Pentecost 7C July 7 2013 Galatians 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
If I had to choose a color that I most associate with Summer it would be green! Summer is a great green sea, even with the lower than average rainfall we’ve had in our area recently. Green is everywhere; green grass, green trees, green growing things all around. The ancient green and blue-green mountains rise up out of the earth around us like soft rolling waves on a green Appalachian ocean. Every shade of hunter, ever, spring, logan, teal, lime, avocado, olive, jade, emerald and even bottle green, just to name a few, color our summer landscape.
We will have green paraments on the altar, font and pulpit for a while, too, and I get to wear all the pretty green vestments as well. Green is the most frequently used liturgical color and sometimes I have heard people use the phrase “great green see of summer” to describe this season of the church. It is formally, and not terribly creatively, called “The Time After Pentecost” and therefore the name of each Sunday is: the such-and-such week of or after Pentecost. Obviously, it comes after Pentecost Sunday and then it extends through out the long weeks of summer, concluding just before December and the season of Advent with Christ the King Sunday.
The old fashioned name for this time of year is the Time of the Church. I understand why we don’t really want to use that phrase anymore because the truth is that the whole year is church time. However, the purpose of this season is covered quite well in that phrase. It is the time of the church. It is no coincidence that green, with all its organic, living and growing connotations, is the color for this season because this season of the church year turns our hearts and minds to the growth of the church and to the growth of our faith. We are led by the scriptures each week in the lectionary to ponder what it means to be the church and to dig deeper into what it is possible for the faith life of all Christians, in congregations, and our personal faith life to look like. What does it mean to be a Christian? How am I, how are we, to live in this world now that Jesus is alive and at large and bringing about the reality of the Kingdom of God? What does it mean to be the Church?
There are tons of ways to answer that last question: what does it mean to be the church? What is the church supposed to be and do? A few years ago, a friend of mine sent me a short little youtube video called The Church of Me. It is a spoof on what people seem to want from a church these days. It starts with a narrator who sounds like he’s advertising some kind of insurance company or internet service provider. ‘Imagine a church where every member is passionately, whole heartedly and recklessly calling the shots.’ A professional woman comes on screen. She speaks convincingly about her long week and difficult schedule with all the many demands placed on her. She concludes with “how ‘bout a church service that starts when I get there!” “Can do!” the announcer responds. “When you arrive, we begin!” A young couple with their infant child appears and the husband says that their child pretty much runs their lives and he’s looking for a church where he can scream and cry all he wants. “Sure!” is the response “When your child cries, just stay seated. We’ll make everyone else move for you!” “Financially, my wife and I don’t give a lot to the church. But we sure do want to know what everyone else gives!” “Alright,” the announcer says with that but-wait-there’s-more excitement, “IF you join now, you’ll know what every person gives in detail!” “When I’m in the church service, can my car get a buff and a wax?” “Sure thing! We’ll even give you an oil change and tune up” “How about tickets to the Super Bowl?” “That’s too much to ask,” replies the announcer, with a slightly dejected tone of voice. “I’m serious,” the man replies as if he is negotiating for a car, “if I’m going to join, I want tickets to the big game” “Oh, ok, join up now and we’ll get you there,” the announcer finally says. And lastly, a young boy says, “I want a pony!” “Look in your back yard!” “me church—where it’s all about you”
Hmm. Well, I guess that’s one way to describe what it means to be the Church. Me Church seems to be all about… well… ME! And my needs and my wants and my ego and my burdens I want YOU to bear for me because that’s what the church is, right? You giving me what I want and need; you bearing my burdens for me.
Let’s try another approach. What does Paul tell us? One of the interesting things about the Apostle Paul is that virtually all of his Epistles or letters in the New Testament are written to congregations he either set up or has some kind of responsibility for. And, most of the time, he’s responding either to problems or concerns in these congregations that he’s been made aware of sometimes responding to specific questions he’s been asked. We don’t have, as far as I know, any of those other letters—the other letters that would tell us what was happening from their perspective and what those churches were asking Paul. We just have Paul’s words. However, we can guess some things from what he says and from what we may know about the churches he’s writing to.
Today we heard from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Galatia. This is an interesting letter because Paul is actually on the defensive. This is a letter we’ve been hearing little snippets from for the past few Sundays. Paul is writing to counter act some people who have moved into the area that are… well… I think you could say they are probably preaching about Jesus, but they have some perspectives that are quite different from Paul. They are called “super apostles.” They must have been very charismatic because even though they are teaching something quite a bit different from what Paul taught them and what they first believed when they came together to be a church, the people are very interested in what these super apostles are saying. It is causing a big problem.
These Super Apostles are teaching the Christians in Galatia that in order to be saved one must follow the Jewish laws and be a follower of Jesus as well. One must become a Jew first and then a follower of Jesus second. It seems that they believe you must be Jewish and a follower of all the Jewish laws in order to begin to be a follower of Jesus. They taught that gentiles were not saved unless they first became a doer of the Jewish law. This caused some disagreement among the people in the Galatian church, as we might expect, so Paul’s letter deals with both countering what the Super Apostles have been saying and with helping the people there understand how to live together as Christians. In a sense, he is describing what it means to be the church.
In the section for today, Paul writes: Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. .. and… all must carry their own loads. This tells us two things about the Christian community. First, it is governed by the law of Christ. This is the same one law that Paul speaks of several times. Next week, we will hear Jesus speak of this law: loving the Lord and loving your neighbor, aka The Greatest Commandment. So, from this teaching of Paul we learn that being the church means loving others and a specific way of doing that is by bearing one another’s burdens.
And second, Paul seems to say that being the church means everyone carrying their own loads. To be honest, this sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Well, it is. And it isn’t.
Paul has a very dramatic understanding of the responsibility brothers and sisters in Christ have for one another. They are to share all burdens, even the burden of guilt when one of them goes astray. He even says this at the beginning of today’s section: if anyone is detected in a transgression—in other words, if you see your brother or sister in Christ not doing as they should—then you should restore them in a spirit of gentleness. But he also cautions that we need to be careful that by so doing we aren’t tempted to sin ourselves.
Makes sense, right? We see someone who is part of our circle of friends or our congregation engaging in some sort of illegal activity, for example, and we are to gently find a way to help him or her out of the situation. In so doing, we are to not allow ourselves to be caught up in the illegal activity. So, let’s say I’m in Ingles and decide to steal a gallon of ice cream. One of you sees me. You could say, “SHE’S TRYING TO STEAL ICE CREAM!!! EVERYBODY LOOK AT HER!! SECURITY SECURITY!!!” Or perhaps a gentler approach would be speaking to me directly, asking why I am stealing ice cream, trying to talk me out of it, then getting me some help from ICAA (Ice Cream Addicts Annonomous).
Of course, it is even more than this because we humans are very prone to seeing where someone else is struggling and then begin to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Paul is cautioning not only to not get caught up in whatever is happening (that would be not saying you’ll help me out by making a distraction then meeting me in the parking lot with a spoon) but also to not think of ourselves as better because we don’t have that particular flaw ourselves.
We are all dependent upon the grace of God. Rather than comparing myself to my neighbor, I should look to myself, too, while bearing the burdens of others. Even as we seek to restore one who has erred, we must test our own actions so that we aren’t prideful in ourselves and sin in that way. We all must carry our own loads.
I remember many years ago working in retail and seeing a co-worker, who never really did any work, manage to just slide by every day. I remember thinking rather smugly that I deserved that raise I had just gotten because I worked hard and she didn’t. That might have been true, but Paul is teaching us that smugness I felt is no better than the laziness.
So to be the church, we are to look for ways to build one another up, hold each other accountable and encourage one another to holy lives. We are to find ways to not tear each other down but lift up what is good in others. In a sense, we are to, inasmuch as it is within our power, help others to be the very best that they can be. That’s how we can bear one another’s burdens. But we are also to keep a check on own egos as well because none of us is better than the other. Sounds quite a bit different from that commercial for Me Church, doesn’t it? The Me Church sounds like bearing burdens is allowing another’s issues or inconveniences to become ours without actually helping one another find a better way to live, without building a community of mutual uplifting and support, as though bearing another’s burden was the same thing as catering to their whims without regard to how we are all to live.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; on his way to the cross. Last week we heard that intense phrase, he set his face toward Jerusalem, meaning he set out with unwavering resolution on a collision course with the cross. Today we hear that he has sent out seventy disciples ahead of him into the towns they will be going through as they walk this unwavering path. He sends them out in pairs with no money, no bag, no extra shoes or clothes and he knows he’s sending them out on a difficult task, even saying I am sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves. That sounds so harsh! He knows he’s doing it; he knows how vulnerable he’s making them and yet he still does it.
Surprisingly, at the end of this section we hear the disciples’ joyous return to Jesus! They are all so excited because of these amazing things they did! They even cast out demons! And, in a manner of speaking, Jesus says: you think that was something? Just you wait! He knew all along that they were not as vulnerable as it seemed. He says “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
So what does this tell us about what it means to be the church? Well, for one thing, it tells us that there will be times that it feels like we are sent out like lambs into the midst of the wolves. We are sent out by God to do things that are difficult and to do them in Jesus’ name. But we do not go alone. Not only do we go with one another, our church family, but we also all go with God. We do not face the struggles and threats of life alone. Ever. But we do not need to think that our ability to face obstacles and accomplish great things is our own work because the good that we do in this world is as a result of the good that God works through us.
To be the church is to seek good in others, bearing one another’s burdens together, and do so not out of our feelings of superiority but out of caring for others. But all this good, both in others and ourselves, is not something good that we do, but good that God does through us. This is the Kingdom of God. This is the good that is not the Church of Me, focusing on my needs and wants and ego and feelings of superiority (be that superior character or superior need), but the church of Christ.
There is so much to be said about what it means to be the church; how we are to live our personal lives and how we are to live as a whole church. It cannot all be said in one Sunday! Perhaps there is a reason why this is the longest of the church seasons. We can all use the extra time we can get to grow in faith and to think about these things. As we move through this green growing season of the church, may each week’s scriptures build upon one another and grow in us.