Sermon, September 17, 2017

Sermon.9.17.17

St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35

 

Today concludes our study of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Over the past several weeks we have noted that no one is righteous, neither Jew nor gentile (Romans 3.9-10; NRSV). We are unable to attain righteousness through adherence to the law, yet we can rejoice in “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5.1; NRSV). While we were formerly slaves to sin, we are now “slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6.19; NRSV). We no longer stand condemned. We no longer live in the flesh; we live in the Spirit. When we cry “Abba! Father!” the Spirit is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8.15-17; NRSV). We find comfort in the assurance that “All things work together for good for those who love God” and that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In response to the gift of salvation, Paul encourages us to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12.1; NRSV). We have considered Paul’s exhortation to let our love for one another be genuine and have noted how that is lived in Christian community. Last Sunday we noted we are to “Owe no man anything, except to love one another” (Romans 13.8; NRSV). In his closing remarks which we consider today, Paul addresses our interaction with those whose faith is weak.

Our reading begins, “Welcome those who are weak in faith (or conviction), but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (Romans 14.1; NRSV). While Paul does not point out that he is addressing differences between Jewish and gentile Christians, this is likely the case. Paul reminds us that our communion with God and one another is far more important than multiplying our differences in convictions.

To make this point, Paul cites differences of conviction concerning what the people ate and what days they observed. Let’s briefly examine the cultural differences which lay behind these practices.

As you may recall, according to the Jewish law, meat is to be prepared in accordance with strict dietary requirements. Many, if not most, Jews practiced the kosher rituals for the preparation of food. In Paul’s time, how was one to know if the meat available in the marketplace had been ritually prepared, or even worse, had not been sacrificed to idols? Yet, as Paul observed, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (Romans 14.2; NRSV).

Similarly, many Jewish Christians continued to observe traditional Jewish festivals and holy days. Such days held no special significance to gentile Christians. Paul wrote, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (Romans 14.5; NRSV).

How were people to respond to such differences? Concerning meat, Paul says, “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” (Romans 14.3; NRSV). ‘Them” is undoubtedly a reference to gentile Christians. Concerning the observance of days, Paul says, “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds” (Romans 14.5b; NRSV).

Jewish Christian or gentile Christian, we are all servants of the Lord. Thus, Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another” (Romans 14.4; NRSV). Roman citizens held passing judgment on another’s slave to be a violation of social mores, for passing judgment on the slave was also passing judgment on the master.

Paul further points out, those who eat and those who abstain both do so in honor of the Lord, and both give thanks to the Lord. Likewise, those who observe special days do so in honor of the Lord.

Perhaps you may have wondered about Paul’s statement, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (Romans 14.2). Some might hold that Paul is condemning vegetarians. Since they are weak, they might be poor hunters! This interpretation is one of those instances of lifting things out of context and making the Bible say what you want it to say. Let me assure you, this is not what Paul had in mind!

Paul’s view on differing convictions ties in with his emphasis on our justification by faith as opposed to ritual observance of the law. Paul sees one who recognizes the fuller ramifications of justification by faith as stronger than the one who is still captive to dietary restrictions or the observance of special feast days. Nonetheless, as Paul notes, what we do, we do unto the Lord, so we are not to condemn or chastise the weaker.

Paul reminds his audience, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves” (Romans 14.7.; NRSV). As Christians, we live in community with fellow Christians and with God. Paul continues, “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” (Romans 14. 8-9; NRSV). As Christians, we are one in Christ. Hence, Paul asks, “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” (Romans 14. 10; NRSV). Each of us will give an account before God.

Our lectionary reading stops short of Paul’s conclusion. It strikes me that it omits something of great importance. Paul concludes, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14.13; NRSV). And a few verses later, St. Paul writes, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14.17-19; NRSV).

So what lessons can we glean for daily living? First, as Christians, what we do, whether eating, fasting, drinking, observing feast days, etc., is to be done “in honor of the Lord.” Second, we are to bear with one another not only because our actions are meant to bring honor to the Lord, but also because Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And third, God, and God only, is the rightful judge (Mary Hinkle Shore. http://www.workingpreacher.org/profile/default.aspx?uid=c2f385a22d5aae58494f3b4a52e09d9a8de6b353fe9dbbc97b7a6853057691a2 ).

Does this mean that we are to withhold all judgment? Does this mean that X is just as ethical as Y, that nothing really matters? This is hardly the case, and it is certainly not what Paul is saying. We must remember the context. Paul is speaking of our convictions concerning how we live out the Christian faith. We are to avoid scrapping and quarreling over non-essential matters. Our fellowship with one another and with God is far more important than what we eat or what days we choose to worship, whether we intinct or drink from the cup, whether we use wine or grape juice, a paten or a loaf. Of course, he who “roams the world seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5.8; NKJV) would much rather keep us fighting about our petty differences than joining in praising God. With God’s help, we can avoid that trap.

Amen

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