Let the Honking Begin

Galatians 6:1-2

1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Dear Friends in Christ,

I’d like to begin my sermon this morning with a rather unusual question that will no doubt have some of you scratching your heads.  And that question is:  Would you say that you are more like a seagull or more like a goose?  Well, obviously before you can answer that question, you need to know a little bit about each of these birds so let me give you a brief lesson in seagull-ology and goose-ology.  The seagull is a powerful picture of independence.  If you’ve ever been on a Florida beach, you’ve no doubt seen these birds flapping their mighty wings and soaring high into the air, and then dive bombing back down to earth again.

But even though they are beautiful birds to behold, I’ve been told that they’re not very community oriented.  In fact, if you want to sign the death warrant for a seagull, just make it look different from the other seagulls.  Make it stand out a bit.  Tie a red ribbon around its neck, or better yet, put a piece of meat in its beak so that it appears to have an advantage over the others.  And the others will swarm around it, attack it, and even kill it.

So if you ever have a chance to visit or join Seagull Lutheran Church, you might want to just keep flapping your wings because it’s not going to be a very friendly, supportive congregation.  If, however, you have the opportunity to visit Honking Geese Lutheran Church, that’s where you’ll want to settle in because those birds really know how to treat one another well.  Scientists tell us that everything about the migration pattern of geese is geared to protect and support the weak.  For example, the fact that they fly in a “V” formation generates 71% more strength for each bird.  The one in the lead doesn’t always stay in the lead.  Rather that position is rotated every now and then so the lead bird doesn’t grow weary.  And the weakest geese are placed in the rear, which is the easiest position to fly in.

But perhaps most remarkable and most admirable is what happens when one goose suffers an illness or an injury and falls out of the formation.  Unlike the seagulls, the other geese don’t attack it or leave it alone.  Instead 2 or 3 others will break formation and come alongside that bird and remain with it until it is strong enough to fly again.

So you’ve got 2 birds, the gulls and the geese.  The gulls attack those who are different.  The geese protect the weak.  Which of these birds do you think the Lord would most like his church to resemble?  The answer is obvious.  If he could select one bird to represent his church, or better yet, our church, don’t you think he’d want some honking going on around here?  By the way, did you know that even the honking that geese do while they fly is their way of encouraging one another?  It’s their way of saying: “Keep going!  We’re almost there!  We can do this together!”

So how do we follow suit?  How do we encourage one another?  Well, the Apostle Paul deals with this in our text for today when he says:  “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Now if this passage said no more than that, that would be enough because heaven knows we all have a lot of burdens to carry, don’t we? – burdens of temptation, burdens of guilt, financial burdens, family burdens, and so on.  But Paul is not just giving here a generic appeal to kindness.  Rather he’s giving a very specific admonition.  He’s encouraging us to be responsive to one of our own when he or she falls out of formation.  Notice v. 1: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”  Then he adds: “Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

So here’s the situation.  A Christian has fallen.  A believer has been snagged by temptation, caught in the trap of the evil one. Paul is not talking here about the occasional spiritual stumbles that we’re all guilty of from time to time.  Rather he is speaking of a serious sin, a major fall that is endangering the eternal destiny of this brother or sister in the faith.

Perhaps a few modern day examples might help.  He’s describing the husband and father who gets up in the middle of the night long when the rest of the family is sound asleep and turns on the computer so he can feed his pornography addiction.  He’s describing the housewife who keeps a fifth of whiskey hidden in the laundry room so she can satisfy her alcohol addiction.  He’s describing the teenager who has gone from dabbling in drugs to dealing drugs.  He’s describing the college student who used to be concerned about what God thinks, but is now more concerned about what others think.  He’s describing the cheating spouse, the embezzling boss, the abusive dad, the rebellious and dishonest student.

Now why does Paul dedicate an entire paragraph to this subject in his letter to the Galatians?  Why is it so important?  I can think of a few good reasons.  First of all, because sin affects the believer.  You may not agree with me on this, but I really believe that one of the most miserable persons on earth is a sinning Christian.  Not a sinning unbeliever because they don’t know any better and could care less, but a sinning Christian.  This is one who has tasted of God’s grace, who has drunk from the wellspring of God’s mercy, who has understood that Jesus died on the cross in his place for his sin.  So when he falls away from that through willful, purposeful, intentional disobedience and he’s dealing with the heavy burden of guilt and anxiety that goes along with that, how can he be anything but miserable?

So sin affects the believer.  Then secondly, sin affects the church.  If we’re all part of the same body, as the Bible says, then what you do affects me and what I do affects you.  Just like with your physical body.  If you stub your toe, you don’t just feel the pain in the toe area, do you?  No!  It radiates and reverberates throughout your body.  Likewise, Christians are not islands unto themselves.  So what we do not only affects others in the church, but it also affects the overall reputation of the church.  If I all of a sudden enter into a season of rebellion against God and live that rebellion out in my daily life and people see that and know that you and I are part of the same church, you know what they’re going to say, don’t you?  “Well, I’d never go to that church.  It’s nothing but a bunch of hypocrites.”

So sin affects the believer.  Sin affects the church.  But most importantly, sin affects God.  The Bible tells us that when we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit.  Could we expect anything less than that?  After all, God loves you so much.  And when you live your life like he doesn’t exist or you ignore what he tells you to do, when you go off and do your thing rather than his thing, it breaks his heart.  And I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought about this before, but because he lives in you, because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, when you get all caught up in some type of sinful behavior, you drag God into that situation.  Don’t think for a minute that when that Christian man walks into that strip club, God says, “Well, I’ll just wait out here for you until you’re finished in there.”  Don’t think for a moment that he says to the person taking drugs or getting drunk or engaging in immoral behavior, “I’ll just disconnect myself from you while you do those things.”  It doesn’t work that way.  Where you go, God goes.   That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

So sin is serious stuff.  It affects the believer, it affects the church and its reputation, it affects God.  For that reason Paul wants us to be dead serious in the way we deal with sin when it affects one of our members.  What exactly is our responsibility, what is our obligation at times like that?  Well, verse 1 of our text says:  “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”

Recently I learned that on the walkie-talkie of a fireman there is what is called an RIT button.  That stands for rapid intervention team.  When a firefighter finds himself encircled by flames and sees no hope of escape, he will push his RIT button.  And when other firefighters see that light on their walkie-talkies illuminated, they know that the fire is now secondary and the safety of their fellow firefighter is primary.

That’s a great illustration of how God expects his church to operate.  The only difference being that usually the fallen Christian doesn’t press an RIT button.  Rather, he tries to conceal his sin as long as he can. But sooner or later it comes to light.  And that’s when God’s rapid intervention team needs to swing into action.  And who exactly is part of that team?  Well, our text tells us “those who are spiritual.”  How do you know whether you fit that description?  Two ways.  Are you bringing forth in your life the fruits of the Spirit that Paul lists for us in Gal. 5:22-23:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”?  But perhaps even more importantly than that, do you feel a burden for those who have fallen away?  Even as I speak, are there people running through your mind who fit the description of the fallen Christian?  If so, that’s a pretty good indication that God wants you on his RIT team.  He wants you to get involved.

So how do we do that?  3 words to keep in mind.  We do it carefully.  Notice what our text says:  “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”  In other words, don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the same trap, the same sin as the one you’re trying to rescue.  Then secondly, we do itprayerfully.  We bathe the whole rescue operation in prayer, asking God to give us the right words to say and to take those words and our Christian concern and drive them deep into the heart of the fallen brother or sister.  Then thirdly, we do it graciously.  Our text says we“should restore him gently.”  We’re not out to humiliate the person.  We’re not out to embarrass them.  We’re not out to present ourselves as holier and better than they are.  And so we choose our words carefully and strive with God’s help to communicate to them nothing but pure, unadulterated Christian love and concern.

Well, in the light of what we’ve talked about here today, guess what?  I have a huge favor to ask of all of you.  I realize that many of you may not know Christians who have fallen in the ways that we’ve talked about this morning, but I’ll bet we all know members of our church family who for whatever reason have fallen away, who no longer attend, or maybe do so very infrequently.  I have to confess to you as one of the pastors of this congregation that these people are constantly on my heart.  I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t feel a tremendous burden for them.  And as time goes on, that burden has been growing and my prayers for them have been intensifying because after personal visits and phone calls and letters of concern in some cases for years there just seems to be no response.  It’s disheartening.  It’s discouraging.  It’s disappointing.  So I’m asking all of you here today to be a part of the Salem Lutheran Church rescue team.  It’s not just the pastor’s job.  It’s not just the elders’ job.  As we learned today, it’s a job that God has given to those who are spiritual, those who are committed, those who are concerned.  Jesus set the standard for us in the story of the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to go searching for the one that had become lost.  May we do the same.  May we learn a lesson from the geese we heard about earlier and make a conscious effort to invite, to encourage, to talk to, to come alongside of, and to pray for our weaker members so that they might soon find their way back to the Savior’s waiting and forgiving arms and there might be rejoicing in the halls of heaven and in our own family of believers over the lost ones who have finally come home.