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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, September 14, 2008. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.
Accountable to God, Respectful of Others
” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
’every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ “ 12So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Two Ways To Start An Argument
You’re familiar with the old adage, “Don’t talk about religion or politics.” Now, I must tell you that most old sayings come about because someone learned something and passed it on. I can imagine the person who came up with this line. They had probably been invited to a friend’s house for dinner where some other guests, unknown to this person, were also invited. As the group settles in and is getting to know one another, our unlucky subject says something like, “Well, what do you think of that Sarah Palin?” You can imagine the responses. And then, someone mentions “lipstick” and chaos ensues.
Our hapless friend, trying to change the subject, tries again. ”Wow, didn’t the Pope look really great in that new outfit he had on the other day!” All of a sudden, 600 years of Catholic-Protestant conflict erupts again, and you would think you were in Northern Ireland. So, we’ve learned not to talk about religion and politics because everybody has an opinion, which is not necessarily the one we share.
The only time I have successfully negotiated both subjects in the same night was when I was in Shanghai. I was the honored guest of the factory president, and my Chinese hosts had taken me to a very special restaurant where the only item on the menu was snake. And, fried snake does taste a lot like chicken, only with less meat. That night, my hosts asked me both about politics (Bill Clinton had just been caught in the Monica Lewinsky affair and this was very amusing to the Chinese); and, religion. They were equally interested in both subjects, and it proved to be a very interesting evening.
And, not only do people avoid talking politics and religion, but we even avoid talking about religion among religious people. Why? Because we don’t agree. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and there is a large denomination there that believes baptism is essential to salvation. Baptists don’t believe that, and so you can imagine the conversations that cut across neighborhoods and families. Debbie’s mother reminded us this week that one of Debbie’s great aunts was a member of the baptism-is-essential denomination. Her husband was Baptist. Every Sunday Uncle Arthur would drop Aunt Ruby at her church on the way to his. They never agreed, but they cobbled out a congenial standoff even in their different beliefs.
More Than Agreeing to Disagree
Bob Dylan has a famous line in his song, The Times They Are A Changing. Dylan sings, “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.” And, so we have adopted an “agree to disagree” status that seems to say, “Okay, you can believe what you want to, and I’ll believe what I want to and it’s all good.” But, that’s not what Paul is saying here.
Paul is talking, first of all, to Christians. He isn’t addressing the pluralistic society that was the Roman empire. He’s talking to Christians, specifically to Christians in Rome. And he says, “Welcome someone weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of arguing with them over unimportant matters.” So, let’s look at this more closely.
We need to understand what he means by “weak.” Now we might think that Paul means new Christians who don’t know a lot about Christianity yet. But, that’s not it. Or, we might think that Paul means those whose faith is not strong — they can’t stand up to ridicule or peer pressure or temptation. But, that’s not what Paul means by “weak” either.
By “weak” Paul means Christians who are still struggling with issues of how do I live out my Christian faith. He gives two good examples. The first example is about food. He says the strong Christians eat meat, and weak Christians might eat only vegetables. Now, this kind of hits home because Debbie and I don’t eat much meat. As a matter of fact, we don’t buy meat when we’re eating at home. We eat mostly vegetables and grains, and have been trying to do this for over 10-years. Sometimes with more success than others.
Now, the whole vegetarian thing is really interesting to some people, but we started on this practice after reading several of Dr. John McDougall’s books. I used to weigh about 40-lbs more than I do now, had high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and needed to do something different. Dr. McDougall’s research among Hawaiians found that the older generation which ate mostly vegetables was much healthier than the younger generations that ate the modern American diet of burgers and fries. Anyway, to make a long story very short, 40-lbs later both my blood pressure and cholesterol are in great shape. I could lose a few more pounds, but Dr. McDougall doesn’t live in Chatham where everyone is a great cook, so I’m doing the best I can.
But, that’s not really Paul’s point. The problem in Paul’s day wasn’t a health issue. As a matter of fact, Paul says the “strong” Christian is the meat eater, and the weak Christian is the vegetarian. For Paul, this dietary choice was not a matter of health, but of theology. In first century Rome, meat was sold in the butcher shops of pagan temples. Worshipers would offer a slab of beef or pork to their god, leaving it on the altar of the pagan temple. The temple priests would take the meat as an offering, but then sell it in their butcher shop as a way to raise money. The only problem was that the practices of many pagan temples involved immoral acts as official parts of worship. I won’t get too graphic here, but the behavior was abhorrent to Christians, many of whom had left the worship of pagan gods when they came to Christ.
So, the dilemma for the new Christian was — “Can I eat meat or not?” Christians who were Jews had a further problem — their meat had to be what we call “kosher” — prepared under strict practices and the supervision of a rabbi. In Rome, that was hard to come by. So, Paul characterizes these Christians who don’t know what to do about this pagan, non-Kosher meat as “weak.” Strong Christians like Paul realize that all foods are clean, that meat offered to an idol is still from God’s hand, and that everything belongs to and comes from God. So, for the strong Christian this is an issue they have moved beyond. Weak Christians are still struggling with this.
Now, to be clear, Paul says we do have an obligation not to offend weaker Christians. In I Corinthians, Paul says that it doesn’t matter to him where the meat comes from, but that if his eating meat offered to idols offends weaker Christians, he will not eat it. And by offend, Paul doesn’t just mean they are critical of him, but that his eating meat actually could cause them to lose their faith.
Paul also uses the idea of special days. We know that Jews celebrated special feast days, but Gentile Christians would not be aware of or understand the significance of those days. Also, Gentile Christians would eventually reinvent some pagan holidays, infusing them with new Christian meaning. The most significant of these reinvented holidays is Christmas, with its origins in the Roman holiday, Saturnalia.
A Lesson in Respect and Relationship
Paul’s point in all of this is that we shouldn’t criticize fellow Christians if they practice differently than we do. John Wesley had a saying I like. Wesley founded a movement in which there was great diversity, and yet great commonality as well. Wesley’s philosophy was “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.” Apparently, this was not original with Wesley, but is attributed to Rupertus Meldinius, a 17th century German Lutheran theologian, slightly ahead of Wesley in time. Whoever said it first, the idea is the same — agree on the basics, allow liberty of thought on the peripheral issues, and do both in love.
Which is great advice, but there is a theological reason for what Paul is saying here. Paul reminds us that whatever our discussion, we are not just talking to each other. We are not just accountable to one another. The strong cannot overrule the weak in the Christian community, no matter how sure or mature the strong might think they are.
When our girls were in elementary school, it was interesting to hear the phrases they brought home. One day Laurie was attempting to get Amy to do something Laurie thought she ought to do. Laurie is three-and-a-half years older than Amy, and of course, thought she was always right. Well, that worked pretty well until Amy started to school, too. One day as Laurie was telling Amy what to do, Amy turned to her and said, “You’re not the boss of me.” Now that wasn’t a phrase we used at home, so she had learned it at school. Asserting her own ability to choose, Amy staked out a new position, no longer the compliant little sister.
Of course, the history of the Christian church doesn’t exactly line up with what Paul is saying here. The church got pretty touchy about differences of opinion, and so you have little things like the Spanish Inquisition, where people were actually tortured until they recanted their alleged heresy. Interestingly, the Spanish Inquisition was started by Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed a guy named Christopher Columbus). They took over religious persecution from the church itself. And, this wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, inquisition. Books were banned, errant Christians were tortured, and some were killed. All in the name of preserving Christianity. This is not what Paul had in mind.
Our respect for others in the faith comes because we are all accountable, not to each other, but to God. We are God’s servants, and whatever we do — eating or observing holidays — we do as unto God.
Paul says, if we live or if we die, if we eat or don’t eat, if we observe special days or don’t, we are doing all of this to the Lord. Why? Because we are God’s new people — Jew, Gentile, meat-eater, vegetarian — we are God’s new people. We are a race that now transcends culture and custom, we are living the new kingdom of God, anticipating God’s rule and reign in God’s creation.
We Are Accountable to God
Paul echoes Isaiah and will repeat this message in Philippians — “As I live says the Lord, Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
We are accountable only to God. Not to each other, not the weak to the strong, not the simple to the clever. We are accountable to God, whether we live or die, whether we eat meat or not, whether we observe sacred days or not, we are accountable to God. That is why, Paul says, that Jesus died and came back to life – to be Lord of the living and the dead. In other words — everyone for all time and eternity.
So, what would this look like, this mutual respect for other believers? For one, all denominations would disappear. Denominationalism is simply the emphasis of one or more theological points over another. So, Baptists baptize by immersion, Presbyterians sprinkle, and Methodists do both. But, we all agree on Jesus. We all agree on his life, death, burial, and resurrection. We all agree that he is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. That’s the essential.
What else would be different? Churches wouldn’t split or have controversies. We would find ways to work out our differences, or hold them respectfully clinging to the things that do unite us. We would not criticize each other, but seek the best for one another. We would seek to advance God’s kingdom and not our own agendas. We would find common ground to unite us, rather than old arguments that divide us. We would work together for common cause, regardless of who got the credit as long as God got the glory. We would be the body of Christ, healthy and functioning as God intended for us to be.
And, the world? Oh, the world would see Jesus. Not Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics — the world would see our Lord, our Savior, our King. The world would see a new way to live, a new kingdom to replace the old empire, a new ethic, a new generosity, a new love one for another. Listen to what N. T. Wright says –
“Final judgment matters because God is committed to putting the whole world to rights; God will judge through Jesus the Messiah, calling each of us to account….We do not liver to ourselves; we do not die to ourselves. It isn’t up to us what we do or don’t do. It is up to the Lord, the master whom we serve and who will one day require an account.” – N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans Part Two, pg 103.