Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2019
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16 Commentary
A text whose dominant metaphors including sowing and reaping seems somehow especially appropriate, at least for residents of the northern hemisphere at this time of the year. This month, after all, some “northern” gardeners and farmers are at least beginning to “reap” the cucumbers, chilies, peas, potatoes, onions and other crops they’ve “sown.”
Eugene Peterson, to whose delightful book Travelling Light (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1988, p. 177) I owe a great deal for this commentary, links this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson back to Galatians 6:6’s, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the instructor.” While Christ sets us free, Peterson notes, to give, he doesn’t free us not to give.
He then adds that Paul uses our text’s metaphor of sowing and reaping to show how the refusal to give is self-destructive. We reap, insists Paul, “what we sow” (7b). Yet not everything we sow produces a good crop. To stretch the apostle’s metaphor, it’s as if we can plant not only seeds that produce luscious vegetables, but also ones that produce “weeds” and other noxious plants.
Paul suggests that people who “sow weeds” can’t expect to harvest fruits or vegetable. Those who plant weeds harvest only weeds. So, for example, Peterson continues, “every word of criticism, every avoidance of compassion, every indulgence of greed is a seed that will mature to” destruction (ibid).
In commenting on Galatians 6 in his fine June, 2016 commentary, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, “You can create disastrously bad momentum in your life by sowing self-indulgent seeds that are all about satisfying your fleshly desires. But God is not mocked: you can’t do one and expect the other. There is a moral fabric to the universe and it does not bend according to whatever is convenient for you.”
Of course, it’s easy for God’s adopted sons and daughters to deceive ourselves about this (6). We might assume that just as we sometimes plant seeds in secret, we can also “sow” sins secretly. That is to say, I might assume that if I gossip about my wife to my friend, only my friend will know about that sin.
But Paul insists that we not be “deceived” about this. If we sow gossip in order to satisfy our sinful desires, we’ll reap the destruction of things like our marriage and personal integrity. Even the sinful things we plant or do in private have public and destructive results (Peterson, 178).
“The sinful nature” to which Paul refers in verse 8 is a basic orientation toward God and our neighbors that is bent not toward them, but rather in on one’s self. It’s a nature that’s oriented toward the wishes of our natural slave masters that are sin, Satan and death. A person who has a sinful nature loves him or herself far, far more than he or she loves God or his or her neighbor. It’s the nature of someone whose will Christ has not yet freed.
That sinful nature is the direct opposite of a Christ-freed and Spirit-oriented nature. A Spirit-filled nature that aims to please the Spirit is dedicated to loving God above and all our neighbors as much as ourselves. Those whose words, actions and even thoughts flow out of that nature reap eternal life. To again stretch Paul’s metaphor, the Spirit empowers those who plant the seeds of godliness to harvest “eternal life” (8).
Of course, such talk may make those who recognize that God saves us only by God’s grace that we receive with our faith nervous. It, after all, seems to smell like a kind of “works righteousness.” Those who proclaim Galatians 6 won’t just want to skirt that issue. We don’t, after all, wish to proclaim that God saves us by anything but God’s grace.
Yet Galatians 6’s preachers and teachers will want to find ways to offer a couple of reminders. While Christians believe our salvation by grace is one of the Scripture’s central messages, the Bible does also place a heavy emphasis on godly actions, words and even thoughts. Verse 8’s reaping of “eternal life” is very much in line with that emphasis. While God saves us by God’s grace, good works like sowing to please the Spirit remain very central to the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
However, Christians also profess that faith that doesn’t somehow manifest itself in good works is less than a living faith. So we might at least suggest that those who deliberately insist on sowing to please their sinful nature instead of sowing to please the Spirit have not yet fully received God’s grace with their faith. As a result, they don’t yet enjoy the full assurance of eternal life.
It is also true, however, that Paul does not make explicit just whose eternal life those who sow to please the Spirit reap. We may generally assume that he’s describing our own harvest of eternal life. But what if he’s implying that whose sow to please the Spirit help open the way for those to whom we reach out to harvest eternal life with their own faith in Jesus Christ?
Of course, as Peterson goes on to note, those who want potatoes for dinner on the following day can’t expect to eat what they’ve harvested on that day (180). They can mostly expect long stretches of darkness, silence and activity that are not visible to anyone above ground. During those stretches, there’s much more cultivating, weeding and fertilizing than reaping to be done.
In a similar way, those who “sow to reap the Spirit” can’t expect a harvest of “eternal life” overnight. The kind of giving to which the apostle refers in verse 6 can be exhausting. The “seeds” of kindness, gentleness and forgiveness may take a very long time to be ready for any kind of reaping. We may, in fact, not be able to “harvest” the new creation’s eternal life for years, if not decades.
So Paul adds, “Let us not weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (9). God’s beloved children don’t stop sowing to please the Spirit by loving, as well as being patient and kind. We keep planting the seeds that are goodness and faithfulness.
Christians keep sowing gentleness and self-control. God’s adopted children keep planting the seed that is doing good, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters. If we do, after all, Paul promises that we can expect God to produce a “harvest” of eternal life.
Of course, the apostle’s call to “do good … especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (10) may also make some of his modern readers at least a bit uncomfortable. (Isn’t it interesting, in fact, just how much of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson has that power).
Peterson responds by noting Paul doesn’t call us to do good especially to those who are of the family of faith because they’re more deserving. Instead he challenges us to care for our nearby brothers and sisters in Christ because they are there. He goes on (181) to write, “The biggest deterrent to the drudgery of caring for an everyday friend is the dreaming of helping an exotic stranger. Giving from a distance requires less of us – less involvement, less compassion. It is easier to write out a check for a starving child halfway around the world than to share the burden of our next-door neighbor who talks too much.”
In noting that doing good to those who are far away is easier than doing good to our neighbor, Peterson refers to John Updike’s novel, The Coup (182). Its central character is Don X. Gibbs, a U.S. embassy official whom locals murder as he tries to deliver American junk food to drought-stricken African country of Kush.
Gibbs’ widow says, “I’ve forgotten a lot about Don … actually I didn’t see that much of him. He was always trying to help people. But he only liked to help people he didn’t know” (italics added).
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