July 4, 2010
Rev. Joyce MacKichan Walker
“The Crux of the Matter”
I expect I’m not the only person in the room who has a problem with mixed messages. Did you know there’s a website for tracking mixed messages? It’s subtitled – wait for it – “Tracking Political Advertising.”(1) You can search mixed messages of your choice By Year, By Type of Political Race, By Candidate, By Party, By State, By Issue, … and By Narrator Gender.
Can’t imagine why you would hear mixed messages from people of different gender.
It’s July 4th, Independence Day, and the Canadian is preaching – that’s a little mixed. Thursday was July 1st, Canada’s Dominion Day. Princeton is celebrating with the big fireworks – that’s a little mixed. Just under 70% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, but the North American menu of choice is the “all-you-can-eat” buffet, and the most commonly heard phrase at fast food joints is “Side of Fries” or “Supersize-it.” On the sidelines of the soccer field children hear - “Everybody play your hardest and do your best. That’s all anyone can ask.” Paired with, “If we win, we’ll go out for pizza.” Gay’s OK. But we won’t ask. And you - don’t tell! Mixed messages can be problematic.
So I am a little put out to find a mixed message at the end of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Seems like good advice. Consistent with Paul’s picture of a community growing up around the experience of the crucified and risen Christ. Paul was big on unity of belief and purpose, good manners and fellowship around the common table, offering one’s possessions so that those less fortunate are cared for, using one’s gifts for the common good. So what’s this? “All must carry their own loads.” I’ve got mine. You get your own! Here, let me help. Ah, thanks. No wait, I’ve already got my own here. Hey, you take mine. I’ll take yours. No, I’ve got his. Well she has to carry her sister’s. Let’s just all carry our own load!
“Bear one’s another’s burdens.” “All must carry their own loads.” Anybody else confused???
I learned a new word this week. “Sententiae” (2) (sen-ten-shee) It all started when I was reading, and re-reading just Galatians 6:1-10. At first glance it looked to me like a summary of Paul’s points in his letter – sort of connected, sort of orderly. This is the fourth Sunday in a row at Nassau for a sermon on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and I’m getting the vibe – things I recognize – Law, Spirit, flesh; and a great ending – “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” That’ll preach! But, “Bear one’s another’s burdens.” “All must carry their own loads.” Help – stand alone. Community – singularity…
“Sententiae” (Galatians 5:25 actually, to 6:10.)
- a maxim, aphorism, saying.
- It is part of the style of a letter/epistle to use sententiae individually or in a group.
- “The sequence is neither uncoordinated nor overly systematized:
- some connection is provided by language and inner logic. .”
- “It is loose enough that the reader is not bored (definitely not bored, ), but has room for reflection and enjoyment (reflection), enjoyment (not yet).
- There are enough paradoxes, contradictions, and gaps to make [one] think and wonder.
Among Paul’s sententiae we find maxims using the imperative (“Bear one another’s burdens.” √); the form of an appeal (“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right.” (√); a recommendation (“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.” √); proverbs (“God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” √); allegory (“If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” √); and an abundance of metaphorical language.” (In Paul????!) (3)
Sententiae! All strung together. So now I get it! Paul is not giving us an ordered summary of what has been said. Paul is giving us a collection of all the important things he wants to say. Things meant to instruct in the art of living together in a Christian community. They’re connected, … sort of, but not really. We get into trouble when we try to compare things in different sententiae in the list. Things that sound like contradictions, but are not really, because they’re about different subjects.
Galatians 6 is Paul in all his literary finery. This is Paul crafting sayings and proverbs and allegories and metaphors into a poetic list intended to whip those Galatians into the shape of a Christian community. What they did wrong. How to correct it. Provoking, correcting, demanding, advising – this is Paul leveling his best and last shots at the Galatians - still angry, still frustrated, still annoyed, still irritated. This is Paul making sure the Galatians get it!
Are you ready to talk back to those leaders who want you to follow the Law of Moses as a mark of really following Christ? Are you ready to stand up to the people who want you to be circumcised, to wear the brand of Judaism, in order to be seen as people who recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah? Do you remember the story I told you about battling it out with Peter and James and John in Jerusalem about this very thing? Do you remember when I called them hypocrites? Do you remember your identity as children of God? Do you remember how you got to be who you are? Remember! Remember! Remember!
Remember, “… [A] person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ (4). And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16).
Remember, “…I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
Turn from your foolishness, Galatians! Remember, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).
Remember, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (to following the Law) (Galatians 5:1).
Remember, “…[T]he whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Galatians 5:14).
Remember, remember, remember, and behind it all, as Paul brings his letter to a close, a whole lot of Paul “attitude”! Haven’t I told you a thousand times?! It’s the Spirit, stupid! For Paul, this is the crux of the matter – the heart, center:
All Paul; all attitude! “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2) “[D]oes God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:5) “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). “Live by the Spirit, I say…” (Galatians 5:16a) “…[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:23a).
And finally, here it comes, because this is what Paul ultimately cares most about – right belief must equal right action. Now, says Paul, now that we have that straight - not the works of the Law but the Spirit - let’s focus on the crux of the matter. Let’s get down to what this looks like in the Christian life! 1…2…3…
Wouldn’t you like the opportunity to make a list of sententiae – imperatives/appeals/recommendations/proverbs and allegories – for your kids as they choose their friends, or choose between sports and church and club activities; for your teenagers who choose colleges and majors, social and service clubs and campus religious groups; for your college students as they switch majors and look at the job market and long to know what to choose that might just point to the niche that fits their future; for your partner or friend who just lost a job or fears the possibility, who struggles with depression or alcoholism, who feels torn between self-fullfillment and family responsibilities; for your parents who need to choose between staying in their home or finding a care facility, or treatment A or B, or a retirement that could focus on serving others or on settling into an every-day golfing community.
These are not “sententious maxims” for the community, for the world at large, though. Paul’s maxims are for Christian congregations. Christian congregations full of people who have heard the story, the good news of the crucified and risen Christ, stepped over into this collection of believers, and are wrestling mightily with what to believe and how to go about living day to day lives in conflicted times. Paul’s maxims are for people who have availed themselves of Paul’s instruction (“I want you to know, brothers and sisters…), and Paul’s reproof (“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”) and Paul’s correction (“You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?... Live by the Spirit!). Paul’s maxins are for believers who, after all that, still want to listen to what Paul has to say about how to live together and walk the Christian walk. Like you, these people call themselves Christian, hear the gospel preached and taught, choose to worship with others who acknowledge they don’t have all the answers.
Paul, after all his instruction and reproof and correction, offers his “sententiae.” His imperatives/appeals/recommendations/proverbs and allegories.
And now I know it’s OK to listen one-at-a-time. I know it’s OK to simply try to catch a glimpse of what Paul thinks it looks like to be guided by the Spirit of Christ who walks beside us, leads us, and, indeed, directs our course. (5)
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit,” says Paul. In the words of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Paul without the poetry) “Since this is the life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives” (Galatians 5:25). Over and over Paul has said, nothing else will work for you but following the Spirit. Nothing else will help you, nothing else will show you the way, nothing else will make it easier, nothing else will make you feel more certain, nothing else will anchor your Christian life but living by the Spirit.
So, “living by the Spirit,” which is it? “Bear one another’s burdens?” or “For all must carry their own loads.” It’s both. A Christian community has heard and believed the story of Jesus. The faith of Jesus, and its own faith, is now expressed in love – love of God and love of neighbor. A Christian community bears one another’s burdens. Faith expresses itself through love. A community that lives by the Spirit helps one another, stands by one another, holds up and carries and supports and shares all the heavy lifting. One is never alone, one is never on one’s own, in a community of faith.
But it is also true, says Paul, that “All must carry their own loads.” Independence, self-sufficiency, taking responsibility for one’s life, one’s actions, one’s self-care, are all empowered by the Spirit. The gift of salvation has been proffered and accepted in this community of faith. Now Paul reminds the members of the community that accountability for their actions is a matter for them and God.
Both/and: Mutual responsibility; individual accountability. All empowered, guided, led and directed by the Spirit. Still a mixed message? Yes. But a mix that adds up to the joy and the art and the discipline of living in Christian community. And for that, we say, thanks be to God.
(2) Betz, Hans Dieter, Galatians. Fortress Press, 1979, pages 291 – 295. (3) Ibid, page 292. (4) A prepositional alternative to “faith in Jesus Christ”, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, page 2083. (5) NIV, NRS, NAB, NEB
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(2) Betz, Hans Dieter, Galatians. Fortress Press, 1979, pages 291 – 295.
(3) Ibid, page 292.
(4) A prepositional alternative to “faith in Jesus Christ”, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, page 2083.
(5) NIV, NRS, NAB, NEB