Sunday, September 14, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles

Walking in Love
Romans 14:1-18
September 14, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,

Greetings from Rome!

We are happy to share with you this portion of a letter from the Apostle Paul. He wrote to us often, back then. Our congregation is really a collection of small house churches, like-minded followers of the way of Jesus who gather in private homes on the first day of the week to pray, sing, and eat.

Paul, as you know, was a missionary, who traveled around and founded quite a few churches in the area. He had not even visited us, when he wrote this letter. But he wrote to us to help us as we tried to figure out how to live Christ’s teaching in a diverse urban congregation. Some of us were Jews, others were Gentiles. Each of us came into the Christian community with our own cultures, backgrounds, beliefs and biases. Some of us don’t eat meat, others do. Some of us observe particular holy days, others don’t.

It’s important to tell you, these were not small controversies. We weren’t just arguing about whether traditional hymns and organ music were better than contemporary hymns and guitar music, as we’ve heard some of your churches do. We were arguing about whether or not it is more righteous to eat meat or to be a vegetarian…

Well, okay, that may not sound so important to you. But it mattered to us! We were not in agreement, and as you know, conflict in the church can be devastating. So in this part of Paul’s letter to us, he reminded us of the central point of agreement in our lives – Jesus Christ, and he cautioned us against judging others by our own standards.

He called us back to the truth – that our lives are in Jesus Christ, that the only one who can judge us is God, and that our call is to live together in unity and love, in order to bring glory to God.

We’ve heard that there are controversies in the 21st century church, and that some churches have split after some nasty fights. Our prayer for Christ’s church is that we will heed God’s call to faithfulness, so that the church can be a witness to the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. So listen, please, to this portion of our letter which is called Romans 14: 1-18

Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. 2 One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5 One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6 Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. 9 This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11 Because it is written,

As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me,
and every tongue will give praise to God.[a]

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

13 So stop judging each other. Instead, this is what you should decide: never put a stumbling block or obstacle in the way of your brother or sister. 14 I know and I’m convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself. But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person. 15 If your brother or sister is upset by your food, you are no longer walking in love. Don’t let your food destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 And don’t let something you consider to be good be criticized as wrong. 17 God’s kingdom isn’t about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever serves Christ this way pleases God and gets human approval.

Remember when people wrote letters? Or when you were a child, and you wrote letters?

I don’t know if children still write letters, but we did. We wrote notes in school. "Do you like me? Check one." There would be two boxes, "yes" and "no," as if we lacked the imagination to come up with a free response to the question.

We had pen pals. We wrote thank you notes.We wrote to our grandmothers. We wrote to each other. I loved to get mail, so I learned early to write letters with questions. How are you? Did you take a trip this summer? What are you learning in school? How did you like the book I sent? Letters ask us questions, ask for a response.

Romans is a powerful letter. It is an epistle that offers as many questions as answers for Christians. These are questions that hang in the air, awaiting a reply. This letter asks for response, if we are paying attention. It was in reading Romans that Martin Luther came to the certainty of grace, which moved him to his effort to reform the church. John Wesley was reading Romans when he found his heart “strangely warmed” at Aldersgate and began what became the Methodist church.

Today we heard a part of the letter to the Romans that is near the end of the book. Paul has dealt with matters of law and grace quite thoroughly, in his lawyerly way. The law is clear, and we have failed to obey all of it all the time. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The consequences of that failure are separation from God – and death. But you have been saved by grace through faith, not by your own doing. God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a gift – undeserved and irrevocable. The mercy and love of God are beyond understanding - unfathomable.

Now, in chapter fourteen, some questions arise.
Like our childhood letters, this letter asks us – how are you? what have you been doing?
The questions are actually more pointed:
Who are you to judge someone else’s servants?
Why do you judge your brother or sister?
Why do you look down on your brother or sister?
Simple questions, right?

Underlying them are two crucial questions that get at the heart of our life together as Christians – not just in this congregation, but with ALL Christians everywhere. First – since you need do nothing for your salvation, what are you going to do? And second, now that you are completely at liberty in Christ, what liberties will you choose not to take? It should come as no surprise to any person who has been in church for any part of their adult life that the Apostle Paul thought it necessary to admonish Christians not to abuse their freedom in Christ and not to judge one another.

And it should come as no surprise to any of us that we are reminded to practice forbearance with one another. I like that word – forbearance. It’s old fashioned, isn’t it – a mixture of mercy, tolerance, and patience. It’s also a legal term – the forbearance of debt, in the legal world, means that the one who is owed a debt chooses not to enforce it. Think about that for a minute – it isn’t merely the agreement to disagree. It’s the acknowledgement that the debt is owed, and I choose to hold back, to NOT enforce the debt. In other words, when I practice forbearance, it means that I really am right, but I don’t press the matter. In spite of the fact that I am right!

There isn’t enough forbearance in our world these days. Most of us aren’t very good at it. I’m certainly not. One of my favorite pictures on my laptop is a sign that says, “I’d agree with you. But then we’d both be wrong.” I chalk that up to growing up with a lawyer in the house. Forbearance is a bit of a challenge. 

But that’s not just me.
Church is like that – forbearance is, well, it isn’t easy.
Mostly that’s because of other people, right?
It’s other people who are so certain that they know best, that their convictions are the standard for all behavior, and that all the rest of us are idiotic, or misguided, or sinful.
See, because it isn’t me – it’s THEM.
They are either ignorant, or misinformed, or mean.
They are so rigid and intolerant and so convinced of their own rightness.
See what I did there?

Church would be so much easier if everyone would just agree on everything.
But we don’t.
Because we’re people.
Because we’re different.

Let’s establish, right off, that there are some things that we do agree on, some basic agreements and beliefs that make us Christians, that make us church – we believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. and we agree that the Bible reveals to us something about them. But even that is subject to interpretation. There’s actually a book called “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”

So, we have these basic agreements as Christians. and there are some more that Presbyterians agree upon. We share some basic convictions.
We believe that God’s love is for all people, no exceptions. We agree that people shouldn’t hurt each other – that child abuse and domestic violence are wrong – no forbearance there.
We agree that mission is important – not just teaching faith, but providing medical care, and education, and food for hungry people. We Presbyterians agree that our form of government works best – for us.
We agree that we do things decently and in order – that Christ is the head of the church, that we don’t make unilateral decisions, and that no one person’s convictions will determine our beliefs, and no one person’s decisions will determine our direction.
We have a process for making decisions that we all agree to follow.
But let’s be honest: we don’t always agree.
When we disagree, we count on God’s leading in our deliberations.
And when that isn’t quite clear, we practice mutual forbearance:
We don’t place obstacles in the path of our neighbors.
We don’t present newcomers with a list of requirements to meet.
We don’t present one another with a list of demands.
We don’t just decide what the church wants or needs and go off on our own to do it.
We don’t hold the gospel hostage to our convictions about flowers or music.
We walk together, and we try to clear the path for others to walk with us.
We don’t place obstacles in the paths of those for whom Christ died.

That all sounds a lot easier than it actually turns out to be.
Because, what if I really am right?
What if the church really DID need that seven-foot tall marble statue I bought?
What if Jesus really DOES want us to sing every verse of every hymn?
What if God and all the angels really DO prefer organ music to piano?
What if it turns out that they are wrong and I was right all along?

Here’s what – it doesn’t matter who is wrong and who is right.
God is the one who decides.
Paul’s questions hit home to the heart of the matter:
Who are you to judge the servant of another?
Who am I to decide what is best for my brother or sister?
How can we judge one for whom Christ died?
How are you, and what have you been doing?

There’s a blogger I like, Glennon Doyle Melton. She blogs at She recently wrote:
“…recently my smart therapist said this:
There are three different levels of looking at and thinking about other people.
The first is innocent and pure.
Level One is the way a child sees other people. Children–before they hit a certain level of age and experience– don’t see faults in others. All is good.
Level Two is when we grow up a little and “wisen up.” Think teenagers. Now we can see the faults of others clearly. And so we think it’s our job to prove how smart we have become by pointing out those faults. When we are operating at Level Two, we assume that anyone who is not pointing out other people’s faults is na├»ve– or just not smart enough to see the faults. We need to educate everybody about everybody else.
Many people operate this way their whole lives.
But when people operate on Level Three, they have wisened up more. Yes, of course, people on Level Three see the strengths and the weaknesses in the people around them pretty clearly – just as clearly as those on Level Two. But Level Three-ers know that usually, it’s wiser and more gentle and more helpful to point out strengths and just let the weaknesses be.”[1]

In other words, the level three folks have resigned from judging and critiquing everyone else. They are retired from being the supervisor of the world. They’ve given up the job of judging. Because somebody already has that job – God. And God is doing just fine with that, thank you very much.

If we were to write a letter in response to this letter to the Romans, I wonder what we would say. Perhaps we would reply like this:

Dear Apostle Paul,
Thank you for your kind epistle.
I bet you’re surprised that your letter is now an entire book of the Bible! Our letter in reply will be much shorter. We are doing well, here in the First Presbyterian Church of Sterling, 2014. We understand that we are the people for whom Christ died, and that we are servants of Almighty God, and therefore servants of one another.
We are always grateful for the reminder that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our own doing. That doesn’t mean though, that we are going to do nothing. It means that we are set free to walk together in love. We are grateful to have this liberty, to live in the freedom of Christ. We are not sure whether we are the weak or the strong, so we will treat one another with forbearance – with patience. We won’t let our own convictions or liberties create problems for others who might not share our convictions.
Asking ourselves whether Christ’s work depends on us is a good place for us to start, we think. Of course, the answer to that is “no” God’s realm does not depend on us, nor does the church stand or fall based on our opinions about flowers or music or worship or choir robes or even the arrangement of the sanctuary.
Christ’s work and message are complete in him, and we get that. We understand that when we live, we live to the Lord, and when we die, we die to the Lord, so that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. That makes our lives a little easier, since we don’t have to carve out the path for everyone else to walk on.
We just have to travel the road you’ve laid out for us: the road of service, the path of forbearance, the lifelong journey of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
We are on this road together, and we are walking in love.
Thanks be to God!



No comments:

Post a Comment