Monday, July 09, 2007

What Lies Ahead

What Lies Ahead
Galatians 6:1-16
July 8, 2007
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: This is a text about looking to what lies ahead – we look forward to living together in a restored community, which is characterized by a new form of justice, and a new creation.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners that we are called upon to work for the good of all, and when one of us falls short, we are called to administer restorative, not retributive justice. We are called, in Christ, to be transformed. The sermon utilizes a combined expositional/narrative format using the J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an overarching illustration.

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I hope you all had a very enjoyable Forth of July, notwithstanding the delayed parade and fireworks! Sara and I had a wonderful time with some good friends.

For the past three weeks, we’ve been diving into Paul’s letter to the Galatians. So far, we’ve talked about Christian justification – being in right relationship with God – we’ve talk about what it means to be clothed in Christ – being faithful disciples, and we’ve talking about living in Christian freedom. If you were to read Paul’s letter from beginning to end (and I would highly encourage you to do so – it only takes about 30 minutes), you would notice several shifts beginning here in chapter six. First, Paul’s pace seems to pick up a bit. It seems that Paul knows he needs to draw his letter to a close, and so he does what we often do, he starts recapitulating themes from earlier in the letter, all the while issuing important admonitions about Christian behavior.

Paul’s use of verbs noticeably changes, too. After spending five chapters using past and present tense verbs, Paul shifts dramatically in chapter six to the future tense, and begins to speak about what comes next, about what lies ahead. Let’s hear what Paul has to say.

[Read Scripture - Galatians 6:1-16]

Setting the Stage – Burdens and The Lord of the Rings

For the past week or so, Sara and I have been re-re-watching Peter Jackson’s amazing cinematic rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. I own the “Special Extended DVD Edition” of the three movies. I’ve also read the books, and I’ve read much about Tolkien and his life, which included a stint as a member of Britain’s Armed Forces during World War I. That war, like all wars, involved heavy loss of life. The trenches of war were oftentimes places of extraordinary mayhem and slaughter. It’s not hard to image Tolkien suffering throughout life with the burden of lost friends and colleagues.

There are some commentary DVDs included with the “Special Extended DVD Edition” of The Lord of the Rings, hence their designation as “special” and “extended”. Some of the commentaries reflect on Tolkien’s life and background, including a bit on his relationship with his academic colleague and famous former atheist C. S. Lewis. What the DVD did not touch much on, however, was the relationship between Tolkien’s Christian faith and the allegorical representation of that faith in his epic trilogy. It really is impossible to disregard the relationship between the story of the little Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, and his “Fellowship,” with the story of the gospel. I know a pastor who reads the trilogy every year. He loves the story, to be sure, but I know he also sees that clear retelling of the fulfillment of all things in Jesus Christ.

Scenes from the movies also loom large over the text we have today. Let’s take as an example the first several verses of chapter six:

“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. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads” (6:1-5).

The word translated as “detected” really carries with it the connotation of being “taken by surprise” during the commission of some kind of wrongdoing. We are all the time being taken by surprise at our sin, particularly those sins we might think are “secret,” but which can be laid out for the entire world to see in a moment’s notice. I can still remember being called out by my parents when caught messing around with some my father’s prized stereo system. It was an old, tube-based amplifier and receiver. I had turned the volume up all the way and walked off. No one noticed, however, because the speaker outputs had been deactivated. I was caught because smoke began billowing from the amplifier. I knew that I was supposed to stay away from it, but I didn’t. As humans, we are sinful and particularly prone to sin. We shouldn’t be surprised by our sins, but we frequently are.

In The Lord of the Rings, a little fellow named Frodo is portrayed as a faithful Hobbit who, out of selfless interest for his fellow creatures in Middle Earth, and for the sake of his beloved home town, takes on a burden that no one else seems capable of bearing – a ring of such evil that all who take possession of the ring are consumed by it. Multiple times, throughout the trilogy, members of the Fellowship of the Ring, men who have committed themselves to helping Frodo achieve his charged task of destroying the Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom, fall under the Ring’s evil power. While innocently claiming a desire to simply be helpful, each member of the Fellowship falls into the temptation to take the ring. In once case, one of the human characters named Boromir, actually attacks Frodo and attempts to claim the ring, ostensibly for the “benefit” of the human race. In reality, he want the ring for himself, so that he may dominate the entire world.

During his attack, he stumbles, falls, and comes to his senses. “What have I done?” he says. “What have I done?” He knows he has fallen, and in his blind range brought on by the Ring, he didn’t even realize what he was doing. He was taken by surprise in his sin.

The Importance of Our Community

Frodo had the ring. It was his burden to bear, and his alone. The Fellowship was charged with helping Frodo with that burden. In that capacity, as a Fellowship, they prove successful in their quest.

But when the Ring begins asserting its power over individual members, the Fellowship begins to break apart. That is also a nuance of Paul’s challenge to the Christians of Galatia. In the freedom we have in Christ, we are to help those with heavy burdens, even as we take responsibility for our own. It is precisely through God-given freedom that Christians have the “opportunity...[to] do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”1 This has instant, immediate, practical implications. A member of our church suffers a financial setback. Who responds? A regular visit to the physician results in a stunning, unexpected diagnosis. To whom can we turn? A child comes to church seeking to know more about Christ. Who will educate her? “Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher” (6:6). Sharing in all good things with their teacher means supporting the teaching ministries of the church, so that all may benefit from the gospel, including that little girl or little boy who is seeking Christ.2

Restoration from Sin and Separation

What happens, then, when we are caught outright in sin? Who responds? And what should be the nature of our response?

Despite Boromir’s error in attacking Frodo, Boromir is is restored to the fellowship. But restoration carries with it certain consequences. In Baromir’s case, the costs of his restoration were extremely steep – he lost his life to protect the other members of the Fellowship when his treachery led to their discovery by The Enemy. But he was restored. How should that restoration happen in the Christian community?

Paul suggests that it happen in a “gentle” way. What does that mean? It means that when we call another into account for their sin, that we never forget that we ourselves are sinners. “For if those who are nothing think they are something,” writes Paul, “they deceive themselves” (6:3). Instead, we in the Christian community of faith are called to “work for the good of all.” Justice in our community is restorative justice – one that brings people back into relationship with one another, just as we are expected to live in right relationship with God.

Living for Christ – Discipleship Means a New Creation

In the final paragraphs of Paul’s letter, Paul takes one more swipe at those who would persuade the Galatians to accept the rigors of the Jewish law rather than accepting grace through faith. He accuses those who would compel, for example, circumcision as trying to “make a good showing in the flesh.” That is, they want to be recognized as “right” in this life, right now. Circumcised or not, Paul knows that it is impossible to keep all the rigors of the law, and that trying to boast in the flesh is a futile thing. And to be clear, Paul adds that, in his admonition to accept justification through faith alone, neither is he trying to boast in his own flesh. Oh no. Paul writes, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything” (6:14-15). The flesh, circumsized or not, is not something in our sin that we can boast about. As disciples of Christ, we are called to new life in a new creation. Living into the reality of Jesus Christ crucified and risen mean totally new life in a new creation. That work beings right now. Our very nature begins to change when we live fully into our discipleship. Our spending priorities change, how we decide to use our time changes, our view of our friends and neighbors and enemies changes. Nothing about us will remain the same if we accept Christ. Do you remember Paul’s words? Neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female. No. We are becoming something new. Something unheard of will happen to us. And we are called to make ourselves ready for these wonders, for what lies ahead.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas

1Koester, Craig. “Opportunity to Do Good: The Letter to the Galatians.” Word & World. Sept. 2. St. Paul: Luther Seminary, 1989, p. 189. Koester is here commenting in Gal. 6:10.

2Stamm, Raymond T. “Galatians.” The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. X. New York: Abingdon Press, 1953, p. 578. Stamm provides a wonderful exegsis of 6:6.