Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bear one another's burdens

Maybe it’s because on my mother’s side I come from a family of teachers, maybe it’s because between myself and my children 37 years of my life have been determined by the school year, I always think of September as marking the start of a new year.

It works for me as a Christian as well. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Jewish New Year falls in September. In September we celebrate the wonder of God in creation – with marvellous displays of flowers, vegetables, fruit – the fruitfulness of God’s creation!

Then at Christmas we celebrate the way God comes into our lives through Jesus Christ – born as one of us, he lived among us and mapped out for us the way to live a fully human life.

In Holy Week and Easter – we mark his death and resurrection and marvel at the extent of his forgiving love and the share we have in his resurrection victory.

And then as summer arrives it’s Pentecost and we mark the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the energising power of God with us.

One passage seems to me to bring all of that together. It’s a passage that speaks of fruit – and brings to mind the beauty we see around us today. It speaks of the the things that characterise a Christian life and brings to mind all that Jesus taught, and it brings to mind the energising power of the Spirit that comes at the climax to the year.

Paul talks of fruit and imagines all manner of wonderful fruit. He then suggests that the very things that characterise a Christian life, love, joy, peace patience, are not so much things we generate in our own strength, but are rather the fruit of the energizing power of that unseen force of God’s presence with us in the Holy Spirit.

He speaks of the fruit of the Spirit … and then he finishes in this passage with a one liner that sums up all that Jesus’ teaching stands for.

Galatians 5:22 to 6:2

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

It is the one line liner I want to home in on.

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

That’s what Jesus stands for in a nutshell.

We each have burdens to bear. Instead of going it alone, we need to be prepared to carry each others’ burdens.

It was this verse that inspired the Christian social reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century to find a better way of providing care and support in a safe haven or ‘asylum’ for people with mental health problems. The inscription they put over the door of what became the Coney Hill hospital remained there until the hospital’s closure in 1994.

Their vision was that people with mental illnesses should live in a setting where people would look out for each other, care for one another, and carry each others’ burdens.

We have moved on from those big institutions. But now as people with mental health problems are in the community, the community as a whole needs to be a place where people look out for each other, care for one another and carry each others’ burdens.

That in a very real sense is what church is about. Be it in our network of prayer, in our pastoral care visiting scheme, or indeed in our hosting many community groups church at a local level needs to be a place where we look out for one another, care for another and carry each others’ burdens.

But church must not be an inward looking place where we look out only for each others’ needs. It needs to be an outward looking place where we extend that wonderful vision into the wider community.

That’s what our Alpha Course is about – people do ask those big questions that at times seem so imponderable. Who? Why? What? How? What is the point of Life? Why do people suffer? What happens when we die? Is forgiveness possible? To have space to think through some of those questions and share with one another the place to begin to find some of the answers. Tuesdays at 7-00 from 6th October.

Each month we support a local charity. Next month it will be the Cotswold Downs Group, friends of Daniella, that Bob and Nia helped to found. This month it has been the County Community Projects. Each week we invite people to bring gifts of packaged food to support the food parcels CCP puts together and for harvest today a special invitation – in so many ways, CCP is helping children, young people, families and vulnerable adults reach their full potential in life.

The Street Pastors initiative going is very much about churches taking action on the streets, helping to meet the needs there are in the town centre streets at night times over the weekend – more information about the need for volunteers is in the current Highbury News – in particular applications are invited to do the work of Street Pastor on the streets.

Caring for another, looking out for each other, carrying each others’ burdens doesn’t stop at our own locality. To be part of one local church is to be part of the world-wide church. Through our Congregational Federation we have entered into a partnership with the Oné Respé project that brings Honour and Respect to the streets of the Dominican Republic.

This small scale project is working with 125 young people in weekly youth meetings, 80 men in ‘new masculinity’ meetings, addressing among other things domestic violence – with the slogan on the tee shirt Juan Pedro Linares is wearing, ‘for a society without machismo’.

100 women in weekly meetings, 140 community health promoters, and a number of schools.

And as in so many island nations, Oné Respé shares with the Christian Aid focus not just on campaigning for climate change but pledging to do something about it in the countdown to Copenhagen.

Looking out for one another, caring for another, carrying one another’s burdens.

It can take it out of you!

Carrying one another’s burdens can become a burden in itself – it is wearing simply to begin to think of the burdens of responsibility placed on us.

The wonderful insight our Christian faith has is that when we seek to carry one another’s burdens and so fulfil the teaching of Christ, we are not on our own.

The very Jesus Christ whose teaching is summed up in the words that ask us to help to carry one another’s burdens, is the Jesus who extends to each one of us an invitation …

Come to me all of you who are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

That’s not all. The Jesus who challenges us to carry one another’s burdens, and invites us to off-load those burdens on to him, is the one who also offers us a strength from beyond ourselves in the energizing power of the unseen presence of God in the Holy Spirit.

That takes us back to the very start of that passage from Galatians.

The love, joy, peace and patience we need if we are to carry one another’s burdens is not so much the kind of thing for us to work at in our own strength, but rather we should see it as the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work within us.

See it that way and the task becomes not just manageable but eminently do-able! In the strength of God’s presence with us, let’s rise to the challenge and carry one another’s burdens! And when such a responsibility gets us down, let’s hear again those words of Jesus, Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

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