Americans live in a “me first” culture that would rather talk about our rights than our responsibilities. We like to sometimes loudly assert our right to privacy, our right to choose, our right to bear arms and even our right to cheer for the New York Yankees. After all, doesn’t Americans’ secular Holy Grail, the United States Constitution, guarantee us those rights?
Yet I suspect Americans aren’t alone in, when in talking about responsibilities, preferring to talk about others’ responsibilities rather than our own. After all, even Christians naturally believe that others’ primary responsibility is to ensure that we can exercise our rights.
Paul, however, turns all of that upside down in this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. In it, after all, he talks primarily about the responsibilities not of others, but of his readers. The apostle assigns Jesus’ followers the privilege of doing what we can to live in community with the Christians around us.
The context for this assignment is a controversy that threatens to split wide-open Rome’s Christian community. The issues revolve around believers’ observance of dietary laws and holy days. So Romans 14’s proclaimers might compare it to traditional debates about alcohol consumption or Sunday observance.
Paul, however, is like an artist who takes lovely old paintings out of shiny frames and put them into more rustic frames that highlight their antiquity. He reframes the Roman controversy in order to help us glimpse its beating heart. The apostle insists that Rome’s debate is about more than the kinds of arguments Christians sometimes have about whether to play hockey or soccer on Sunday. This issue is really about Jesus Christ and his community’s identity.
By reframing Rome’s church’s tensions, the apostle shifts the focus off the individual members of the community and onto Jesus Christ. He shifts Christians’ perspective from our own natural myopia to the Lord’s point of view. In doing so he hopes to keep that community from tearing itself apart.
While we’re not sure just which particular Romans’ faith was what Paul calls “weak,” we sense they weren’t morally or physically weak. The weak people about whom the apostle writes weren’t apparently, for example, especially susceptible to sickness, temptation or even heresy.
Instead, some Romans’ consciences were vulnerable to pressure from things like dietary practices and religious observances. It seems as if eating certain foods or doing certain things on the Sabbath offended them strongly enough to threaten their faith.
Other Romans’ faith was, however, stronger. That doesn’t mean that it was somehow better or less vulnerable to temptation. Instead, some Romans’ consciences allowed them to do and eat things that bothered others’ consciences.
Yet it’s not always easy to recognize just whose faith is weak and whose is strong. Sometimes those whose faith is “weaker” hold opinions that are strong. Few Christians seemed spiritually “stronger” than someone I’ll call Earl. He felt passionately about things like traditional Sunday observance and worship styles. The strength of Earl’s beliefs seemed to point to the strength of his faith.
Earl simply couldn’t see the other side of issue about which he felt passionately. That doesn’t mean he was spiritually or morally inferior. I think it simply means that Earl’s opposition to things like contemporary worship was so strong that its practice would threaten his weaker faith.
In our text Paul seems to side with those whose stronger faith allows them to do and eat a variety of things. Yet he rejects arrogant attitudes that spring from such strength. The apostle respects the consciences of those whose faith is “weaker.” However, he also rejects the narrow view of things they take. So in our text Paul is what we might call an “equal opportunity critic and encourager.”
For a reason the apostle doesn’t explain, “weaker” Christian siblings believed that Christ had not freed them to eat meat. So they ate just vegetables. Others, however, believed Christ had given them the freedom to eat all things. Yet those “carnivores” apparently looked down on or simply rejected the “herbivores.”
Paul calls those whose faith allows them wider latitude in what they do and eat to “accept” those whose consciences are more restrictive. He calls those whose faith is stronger to, in fact, welcome their “weaker” Christian siblings into both the Christian community and their hearts. The apostle invites his readers to adopt a posture of outstretched arms, instead of crossed arms or even arms held tightly at our sides.
Paul challenges Rome’s Christians whose faith is stronger to view those whose faith is weaker the way God views them – as those God made in God’s image and cares for deeply. Quite simply, he calls them to genuinely love those who don’t share their understanding of Christian freedom.
Yet that’s seldom easy. Think of the issues that have split both Christ’s worldwide church and local churches into thousands of splinters. Baptism. The Lord’s Supper. It’s natural to look down or even condemn those with whom Christians disagree on those issues. It’s even natural for the church to spend endless time debating those issues that we may not fully resolve on this side of the new earth and heaven.
It’s tempting, in other words, for the church to become like a middle school playground football game. The players spend more time arguing about rules, penalties and touchdowns than they do playing football.
It’s also easy for Christians to put each other on a kind of trial in which we interrogate with whom we don’t agree. We naturally act like theological barristers who are out to poke holes in other’s theological cases. If “defendants” can’t come up with a sufficiently clever argument for their perspective, we accuse them of fundamentalism, liberalism … or worse.
Paul isn’t talking about issues that are central to the Christian faith. He’s not talking about arguments over things like God’s creating work, Christ’s divinity or the Spirit’s presence. The apostle isn’t challenging us to accept heresy.
Yet what’s peripheral to the Scriptures may seem almost heretical to Jesus’ followers. That explains the depth of the passion that some issues arouse in the Christian church. It also reminds us that nearly all of us have some “weakness” in our own faith.
That’s why Christian love is the true heart of Romans 14. Paul is inviting his readers to let the gift of the Holy Spirit’s laser surgery help us see even those with whom we disagree as God sees them. After all, far more unites even Christians who disagree, after all, than divides us. Jesus’ followers find our primary identity not in our theological stances, or ethnic or socio-economic status, but in our Lord Jesus Christ.
We’re not, first of all Canadians or Americans, fans of the Maple Leafs or Red Wings, middle class people or even members of the Christian Reformed Church. Romans 14’s hearers and proclaimers are, first of all, Christians for whom our adoptive brother Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again.
So God’s adopted sons and daughters may disagree right now about whether we should worship together in-person, online or some “hybrid” of those two. Yet we agree that we’ve all been baptized into Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Christians may disagree about whether we can baptize people or celebrate the Lord’s Supper online during a pandemic. Yet we agree that God has graciously welcomed all of us into God’s kingdom. So when we disagree, God’s beloved adopted children remember that by God’s amazing grace, we belong not just to the Lord but also to each other.
Paul insists that Christians’ responsibilities are like a lovely picket fence the Lord graciously erects around our rights. Our Christian responsibilities to each other limit the exercise of our rights. The limit of my Christian freedom is the fence that is my Christian brother or sister’s well-being.
So while I, for instance, think that Christ has freed adults to drink alcohol in moderation and to do whatever doesn’t hinder them from fully participating in worship on Sunday, I also know that some Christians don’t agree with me on those issues. At the point that my exercise of my Christian freedom threatens their Christian faith, I need to voluntarily restrain beliefs and myself.
We live in a culture, however, that teaches us to ask, first of all, what’s good for me, not what’s good for you. While it may be slowly shifting to emphasizing how what offends me should restrain you, the overarching issue is largely the same. Our personal comfort remains the standard for others’ behavior.
That means we need the Holy Spirit to radically re-orient our lives. Instead of letting our North Star be our own interests, the Spirit wants to make our guiding light God’s desire for the good of others.
Jesus Christ, after all, lived, died and rose again for even Christians whose faith is weaker than wet tissue paper. He sent us his Holy Spirit in order to transform his followers into people who increasingly imitate him in the way we think, talk and act.
When Jesus’ adopted siblings needlessly offend Christians whose faith is weaker, however, we weaken what that Spirit is building. When Christians use our Christian freedom to do things that shake others’ faith, it’s as if we’re heavy rain that erodes the foundations of a house. Then we’re sabotaging the individual Christian and Christian community that God is building.
God has called Jesus’ followers to build up, not tear down each other. So why would we, for instance, enjoy a plate of meat at the expense of our fellow Christians? Why would you and I drink alcohol if it endangers the Christian community?
In his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham describes American President Bush’s popularity. As he was growing up, he very popular with other boys. They liked him and felt “protected and secure in his orbit” (35).
But one time he stepped out of character and used an anti-Semitic slur to describe a Jewish friend. The sensitive Bush accused himself for this gaffe for the rest of his life. Interviewed by Meacham nearly seventy years later, “Bush volunteered the story and cried, shaken by guilt over a remark made in the 1930s. He shook his head in wonder over his own insensitivity. ‘Never forgotten it. Never forgotten it.’ (The classmate remained a Bush supporter and friend for many years.”) (Ibid).
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 13, 2020
Romans 14:1-12 Commentary