I am a Northwesterner through and through, raised on the waters of the Pacific Ocean and in the shadows of the Cascade Mountain range. Every summer since I can remember we would make the journey south from Seattle to the city of Portland to see my grandparents. These have always been some of my favorite trips. My “PopPop” is one of my heroes for so many reasons. He is from a different generation of Americans, from the time when men wore suits and gladly jumped at the charge to volunteer and join the military. Being a first generation Italian-American, he crossed the English Channel at eighteen years old like thousands of others to invade France on D-Day. He received an honorable discharge as a Chief Petty Officer, which is the highest rank an enlisted man in the United States Navy can achieve. After the war he moved home to New York to raise his family, manage factories, and plant churches. This life has given him one of the most unique and wise perspectives I have ever encountered.
On my last trip home we were sitting around the dining room table listening to my PopPop tell stories. Out of nowhere he stopped to look at me and said, “Jon, I hope you understand something. The enemy wants to take you out and stop you from doing what God has called you to do, and he is in no rush to do it.” My stomach dropped the way it tends to do when something profound and inspired by the Holy Spirit is spoken. This conversation and the hours of thought germinated from it afterwards have challenged the way that I understand discipleship and spiritual formation.
I have spent the past eight years working and pastoring in what would be considered in the US to be “mega-churches”. The majority of my time has been spent working with youth and young adults. In the world of ministry, time is of the essence for young adults. Our discipleship process would basically entail three things: an invitation to salvation, encouragement to enter a small group, and finally an invitation to serve at church. Let me begin by saying that I have seen this process and ones similar to it help hundreds of young people form life-giving relationships with Jesus Christ. My issue is not with this process, but rather the unspoken understanding that after this short, allotted amount of time a person is supposed to have their life together and be a fully perfect “disciple of Christ”. Worse,
when a person did fall, we as a church rarely have an answer for how to restore a person to who God calls them to be.
In Galatians chapter 6 Paul says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself too, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6.1-2 ESV)
What strikes me most about this passage is Paul’s steadfast opinion that when a Christ-follower in our community is caught in transgression, our first response is to restore with a spirit of gentleness. If you have lived any amount of time in Christ this is something you have experienced. Some of the greatest hurts that I carry with me as a pastor are friends that I lived with that had the same desire to go into ministry, that are no longer serving God. In all of their situations, the beginning of the problem was a long standing sin they had struggled with and fear of condemnation and shame that would come with the community’s discovery of it. This behavior that Paul describes, to bear one another’s burden in a spirit of gentleness, is, in my opinion, the purpose of the church. The beauty of community is that you and I walk in with all of our imperfections and realize that a perfect God loves us, and this alone gives us peace.
When a person is not able to see mercy, but only their imperfection, it is our job as a community to extend mercy even more.
So how do we go about bearing one another’s burdens? I think that this is a question with one answer: relationships that are strengthened by time. I am blessed to have a close-knit group of guys that have been my brothers in Christ for more then seven years. I believe that I most clearly see the heart of Jesus for community through these friendships. These guys know me for who I really am, for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet this truth does not make them run from me, but rather run towards me. True love is not free of accountability, but rather co-exists with accountability. Over the years they have held me accountable to some of the decisions that I have made as the stupidity that they were. Yet I can say truly that our bond has done nothing but grow over time.
I believe that this is the beauty of the gospel personified. Jesus, with a clear view of every decision that we would ever make, decides that we are still worth dying for and being in relationship with. Through being fully divine and allowing Himself to be crucified, he makes peace with our humanity; through being fully human, He teaches us it is good to be human. You and I are called to extend this same peace in our relationships with others as we strive towards being more like Christ.
The truth is that it takes courage.
1 John 4 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4.18-19 ESV)
The love of Christ, when fully experienced, is one that casts out fear of condemnation and shame. This is why the church can never forget its place as God’s chosen instrument to extend this perfect love, and must accept its responsibility as a community to receive those that have not experienced this perfect love. As those that have fully experienced this love that casts out all fear of punishment, we naturally must be willing to love those who have fallen and fear that very thing. In full view of their humanity and our own, we both take part in this mystery of mercy that is found through the cross of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that we as a church would rise up to this charge.