“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
At the end of the Letter to the Galatians, from which we’ve been reading the past few weeks, St. Paul gives us a potpourri of sorts: rapid-fire responses to various issues that had arisen in his absence in the churches of Galatia. The trouble is, we have an imperfect knowledge of what these issues were. We’re like people who are listening to one side of a telephone conversation in the check-out line: we can hear the responses, but we can’t hear the questions! We know what we’re hearing, but we don’t know exactly what it’s about.
In this conversational thread, Paul gives us an attractive image: the notion of Christians bearing one another’s burdens. You might say that here the Apostle is summing up what it means to be a church. You don’t need to know the question to catch the significance of the response. We are not alone as we live the Christian life: we are tied together, yoked together, in the Body of Christ.
No one is a Christian on his own: when we were baptized we became members incorporate in Christ, members of him and members “one of another” (Rom. 12:5), as Paul says in Romans. We don’t know the question, here in Galatians, but we do know that St. Paul’s answer clarifies things for us. As Christians, we are part of a radical experiment in community living and community building, because we cannot live the life of obedience to Christ on our own.
Because we’re involved in a community endeavor, we’re required to bear one another’s burdens. If a neighbor has a load to carry, we have to help to bear the weight. The load may be illness or sorrow, but it’s our common property and belongs to all of us. I don’t think this is idealism, because no one really imagines that the diagnosis of illness doesn’t belong uniquely to the individual sufferer. Our pain is particular to us: no one can deny that. But as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
In other words, we in the church are called to be more than bystanders. We’re called to be neighbors. This is what the Apostle Paul means by fulfilling the law of Christ. As he reminds us earlier in Galatians, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). This citation from Leviticus, of course, is the same one used in the Gospels by Jesus himself to sum up the law and the prophets.
Bearing one another’s burdens could also carry weight in our national life, on the life we live together as citizens. Not a bad thing to be mindful of on this Fourth of July weekend. Our reading suggests the wider applicability of Paul’s words, when he himself writes, “let us work for the good of all,” a more inclusive category than “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). As Christians we have obligations to each other, but also to many others.
As citizens of a republic, it seems to me that these days, in our pursuit of politics, we seem less intent on supporting each other, and more intent on tearing each other down. The “gotcha” moment of moral condemnation on social media is our preferred mode of operation; the demonization of our opponents and our assumption of their ill will and hypocrisy cuts across the political divide like a fault line of destruction. If the other side is wicked, then keeping in our own echo chamber of self-satisfaction is just fine. Who wants to compromise with evil?
Nothing could be less like bearing one another’s burdens! In politics, there are burdens to be borne, and the means for doing so are mutual respect and willingness to compromise. Anger, not even “righteous anger,” ever helped an argument or a discussion, or furthered political debate. If we want our politics to be more than performative, and help to govern us, we are going to have to resume bearing the burdens of our fellow citizens.
Members of the church perhaps could lead the way. When St. Paul writes a little bit later in our reading today that all of us must carry our own loads, he’s reminding us that each of us is responsible for doing our part within the life of the community. After all, we know what it’s like to be members of a community that practices the lessons of bearing the burdens of our fellow members. We bear with each other, in fact, in our life in the church, learning to love our sometimes-contrary neighbors even as we love ourselves. It’s in learning to love the neighbor that we learn to love God, who loves us in spite of ourselves.
Members of Grace Chapel have learned these lessons over the decades, discovering what it means to bear each other’s burdens. Everyone has had to do their part in order for you all to be a church. None of you has had the luxury of standing on the sidelines, as bystanders in the life of faith. Thank you for your witness. My prayer for Grace Chapel is for renewed life, and new possibilities, in fulfilling your mission and ministry.