I went to church pretty unprepared. I’m trying to teach more extemporaneously anyway. But your mind plays tricks on you so that usually you are prepared, just in your mind. This time I was totally unprepared. Many people in our congregation are suffering at new and interesting levels that I find rather concerning. We have people who are grieving serious loss, unemployment, child issues, marital issues, money problems, illness and more. The leadership of the church is weak right now because the leaders are particularly targeted, in my opinion. So I wanted to preach a sermon on “longsuffering”, using Galatians 5:22 as my text… longsuffering being one of the fruit of the Spirit. But after doing an extensive word-study on it, I came to discover, to my surprise… that this particular word’s roots go back to the Old Testament usage of it in reference to God, who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6). The New Testament word for longsuffering actually goes back to God’s slowness to anger toward us. The fruit of the Spirit “longsuffering” in Galatians 5:22 isn’t referring to perseverance in the troubles of life. There are other passages for that. In the New Testament, longsuffering is amplified to mean that God’s slowness to anger his actually kindness to give us time to repent so that no one would perish (Romans 2:4). Then, in an act of New Testament genius, it is used to refer to how the human community is to act: we are to be longsuffering toward each other, that is, slow to anger, patient and willing to go the long haul in forgiveness (Ephesians 4:2; Galatians 5:22). This is how the new community is to act.
The normal way of creating and maintaining community is by restitution and reparation. Eye for an eye. But the New Testament’s vision is forgiveness being the glue that makes and holds a community together. Colossians 3:13 says it best: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” You see, normally, we believe that the only way we can repair a relationship is for the person who did something wrong to pay up, to repair and repay the damages. Not so. This is a never-ending trap of human endeavor that ends in insurmountable debt. The truth is, the one who is offended forgives. This is what creates and maintains community and relationship. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be reparations. But that is a separate issue that arises in the contextual environment of forgiveness and love. In other words, I forgive the offense and the offender. Then, reparations are worked out if need be. God loved me while I was dead in my trespasses and sin. My response manifested in good works springs from my gratitude for his love.
So yesterday, while I was sharing this discovery that the fruit of the Spirit, including longsuffering or patience, is for the maintaining of community. Not just the Christian community, but for the world. God’s vision is the reconciliation of all things. The radical nature of this good news is that I cannot expect certain conditions to be met before I can call someone a brother or sister. I love all beings, am patient, longsuffering and slow to anger with all beings, because that is what has been shown to me. This is God’s vision for the world, the human community, and one which I feel I am just beginning to catch.
The beautiful photo is taken fromJorgen Klausen’s Shades of Black collection.