Year A, Pentecost 15 Romans 14:1-12
If you had asked me one year ago, if I would ever use this tacky gadget to distribute communion, I would have told you, “Absolutely not.” If you would have told me a year ago that we would go 7 months without receiving communion, I would have declared you to be slightly insane and definitely not Episcopalian. If I knew there would be no congregational singing, I would have started predicting the apocalypse. Every business, family, group, school, has seen such changes in the last 7 months—changes they never imagined they would have had to make. When you compare the changes the church has made to the rest of the world, they don’t seem very radical. But all of us here know that the church has never had an easy time with change. While all of this change has been unsettling to say the least, the experience has also helped us determine what is truly important in the church, in our faith and in our lives.
The church has not always succeeded in seeing the bigger picture. Like humans everywhere, we get bogged down by the details. Since Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the church has been led by humans…well meaning humans, but imperfect. We are also different from one another. God created us to be so. It makes life beautiful and interesting; it also makes it a challenge to live in community. It comforts me to know that even Paul and the earliest Christians struggled with coming to terms with their differences and how to manage in a new community, based not on ethnicity or social class, but belief in Jesus Christ.
Much like the Christian Church today, the church in Rome was a mishmash of people. There were the Jewish converts who were holding onto to the traditions of the Jewish faith. There were the pagan converts who were trying hard to let go of their old ways. There were people like Paul, who had grown up Jewish, but were ready to follow the new covenant that Jesus had established. These people were not as worried about following all the rules they once followed. They had found a new way to be, a new way to worship. All of these people from different backgrounds and faiths were trying to live and worship in one community that had little structure and no tradition to fall back on in times of uncertainty.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the weak and the strong. As a vegetarian, I have to admit, I don’t appreciate Paul’s comment on the weak eating only vegetables. However, he wasn’t talking about vegetarianism. The reason these people were eating only vegetables was because they were worried about how the animals were slaughtered. The people who were pagan converts did not feel comfortable eating an animal that might have been sacrificed in a pagan ceremony. On the other side, the Jewish converts were concerned about keeping the dietary laws of the Torah. Just because they believed in Jesus now did not mean they were willing to throw out all the laws that were given by God to the Hebrew people.
Both of these groups had religious reason for avoiding meat. The reason these vegetable eaters were being labeled “weak” was because they were unwilling to move away from these old rules. They were worried about the letter of the law, but not the purpose. It is easier to obsess about superficial things, like what we eat and drink, then who we love, and how we show that love. What was interesting is that while Paul associated with the strong, he told those who were strong to make compromises (like avoiding meat) so that the faith of the weak would not be shaken. For him, it was worth making small sacrifices for the sake of the other.
For a very long time in the church, we have been arguing about things that some might consider are on the periphery of our faith. Easy examples would be things like the color carpet we are using or whether we demand that ushers wear a coat and tie, or whether we kneel or stand at certain times of the service, or even if we have communion wine in the midst of a pandemic. I think we can agree that those things are not critical to the faith. But the problem is that we cannot always agree on what is and is not critical to the faith. Something I might consider periphery, you might consider incredibly important. If you read Paul’s letters, you will see the areas that he considers critical to the faith. There are also some things (like what we eat and drink) that Paul determines are not critical to the faith. One thing that is consistent for Paul is the importance of caring for the community and for our neighbors. Paul’s concern is not for the self, but for the other.
Over the course of this pandemic, many of us have realized how important community is. We have realized it because we have missed it and yearned for it. We have also yearned for the sacraments in the context of the community. The one thing we have never lost during this pandemic is Holy Scripture. This experience has given me a greater appreciation for scripture, but it has also reminded me of how hard it is to apply scripture to our daily life. How do we use it to consider present day issues? In many ways, that was what Paul was struggling with, how to apply the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) to disagreements in the new Christian community.
A year or so ago we used a book in Christian formation called “Making sense of the Bible.” The author used a really helpful analogy in how we determine what is and what isn’t critical to our faith. He said that the Great Commandment (which is “You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”) is like a colander. You put all the other verses of the Bible through that colander. If the verses aren’t consistent with Jesus’ Great Commandment, then they drain through. What remains is what is critical to our faith.For example, verses about slaves being obedient to their master would filter through. Verses about parents beating their children would filter through. Verses about women covering their heads in worship would filter through. It doesn’t mean we erase these verses from the Bible. It just means we don’t use them to defend our actions, because they are not consistent with the Great Commandment.
This analogy made a lot of sense to me and it is also consistent with what Paul said in his letter to the Romans. I am sure we could still find things we disagree about in terms of what does and doesn’t filter through the colander, but it provides a helpful baseline, unless we are talking about carpets, in which case we can just be grateful we don’t have a carpet in the church. One thing I think we can all agree on is what Paul says about the danger of judging one another: “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.” We will disagree at times. Sometimes we will have to make compromises that seem anathema to us. The way we stay together through whatever may come is to try desperately not to judge one another. Remember that in the end, we all fall short of the glory of God, it is only God’s grace that allows us to stand.
Hamilton, Adam. Making Sense of the Bible. Page 176.