Carrying Burdens

Reading: Galatians 6
All of us have memories of school days - even if we feel we have forgotten many of the specifics we were taught. But aren't we glad we don't have to sit for today's exams?!

Some teachers are remembered for their mannerisms or frequently-repeated sayings. One teacher always had a joke for the class. The only problem was that he had used the same jokes with the parents and grandparents of his present students. A maths teacher with a broad Scottish accent would complain if any students were "futering and tootering". The class knew what he meant, but had never heard the words before or since. A strict Irish teacher kept a shillelagh next to the blackboard as a warning - though, of course, he never used it.

Now I don't want to send your mind on a long digression. I just want to refer to a teacher I had in the second-last year before High School. From time to time she would tell us, "God helps those who help themselves". Since then I have heard someone's addition, "… provided they don't get caught helping themselves!" That rather changes what she meant.

Much later, after she had retired and I had moved into ministry, I met her taking Religious Education for the Anglican Church. As a teacher she never went further than that saying in expressing her faith - today some would say even that was too much. But she was making quite a point. Classroom learning doesn't come to us without personal effort. And in the spiritual realm too there is an important principle - we have to trust God for what only he can do, but then he expects us to depend on his grace and to move into action.

The burden we can't carry

Paul writes to the Philippians, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently" Gal. 6.1).

There is a burden we can't carry - the burden of wrong-doing. We pay for it all right! "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction" (v. 8a). It's a spiritual principle that we reap what we sow (v. 7c).

When we had young children, you could buy a seed packet that was a mixture of flower seeds. It was interesting to see what came up. Of course, the packet had a list of all the varieties that were included. If the weather conditions were right and you managed a 100% germination rate, you could predict the result - except that you couldn't guarantee where they would come up in the garden. Yes, we know the principle well from the physical world. You don't get kenaf when you plant sugar cane!

A similar principle applies in the spiritual realm - we reap what we sow. As Paul wrote to the Romans, "the wages of sin is death…" (Rom. 6.23).

Sin is a burden we can't carry and come out on top. There are all sorts of jokes about hell - the pokies and unlimited grog - but it's not that way at all and is the most unpleasant place of separation imaginable. The point is that sin separates us from God and therefore separates us from life. No matter how much folk manage to avoid God in this life, all will face the reality of God in eternity. The choices we make and the life we live - our words and attitudes and actions - have eternal consequences. We will reap the consequences of what we sow.

That's why Jesus came. The very Son of God came to carry the burden of sin, not as a sinner, but as the Redeemer. He bore the penalty for our sins, so that we can know life - eternal life.

That's why "if someone is caught in a sin", the Christians are to "restore him gently" - knowing that we also face the possibility of temptation and that we can only live, not because of our spiritual prowess or achievements, but because of God's grace to us in Jesus Christ.

Carrying one another's burdens

Paul writes, "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6.2).

We can't carry someone else's burden of sin. In any case, Jesus has already done that and we are responsible to share the gospel and invite people to faith. But we need to have genuine care for others, whatever their particular struggle. It may be temptation to something which has never been an issue for us. It could be a physical or emotional ailment or a relational problem. Perhaps the issue is anxiety or fear or doubt… We are to care for and help one another, restoring them to a strong trust in God's all-sufficient grace. And whatever the issue, we are to pray for one another.

These days we use the word "fellowship" lightly. It describes a group that enjoy one another's company, that do things together… We've even made a verb of it so that we can "fellowship" over a cup of tea!

In the New Testament "fellowship" (Greek koinonia) is a strong word that reminds us that we share together in God's grace in Jesus Christ. The verb form (koinoneo) is often simply translated "share".

We may, of course, "share" many things, but as Christians we share together in the gospel, in the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It is because we share in the gospel together that we "carry one another's burdens".

The load we should carry

But then Paul surprises us by writing, "for each one should carry his own load" (v. 5). In the Good News Bible Swiss artist Annie Valloton has delightfully portrayed everyone carrying their own load and helping the person in front of them.

Paul isn't referring here to the burden we can't carry - which Jesus has already borne to the full. Nor is he in fact referring to the burdens we are to help one another to carry. The particular word translated "load" refers to the pack usually carried by a marching soldier.

Jesus talked about a load he would give us - "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Mt. 11.30).

The Rabbis taught their pupils that the Law was a yoke to be carried. The school itself became a yoke. When the Christians met in Jerusalem in Acts 15 to discuss what should be expected of Gentile believers, Peter said that God had already accepted the Gentiles on the basis of faith, "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15.10-11).

The yoke shouldn't be burdensome - it is a means of carrying burdens. We learn from Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on the grace of Jesus - and find the burden lighter.

What's your burden? If it's a burden of sin, come to Jesus. He has carried the burden and offers forgiveness. The Christian family isn't here to criticise or condemn, but to encourage and restore one another in the forgiving, transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ.

What's your burden? It could be an on-going health problem, anxiety, depression, fear, doubt… Perhaps it's overload from caring for children and a loved one, or unreasonable pressures from work… Nobody appreciates the chronic whinger, but - don't be an isolate! We are meant to "bear one another's burdens" in a caring, supporting way.

What's your load? There are many things that are just a normal part of life. And there is so much that is a normal part of the Christian life. None of it is standing-on-your-head stuff. It's no use "wishing it away", yet sometimes the sum total can get us down. We need the "yoke" of Christ - his enabling grace to carry the load that is ours.

"Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6.10). That will help us all, by the grace of God, to carry our load.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 4 July 2004
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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