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Sermon on Romans 14:1-12
15th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 19 (Year A)
I sometimes think that food has become a defining issue for many Americans: increasingly, we judge each other by what we eat. Vegans feel superior to vegetarians, vegetarians feel superior to meat-eaters, “locavores” feel superior to people who buy their food in the supermarket, where you can get strawberries in December. Apparently, 21st century Americans aren’t the first to draw lines of distinction among people over what they eat. Listen to the words of Paul to the Roman church:
[Read Romans 14: 1-12]
We have a tendency to think that life in the early churches was more harmonious than life in our churches today, but even a quick reading of the New Testament letters will dispel such a notion. There was always trouble brewing somewhere, and it seems that a great deal of Paul’s ministry was spent trouble-shooting at the various churches he had planted. No doubt he would have liked to be out starting more churches, but problems in the existing ones seemed to keep popping up in Whack-a-Mole fashion.
One of the biggest problems showed up in disputes over what to eat. I am not talking about arguments over who should bring what to a church potluck – back in those days when you could have a church potluck -- I am talking about the question of what Christians could or could not eat according to their consciences. A huge chunk of Paul’s letters is devoted to this topic – in fact, if you look just at the amount of text taken up by discussions of food, it seems to have been the biggest issue facing the New Testament churches. It would seem that Paul talked about food more than he talked about sex, or prayer, or even evangelizing.
Paul was writing to Christian communities whose members had very different ideas about what is OK and not OK for Christians to do. Most of the New Testament churches were made up of both Gentiles and Jewish Christians. Sometimes they met as little house churches that might be predominantly Gentile or predominantly Jewish, and these small house churches might come together for a common meal. That’s where the trouble could start, because all kinds of questions could arise: Do they have to keep kosher? Have a totally vegetarian menu? Do they have to observe the Jewish fast days or keep the Sabbath?
It would be easy to assume that the Jewish Christians were insisting on keeping a kosher table, while the Gentiles wanted to be free to eat whatever they liked, but that may not have been the case. It could have been that the new Gentile converts wanted to keep the Jewish law as a way of being “all in” with a faith that was Jewish in origin; or it may have been that the Jewish Christians who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah believed, as Paul did, that the obligations of the Jewish dietary laws were no longer binding on them.
Whatever the case, Paul doesn’t make his usual distinction between “Jew” and “Greek” or “Jew” and “Gentile” Christians: he talks about “strong” Christians and “weak” Christians. And his designation of these two groups may sound like just the reverse of what we might think of. We might think that the “strong” Christians were the ones that exercised strong self-discipline and were careful to observe fasts and dietary restrictions, while the “weak” Christians were those who felt free to eat whatever looked good to them. But Paul says just the opposite: Paul says that the strong ones are the ones who claim their freedom in Christ to dispense with the old rules, while the “weak” are those whose consciences are troubled by the idea of taking such liberties.
Here was the situation. In those days just about any meat you bought at the market came from an animal that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple. The issue was not animal rights or animal welfare – people of that time really didn’t think in those terms – but that the meat in question had been sacrificed to an idol. From Paul’s point of view, this wasn’t really a problem: since idols don’t exist anyway, he reasoned, there is no harm in eating meat that has been sacrificed to them – it’s just meat.
The issue for Paul was how these church members who thought so differently about this matter were going to continue to live together in spite of their differences. Paul didn’t care whether they ate meat or not, but he did care about how they treated each other and he cared about keeping them together. So he has words of advice to each group. To the ones with the troubled consciences, he says, “That’s between you and your conscience. If it bothers you to eat the meat, don’t do it, but don’t go judging those that do. It’s not your place to assume that your standards are God’s standards.” And to the free spirits he says, “It’s good that you’re so free, but if your freedom causes someone to do something that’s going to cause problems for him, maybe you could consider not doing it when you’re around him. After all, it’s just a piece of meat.” To both groups he says, “Whether you eat or whether you abstain, you’re both doing it in honor of the same Lord. At least recognize that about each other, and respect the other’s convictions.”
The one non-negotiable principle here is love for the brother or sister whose situation is different from yours. After all, Paul says, God has “welcomed” this person, just as God has welcomed you. Christ has died and risen to create community across the very things that usually divide people: not only such things as race, class, and gender, differences which the gospel abolishes, but also those differences of opinion about what is the right way to live. Christian communities are different from the rest of the world, Paul says, because we stay together and love each other across our differences. We don’t find our unity in our common lifestyle, or opinions, or tastes; we find our unity in Christ. So we stay together whether we agree with each other or not.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the way church members may think differently from each other about how to respond to the crisis. We know that some congregations resumed in-person worship as soon as local ordinances against it were lifted, while others have continued to stay shuttered and have announced that they will do so until well into 2021. Within these various congregations, there are bound to be differences of opinion, as I know there are in this one. When we shut down in March, we did so not only to keep ourselves safe but also to protect the more vulnerable among us, those who would be especially susceptible to becoming seriously ill from the Covid-19 virus. To use Paul’s terms, we did it out of love and concern for the “weaker” brother or sister.
The real point Paul is making is that Christians may sometimes give up what they see as their rights and privileges for the sake of others in the community, the ones he calls the “weaker brother or sister.” Paul is not referring to physical weakness here – he means the more vulnerable members, the ones whose needs should be taken into consideration by the entire community. In the early church, they might be the ones with lower social or economic status; they might be widows or orphans; or they might just be the ones newer to the faith, the younger, more impressionable ones. The point is that they are the members of the community that the others have a duty to care for and nurture.
We may have an opportunity soon to apply something like Paul’s principle here at MPC. The session will be considering a proposal to offer in-person classes, music, and worship to the children and youth of the church, the youngest members of this faith community, on a rotating basis. This would precede, and possibly help pave the way for, any more general reopening for worship involving the whole congregation. This will be a way for us to offer some essential ministry during this time of pandemic to precisely those members of the community who represent the future of the church.
Paul’s insistence on the responsibility toward the newer, younger, and more vulnerable members of the Christian community says something about the nature of Christian community itself: it is covenantal, not transactional. God made a covenant with the children of Israel not because God was expecting to get something out of it. God made the covenant out of love, a covenant that promised life and blessing for God’s people, and hoped for nothing more than love in return. What God especially insisted on, by all scriptural accounts, is that the people of God would love and care for those of their own people who most needed their care and attention.
The church has never been an affinity group. In every other part of life, we can join organizations that reflect our specific aims and interests – political parties, business groups, clubs focused on a hobby like gardening or rock collecting. But in the church we have only one overriding interest: the God we know in Jesus Christ, the salvation and reconciliation that are ours through him, and doing his work of love and compassion with each other and in the world. That’s it. We may differ on what is the best way to worship and follow him, but we don’t let these differences separate us from each other.
The church is where people learn to make compromises with each other for the good of the whole body. Paul saw that for his communities of Jews and Gentiles, to learn to come together from their very different backgrounds was a real test of their spiritual maturity. But they had the example of Jesus Christ, who had “welcomed” each one of them. They knew that they were bound together by “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
How do we maintain this precious but fragile unity? We maintain our unity though our worship, our prayers for each other and for the world, our sacrificial service to each other and in the world. As we do these things, we allow ourselves to be shaped and formed and made over in the likeness of Christ, and to see the Christ in each other. There is no other way. Thank God there is no other way!
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 13, 2020