Galatians 6:2 and Ephesians 4:25-32 NRSV
Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Those who steal must give up stealing; rather, let them labor, doing good work with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
When someone says service, that word probably brings mission and ministry to mind for many Christians, but in our life together, service takes on another character as well. Community life brings people together, and “[no] sooner are people together than they begin to observe, judge, and classify each other.” Even the disciples following Jesus did this, as Luke tells us the story of when an “argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest” (Luke 9:46 CEB). When people share life together, frictions arise and disagreements result, and these potent forces are more than enough to tear churches apart at the seams. From denominational splits to church breakups, many new communities of faith spring out of contention and argument. What are we to do then? Is there anything we can do? Yes, we must turn to a mindset and practice of service toward our fellow Christians. In service, we recognize and honor the fact that the other person is made in the image of God, and in serving them we might “find the Creator by means of them.” Through “the service of listening, helping, forbearing,” we can find humble delight in our fellow Christians even as we encourage one other to grow in our discipleship.
Often in the Christian community, we rush to correction. We rush at quoting scripture at those we feel are in the wrong, throwing the book at people. Our impulse is often to do this from a place of superiority: correcting, fixing, advising, and saving people. We operate from a place of judgment and measure people against our standards. If you don’t believe me, just watch the next time someone misstates the facts or says something others feel is incorrect or untrue. Watch, and tell me, do people gently lead them to the right answer? More often than not, you will instead hear people almost crow in delight before shredding the other person into pieces with opinionated “truths” and “facts” until that other person is beaten down. These folks, taking their place in the judgment seat, may now sit back sure that they are the greatest! Is that how it is supposed to be in the Christian community, however?
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church seems to lift up a different standard of behavior, saying “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” We are to build up those in need. Our words should give grace, an unmerited kindness, to all who hear them. In fact, when we are with others in the Christian community, this letter instructs us that we are to “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” How can we do this? How can we stop the frictions that come from being with other people which lead to the irritations that overwhelm us, from starting fights, and inflicting hurt?
I cannot ever say this enough, but we need to do the work to recognize that our neighbor is and always will be a child of God, a bearer of the divine image. Now, I think we all think we understand the full weight of this, but let’s explore it further. Sometimes we say someone else bears the image of God too, what we really mean is that we want them to bear our image, rather than God’s. We want them to believe as we believe and act as we would act! Again, we prefer “constantly keeping an eye on others, judging them, condemning them, and putting them in their places and thus doing harm to them.” That’s so much easier! Somehow we almost act as if we believe that because there is one God, there must just be one image of God stamped on everyone, and this one image is somehow the image that I happen to agree with! When God in Genesis made humanity in God’s own image, we are quickly told that God made both man and woman. Now, the funny thing is that “and” between man and woman is like the and between “Alpha and Omega,” it’s God saying I have created everything and everyone, A to Z!
God loves creating, and God enjoys the diversity of creation! God claims ownership of all it, and says to humanity, all that you are from A to Z, I made and I have declared good! It means that the image of God in my neighbor will of course look different from the image stamped onto my own being. God is not a God of sameness but of expansive creativity! When we understand this, we understand that “God did not make others as I would have made them.” Instead of judging them and attempting to control them through correction, now, “other people, in the freedom with which they were created, become an occasion for me to rejoice, whereas before they were only a nuisance and trouble for me.” I can encounter God in them more fully than I ever could in myself. In them, the image “takes on a completely new and unique form whose origin is found solely in God’s free and sovereign act of creation.” Community becomes an occasion for us to encounter the fullness of our God, so rather than rushing to judgment, we must instead lean into wonder.
The way we get to wonder is through the act of forbearance. Galatians put it this way, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Forbearance is a funny thing because it means we let our fellow Christians be a burden to us. This is what the Greek means, that we show patience and self-restraint in situations that “might legitimately, naturally, or at least understandably provoke a forceful response or display of emotion.” All that irritation and anger that I spoke of which naturally springs up when people are together long enough, I am not saying that those are not justified emotional responses! Rather, those are precisely the people we are called to show “gentleness and graciousness [to even] in situations where a different reaction might be anticipated.” We understand that people bear the image of God, so we are called to tolerate and accept these other people in our community, just as other people are called to tolerate and accept us.
You see God took on the burden of human beings first, and that load was so heavy, that it took God all the way to the cross in the body of Jesus Christ. God carried us gently, with suffering and endurance, and then, “human beings crushed God to the ground,” but “God stayed with them and they with God.” In suffering and enduring humanity, despite all the ways we sin and hurt, God maintained community with us, through Christ. This is the law of Christ, the law of grace and love. We are called to suffer and endure each other to maintain community, and thanks to the work of God in Christ, we do not bear the burden of one another alone. Jesus takes up the yoke and carries me and carries you as we carry each other.
If you don’t want to bear another’s burden, it’s simple, don’t be a Christian. Again, we are not a religion of holy solitaires, we are a social religion. The kingdom of God is not just one person, it is the community, it is the body of Christ, connected and thriving. Because of this, we have to find a way through our disagreements and our frictions. We have to find a way through the hurts, the wrongs and the sins. We have to make this life together work. We cannot do this with judgment, we can only do it by seeing the other person as made in the image of God, of seeing them as irreplaceable and invaluable to us as they are to the Almighty who made them inside and out.
Before we can ever hope to serve each other, we must first get to know each other. We must understand another’s needs. We have to learn to listen, to truly hear another person. After all, that’s how God shows love to us, God bends that divine ear in our direction to listen and hear us, so shouldn’t we who claim to love our neighbor as ourselves do the same with others? We have to learn to respond to another’s needs, large and small, not judge that need but respond to it. We have to allow them the freedom to be who God made them to be even when it seems to us that their freedom only leads to sin. In other words, before a single scripture is quoted before disciplining is ever attempted, we need to first understand and love our fellow Christians, especially the ones that vex us the most. Bear each other’s burdens as Christ bore you onto a cross, through the grave, and into a new life together. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015),69.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 71-72.
 Katharine D. Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H Vol. 2, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), s.v. “Forbearance.”
Pastor Paul Grossman