Scripture: Luke 10:1-11; 16-20

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Here is Paul, the man who used to persecute Christians, back when he was called Saul. Before he encountered the spirit of Christ on the road to Damascus one day, he actually helped those who were stoning to death one of the most devoted followers of Christ, Stephen. Christians were terrified of Saul for the way he hunted them down, the zeal with which he pursued them, and the violence with which he treated them. But now we listen as he writes words of advice to the church at Galatia. They are arguing over whether people have to keep the Jewish laws or not, and he tells them, if they have received the Spirit and they discover someone in a transgression, they should “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” They aren’t supposed to throw stones or strike them or cast them out of the fellowship or even yell at them or gossip about them. No, they are to restore them in a spirit of gentleness.

Paul himself had to learn that Spirit. He certainly didn’t have it when he was persecuting Christians. Then he believed in power and might and pride, and he used those things with a great deal of energy. But now he is advising the people of the church at Galatia to beware of becoming prideful. He reminds them to pay attention to their own work, to what they are doing, rather than to spend too much time on what others are doing. That sounds like good advice for all of us. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore others. Paul says we are to shoulder one another’s burdens.

Paul says it doesn’t matter whether people are circumcised or not, which is a dramatic thing to say. That used to be so important. That was the sign of being a faithful Jew for men, and at the time the early church was forming, some said you had to become a Jew to be a follower of Christ. And that meant being circumcised. But now Paul says, that really doesn’t matter one way or another. What matters is becoming a new creation. That way it’s about what God is doing in your life, whether than about what you yourself are doing. That is everything. And Paul would know. He himself used to follow the laws so carefully, and be so prideful about his ability to do it all, but now he believes that didn’t amount to anything. What matters to him now is that he is a new creation through Christ Jesus. He is totally different because of his relationship with Christ. And he wants that for the people in the church at Galatia. And ideally, we want that in all of the churches. Who would you be today if Christ wasn’t in your life?

Paul says that the only thing he boasts about nowadays is “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That would seem to be a very strange thing to boast about. The cross was a sign of punishment for criminals. It was a sign of shame. It was a symbol of torture, of horror. It was the means of death, and the messiah was not supposed to be someone so weak that he could be crucified and die. The authorities would not have looked on the cross of Jesus as something to boast about. To many it looked like a sign of complete failure in a rebellion. But they were proved wrong.

In our earthly ways, we are tempted to say that power and might are what makes winners. But it depends on whose power and whose might we are talking about – ours or God’s. Being strong and powerful is important to many people. But look at how our country began. 13 little upstart colonies in a largely undeveloped land decided to break away from the country in which they had their start because they believed they had a better way. It must have seemed absurd to the powers in Great Britain at the time. It must have seemed ridiculous to think that they could make it.

But here we are 240 years later, and now it is this country that has grown to be the one that is big and strong and powerful. This country became a new creation. And so Paul’s words ring true for us a nation, as well as for individual people in a church in Galatia some 2000 years ago. It is important that what we do and who we are and what we are yet to become is what God is doing with us, rather than simply what we want for ourselves. We need to sow to the Spirit as Paul says, rather than to the flesh.

Paul reminds us to be gentle in how we handle the transgressions of others, and to be careful that we aren’t transgressing ourselves. What does that mean for a country? Well, his next statement is helpful. He says we should bear one another’s burdens. So often terrible things happen in places where there is great need. Nazi Germany took root because the country had not been doing well, and Adolf Hitler started to bring order and efficiency to things. The people were grateful. At first they thought he was a hero. Because they were better off as his ideas began to work, they didn’t notice or didn’t care that things were not better for everyone. So it’s important that when others are struggling, we help shoulder burdens, because we care, and because that helps to keep people from seeking solutions in ways that do great harm. Paul says we are not to be too prideful, and to pay as much or more attention to examining ourselves as we do to examining the behavior of others. We need to be sure that we are living up to our ideals and not giving in to the temptation to do things through the imposition of power, when sometimes that seems to be the easiest way to get things done. Paul says that we must never grow tired of doing what is right, because we reap what we sow. If we sow according to the flesh he says, we will live with what that grows. Oppression and terror on the part of the powerful breeds hatred and revenge. But if we sow to the Spirit, we will reap that harvest.

We have found a way to live in freedom in this country, to take into account the opinions of all who care to be involved by voting, by electing our leaders rather than allowing the one who is the most physically powerful to lead. In our Declaration of Independence the founders of this country say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Paul says we are supposed to work for the good of all – the good of ALL. Our founding fathers remind us that we are all created equal and endowed by God with certain rights. How different things look if we see a child of God in everyone we meet, rather than when we separate ourselves into “us” and “them.” If we look at people in other countries, or people of different races, or different social classes as so different from “us” that we can call them “them,” we often tend to miss the idea that they too are created by God, and according to our declaration, have the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We are blessed indeed to live in this country. We are free to worship here in any way we choose. We are free to not worship at all if that is what we want to do. But Paul reminds us that who we are and what we are can be so dramatically different when we let the Spirit of Christ enter our hearts and guide our actions. Today we celebrate the birthday of our country, a country that was founded on the idea that God is our creator, and that we are blessed by God with the right to be alive, to be free, and even to be happy. May we always remember that God gives those gifts to all of God’s children. May we continue to work for the good of all. And may we live in peace. Amen

Spirit of Gentleness

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