“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” For the reader of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the phrase “and so fulfill the law of Christ” seems to be very jarring one. It is not all what one expects here in the last chapter of the letter after reading all that Paul has said. It makes you do a double take. It would be like if I made reference to “my beloved St. Louis Cardinals.” Now that would certainly get your attention.
The phrase “the law of Christ” gets the reader’s attention because thus far in the letter, Paul has had little to say about the law that is good. In fact, for the most part, the law has been presented as something that is a hindrance to salvation.
The apostle Paul had preached the Gospel and founded the churches in south central Asia Minor – modern day Turkey – during his first missionary journey. Although there were some from a Jewish background, for the most part the members there were Gentiles. There was no connection of their family to Abraham and Israel. They had not been part of God’s people. Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel had changed that.
However, sometime after Paul had left to preach the Gospel elsewhere, other Christian teachers had arrived. Apparently these teachers came from Jerusalem. At the very least, they were able to play up connections to the Jerusalem church, perhaps in an exaggerated way.
They told the Galatians that Paul had only given them a start by proclaiming Christ. If they really wanted to go all the way in being part of God’s people, they needed to begin doing the law of Moses – the Torah Yahweh gave to Israel at Mt. Sinai when he took them to be his covenant people.
It may be that these men, usually described as “Judaizers” because they were demanding that Gentiles live in Jewish ways, did not claim that the whole Torah had to be done by Gentiles. Instead it is likely that they focused on a few key parts of the law that distinguished Jews. Thus they demanded that the Galatian Christians be circumcised, follow Jewish food laws, and observe the Sabbath and other Jewish religious days.
When Paul learned about what had happened, he was shocked. Paul’s typical letter writing style is to begin his letters with an opening greeting followed by a statement of thanksgiving about the congregation he was writing. Yet in Galatians, there is no thanksgiving. Instead, Paul launches into a rather passionate address directed to the Galatians. He wrote, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
Paul told the Galatians, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” It was faith in Christ that justified – that meant a person was forgiven and ready to be declared “not guilty” on the Last Day. It was faith in Christ, and faith in Christ alone.
While first century Judaism had a rather positive view of a person’s spiritual abilities, St. Paul did not. He declared, “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.” Scripture reveals man’s true condition. We are slaves to sin. We are warped and twisted by it. We are sinful and at heart are evil.
A Washington, D.C. couple learned this the hard way – perhaps you heard about it. Both had graduated from Georgetown University and worked for the federal government. They didn’t want to “waste” their lives in front of computer screens. They believed that “evil” was something entirely made up because people are basically good. To demonstrate this fact they decided to ride bicycles around the world and share the experience on social media. But in the central Asian nation of Tajikistan they were attacked and killed by men affiliated with ISIS. In their last terrible moments that learned what sin has truly has done.
Paul told the Galatians in his letter that Jesus Christ and the Law were both all or nothing. Jesus Christ gave everything to the believer. The Law demanded everything. And for those who could not answer it demands completely, it brought a curse. The apostles said, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
In far less spectacular ways that the cyclists in Tajikistan, you learn daily about the presence of sin in your own life and what it means. You are jealous and covet. You lie when it can keep you out of trouble. You lust and have adulterous thoughts. Again and again you learn that if things are judged on the basis of doing, you are going to get nothing expect God’s curse.
But in chapter three Paul went on to say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’-- so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” God’s curse against your sin fell upon Jesus Christ. Now by his death and resurrection you have been freed from the curse. Or as Paul said at the beginning of this letter, Jesus is the One “who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
Because of Jesus Christ, you have freedom. But there is another side to this freedom, and it is something that we often overlook. Paul says in chapter five, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Paul’s statement about love picks up what had just said a few verses earlier: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The apostle says that faith created by the Spirit works through love. And he says that what the law was all about is fulfilled in love.
It is here that we begin to understand what Paul means when he says, “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is the law of love. It is the life of faith, because faith works through love.
Note the subject at hand when Paul talks about the law of Christ. He says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Bearing up another’s burdens in this case, is helping a person caught in transgression.
Now this is love. And Paul says that restoration should happen with a spirit of gentleness. But before restoration can happen sometimes this has to be tough love. It is hard to tell someone that they are wrong; that they are sinning. We would prefer not to do this. And we certainly don’t want to do so when it is a family member who needs correction.
But love cannot be silent. Real love – real love in Christ – does not allow another Christian to walk the way of sin unhindered. Instead love speaks. Love confronts. Love speaks the truth. Love speaks law when it is necessary. It speaks this way with the goal of restoring the other person.
Love speaks this way with the goal of working repentance. Repentance doesn’t mean the person is sorry they got themselves into this mess. It doesn’t mean the person is sorry that they disappointed or hurt other people. Repentance confesses sin and then bears the fruit of repentance. It leads to action that removes the sin and ends it.
Where there is repentance and its fruits, love then also should restore that person in a spirit of gentleness. We in the the Church are nothing more than a bunch of sinners. This is absolutely true. But we are repentant sinners. We have confessed our sin. We are making every effort to turn away from it. And because of faith in Jesus Christ we are therefore forgiven sinners. We are saints.
There is no reason for pride here. How can one be proud about what you did not earn? How can you be proud about something you received only as an unmerited gift? Instead, receiving God’s grace and mercy in Christ means that the Spirit leads us to receive other repentant sinners in a spirit of gentleness. We receive them as the same thing that we are – the same thing that Christ has made us to be.
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul’s words surprise this morning. Yet they are words that point us to faith. Because we can’t do the law, we believe in Jesus Christ – his death and resurrection for us – and by faith receive the forgiveness and life we could never earn.
Yet this same faith created and sustained by the Holy Spirit now works through love. Freed from having to do anything in order to be saved, it is now free to serve others. It is free to fulfill the law of Christ, which is the law of love – it is faith working through love.