Communing with Sinners

Romans 14:1-12

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 judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

The year was 49 CE. I remember it well. The Great Emperor Claudius had issued a rescript expelling the Jews from Rome, because they were creating disturbances on account of some man they call Chrestus. Well, the Jews were cast out, but this was not entirely effective, I hear, because it was not just the Jews who were creating disturbances on behalf of this Chrestus. A great many other barbarian foreigners who live within our walls, and not a few previously respectable Roman citizens even, have joined the ranks of their so-called ekklesia. I do not know what they do in their secret meetings in their homes, but I have heard rumors of rampant fornication, blood-bathing, and even cannibalism – this last I know for certain, for by the very lips of one of their own they consume the body and blood of their leader! A most contemptuous sect indeed. Even the Jews, I know, do not practice such horrendous rituals! I can only imagine what they might do now that the Great Claudius’ rescript begins to wane, and they return to our glorious city. How will they find their ekklesia now, ruled by those whom they call goyim, the Gentiles? Surely, they cannot be of the same mind, having been separated for so long? Perhaps their quarreling may finally put an end to this Chrestus movement once and for all – such a dark stain it has been on our once great city.

Thus might a typical Roman have viewed the Jesus movement in Rome in the 50s and 60s CE. What happened behind the closed doors of the early Christian house churches was a mystery to all those who were not a part of it. In fact, the Jesus movement – and I say Jesus movement because we can’t quite call it Christianity at that time – was no different from any number of other mystery religions and cults that met in secret in people’s homes, according to people on the outside. In order to know what was going on, you had to be on the inside; luckily for us, Paul was just such a person on the inside.

Now, Paul had never been to the Roman church, but he still had a good idea of what was going on there. He received letters and communications from the church, and what he received apparently was enough to induce him to write this letter, the last extant letter he wrote, to the Roman church. Many scholars consider it his theological Magnum Opus – a brilliant, Pauline, theological treatise. But, as we see in our passage this morning, it’s not a treatise. It’s a letter. It’s a letter to a church. It’s a letter to a church with problems. Hmmm. A church with problems? Well, that doesn’t sound familiar at all!

Now, the church may have had many problems, but the one Paul is addressing here is this:
Some people in the community believe that they must abstain from eating all meat in order to be good Jesus-followers. Others think that’s a bunch of hogwash, and that they can eat whatever they want and still be good Jesus-followers. Again, some people in the community think they need to commemorate certain days of the year as more important than others (like Holidays). Other people think that all the days of the year should be treated exactly the same. Now, with respect to eating meat or not eating meat, Paul calls the first group “strong” and the second group “weak”, meaning, of course, that Paul belongs to the group that eats meat. Naturally, those who abstain are “weak” – because they disagree with him. It’s clear that Paul thinks there is a “right” position to take on the matter of eating meat – but that does not necessarily mean it is, objectively, the “right” position. We could just as easily switch the identity of the “strong” and the “weak”, depending on whose side we’re on. I’m quite sure the “weak” perceived themselves to be “strong” – if you think you’re right, you’re not going to say that the people with whom you disagree are “stronger” in faith than you. So let’s be clear; these groups in the Roman church are not divided according to who is “strong” and who is “weak” in faith. Neither are they divided simply according to “Jewish Christians” and “Gentile Christians”, despite the picture painted by our uninvolved Roman observer. Rather, the real picture we get of the Roman community is multivalent: there are Jewish Christians, Gentile converts from all different backgrounds, Gentiles recently converted to Judaism who then became Christians, and so on and so forth. The differences in the community are not ethnic; they are based on the individual beliefs and opinions of its members. Some people believe you can’t eat meat; some people believe you can eat whatever you want. Some people believe there should be special days. Some people think every day should be the same. And lest you think that this is divided neatly into two groups – the people who abstain from meat also commemorate special days, and the people who eat everything treat every day the same – the text doesn’t say that. Paul gives us two examples of beliefs or opinions on which people in the Roman church disagree. It is easy to imagine that there are likely many others. So, what we are dealing with in this passage is a community divided into many different factions according to their differing beliefs – and all of them claiming to be a part of the same Jesus-following community!

The thing about us Christians – and about us Disciples in particular – is that we like to be inclusive. It’s what we’re all about. I love this church and I love the openness of the Disciples’ Creed – we follow Jesus, as best we can, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you identify as Conservative, Liberal, Progressive, Fundamentalist, White, Black, Gay, Straight, Male, Female, Young, Old, or anything else really; you’re welcome here! I love that.

The thing about us humans is that we like to take sides. You may have noticed that all the identities I listed were binaries, when we know that there is a huge spectrum of identity in between each and every one of those binaries. But we humans like things to be black and white; we don’t like gray areas. And when we separate ourselves into two opposing categories, as the people in the Roman church seem to have done, we usually end up labeling our category right and the other category wrong, and that creates one big mess of things.

I have to admit that I am just as bad at this as anybody else. I, of course, think that I am right on most things, and that the people who disagree with me on certain issues – issues that seem fairly clear-cut to me – are not just wrong; they’re mind-bogglingly stupid! Now, please, please stay with me! Because I’m willing to bet that each and every one of us here has thought the same thing at least once in our lives. You know, you read an article about an issue you’re really passionate about, and you either wholeheartedly agree or disagree with what the author is saying, and then, of course, you scroll down to the end, to the comments section. Because you HAVE to read the comments! Pro tip: never read the comments. I still do, it’s a curse, really. And of course, you always find that one commenter, and most of us, if we admit it to ourselves, are actively SEARCHING for that commenter, whose comment is so incredibly moronic that we feel newly justified in our particular belief or opinion about that issue.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter what side of the issue you’re on! If every single one of us can relate to the process I just described, that means that you can throw a comment up on an article, and no matter how well-researched, no matter how well-articulated, if you take a strong stance, somebody is going to get angry at your comment and think to themselves, “this person is mind-bogglingly stupid!” In other words, no matter how ignorant, no matter how closed-minded, no matter how stupid you might think somebody is for holding a certain opinion, I guarantee you that that person thinks you are just as ignorant, closed-minded, and stupid as you think they are!

So it doesn’t really matter how right we think we are; somebody thinks we are wrong. And it doesn’t really matter how wrong we think other people are; somebody else thinks they are right. If there’s any universal truth, then, it must be this – all of us are right about some things and wrong about others, and only God knows which is which. More importantly, all of us are wrong about something. In the church, we tend to frame this in the language of sin – he or she is a sinner, because he or she is not doing what I think God wants him or her to do. She or he is a sinner because she or he supports the homosexual lifestyle. He or she is a sinner because he or she is a gun nut. Even the language we use – “homosexual lifestyle” and “gun nut” – is used with the intent of demonizing the other person. And what ends up happening is we get into these air-tight, polarized groups, and we start thinking of the other group as the enemy. We judge them, we deride them, we believe they are the sinners who need to see the light, that if only they truly knew Christ, they wouldn’t behave that way; they would believe correctly.

And there’s the rub; to somebody else, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners in someone’s eyes. And I don’t mean the classic Pauline thinking, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” although I do believe that to be true. I mean that we are all living in sin according to someone, even if we think we are doing that so-called “sin” for God. The Roman church has the same problem – “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord…while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord.” So, you see, depending on who you ask, you’re either sinning or living for God. And the only one who really knows the difference; if there is an absolute truth to the matter; if there is an absolute right or wrong; the only One who knows what it is is God! Not you! Not the people around you! God!

So where does that leave us? Paul says to the Roman church, stop judging people for their opinions and beliefs. Stop deriding them. If they are doing what they do for God, then you need to welcome them into the community. Treat them as an equal in the faith, even if you disagree. Paul seems to say, let bygones be bygones; stop quarreling amongst yourselves over who is right and who is wrong, because it really doesn’t matter.

Well, that may be the case with the issues at hand in Romans – it doesn’t really seem to hurt anyone else to eat meat or not eat meat (unless, perhaps, you think of animal rights); it doesn’t seem to cause anyone any harm, psychological or otherwise, to observe special days or treat every day the same. But when it comes to issues like abortion, where each side perceives that the other’s way of thinking does serious harm to real human beings, it becomes a lot harder to listen to Paul here. Indeed, I don’t think that, with issues such as these – where the well-being of a person is at stake – we can just let bygones be bygones. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from Paul’s words. Paul never says that we can’t talk about our different beliefs with one another. Paul never says that we can’t treat each other with respect and work out our faith together. Paul never says that we shouldn’t try to find out the absolute right position to take on an issue, if there is one. I think he would say that if we talk with each other, and, more importantly, listen to each other, and not assume that we already know the right way to think about things, indeed, if we start expecting to be proven wrong in our conversations instead of expecting to be proven right, then we might start to model what it means to be a community living for God.

If we are actually trying to be that good Christian community; if we are really trying to be the church – and succeeding – then each and every one of us is going to be a sinner to someone else. And if we learn how to commune with each other; learn how to share our beliefs and our opinions without judgment or derision, then we may find that we are slowly being transformed into the true Body of Christ; a Body that has not excluded even one fingernail; and together, we will be made to stand. Amen.

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