Missing the target

SERMON AT ST JAMES & ALL SAINTS, TRINITY 6, 7 JULY 2013

Readings: Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

We’ve been reading in recent weeks St Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia and have now arrived at the last chapter. Last week our preacher at St James opened our hearts and minds to a number of important aspects of Christian teaching, and went on to take issue with St Paul. He pointed out – and the evidence is there for all to read – that Paul has a habit of stating things in some quite extreme ways. Last week, Paul was urging his hearers to crucify their flesh, to put away everything to do with fleshly passions. The sermon, however, spoke up in favour of some at least of our fleshly passions. After all, passion – in its current, romantic sense of the word – is not only enjoyable but probably necessary for the continuation of our species. And if God did not intend us to go with some, at least, of our passions, then what on earth are they there for? Are we not allowed to enjoy our food? did we invent wine only to discover that it is forbidden to us?

And here he is again: Paul setting up more startling alternatives. Only this time he seems entirely to contradict himself. Did you notice it? In Galatians, chapter 6, verse 2 he dictates to his secretary “bear one another’s burdens: in this way, you fulfil the law of Christ” and then in verse 5 he dictates “for all must carry their own loads.”

OK, Paul is human and he’s dictating, and maybe his secretary doesn’t like to tidy him up or say “you can’t say that.” Paul is agitated, concerned. But is there more to this apparent confusion?

To be fair to Paul, he was dealing with a tricky situation. Let me remind you. He had made one – perhaps two – arduous trips, heading north from his base in Antioch, Syria, into unwelcoming territory in central Turkey. The churches of Galatia were only little house-groups of people scattered through small towns fifty or a hundred miles apart in a large region around modern Ankara. They were a tiny religious minority in a remote Roman province, populated by Celtic people, with their Celtic pagan religions. The date was somewhere between 49 and 58 CE: it’s difficult to be more precise than that in our present state of knowledge. What we can be pretty sure of, given the date, is that many house church members were Jews who had been kicked out of their synagogues. Other members were Gentile converts to Judaism, similarly kicked out of the synagogue. Yet others were what Paul called “godfearers,” sympathisers with Judaism but who had declined to undergo circumcision and to follow all the hygiene rules around food, sex, childbirth and so on. And there were almost certainly some former pagans who had been drawn to the new faith.

After setting up these groups, Paul tried to maintain them by correspondence. But maintenance was tricky for both internal reasons and because of interference by Jewish Christians from Judaea and Jerusalem. These ultra-conservative elements, either with, or else claiming the backing of Jesus’ brother James, were upsetting the young churches by telling them they had to be Jews or full-blown Jewish converts if they were to be proper Christians. Paul was blazing when he found out about this. He’d had a monumental row with Peter over the issue a few years earlier in Antioch; and he’d been to see James to get what he thought had been an agreement. He was not going to pull his punches now when it came to setting the Galatian churches straight.

But now, at the end of this passionate letter, shortly before his secretary handed him the document to sign, Paul dictated some final thoughts. And, at this point, he does it again: this time he contradicts himself.

Are we to bear one another’s burdens (v.2)? or must we all carry our own loads (v.5)? Well, let’s look at this burden that Paul is focused on. And it’s a delicate matter. It’s about seeing other people go off the rails and running into sin. Now sin is an interesting word whose meaning gets obscured in our jokes and silly articles in magazines. The word he uses is actually a military term, taken from the archery practice that garrisons in Roman provinces had to do – a bit like our county yeomanry practised in the Butts. The New Testament Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means “missing the target.” And that was Paul’s concern, that the Christians in Galatia were missing their targets in their very new Christian lives. So a question arose: what is my responsibility if I see someone obviously missing the target? Should I intervene and try to put them right? Paul thought we should bear one another’s burdens: we should do what we can to help people find their true path again. And then again, three verses later, he has to admit that actually we have to do some things for ourselves. And in that dilemma between caring enough on the one hand, and recognising that we can’t live people’s lives for them, there arises another problem. Who am I – who are you – to presume to know what is right? To know where the truth lies? If you think yourself something, Paul says, forget it: you aren’t.

And you know what? Paul did not, probably could not, resolve that dilemma. If God has truly filled you with God’s Spirit, then you will want to help where you can. But beware: being filled with your own idea of what is God’s Spirit is not the same thing as being filled with God’s Spirit. That is, as Paul points out, a temptation. And that way, you can do more harm than good to yourself and others.

Paul probably struggled all his life with that one. There is no reason why you or I should find it any easier than he did. Judge not, said Jesus, lest you be judged.