(Galatians 6: 1-10)
As most of you know, I started out my adult life with the Houston Police Department hitting the streets on January 7, 1977, with nothing more than what they taught us in the Academy, a 357-magnum pistol, a bullet proof vest (if you could afford one) and your common sense. Pepper spray and tasers hadn’t come on the scene yet police tools. We had been taught defensive tactics, i.e., how to fight, but at the time there was no de-escalation training. If a suspect wasn’t cooperative or ready to go to jail and you couldn’t talk him into getting into the patrol car you would have to go hands-on with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome. The department decided we needed another option, so the decision was made to issue nightsticks to patrol officers, but only after proper training. So off to stick training I went to master the gentle art of using a police baton. It was important to the department that we be trained in the proper use of the baton and know where we could and could not strike an individual who had become combative. To this day I can remember our instructor’s mantra: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!” Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to whack someone with a nightstick. The wrong way gets someone seriously hurt and you in serious trouble with Internal Affairs. The right way accomplishes your original objective.
And it’s that perfect way of practicing your Christianity that the Apostle Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatian churches. A way of putting into practice the teachings of Jesus Christ that yields good fruit that causes no harm and keeps you out of trouble with God. He says: Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Remember, Paul is writing to a new church a great distance from Jerusalem that is made up of primarily new Gentile converts. I would imagine these new Christians were very excited about their “new life” and eager to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. I don’t think Paul is talking about any one of these new Christians intentionally and maliciously doing something wrong or improper in Jesus’ name. More likely than not, they may not be clear on the concept, forgot their training, or are taking a shortcut. Like me when I was training rookies and would “catch” one of them doing something wrong, not according to department policy or procedure, I would gently pull them back from the ledge and offer corrective advice. I sure didn’t want some other officer wondering who trained this rookie to do it the wrong way. In applying the practices of effective law enforcement there is a right way and a wrong way and much of it depends upon how you were trained and supervised. And Paul is counting on the more mature brothers and sisters to keep a close watch on these new Christians so that they don’t give someone else the wrong idea or impression. And now that I think about it, the same applies to me and others in church leadership. The congregation and those outside the four walls of our church, look to us for guidance and we must be very careful of the examples we set for not only those who are following our lead, but also for those who are watching us. And, considering the fact that I went to Law School and not Seminary, I am especially cognizant of my influence and impact if I stray too far from the gospel or misinterpret myself the meaning of a particular scripture. That’s probably why I use two study Bibles, a Wesley Commentary, and the Book of Discipline in my sermon preparations and I am not above some spiritual correction given in gentleness.
Paul understood the importance of social support for individual progress toward entire sanctification. He envisioned a congregation of people committed to self-examination and the brutally honest assessment of their own progress in holiness, offering each other the gift of support, insight, and, when necessary, correction along the path toward Christian perfection. So, what is this sanctification and perfection that the Apostle is alluding to? Well, our United Methodist Book of Discipline addresses Sanctification and Perfection in paragraph 102 where it says: We hold that the wonder of God’s acceptance and pardon does not end God’s saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor. New birth is the first step in this process of sanctification. Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” This gracious gift of God’s power and love, the hope and expectation of the faithful, is neither warranted by our efforts nor limited by our frailties. In short, we are a Christian work in progress with sanctification being a two-step process beginning with the instantaneous act of God, a change in our person, followed by a longer process in which we are changed by degrees edging closer to perfection in Christ. Our eternal destiny is still being worked out in the space between our initial justification, justification by faith alone when we first believed, and final justification, our judgment according to what we have done in His service, when we appear before the throne of Christ.
Wait! You mean just being born again isn’t enough? Good question. Sounds like one of those questions I suspect might pop up on a final exam in Seminary. Here’s what I think. That being born again, that new birth where you profess that Jesus Christ is Lord is that instantaneous act of sanctification where you’ve been changed, where you’ve drawn your first breath of fresh air which is then followed by a longer process where you continue to grow in your faith as you walk in line with the truth of the gospel. And it’s during this growing season, after the seed has been planted, that your faith matures and manifests itself in the loving actions you perform in service to God. That’s what Paul meant when he said: A person will harvest what they plant. Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. Paul was speaking to a people who understood planting and harvesting as they lived in an agrarian society. And it shouldn’t be that difficult for us either as we plant and grow our own gardens. What Paul is saying is that every action has results or consequences, good or bad. If you plant to please your own desires, you’ll reap a crop of sorrow and unfulfillment. But if you plant to please God, you’ll reap joy and everlasting life. This is why Paul was urging his readers to carry each other’s burdens so that they would fulfill the law of Christ to love their neighbors as themselves. He admonishes his readers, and us, not to think we are important when we really aren’t. He says: Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. Each person will have to carry their own load.
What Paul is telling us is that as Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ we must all work together and not against one another. No Christian, no matter how mature in Christ, should ever think that he or she is totally independent and doesn’t need a helping hand from others, and no one should ever feel excused from the task of helping others. We can always use a little help from our friends, our friends in Jesus Christ, because the body of Christ, the Church, functions only when the brothers and sisters work together for the common good. Paul knows it is discouraging to continue to do right and receive no word of thanks, or not see tangible results, or only see dark clouds forming on the horizon. It’s tough for us too here at Community United Methodist Church as we face our own challenges and wonder about tomorrow. We just have to remember what Jesus told us in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew about worrying. He said: Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? (verse 27) And, Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (verses 33, 34) Spending time worrying about things you can’t control robs God of your time better spent in His service, time you should spend perfecting your practice of daily Christian living.
Rather, Paul challenged the Galatians, and he challenges us to keep on doing good and to trust God for the results. In due time, we will reap a harvest of blessings, a harvest that not only blesses us but blesses countless others. What we do in Jesus’ name matters, even if we never see the end results or receive acknowledgment. All we need to remember is that our practice perfected in Christ Jesus is working towards a new creation and that’s what matters. So remember, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
Let us pray.
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above. Gracious and loving Father upon whom we pour out our ardent prayers, who hears our hopes and fears, we praise you for the comfort and peace you bestow upon us and for those whom we ask for your mercy and intervention. Keep us mindful of our responsibility to share the woes of others and to share their burdens in love and compassion. And as we do your work and your will guide us by your Spirit to put what we have learned through the teaching of your son, our brother, Jesus Christ into perfect practice so that others may come to know you as we know you. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen