As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, inevitably any number of people have been asking whether the issues half-a-millennium ago are still relevant today. Some even wonder if there has not been enough reform in the Catholic Church to warrant and undoing of all that Martin Luther kicked off back on All Hallowed’s Eve in 1517. In truth, church splits have proliferated since the Reformation such that you cannot even speak of “Protestant” in a singular term. There is no singular, concerted Protestant church even to consider some wholesale reunification with the Catholics. It seems we are good at finding things to argue about and split up over in the church.
Whatever else Jesus may have envisioned for his church, the one thing Jesus was clear about was that we’d never be finished with the need to forgive one another now and again. Similarly Romans 14 stands witness to the fact that from the very earliest days of the church, fellow believers have always had to work through differences of opinion within a given congregation.
Scholars have long debated just what Paul may have been addressing in Romans 14-15. Near as we can tell, it appears that in the Roman congregation, there were some former Jews who, although now converted to Christianity, believed that kosher food laws still applied as did the observance of the Jewish high holy days. However, there were also believers at Rome who thought that such rituals and food law practices had nothing whatsoever to do with being a Christian.
It didn’t take too long before each group was regarding the other with suspicion. Those who refused to keep kosher snickered at the immature spirituality of those up-tight folks who worried about silly things like not eating pork. How childish! How antique and quaint! On the other hand, the Jewish Christians found plenty of cause to look down on the others, too. How dare they live such casual lives!? If they’d only listen more closely to God’s Word in Scripture as handed down by Moses and the prophets, why they’d start keeping kosher in a heartbeat! Hadn’t even Jesus said he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them? Well . . . .!?
The congregation at Rome was clearly in trouble and on the verge of splitting up. In fact, it already had split in one sense: whole segments of the church refused to have anything to do with each other. You couldn’t even have a church potluck anymore. Long about the time you had everyone together, someone would unwrap the newspaper from around her casserole dish and there would be some scalloped potatoes with ham and bacon! Suddenly the whole fellowship hour would be finished! The Jewish Christians would be offended by the non-kosher ingredients and so wouldn’t touch a thing on the rest of the buffet, either. The Gentile Christians would be offended that these other folks could be so easily offended!
This is the tangle of issues that Paul needed to address for the sake of the larger church. But before we look at what Paul wrote, it is probably a good idea to notice something vital: whatever else we might make of this particular set of issues, notice that for both sides of the dispute, there were genuine spiritual, theological, and biblical components to these questions. The Jewish Christians saw it as a matter of fidelity to Scripture. The Gentile Christians saw it as a matter of the wonderful truth of salvation by grace alone and the freedom believers are supposed to enjoy in Christ. In other words, to the minds of the people involved, this wasn’t a matter of personal taste. This was not on a par with one person’s preferring Beethoven over Mozart. No, these were serious spiritual issues because they could be parsed in biblical/theological terms.
Paul himself never really denies that. But instead he trumps these more minor spiritual matters with a far greater spiritual reality: the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul clearly had his own opinion on this matter, and indeed he tips his hand pretty decisively when he refers to the kosher-keeping group as the “weaker” party! Paul all-but says that those who were not fretting about food laws did indeed have a more mature, fuller, stronger grasp on what the Christian life of grace is all about.
But if the so-called “stronger” believers thought that Paul’s agreement with them was going to get them off the hook, they were wrong! “You may be right in theory but you’re wrong in practice when you look down on these other people! Do you want to know why you should accept these other people just the way they are? Because God has already accepted them the way they are and that, my friends, ought to be enough for anybody!” Paul then goes on to talk a lot about the one Lord Jesus Christ whom all true Christians serve. Everything we do, say, think, eat, drink comes under the canopy of Jesus as our Lord and Master. So long as we are all under that same gracious tent, then we all have precisely one person to whom we are finally accountable and it is not each other but Jesus alone.
So if we encounter a fellow believer who bows the knee to Jesus, who can open his mouth to say, “Jesus is Lord,” then that should be enough. We don’t need to criticize every little thing about one another in the church. We don’t need to all march in lockstep on issues that are not central to our common confession. And this is true even when the things that differentiate us may be considered as spiritual or biblical issues (as was the case in Rome).
In the end, Paul tells both the weak and strong parties to leave one another in peace. Both were guilty of judging one another, of stratifying one another, of grading each other’s spirituality. And so both were told to knock it off! In life and in death we belong to Jesus alone. He is the one taking charge of us. Furthermore, it is his grace that covers us even if we do make the mistake of being alternatively too up-tight or a bit too permissive in the shaping of our piety. If Jesus is able to forgive us and bear with us, then we should be able to do the same for one another.
Of course, it goes without saying that this applies only to issues that truly are rather minor; to peripheral matters of opinion and not to central issues of the faith. We need to be able to distinguish between what Paul calls “disputable” matters and the core issues of the gospel itself. But just there is the rub! What counts as central and what counts as peripheral? Often we answer that by saying that central matters are biblically firm matters whereas less-vital issues are things that even the Bible doesn’t much spell out for us. But that hardly settles the matter. After all, in Rome 2,000 years ago the case for keeping kosher could surely have been built on very solid biblical grounds.
From our own experience we, too, know that many issues that crop up often do get turned into biblical matters. In the end, therefore, what inflames various controversies is the notion that where a person stands on a particular issue is a measure of where he or she stands on the whole Bible itself. Thus, some end up claiming that those who take God’s Word seriously will quite obviously take Position A whereas those who opt for Position B do so only because they are allowing personal preferences to shove God’s holy Scripture aside.
These are, of course, difficult and often very painful matters. Doubtless it was no less painful for the Christians at Rome. Yet Paul tells them, and by the Holy Spirit Paul has been telling Christians down along the centuries, to accept one another. The Greek word he uses there does not mean “accept” in the sense of merely tolerating those with whom we disagree but actually to welcome them, to fellowship with them. Paul calls for mutual love in and through disagreements and he consistently grounds that love in the Lordship of Jesus. In just twelve verses Paul uses the word “Lord” ten times. He hammers home this idea of Jesus as our Lord, and in verse 9 Paul makes clear that this Lord Jesus is a living Lord. Typically in his New Testament writings when Paul refers to Easter, he uses the phrase “he was raised from the dead.” Only in Romans 14 does Paul say, “he returned to life.”
This small twist of verbal cleverness on Paul’s part was a none-too-subtle way of reminding the Romans that they were in the presence of this living Jesus all the time. Jesus was not just raised up from a tomb and then whisked away out of sight. Jesus returned to life because life–my life, your life, our mutual life together–is what Jesus is most interested in right now and always.
Very few challenges in the Christian life can compare with the challenge of really loving one another in the Lord despite how different we all are within the Church. George Santayana once observed that Americans don’t really solve their problems, they just leave them behind. If there are issues that are difficult to resolve, Americans don’t bother tackling the issues but instead take advantage of all the space and options we have in this country and so just move away. And if we can’t go somewhere else, we leave certain things in the past, we just don’t talk about a given issue and so eventually it dies a quiet death from neglect.
This ethos affects the church, too. Some people join huge megachurches in no small part because then they can be anonymous. You’ll have fewer conflicts in the church if you also have fewer contacts. Others make a habit of moving around, casually transferring again and again, usually leaving a place long about the time there are some nettlesome differences they sense between themselves and others in the congregation.
But that may merely avoid doing the hard work of building community. Most of us do attempt this work, however. We struggle to follow Paul’s advice of accepting that we are all under the one and same Lord Jesus Christ and so we need to welcome and love one another even as the Lord has welcomed and loved us. But on our way to achieving that mutual love in and through differences, we will now and again deal directly with the issues that differentiate us. And that’s OK. Discussion is good. Conversation is needed. Even debate can be healthy. What we dare never forget is that we do all of that in the presence of the one Lord who returned to life and who is our constant companion right now.
A little later in Romans 14 Paul says, “Let’s not destroy the work of God for the sake of food!” Indeed, as we continue to face a world in which there are so many glaring differences among various Christian groups–and as we continue to build community right here in our own congregation as well–we need to keep the work of God clearly before us. If we do, then in the end we will always be able to come back together in unity, bowing our knees, opening our mouths, and together as the one people of God declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”
In Philippians, when dealing with a small controversy in also the congregation at Philippi, Paul at one point wrote, “Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near.” And there, as in Romans 14, Paul did not mean that we should behave because Jesus might come back one day soon and so you should be ready. Instead Paul meant that Jesus is a living and close presence among his people in the church. Richard Mouw once noted that while growing up, most of us are taught by our parents that there are certain things one simply does not say when in “polite company.” But Mouw noted that Christians of all people should recognize that they are always in polite company! The living Lord is near!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2017
Romans 14:1-12 Commentary