Live to the Lord | Proper 19

Romans 14:1-12

1 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.

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

Live to the Lord

The thing Paul discusses here is kind of a difficult idea. Honestly, for some of us, these words are a tough pill to swallow. A modern-day comparison of what Paul’s talking about might be our current political landscape. I’m only 41, so I don’t remember a time when our nation was so politically divided between liberals and conservatives. Maybe the ‘60s were similar, but I didn’t experience that. And the ‘60s didn’t have social media. Some of the political viciousness, especially on Facebook and Twitter, is intense. I’ve seen a lot of the meanness. One guy even attacked my wife in a thread. Yeah. Not cool. I was attempting to engage in a serious discussion, and he was dismissive from his first post. He knew he was right, so why have a conversation about it? To his mind, all the rest of us needed to do was subscribe to his perfect viewpoint. When we didn’t, we were clearly wrong.

There are issues about which we are incredibly passionate. Sometimes, we’re so passionate about them that we can’t help but label those who oppose our position as confused, unlearned, or outright stupid. When it comes to matters of faith, we can be even more serious, and stubborn, about our positions. Sometimes, our disagreement with others over certain issues and lead us to think it would be better if we broke fellowship with them. Honestly, division and schism is one of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants have proved themselves to be really great at one thing: breaking fellowship with each other. That’s one reason why there are over 41,000 Protestant denominations. Forty-one thousand different groups of people have said, We can’t be in fellowship with you because you don’t think like us.

While Methodism has a history of reversing that process—the 1939 merger of the three major Methodist denominations in the United States, for example—we still have our own sad histories of splintering apart. Over the past several years, there have been talks within United Methodism about breaking apart over the issue of homosexuality. Those discussions are alive and well in both camps. I’ve seen online postings touting the need for “an amicable separation.”

These people clearly aren’t listening to Paul. Whatever the controversial issue might be, whether it’s abortion, homosexuality, evolutionism, creationism, ordination of women, authority of the Bible, interpretation of the Scriptures, or how often we should have Holy Communion; if you have picked a side and you think that issue is divisive enough that you would be willing to divide the church so we don’t have to include those on the other side of the aisle… If we want to use those disagreements as an excuse to exclude others from our fellowship… Paul is speaking to you.

I think he’s probably speaking to those who aren’t so immovably staunch, too, but I suspect that most of us have at least one or two issues that just make us want to shake the salt out of people who disagree.

By the way, if you didn’t grin just a little bit when I read the first two verses of this text, then you missed the irony. As Paul is telling us not to judge others, he describes those with whom he disagrees as “weak in faith.” “Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:1-2 CEB).

Now, I would love for this to mean that I am not a weak person. Not long ago, I fried up some breaded, bacon-wrapped chicken. And, since there was a little milk in that breading, you could almost say that I ate three animals in one meal. But Paul isn’t saying this to build me up at the expense of vegetarians. What he is doing is addressing the kinds of doctrinal issues that were so serious to some of the Christians in Rome that they saw them as a viable reason to cut off their fellowship with Christians who believed differently.

What Paul does not do is tell us to change our view or stop discussing the matter with others. Paul’s a guy who seemed to enjoy a good argument, and he could get as passionately caught up in the things he held to be right or true as anyone. What matters to him is the spirit in which we argue when we disagree, not how right we actually are. We always think we’re right, but we don’t always love and respect each other the way we ought. Paul’s concern is the grace we extend to each other. A life of grace is lived beyond judgment. It’s the kind of life that loves enemies, and those who harass us, and those who persecute us. We’re allowed to disagree and have disagreements about matters. But how we think and act toward those with whom we bitterly disagree is what matters to Paul. And, our spirit for and toward those with whom we disagree ought to matter to us.

Some of our disagreements can be so strong, in fact, that we start to see our opponents as not only our enemies, but as enemies of God. We’ve all heard the phrase, hate the sin, love the sinner, but what usually happens is we end up hating both. Maybe it’s not outright hatred, but it’s very easy for the other to become the personification of the particular sin or evil to which we’re opposed. It’s easy for us to take note of other people’s sin while conveniently glossing over our own.

We can get a kind of zealous energy from putting our self or our cause in righteous opposition to a contrary idea or value. It’s subversively alluring, and it tends to intensify the hostility we feel toward others over whatever issue we disagree. We draw our lines in the sand, build our castle walls, and think if these people aren’t with us, then they’re against us, and they’re against God!

One of the many problems that arise when we become, in our own minds, the righteous opposition is that we can cease to view our opponents as fellow children of God. We can begin to see them as enemies and us as righteous. And we forget that we, too, are sinners in need of God’s grace; that we, too, will be judged; that by judging others as condemned, we are placing ourselves in mortal danger of God judging us as in the wrong.

There’s a reason why Jesus taught, “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5 CEB).

Whatever the dispute might be (and, for Paul, it seemed to be dietary practices and observance of holy days) who are we to pass judgment? We might well see ourselves as the “strong” Christians, and those who think differently than us as the “weak” Christians. But, since God welcomes everyone, who are we mere mortals to disparage, despise, show contempt for, or reject one another? Since God is the one who judges, who are we to judge one another? If Jesus Christ can be lord of the living and the dead, if his death and resurrection broke the power of sin and redeemed the whole world, if every knee will bow and every tongue will give praise to God, then we can be confident that Jesus is the lord of all people; even those Christians whom we think are on the wrong or “weak” side of certain issues.

If we fail to love others—really love them and welcome them and choose to continue our fellowship with them despite our differences of opinion—then whatever our stance might be, we are in danger of losing ourselves in our commitment, not to Christ, but to our own opinions. We can make every sacrifice to the point that we feel like we’re being martyred for our cause by the crusade on the other side, but when we can no longer love people on the other side, our own “right” actions are not righteous; defense of our “Christian” ideals is not Christian, and our attempts to build up the community of faith according to our designs are not labors of love.

Without love, even right action can be perverted. In another place, Paul wrote: “If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 CEB). Love’s characteristic is that it puts up with all things, and endures all things (c.f. 1Cor. 13:7). If ours doesn’t, then we probably aren’t loving as we ought, and we probably aren’t as loving as we thought.

Not even something as divisive as politics should be able to break our fellowship with each other. Personally, I voted for the United Methodist candidate. I’ve had fervid conversations in my office with members of our church who voted for the guy who won. We don’t agree. We aren’t going to agree. It’s 100% unlikely that either of us will convince the other to take the opposite position. We disagree, but we love and respect each other. We talk together often. We still see each other as beloved children of God. There’s no issue—political, theological, or otherwise—that will make us think the other isn’t worthy of our fellowship. Unity of faith doesn’t mean we all believe exactly the same way and hold exactly the same opinions. Unity of faith means that, despite our differences, we love each other as Christ loves us.

So, what will we do when we disagree over theological issues and Biblical interpretation: things that might seem insurmountable and irreconcilable? Well, Paul’s instruction is that we welcome those we oppose, not so we can argue about our different opinions, but so we can show genuine love to each other as God’s children.

We have many opinions but we have one Lord, and each of us is accountable to God. “God has accepted them,” Paul tells us. “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)” (Romans 14:3-4 CEB). If God can uphold and make even those other people stand in the judgement, we can have hope that we’ll stand, too.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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