Life Together in the World According to Jesus
Who thinks they can live a Christian life by following the 10 Commandments? Do the 10 Commandments tell you how much time you should spend online? Do they tell you who you should include in your will? What charity you should give money to? How to explain Christianity to your grandchildren? How many cars you should own?
The short answer is “no”. The 10 Commandments are not adequate for the life of the kingdom. As St Paul saw in his own life, the 10 Commandments and all that went with it (the Law) can lead to profoundly violent behaviour against those ‘outside the law’ – the others, those who don’t follow the Law. Paul’s conversion experience was an encounter with a divine light where the voice of God said to him “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”. Paul met a God who identified with the victims of religious zeal for the law.
For us Jesus fulfils the law.
So for life in the kingdom of God the questions take on a different feel again… As a follower of Jesus, how much time should I spend online? As a follower of Jesus who should I include in my will? and so on.
And, crucially, in verse one of today’s reading from Galatians 6: As a follower of Jesus how should I relate to those who do the wrong thing? How should I relate to the one who is taking the organization in the wrong direction? How should I relate to the one who’s blind to the needs of those around him or her?
Paul says, if you see your brother or sister crossing the line (transgressing, stuffing up) “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness”. Justice, in the world according to Jesus, seeks the restoration of others. Justice, in the world according to Jesus, sees sin not so much as a debt to be repaid as a wound to be healed. Sin is a wound in the common life
Restorative justice, as you probably know, is a very Christian idea. And it depends on there being community between those involved in an offense (that’s why in NZ they bring the offender and the victim together to try and understand each other and feel the other person’s pain). In other words its first context is a community called the church. And community, for all we talk about it in glowing and sometimes nostalgic terms, is often paper thin.
In the modern world, as we all know, everybody’s life is their own business. The world according to Jesus is very different.
Verse 2 says to us, powerfully, “Bear one another’s burdens”
It’s an interesting, perhaps even puzzling, phrase. Bear one another’s burdens? And the reply that immediately springs to mind, comes from the voice of Cain the archetypal murderer “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Should I make my brother’s or sister’s decisions for them? Can I live their life? Am I responsible for my brother or sister? If so, what am I responsible for? What does it mean to bear one another’s burdens?
This is so pertinent because, as I said before, in the modern world everybody’s life is their own business – except perhaps parents being responsible for children.
But what if it’s not that cut and dried? What if each person is responsible for their own life, and (in some sense) their neighbour’s life? What if each person is responsible for their own life, and their brother and sister in the Christian community is also responsible (in some sense) for that person’s own life?
What if it’s a both-and rather than an either-or? Effectively I think that’s what Paul is saying to the Galatians for in the same paragraph he says “Bear one another’s burdens” and then a couple of sentences later he says “For all must carry their own loads.”
2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.
I think this is quite a confusing and complex paragraph. But to cut a long story short… what I think Paul is saying is that the coming together of bearing our own burden and bearing one another’s burdens happens when we test our lives together – when we do what might be called moral reflection.
Let me give you an example. Think about what is happening in the giving and receiving of advice. Some people seem to think that giving advice is telling someone what to do and seeking advice is asking someone to tell you what to do. So for example if I ask someone for advice and they give me advice and then I don’t do it. They might complain that I didn’t take their advice. They may even call me ‘stubborn’. Ever been called stubborn? But there’s something wrong about that, isn’t there?
Oliver ODonovan describes what happens when we give advice as entering imaginatively and sympathetically into the other person’s situation. The adviser must stand in another person’s shoes. On the other hand the person seeking advice is in a kind of moral danger. The burden that they carry is a decision that they must make about their life and their immediate future.
ODonovan (Self, World and Time: Ethics as Theology Vol 1) says:
Talking to someone contemplating suicide, I must ask myself the hypothetical question about my own possible suicide, a question which in my ordinary life experience does not arise very much. Could any circumstance justify me in taking my own life?
In other words it’s kind of hypothetical, but the adviser has to be committed to the exercise and take responsibility for what is learnt by doing it.
Another example from ODonovan:
“If it were my own child”, says the doctor, “I would agree to the operation”.
Do you see what’s happening there. The adviser is seeking to enter imaginatively and sympathetically into the other’s experience and bringing to that all the knowledge and wisdom that the adviser has. The adviser is bringing the person in moral danger out of isolation and into the community, with all its history of discussion about how life should be lived. Sharing the burden.
But notice, though, not taking the burden off the other persons back. ODonovan comments:
Anyone who has often given advice knows those times when the obvious recommendation sit on the tip of the tongue but must be held back until the principal (other person) comes to find it for him or herself.
“Bearing one another’s burdens” means sharing the weight of living in the world according to Jesus.
Paul continues to the Galatians:
“Those who are taught the Word must share all good things with their teacher” v6
The teacher and learner (adviser and advisee) exist in a common life together. How else would the imaginative exercise work? How else would the trust exist?
If we are going to share the burdens of life (in the world according to Jesus) we are going to have to share more than just head-space. Giving and receiving of advice, happens where life is shared, not just words. It requires trust, it requires time.
Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith
Is there a problem there? Do we care more for Christians than non-Christians? Should we be more concerned if Christians are persecuted for their faith than if Muslims are?
I don’t think so. But let me offer two reasons why I think Paul says ‘especially for those in the family of faith”
1. The community of faith is the place we are testing our actions and giving and receiving advice. That is our starting point for seeking the good of all. We practice living in the world according to Jesus in the community of faith. The Christian community is our experiment or demonstration of what the kingdom of God looks like
2. The community of faith, if it is all about learning together to live in the world according to Jesus, is already itself seeking the good of all (it’s not just any community). This is our common task – seeking the good of all. Paul goes on to say that we are a community that has gone beyond circumcision. Circumcision is what? It’s the sign that, in Paul’s experience, set the Jews against the rest of the world and led him into a life of violence. The sign that defines the Christian community is not the sign which sacrifices others, but the sign of self-giving – the cross of Christ. And for Paul the cross of Christ was not a decoration he wore around his neck. As he said in today’s reading, he bears the marks of Jesus in his own body, the result of his own suffering in imitation of Jesus. The community that bears these marks “seeks the good of all.”
Paul says, he is not worried about the old community defined by circumcision, but the new community of the cross of Christ for the good of all (he even calls it ‘the Israel of God’). In this he sees the birth of ‘a new creation’ for all people. And as he says in verse 15 “A new creation is everything!”
Where does this leave us? Perhaps with these questions: Where do you give and receive advice? Where do you share the challenge of living life in the world according to Jesus? Practically speaking, what would it take for us to bear one another’s burdens?