23/9/01 10.45 a.m. Romans 14
When we were in Derby I once had a Sunday morning without any responsibilities and asked my Vicar if we could visit a local, lively evangelical Anglican church that attracted many people. Melanie and I got there early and sat down in one of the modern pews and started to enjoy the singing of the music group. The vast majority of the church was empty when we were approached by two elderly ladies who informed us that we were sitting in their seats and could we please move. We did, of course, not without inwardly grinning to ourselves that we should get such a reception at a church that drew many people. However, someone attending this church for the first time could easily have been put off church, even the Christian faith by this type of reception. Indeed, I recently spoke to someone who has a relative to whom this happened, and this put them off church.
Paul's letter to the church at Rome addressed a situation where the insensitivity of some Christians was hindering the faith of other Christians. At the start of this series I mentioned that Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire at this time with a population of about 800,000 made up of many races and religions, including Jews. Therefore, the Roman church would have had Jews and pagans who had converted to Christianity. There were clearly tensions over what food was eaten, and on what holy days were celebrated, or not.
The Jews could have had problems with eating meat for two reasons.
Firstly, the Jewish food laws prohibited certain kinds of meat such as pork. The meat which was allowed had to have no blood in it. Therefore, animals eaten by Jews were slaughtered so that the blood drained away.
Secondly, in Rome, animals were offered to pagan gods and the meat left over from a sacrifice might be sold in the public meat market. This could result in Jews feeling that by eating such meat they were participating in pagan worship. There may also have been pagans who had come to Christ and could not face eating meat that could well have been offered to an idol which they now felt was abhorrent.
The Jews would have been used to a calendar of events that worshipped God and celebrated His dealings with their ancestors throughout salvation history. Some of them may have found it difficult to let go of this and tensions could have arisen over this. It is unlikely that this refers to the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, or the Christian Sabbath of Sunday.
I am going to split this passage into four parts : Don't Condemn, verses 1-4: Give Thanks, verses 5-8; God's Righteous Judgment, verses 9-12; Love One Another, verses 13-23.
Don't Condemn, verses 1-4;
Verse 3, The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
There were clearly divisions, indeed hostility in the church at Rome. The omnivore, one who eats everything, looked down disdainfully at his herbivore, or vegetarian brother. 'Herbie', as we will call him, in turn condemns 'Omnie'. You can imagine Omnie shouting at Herbie, 'You are stupid. As Christians we are free to do what we like. Go on, enjoy a nice juicy steak or a rasher of bacon !' Herbie retorts, 'How could you eat a piece of meat that has been offered to a pagan god. You're worshipping the devil when you do that !'
Paul tells both groups that they are wrong by using the picture of a slave and master. Verse 4 Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. You can imagine two masters being served drinks by a slave. The visiting master says to the other, ' I don't like the way your slave mixed that cocktail. I prefer mine shaken, and not stirred' The other master retorts, 'Mind your own business. I am happy with the way that he did it and he is my slave, not yours.'
When Paul refers to those whose faith is 'weak' he may be adopting a term commonly used to describe these Christians, rather than saying that they are inferior. Indeed, elsewhere ( 9:16 ) he teaches that faith is a gift from God. Therefore, if God chooses to give to give a different measure of faith to some, why should they be despised or exalted ?
The message to Christians is clear. Do not condemn fellow Christians on things that are not central to the Christian faith. There are some instances where those calling themselves Christians have to be confronted with their sin and given the chance to repent. An example is 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul tells the Corinthian Christians to expel those who are sexually immoral. Unfortunately, there are many examples of divisions amongst Christians over secondary issues that should have been healed through Christian love and tolerance.
For example, there is the issue of denominations. Church's differing on matters which are not essential for salvation and can, therefore be regarded as secondary. Thankfully, many churches locally and internationally are recognizing that what unites us is more important than what divides us. So talks are taking place between the leaders of denominations and local churches are cooperating with one another. Our next joint service with the baptist and Methodist Churches from Butt Lane is here at 10.45 a.m. on Sunday October 14th.
Other problems can occur within a fellowship. When I arrived in Derby in 1990 there were some people there who were opposed to sharing 'The Peace' in the Communion Service. They would stay resolutely on their knees as others shared the peace. During the next four years their attitude gradually thawed and some of them began to exchange the peace themselves.
The same group of people tended to be opposed to modern Christian music. As time went on they began to accept this, even though they would prefer the traditional hymns. I have also encountered some Christians who have the attitude that only modern music is truly 'worship'. This was rather comically illustrated at a church we used to attend in Watford. After the Notices, a hymn and the opening acclamations a music group would lead using modern music. The leader of the group used to preface this by saying, 'We're now going to worship God...' almost inferring that what had gone on before was not proper worship !
I heard of someone who's attitude to an uninspiring hymn was to sing it with even more gusto because he didn't want the devil to win, and he wanted to prove that he could worship God in every circumstance.
There are many other issues that have divided Christians. The way churches are organized, the ordination of women to the priesthood, what people wear, and so on.
Paul is saying that Christians are not to condemn. Indeed, if we do we are questioning God who has chosen them by His grace. God has also chosen us through His grace. Therefore, if we question God in this way, we also question our own salvation.
Give Thanks, verses 5-8;
The Masai tribe in West Africa have an unusual way of saying thank you. Translators tell us that when the Masai express thanks, they bow, put their forehead on the ground, and say "My head is in the dirt."
When members of another African tribe want to express gratitude, they sit for a long time in front of the hut of the person who did the favour and literally say, "I sit on the ground before you."
These Africans understand well what thanksgiving is and why it's difficult for us: at its core, thanksgiving is an act of humility. It is saying, I have not supplied or earned this myself and I do not deserve this. It is provided by someone greater than I am.
We should give thanks for everything that God gives us. We should give thanks for every day, whether we consider it a 'special' day or not. We should give thanks for what we are eating whether we are a 'Herbie' or an 'Omnie'.
In 12:1 Paul had told the Roman Christians to be 'living sacrifices'. One thing that you have to say about a sacrifice is that it is completely committed to it's task. Part of being committed to God is to be conscious of His presence with us and provision for us all of the time.
God's Righteous Judgment, verses 9-12;
A woman, between flights at an airport, went to a lounge and bought a small package of biscuits. Then she sat down and began reading a newspaper. Gradually, she became aware of a rustling noise. From behind her paper, she was flabbergasted to see a neatly dressed man helping himself to her biscuits. Not wanting to make a scene, she leaned over and took a biscuit herself.
A minute or two passed, and then came more rustling. He was helping himself to another biscuit! By this time, they had come to the end of the package, but she was so angry she didn't dare allow herself to say anything. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the man broke the remaining biscuit in two, pushed half across to her, ate the other half, and left.
Still fuming some time later when her flight was announced, the woman opened her handbag to get her ticket. To her shock and embarrassment, there she found her pack of unopened biscuits!
I suppose that there have been times when most of us have had to revise our opinion over something when we have had a fuller picture of what has happened. This shows how wrong our assumptions can be. The problem about making judgments is that they can be premature, we may not in possessions of all the facts and we are more ready to condemn than forgive.
This contrasts with Jesus who knows everything and is compassionate. That is why he is able to make a better job of judging people than we can. So we are to leave it to him. He is the one who has the power and authority to judge. Therefore, people will not have to justify themselves to us, or anyone else but to him. Verse 12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.
Verse 11 looks forward to the time that every person, living and dead will have to face the righteous judgment of Jesus. Giving an account of our lives doesn't refer to earning our way to heaven, because we can only be judged as righteous in God's sight through trust in Jesus. For anyone to judge a fellow believer now is premature and unjust.
Love One Another, verses 13-23.
As I mentioned three weeks ago, I used to play in the football team at Oak Hill Theological College, where I trained for ordination. We had a very good side in the first two years I was there, but then lost our two, very good strikers. Other players also left at this time and team selection was a bit more difficult then. I was managing the side at the time. We had two good goalkeepers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. One of them was Mike who had the ability to pull off brilliant saves, but was less experienced and consistent than our other goalkeeper. Mike was a good right full back so there were occasions when I asked him to play there, rather than in his favoured position of goalkeeper. Mike didn't always like this and I remember having a long discussion with him where I outlined the difficulties that I had and asked him, on occasions, to put his preferences to one side for the sake of the team. This cleared the air and Mike did this, even though there were occasions when he had to do what he didn't want to do.
In this section Paul is saying that, even where we consider ourselves to be right, sometimes we have to do something that we do not want to do, or not do something that we want to do.
The goal of this is 'peace and mutual edification', verse 19b. Peace with fellow believers. The edification, or building up of individual believers and the church.
Paul tells us to , verse 19, make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. This is not referring to a half-hearted attempt of going through the motions of considering others, but one that costs time, effort, emotions, and pride.
Romans 12:1 tells Christians that they are to be 'living sacrifices'. A sacrifice gives up it's life. Christians die to their old life to live a new life, putting God and other people before themselves. In Romans 12:10 Paul wrote, Honour one another above yourselves. We are joined to God and His people and we have an obligation to put Him and them before our own interests.
The kingdom, or rule of God is not exercised by flouting perceived freedom at the expense of others. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
Righteousness is following the ways of God, which includes the words of Paul in this passage. Christians are guided and empowered to do this by the Holy Spirit who lives in all believers.
Peace, which Jesus gives through the work of the Spirit, is primarily spiritual peace with God, peace in the heart, and the attitude of peace to others, especially to fellow believers.
Paul speaks of joy as one of the fruits of the spirit ( Gal 5:22 ) and here in verse 17 of "joy in the Holy Spirit" as an essential mark of the kingdom of God. This is not a superficial emotion but is deep seated and is associated with faith, hope and fellowship with other believers. After all, God the Holy Spirit lives within every believer. Therefore, if there is a lack of love between believers, the Holy Spirit is grieved ( Ephesians 4:30 ).
In what practical ways may Christians put their right to do, or not to do something, to one side to benefit others ?
One contentious issue is the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Some Christians think it is wrong to drink them. A couple we know from Peterborough took this stance and had no such drinks at their wedding. They said that they felt this was a good witness to unbelievers. I don't agree with them, but, if we were to apply Romans 14 to this situation, it would have been wrong for me to smuggle some drink into their reception and consume it there. Whilst I am not a teetotaller myself, I do respect and understand the position of people who do not drink and would not condemn them for that. But, those who do not drink cannot claim to be more 'Christian' than others. Yet, we must also add that it is wrong for a Christian to become drunk, especially on a regular basis. One of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control, and it dishonours God and demeans the individual to lose control of their body to drink. After all, Christians are supposed to give themselves completely to God, as we read in Romans 12:1.
In the church at Watford I mentioned earlier we had a situation where this 'Romans 14' teaching came into operation. There were a number of recovering alcoholics in the congregation and it would have harmed them to have received alcoholic communion wine. So they were not faced with the choice of feeling excluded or risking sliding back into alcoholism they received non-alcoholic communion wine.
Several centuries ago in a mountain village in Europe, a wealthy nobleman wondered what legacy he should leave to his townspeople. He made a good decision and decided to build them a church. No one was permitted to see the plans or the inside of the church until it was finished. At its grand opening, the people gathered and marveled at the beauty of the new church. Everything had been thought of and included. It was a masterpiece. But then someone said, "Wait a minute! Where are the lamps? It is really quite dark in here. How will the church be lighted?" The nobleman pointed to some brackets in the walls, and then he gave each family a lamp, which they were to bring with them each time they came to worship. "Each time you are here'" the nobleman said, "the place where you are seated will be lighted. Each time you are not here, that place will be dark. This is to remind you that whenever you fail to come to church, some part of God's house will be dark"
There may be instances when we should give up our 'rights' to benefit fellow believers:-
We have the right not to go to church on Sundays or attend church events, but if any of the church are not there something important is missing, as that story illustrates..
We have the right to remain silent, but if we do this in church people might find us unwelcoming. We have the right to free speech, but we should use our words carefully so that we do not put people off church, like the ladies I mentioned in Derby who told us to get out of their seats.
We are all called to put other people's interests before our own so that we can build them up, and build up our fellowship to the praise and glory of God.