“Bearing One Another’s Burdens”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
July 7, 2019
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” As we come near to the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I want to think with you today about two moments in the ministry of Jesus Christ that will help us to better understand what Paul is asking of the Galatians and, by extension, of you and me, too.
The first moment is recounted to us early in the gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples have been together only a short time, but they have a covered a lot of ground in and around Jerusalem. After some teaching and preaching, a crowd approaches Jesus and the disciples and one person says, “Lord, the one whom you love has fallen ill.” This beloved one is Lazarus. Lazarus is brother to Martha and Mary and we remember that Mary is the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.
We might expect for Jesus to strap on his sandals and get moving over to Bethany where his friend Lazarus is laying ill, but he does not. Instead, he says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The gospel of John says that even though Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he stayed in Jerusalem for another two days. Eventually, though, Jesus does go to Bethany, but when he arrives, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. Four days—he missed that by a lot! On hearing that Jesus has arrived, Martha rushes from her home, throws herself at Jesus’ feet and cries out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In Martha’s cry we can hear the cries of every person who has ever pleaded with God for a miracle and come up empty handed. Maybe it is a cry you are familiar with. Martha knew Jesus had the power to save Lazarus, but some reason Jesus stayed away just a few days too long.
In time, Jesus goes to the place where Lazarus had been buried. Gathered around the tomb is a large crowd of mourners. Scholars believe that Lazarus was a wealthy man since he had his own tomb, a prominent member of the community, perhaps even someone who had a business that employed a large number of people in Bethany. His death is a significant loss for the community. The mourners are gathered around weeping and wailing, and Jesus is standing there and he does something unusual, at least unusual for one that we believe in the very son of God: Jesus weeps. It is the shortest verse in all of the Scriptures: Jesus weeps. He weeps because his beloved friend, Lazarus, is dead. He weeps because he understands the sorrow that Martha and Mary are having to face. He weeps because a community has been fractured by the mystery of finality of death.
Nowhere in all of the gospels do we see a more human Jesus than this. John says at the beginning of his gospel that ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’—Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in The Message bible as ‘the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.’ Jesus was a member of the neighborhood and he wept when one of his neighbors died. This points us to the startling truth that Jesus, that God, is not above or beyond the very tangible and sometimes ugly emotions we feel as life goes on. Jesus, God, is not immune to the suffering we face, to the pain and sorrow that inevitably end up at our door, and this vignette shows us that God’s solution to this suffering and pain and sorrow is to get right into the middle of it and shed some tears. Of course, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. But before he works that miracle, he leaves room for grief, for sorrow, for tears, and for the emotions that we are often taught to be kept away and pushed down.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” That’s the first moment from Jesus’ life to help us understand Paul’s words. The second is tucked away at the end of the gospel of Luke.
We’ve heard the story many times of the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus on the evening of Easter. It is a wonderful story of how Jesus made himself clearly visible at a meal when bread was broken, a meal similar to the one we will enjoy shortly. But I think the most powerful part of this story comes much earlier when the disciples are still on the road and several miles away from Emmaus. Luke tells us that while the disciples were walking to Emmaus they were talking ‘about everything that happened.’ The ‘everything that had happened’ is, of course, the horror and pain of Holy Week. These disciples had watched Jesus parade triumphantly into Jerusalem on Sunday, only to be shouted down and crucified by Friday. The walk to Emmaus was one of those walks you take when you have no idea what else to do. The disciples had been traumatized, deeply wounded in mind, body, and soul, and so to clear their minds or to get away from the pain, they took a walk to Emmaus.
While they were walking, a man appeared and walked with them. We don’t know where the man came from and the disciples, at that point, had no idea who the was. The man asked, “What are you talking about as you walk?” One of the disciples, out of disbelief says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” The man asks, “What things?” The other disciple replies, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in word and deed…our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” As they continue walking, the man speaks to them the things of Scripture, starting with Moses and ending with the prophets.
As readers of this story, we know the man is Jesus, and when the group arrives Emmaus and they sit down for dinner, the disciples learn that they have been walking with the risen Jesus the whole time. But then, like a flash, Jesus disappears. The power of this story is in how Jesus just showed up—he showed up on the road with the disciples at moment in their lives when nothing else made sense or seemed real. Jesus had a knack for showing up—he walked through locked doors, he appeared out of nowhere and walked on water, and now he walked with two hurt, traumatized disciples on their way to Emmaus. But notice what Jesus didn’t do…Jesus didn’t tell them they were wrong; he did not deny their pain or confusion; he did not offer sweet but hollow words of comfort. He showed up, he walked with them, and then he feed them.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, when Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” this is what he is talking about. We’ve learned over the last few weeks that the church in Galatia was on fire—not literally, but there was indeed a great fire ablaze among the church’s members over any number of issues. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one the most impressive theological and rhetorically perfect pieces of the New Testament. But how does he start to bring the letter to a close? What does Paul want the Galatians to remember most? “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Put aside the theology and rhetoric; put aside the discussion and debates about who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out; even put aside your own personal piety and spirituality—what does it mean to follow Jesus, to be a church, to be faithful to the Gospel? Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. What is the answer to all the issues infecting the church in Galatia? Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
This is at once extremely easy and extremely difficult. If we take the example from Jesus, bearing one another’s burdens looks like weeping and mourning and showing up when folks are hurt and confused. That seems easy, but showing up for each other when things are messy and complicated is not something we are programmed to do. We need only look at the volumes upon volumes upon volumes of church law and regulations to know that we like things in order, predictable, cut and dry, no room for emotion or any grey areas. We are programmed, as people and as Christians, to run to the things that are beautiful and easy to understand and the things that will bring us pleasure. But the gospel invites us, compels us, to consider living in the opposite way. If we say that we are Christians and want to follow in the way of Jesus, and if we want truly to live into the good news of the gospel, we must share the burdens of our neighbors as we all journey toward the glory of God.
This looks like showing up to someone’s house with a meal or a pack of toilet paper or diapers or some flowers when everything they had hoped for and imagined has been torn away.
This looks like sitting with someone in a moment of intense grief, pain, confusion, or sorrow, and having the courage to keep your mouth shut so that there is plenty of room for the Spirit to speak and move.
This looks like taking a moment each day to reach out to someone who might just need a kind word or the assurance that they are not alone.
This looks like making a weekly meal for the hungry in your community, taking a few hours out of your busy schedule to ensure that someone else has what they need to survive.
This looks like being the face and hands and feet and mind of Jesus for someone who needs to know that God is real and loving and really cares for them.
This looks like showing up, shedding a few tears, and being the physical embodiment of our God who took on flesh and bone and moved into the neighborhood.
This is our calling and challenge today. We’re not unlike the church in Galatia—we have our issues, we have our debates, we have those moments where it appears that we are nothing more than a club of people who like to bicker with one another. But there is another way and that way is the way of Jesus. That way is in showing up for one another when life is hard. That way is helping to carry one another’s burdens as we run this earthly race. It has nothing to do with theology. It has nothing to do with doctrine. It has nothing to do with spirituality or worship or beautiful churches or well-written liturgy or good Bible studies or educational programs. The way of Jesus is sharing ourselves with one another and if we say that we are Christians, and if we say that we follow Jesus, there is no other way. According to the unending mercy of God, may we all have strength this day and always to share one another’s burdens and in so doing fulfill the law of Christ. Amen.