Sunday, 17 September 2017

wiggle room for our brothers and sisters

The Early Church had an incredible amount of diversity to try to hold together. It was a movement that was supposed to transcend human barriers that usually divided the rich and the poor, free and slave, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. In Christ a new humanity came into being. All people were invited to be embraced by the one Kingdom under Christ. The church is the embassy of this kingdom.

This one new humanity is the spiritual reality, but there is a lot of work to be done to live it out. In Christ they were all one new humanity, but there were practical issues that needed to be worked out.

Say you grew up in a Jewish home never eating pork as a part of your commitment to God. Not only that, but you never even sat at a table with someone who doesn’t eat kosher. Then you become a follower of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah and you have these non-Jewish people becoming followers of Jesus, but they are still eating pork and maybe eating pork they got from the market that came from pagan temple sacrifices.

And eating kosher is only part of that picture. There are also Jewish festivals, which are mentioned in the Bible. There is the mark of circumcision, which is the symbol of the covenant of Abraham, a mark Jesus himself had. Now you are in a Christian community that includes non-Jewish people who aren’t eating kosher, aren’t celebrating the festivals, and aren’t circumcised.

Maybe some of your Jewish-Christian friends stop eating kosher. It seems like Paul had stopped eating kosher, particularly when he was with non-Jewish people. What does it feel like to be a part of that community? Wouldn’t it feel like people aren’t really dedicating themselves to God? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to have their cake and eat it too? Wouldn’t it seem like they want to follow Jesus, but they don’t really want to change their lives that much?

For others they felt freedom in Christ to eat whatever they like. Jesus said, 
“there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (Mk 7:15). To them they weren’t concerned about food as much as they were concerned about what their words exposed about the inner recesses of their hearts (Mk 7:21-23). They were more concerned about words spoken in anger or gossiping. The person who seems obsessed about food and festival days might seem a bit spiritually shallow. 

The church is full of issues to disagree about. Take music, for example. Some love the older hymns. They love the majestic language and the profound theology. They are songs that have lasted the test of time and have shaped the worship of the church for many years. They look at the new worship songs and they think they are shallow and repetitive, both musically and theologically.

Those who like the newer music think it speaks more to contemporary life using modern language. It is more upbeat and has a greater emotional impact. The repetition allows the words to sink deeper into the soul as we have opportunity to meditate on them and aren’t constantly being confronted by new thoughts. To them, the older hymns are often boring and use too many archaic words. The older songs don’t always connect to our contemporary culture and can be alienating to those who come in off the street not even sure if they want to be Christians yet.

In the Christian world we can disagree about how we pray- do we use written prayers or should they all be spontaneous. We can argue about liturgy- should our worship feel informal (like a family gathering with our loving Father) or should our liturgy be more formal (like we are gathered respectfully before our Holy King). Is it okay for a Christian to smoke tobacco? Drink alcohol? What happens when weed is legalized?

There are some things that we should agree on as Christians. There are some things that cause us to say this person is a Christian and that person isn’t a Christian- not as a judgement, but just as a description. For example, I would say that belief in God, and belief in Jesus as a historical person, are pretty essential to being a Christian. I would also say that belief in the resurrection and in the authority of the Bible to guide our lives should be essential, as well as a number of moral actions. For example, we should all agree that murder is wrong.  Deciding which issue is essential and which is not can be tricky sometimes.  Paul’s point is clear that there are some things we should agree on as Christians, but there are lots of gray areas that we don’t have to agree on.

Paul said, 
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom 14:1-3).
 (It might be helpful to say that the easiest way to eat kosher is to be a vegetarian, which is probably what the reference to vegetables is about.)

Paul obviously has an opinion on the matter. He sees the “strong” faith person as being the one who isn’t bothered by the food laws, and the “weak” faith person as being the one who is keeping the food laws. Paul doesn’t say that the person should be thrown out of the church. He says there should be room for a difference of opinion.

He’s actually giving a warning to both of them. Those who don’t consider the food laws important anymore should not despise those who still follow the food laws as if they are backwards thinking people who don’t take the New Covenant seriously. Similarly, the person who follows the food laws shouldn’t judge the person who doesn’t eat kosher as somehow not taking the biblical law seriously, or as being unwilling to stand out from the culture.

Later in chapter 14 we read, “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15). And in the next chapter Paul says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up” (Rom 15:1-2).

What Paul is saying is we have an obligation to one another. Our freedom is not to be selfishly used for our own gratification. We don’t use our freedom and rub it in the faces of those who disagree with us.

Imagine you go out to dinner with someone and they are a recovering alcoholic. Do you order wine with your meal? You certainly have the freedom to do so. You aren’t the one with the alcohol problem, after all. … Paul might say that if you chose to have the wine and the other person is bothered by what you drink “you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15). Those who have freedom have an obligation to bear with those who are bothered. They should not use their freedom to offend others.

C.S. Lewis says something about this in the Screwtape Letters. The demon Screwtape is writing advice to a demon in training who is trying to tempt a man away from God. He says this, 
“I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. … The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’ when neither party could possibly state the difference … . And all the purely indifferent things-candles and clothes and what not-are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men's minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials-namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour” (Letter XVI).

This is a pretty tricky teaching in our society. We are swimming in consumerism and individualism which means we are constantly surrounded by messages that tell us that we should be able to have things our way. Our society tends to emphasize my rights, rather than my responsibility to others. The churches in North America are often churches of the like-minded- Churches full of people who like a particular kind of music, a particular style of worship, or who are from a particular ethnic background.

Whatever it is that we think divides us, it cannot be allowed to be more powerful than our unity in Christ. We are called the “body of Christ”. That is not just a metaphor. We are in a mystical unity with the very life of Christ. We have a unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ that has transcended all kinds of barriers to get to us here in Red Deer. We dare not insert new divisions when Christ has transcended so many. When we are not dealing with essentials we should allow freedom of conscience. Whatever our sister or brother thinks will honour the Lord, we should give them the freedom to do so. We might not agree on everything, but as Christians we all agree on honouring Christ.

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