In our lonely world, structures of belonging abound, but the real solution lies in the hands of the people of God.
I adapted this post from a message given by Matt Gorr,
a preacher at Grandview Christian Assembly
I watch a lot of television. Probably too much. I’ve seen every season and every episode of Star Trek, Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Star Trek Voyager. And let’s not forget the 80s and 90s sitcoms like Cheers and Friends and Frazier and Scrubs, Parks and Rec, and The Office. If I did the math, all those hours would add up to a number that might make me want to cry.
Watching these TV shows is like looking for a cure of sorts. For example, Cheers was a show about a bunch of people going to hang out at a bar. According to the tagline (and song), it was a place “where everybody knows your name,” and I realized that what they were doing in the program was what I was doing by watching it—being transported to some place where I was part of something. That’s probably why binge-watching has gotten so popular. We all want to be transported into another world for a little while, into some kind of community. The easiest option is to simply transport yourself through a television screen into something you can watch, without physical participation, and psychological exertion.
If you want to wade into real life though, community can take on all sorts of forms, from supper clubs to the Moose Lodge. Eventually, we have to ask what the difference is between those alternates and the church. I joined a Crossfit gym community for a couple of years, and made friends there. This particular place played up the angle that gym was not just where individuals paid membership fees and worked out, but a place where the group was getting in shape together—lifting weights, growing stronger, and when someone was going through something the others would be there for that guy. What’s the difference between that group and the church?
The workplace also tries to push the community narrative—”We work together and get along, and if you’re going through something we’ll be there for you!” Maybe some of the very best jobs capture features of purpose, togetherness, and group morale. But again, what is the difference between a church group and a really good office team?
Let’s take a look at some faith community guidelines in Galatians 6.
“Brothers if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness, keeping watch on yourself lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The beginning of this communal description has to do with failure, and our reactions to it—when someone transgresses against the standards of the group itself, and against God. Paul says to restore gently, not give them the boot. And while you’re doing this, there’s a warning to watch yourself, too.
Yes, no matter how spiritual you are, you are liable to temptation as well, like if a guy in my church had been worshiping Idols at home, so I go to his house and tell him, “Now you know better than that–umm, wow, is that a golden calf?” There’s probably a more realistic example I could cite involving sexual impurity, or something else, but the point is, you have to be careful that as you’re restoring a lapsed believer, you’re not brought into his or her sin as well.
Restoration usually relates to something that became old, that you wanted to make new again. My wife’s grandfather has a 1984 Ford Bronco sitting on his property, and it probably has plants growing in it. The engine has seized up. But now and then I imagine the beauty of that thing restored and how gorgeous it would be. If only I was able to tow it up to Columbus, then tear it apart, and put it back together with new parts and redone upholstery. That’s what we think of when we think of restoration. We should have these grand hopes for others, not as objects, but as dear souls responding to the work of Christ. Thus, we long to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2).
Corporate America tries to implement this value—We’re a family here!—but ultimately, it’s a place of business. Failure to perform will not result in restoration, but termination (After the HR-required Performance Improvement Plan, of course). The church is a different group, operating under a different covenant. When the verse says to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law,” you have to remember to add “of Christ.” We’re not ministering the law of Moses. If that were the case, there would be a premium of condemnation, leaving the camp, and at the extreme, the death penalty.
Instead, we’ve all been reconciled by the blood of Christ and that means His redemption has become the great equalizer among us. When you look at your brother and your sister in Christ, you’re looking at someone else for whom Jesus died. Why would I not handle that believer who has committed a transgression in the same gentle way that my Savior handles me? Why wouldn’t I labor for you and bear your burdens in the same way that He bears mine? This is what makes the church different as a community—Christ at the center, surrounded with co-laborers who hope the best for one another, and in grace, bear them along.
Verse 3-5 says,
“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.”
And so Paul balances his former charge to bear another’s burdens with a charge for each to bear his own as well. Community is a shared responsibility.
Before we had children, my wife and I would go backpacking. That’s what you do when you pack a lot of stuff on your back and pretend it’s hundreds of years ago and you don’t have a house. You just walk around the woods. Every night you set up a tent wherever you are, and then repack it the next morning for another day of the same. Anyway, my wife, Kristina, and I were backpacking in northern Michigan and in four days we covered fifty miles. We both were carrying packs, but at one point on the third day she wasn’t having any more of it. I tried encouraging her and finally took some things from her load, bearing as much of it as I could. But I never said, “Okay, I’ll take your pack, too.” We both had to bear our own load.
This is what commitment to the faith community looks like.
Maybe you can say you’re a member at the best gym in town, and you have one of those little cards on your keychain to prove it. But you hardly ever go. That would be like me telling Christ at the end of the age that I was a member of Grandview Christian Assembly. Full Stop.
But I want to be able to say more—that I fulfilled the law of Christ toward my brothers and sisters in the faith. In verses 7-10 it says,
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
This is the final difference in Galatians 6 between the church and every other would-be community—that of positive eternal outcomes. Fleshly efforts only pay attention to the pleasure of the moment. Even those that emphasize good works can be dreadfully shortsighted. But sowing to the Spirit pays attention to eternity and reaps eternal life.
Suppose everyone around you was sowing beans or corn, and you wanted to do what they were doing. At least you wanted to look like it. You dug a hole, glanced around to make sure nobody was closely watching, and pretended to put seed in it, then covered the hole up. You would certainly look busy, and you would enjoy the commendations you might receive. But eventually the harvest would come. Others would have rows and rows of crops. Not you, though.
It’s not enough to simply be active in every charity, club, or service. Busyness alone won’t cut it. We’re looking for a spiritual investment with eternity in view. I’m not criticizing the efforts of others who might have more money than we have, or a great deal of passion, or a lot more man power to do beneficial things. It is better to have good works in our world than none at all.
However, we are shooting for best, not better. Sowing to the Spirit takes time. It’s a work that tries our patience, because it doesn’t immediately pay dividends. The people we help don’t often register quick results. It feels as though we’re wasting our time, energy, and money. Even prayer seems to bounce off the people we’re praying for.
That’s why in verse 9 we’re told not to grow weary of doing good. A small church like ours can certainly feel the fatigue of everyone doing everything. Some set up the lights every Sunday, the curtains, the coffee, the chairs, and Bibles. Others play the music, and operate audio visual equipment. Not to mention childcare. Then there are the needs of the people in our church and outside of it. You’re going to get tired, and wonder what’s the point.
But there’s a joy in this journey, and I hope that you’ll be drawn into the mutual bearing of something larger than yourself toward a harvest bigger than the worth of the whole world.
*My opening sentence was adapted from the book, Called to Community, introduction by Stanley Hauerwas.