From Paul's letter to the Galatians the sixth chapter I begin the reading at the verse numbered one. "Brethren if a man is over taken in any trespass you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ 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." And may God bless to us and to our understanding this reading from his word. Pray with me. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
From these brief verses I lift up for our thinking this morning the second verse. "Bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." Now on the face of it the intent of that verse is obvious. We are to bear one another's burdens. We are to assist one another with the heavy loads of life. We are not to stand by and watch those who know vicissitudes struggle along. We are to be at their right hand to help them.
A whole host of corroborative scriptures immediately comes to mind. If the first commandment is to love God, the second commandment is to love our neighbor. Even as we help the least of the brethren we are helping our Lord Jesus Christ. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another. The explicit intent of the verse is so obvious that I intend to say no more about it.
I would ask you to think with me instead on that which is implicit in the verse, namely, that you cannot bear another person's burdens if you do not know of them. You cannot assist someone if you are not aware of the need for assistance in that life. Prior to bearing there has to come sharing.
The Apostle Paul was a great burden bearer and sharer
Now the apostle Paul who wrote these words we often think of as a great burden bearer. He was regularly taking up collections for churches which were in financial difficulty. He was writing letters of personal counsel and theological advice. He lifted the loads of other people, quite indisputably. We do not so often recognize that the apostle was also a great burden sharer. He never hesitated to articulate his need to others:
"Pray for me lest I myself be a castaway." "Please come and bring my cloak and also the books and especially the parchments." "Receive Onesimus as my own son."
Paul, you see, did not hesitate to express his needs to other people. He gave to them what is perhaps the most costly gift that any of us have to give: the gift of our vulnerability. Now I think this is a particularly hard truth for us as American Christians to learn. We've been raised in a kind of stoic tradition, which honors the rugged individualist, the woman or man able to lift herself or himself by the bootstraps. We do not so often recognize that the rugged individualist often ends up as a ragged individualist.
Illustration: I've been caught by Keith Miller's story of a woman who was Christmas shopping, and, involved in what she was doing, she didn't notice her little girl who became bored and got down on the floor and began to play in the dust. A man walking down the aisle of this department store, not expecting a child to be in such a place, stepped right on the child's hand. She let out a terrible cry. Her mother bent down and scooped her up and said, "Don't cry where all these people can see you."
Now get the picture: here's this little girl looking at her crushed and swelling hand, and her mother says to her, "Don't cry where all these people can see you." That's the American way. Never cry where anybody can see you.
Anyone who's spent any amount of time counseling other people knows that many times counseling will go for many weeks or indeed months and then there might come a moment which is powerful in its cathartic nature, and suddenly everything that's been bottled up and contained inside spills out, and most often when that moment comes, it's accompanied with tears, and when those tears come almost invariably a comment like this comes from the one who is weeping, "Oh, I'm very sorry, Pastor. I guess I was beside myself." In point of fact, for the first time the person was not beside herself but was actually being herself.
Or they'll say, "I was carried away," when actually they were not carried away, they were carried back to that kind of honesty which is to exist between Christians. Christians, you see, are to bear, and that means they are to share. And there is to be that openness and vulnerability which makes bearing a possibility and a reality, and it is laid down for us here by the apostle not as some option of the Christian life but as the law of Christ: Bear ye one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Now Paul is not, of course, establishing a new legalism. The whole movement of Galatians is away from that kind of thing, but he is saying to us, I believe very clearly, that a basic principle of the Christian experience is to be this: No Christian need ever bear anything alone, for there should be sharing and thus caring.
The principle of Christian unity dictates that no Christian need bear anything alone
I think this is the most elemental principle of Christian unity. We hear a lot of talk about unity in the Church today. Some people, when they speak of unity, speak of it in terms of organizational unity. They think that one great denomination would give the unity of which Scripture speaks. I don't think that's true. The Roman Catholic Church has had organizational unity for a thousand years yet anyone who knows that church knows that there's tremendous discord and tension and disagreement within it. Organization is not necessarily unifying.
Some people talk about the mystical unity of the Body of Christ, and that certainly is a truth of Scripture, but as I read of the unity that is described upon these pages I find it woven of the warp and woof, a very concrete thing, so there must be more to unity than that which is given us by the Spirit. Some people talk of positional unity and some people talk of legal unity, but Jesus gives us the purest definition of the unity that is to be ours. He says, "By this will all men know that you are my disciples when you have love one for the other." And loving means sharing and bearing.
Please do not do me the disservice of arguing in your minds against what I'm saying by proposing that I'm proposing that we're supposed to go out and belch the most personal dimension of our lives to everyone we meet. I'm not suggesting that. But I am suggesting that there is to be an intimacy with one another in the Christian walk and I will be precise enough to say this: everyone of us as a Christian ought to have at least one person with whom we share absolutely everything. And it's out of that sharing that real bearing comes. The recognition of this has affected every dimension of my ministry. It's affected my preaching.
Illustration: There used to be a great minister in the Southern Presbyterian Church whose name was T. DeWitt Talmadge and on one occasion he preached a sermon in his church on a Sunday morning which was mightily used of God. That night in a neighboring community he preached the exact same sermon and it landed like an overdone souffle right on the chancel steps. Some of his elders who were with him said, "How is it that the same sermon given with almost the same words could be so powerful in the morning and so nothing in the evening?" He replied with words that ought to be emblazoned on the front of every chapel and sanctuary in the world: "Poor preaching is God's curse on a prayerless congregation."
But how can a congregation know to pray for its pastor if its pastor never expresses to it what his needs are? How can a congregation scratch if they don't know where their preacher itches? The fact of the matter is the pulpit is not supposed to be some kind of couch where the pastor gets up on Sunday morning and barfs all the personal dimensions of his life, but at the same time the pastor who does not articulate his need to his people cannot expect to have their prayer power at his disposal.
Illustration: Now I'm a fat person, that's very obvious, but I'm also on a diet. I've been on it for 21 weeks and I've lost 21 pounds, and that's right on schedule. I shared this with my congregation. Now, I have an exercycle on which I ride 20 minutes every morning. It's one of those ones that stands still, it doesn't go anywhere, but I have a bell on it that was given to be by my Session to warn oncoming traffic. I have foxtails, I have a lamb's-wool seat, and I even have a rearview mirror so I can watch my own rear disappear. And these have all been given to me by members of the congregation. I've even had a wonderful collection of texts. I never knew the Bible had so much to say about dieting. My favorite is that one in Genesis where the Devil says, "Surely the Lord has not said `Thou shalt not eat.' "
The truth about bearing and sharing has affected my ministry and personal life
But out of the sharing has come the bearing. This has affected my counseling ministry. When I went to seminary, they didn't teach a great deal about counseling, it was an elective matter. I've studied it elsewhere since that time, but I think if someone pressed me I would have to say that the man who has taught me the most about counseling is Paul Toumier, the great Christian Swiss psychiatrist. In his very first book on the subject, The Meaning of Persons, he talks about the fact that it's essential that the counselor not play the role of Mssr. Le Docteur coming in with a white coat and prepare to answer every question that's put to him, but rather he should go in and make himself vulnerable, for it is only as he opens himself and makes himself vulnerable that the one with whom he is talking will be free to do the same thing. Girard calls this the dyadic affect.
William Glasser, whose reality therapy is so popular across the country now, says that the essence of effective counseling is responsibility. You cannot expect a person to come to the threshold of their mind and meet you there unless you are willing to be as responsible as they are. This truth has affected the way I deal with people in the counseling chamber and let them deal with me.
This truth about bearing and sharing has affected my personal life. I'm not married. All the world loves a fat man, but nobody wants to marry him, and therefore, loneliness is a problem with which I deal. I've always been very close with whom I've served because of that. They become a kind of family to me.
Illustration: When I was serving in Southern California, there was one time when all of my colleagues in the pursuit of their ministries were away, and I found myself caught up in a deep loneliness. There was a new man who had come to our town about six months before. We'd met on a couple of social and ecclesiastical occasions and found ourselves to be kindred spirits, so I thought I would call him and propose that we get together for lunch and a time of sharing, and I dialed his church and was quite surprised when he answered the phone. It was a large church, so I thought I'd get his secretary, but it went right to his desk. I said, "I'd like to have lunch with you." He said, "We'll have to do that someday." I said, "How about today?" "Well," he said. I said, "Do you have a luncheon appointment today?" "No," he said. "Well, are you getting ready for something this afternoon, and you're not going to take time for lunch?" "Well, no." "Is there any reason why you can't have lunch with me today?" And he said, "No, let's meet at Churchill's at 11:30."
Now, because I'd come on so very strong, when we got to the restaurant and were seated I explained to him that I was feeling a deep loneliness I needed to share, and I hoped that we'd be beginning that kind of relationship. He looked at me and stretched his hand across the table and put it on top of mine and said, "Last night when I got home from the church I found my wife in the arms of another man. It is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I came back to the church, and I have not returned home since. I haven't taken any calls. I don't know how you managed to get my inside number." I had misdialed when I dialed the telephone number by one digit and went right past all the secretaries to his desk. That's one of the reasons I'm a Presbyterian.
Now the interesting thing is that if I would have passed that minister on that street that day, I would have probably said. "Hi, Joe, how are you? He would have said, "I'm fine, how are you?" I would have said, "I'm great, how are things going at the church?" "We're packing them in," he might say. "Yes, we're doing very well also," and we would have passed like two lonely ships in the night. But because there was sharing, there could be bearing.
During the course of the counseling to save that marriage, it was proposed that for a period of two months this man and his wife not live together. During that time he lived in my home. We have become very close. Six years ago when I had coronary bypass surgery, the surgery itself went very well, but I contracted a staphylococcic infection that brought me very close to death. In those dark hours when there was considerable anxiety, can you imagine what it meant to me in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to have a knock on the door and through the door came this pastor from Los Angeles, California, to make a pastoral call. We have shared, and therefore, we bear and it's a beautifully important thing in my life.
Honesty requires that I say, however, having given these positive illustrations of what comes from sharing and bearing, that it is not always so pleasant. It is sometimes incredibly painful.
I think of a young man, David. He was a student at the University of Redlands in Southern California. He was the captain of the basketball team and a good student, one of those very well-rounded young men. He developed ulcerated colitis. He went into the hospital, then into intensive care for six weeks. During the six weeks he received 72 blood transfusions. I was called to the hospital six times because David was not expected to make it through the day. Six times he made it, but the seventh time I was called, well, I knew right away that this would be the time. And for the first time, David was showing considerable fear. Not fear about his salvation. His personal relationship with the Lord had been sealed many years before. It was fear about dying itself. And if there is a modicum of honesty in you, you must recognize that there is some question and anxiety concerning this thing which each of us must do.
He was trying to talk about what it must be like to die. When he questioned his father, his dad responded by saying, "Now look, we're not going to talk about that. You've made it through every time. This is a team effort! We're all here- the doctors, the nurses, your mom and I, Bruce is here- we're going to make it." Maybe that's all a father can say at such times.
He tried to talk to his mother about it, and his mother would just bend down and kiss him, and put another cool cloth on his hot brow. I moved beside his bed and I sat down and I took his hand; it was very white and thin now, but still quite strong, and it had those blue and brown spots that come from the needles and the tubes. We talked about what it must be like to die. We talked about separation from loved ones and reunion with loved ones gone before. We talked about what it must be like to meet the Lord Jesus Christ-to stand before the judgment bar of God with him at our side. We talked about what it must be like to move out of time and into eternity.
As we would talk and share these things and bring scripture to them, he would drift off to sleep. And then he would waken again, and we would continue. And then to sleep, and he would waken again, and we would continue. But never once, even when he was asleep, would he relax his grip. And one of those times, when he was asleep, Jesus came in the spirit, and he said, "David, come with me. You don't need those tubes and needles any more." And David, in the spirit, got up and went with him. That was very hard, because I loved him very much. I think I learned that night what it means when it says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." To comfort means to stand with. So bearing and sharing can sometimes be incredibly painful. But it is what we are called to do in fulfilling the law of Christ.
Let me leave you with this. The Apostle Paul who wrote these words began the Galatian epistle by saying, "Paul, an Apostle." Just like that he laid claim to the highest office in the church, apostle. But seven years later he wrote a letter to the Corinthians, and in that letter he says, "Paul, the least of the apostles, and the one not worthy to be called an apostle." And eight years after that, he wrote a letter to the churches around Ephesus, and in that letter he says, "Unto me, less than the least of the members of the church, is grace given."
And at the very end of his life, writing to his young son in the faith, Timothy, he said, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." He had not laid aside his apostolic office, but you see, as he deepened, he opened. As he matured, he spread his sharing more widely, and thus was attuned more to the bearing power of his brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. This is the comradeship that Christ commands. For you see, we're like islands, and we're separated by waters. And sometimes they're wide waters and they're dark with misunderstanding. And sometimes they're tempest-tossed with anger. And sometimes, they are so deep that there seems no way at all that we can fathom them. But Jesus is the bridge over the waters, and he unites island to island until you have an archipelago. And archipelago to archipelago, until you have a continent. And continent to continent until you have a Kingdom. And the name of that Kingdom, my young friends in Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. May God bless to you this simple witness in his name. Amen.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.