Handling non-essential differences in the church- Rom 14

First, in our Exodus reading, we read about the continuing story about the rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. God saves the Hebrews from the Egyptian army and separates the sea. This saving act is central to the identity of the Hebrew people, and even as Christians we use this imagery- we are rescued from slavery to sin and are set on the path to the kingdom. It's an important reading. 

In today’s Gospel reading, Peter comes to Jesus wondering when his responsibility to forgive someone ends. … Jesus tells a parable about a king whose servant owed him ten thousand talents. A talent was the largest monetary unit of the time. One talent was worth more than 15 year’s wages of a laborer (150,000 years of labour!). So, there is no possible way he could repay this debt. The idea is that when we sin against a holy and perfect God, we create a debt that we have no way of paying back. Amazingly, the king has pity and forgives the debt. … But the forgiven servant soon comes across a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii. One denarii was equal to a day’s wage for a laborer. So he owed him something like 1/3 of a year’s wages. It’s not a small debt, but it’s not an impossible debt. It is thousands of dollars, but not billions of dollars. … So how does the servant who has just been forgiven billions of dollars in debt react to this fellow servant who owes him a few thousand dollars? The assumption is that if someone has mercy on you, you should also have mercy on others.

But what I really wanted to look at today was Paul’s letter to the Romans.

The Early Church had an incredible amount of diversity to try to hold together. It was a movement that was supposed to transcend the barriers that usually separated people- economics, gender, age, ethnicity. In Christ, a new humanity came into being, but there was a lot of work to be done to live it 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 a kosher diet. Then you become a follower of Jesus, and then 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 (which is where a lot of meat came from in the Roman/Greek world. To live as a Jew in Rome/Greece sometimes meant becoming a vegetarian, since most Kosher laws had to do with animal products.)

And eating Kosher is only part of that picture. There are also Jewish festivals, which are mentioned in the Bible, and which were celebrated by Jesus (The Jewish Messiah). There is the mark of circumcision, which is the symbol of the covenant of Abraham- a mark that Jesus himself had. Now you are in a church that includes non-Jewish people who aren’t eating kosher, who aren’t celebrating the traditional festivals, and who aren’t circumcised.

Say, some of the Jewish-Christians in your church 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 for someone who grew up Jewish? Wouldn’t a part of you feel like this community is encouraging people to be less faithful to the teachings of the Bible? And less faithful to the ways of God’s people?

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 the inner recesses of their hearts (Mk 7:21-23). The person who seems obsessed about food and festival days might seem a bit spiritually shallow and superficial.

It seems like a perpetual human problem. Even in the church. 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 might 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 and archaic vocabulary. … To them, the older hymns are often boring and hard to relate to.

We can disagree about how we pray- which are better, written prayers or spontaneous prayers? 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)? … And now we are dealing with COVID-19 in the church and there are all kinds of differences of opinions on that and how we should respond to it- The strong, faithful, and fearless maybe looking down a bit on the careful or the fearful. And others look to Romans 13:1-4 to follow the direction of the authorities, and maybe looking down on others as reckless or disobedient- 
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;  for it is God’s servant for your good."

There are some things that we should agree on as Christians- there should be a common core, essentials. There are some things that help us to discern that this person is a Christian and this person isn’t a Christian. 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 agreement on a number of basic moral actions. … 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 gray areas that we don’t have to agree on. A Christian proverb that has been in circulation for hundreds of years says, 
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Paul said, 
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” (Rom 14:1-3).
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. There is to be deferral to the weaker conscience. Paul doesn’t say that the person should be thrown out of the church. It's interesting that Paul doesn't enforce his opinion on 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. 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 apart from the culture.

Later in chapter 14 we read, 
“If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15).
 And in the next chapter Paul says, 
“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.” (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.

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.

Whatever it is that we think divides us, it cannot be allowed to be more powerful than our unity in Christ. … 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. AMEN


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