Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-20; The Communion of Saints
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). These few words from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia guide us about how to live as a follower of Jesus. Paul assumes that anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord will sincerely desire to shape his/her life according to the law or teaching of Christ. In his letters to several churches Paul harshly criticizes people who profess to be followers of Jesus and yet carry on their lives as if they did not know the teaching of Christ. This is as “live” an issue in the 21st century as it was in the 1st century.
When questioned, Jesus himself summarized his teaching by quoting verses from the Hebrew Bible (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). These are the first principles from which all of Jesus’ teaching – and his life and ministry – flow. Putting love of God at the center of our lives and improving the balance between self-love and love of others is perhaps the most important work of our lives and souls on earth.
We are all familiar with the passage from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 13) about love. This passage is about love among members of the church, not about romantic love between two people, though it is read so often at weddings. “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” and so on. Paul insists that every spiritual gift – prophecy, faith, generosity, even physical suffering for the faith – are worth nothing if love and what is best for the community are not the foundation and the aim of all behavior within the church.
Listen to Paul’s description of what love looks like, and think about the parish. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
When people in the church – clergy or lay people – do what is unloving, we add to one another’s burdens rather than bear one another’s burdens. Many of us know the rule of health care providers: “First, do no harm.” That could be a principle for parish life as well. We harm one another and endanger parish life when we think too much of ourselves and what we do for the church, when we say unkind words to others, when we speak what is not true, when we gossip, when we fail to be kind to one another and to appreciate one another.
Paul gives an interesting warning in this morning’s passage from Galatians. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6:7). I’m sure you all know the saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” I think Paul is reminding us that you can’t fool God any time. We deceive ourselves when we think that we can fool God the way we can sometimes fool others, certainly the way we often fool ourselves. We are reminded of this every Sunday in the words of the Collect for Purity, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”
Paul was realistic about the problems in the church. In his letters we can sense his frustration and his anger about the way some church members were behaving. Paul also holds up a vision of what is good, what is of the Spirit. We recall his list of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul reminds the members of the church to work for the good of all, whenever we have the opportunity. He exhorts us to bear one another’s burdens. All for the love of Christ.
In this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Luke we read that Jesus sent seventy of his followers as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God to many towns and places which he intended to visit. They were to go in peace and, if welcomed, cure the sick and proclaim that the Kingdom of God had come near. But, if not welcomed, they were to wipe the dust of the town off their feet and leave. By shaking the dust off their feet the followers of Jesus were indicating to the people that they were not responsible for the fate of those who did not welcome them. Their announcement that the Kingdom of God had come near was a reproach rather than a blessing in the places where they, and by extension, Jesus and God were not welcome.
All of us in the church have the opportunity to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. We can demonstrate our love for God and one another in action. We can bear one another’s burdens and refrain from adding to anyone’s burdens. We can guard our tongues and make an absolute commitment to the truth. We can learn humility. We can serve our Lord as he has asked us to serve and not as we choose if our choices are not in line with his. To do all this we need the constant help of God. And so, we must pray, try to follow Jesus, and every time we fail, try again, all by God’s grace.
This morning at the conclusion of our worship service in the sanctuary we will move outdoors for Jane Pickering’s service of committal and the interment of her ashes in our columbarium. On this occasion I would like to say a word about “the communion of saints.” In the Apostles Creed, which is embedded in the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, we state that we believe in “the communion of saints.” What do we mean? The Prayer Book catechism defines the communion of saints as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead … bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”
20th century theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, has written about the communion of saints in his book “Be Still and Know: A Study in the Life of Prayer.” Ramsey asserts that the participation of Christians in Christ and with one another does not end at death. But, he writes: “It is not to be inferred that for those who have died, the life with Christ is immediately a state of perfection and enjoyment of the beatific vision. Indeed Christian tradition both in the East and in the West has assumed that those who have died in faith need cleansing and sanctifying towards the perfect union with God and the vision of [God]. This state of waiting and cleansing has sometimes been called purgatory, sometimes the intermediate state, sometimes only by the lovely word ‘Paradise.’”
Those of us gathered together this morning do not yet know what awaits us after the death of our bodies. But I think Ramsey’s words and this morning’s lessons from the Bible remind us that we have spiritual work to do to prepare ourselves for a fuller life with Christ. Now is a good time to commit ourselves to that work – by honest self-examination, repentance, and active love for God, ourselves, and our neighbors. One of the gifts of gathering for Sunday worship is the reminder of the work we need to do, all in the context of preparing ourselves for a future life with Christ that is wonderful beyond our comprehension now. The parish can be for us what St. Benedict called the monastery, a “school of the Lord’s service.” So, will we do our homework and get ready for the “final”? God leaves the choice to us, but gives us the promise of God’s abiding help. “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)