they are given and do what Jesus is doing in healing the sick and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. And where they are not received, they are to shake it off, proclaim the Kingdom anyway and move on to the next place. They are to trust everyone to God’s perfect mercy and judgment.
That is our job description, too. We are to continuously assess our life and work, recognizing where fruit of the flesh demands more corrective attention and encouraging fruit of the spirit so that we can be ever more effective agents of his healing grace in our community.
Think about all the petty rivalries and envies that crop up in just about any group. It could be within the family, the neighborhood, the band parents - any group. Think about the opportunities you have to influence others through your own gifts of grace. You are to be salt and light.
It is by his grace that we can, and it is by his grace that we must.