Sunday 14 September 2014
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24A
Melissa and I both graduated from Willamette University. And Willamette has a motto that was important enough to the life of the school that I still remember it: non nobis solum nati sumus, not unto ourselves alone are we born. The idea is that anything we might have or anything we might be is not supposed to be just for our own benefit. We have a larger responsibility. The things that we are and the things that we have are supposed to be for the benefit of others. We are supposed to live for the benefit of our neighbors. According to the motto, this responsibility is so great, so thoroughgoing, that it begins at the moment of our birth. Not unto ourselves alone are we born.
Paul is writing to a group of churches in Rome that he has not visited. He is planning a visit to Rome, and as a way of introducing himself and preparing the way, he writes this letter. It appears, though, that he has already heard something about them, something about the issues that the churches are facing in Rome, something about the squabbles and arguments that they are having. All groups of people have disagreements and arguments, and the Church is no exception. Even from the earliest times, it seems, Christians disagreed over the best way to be Christians.
In Rome, among other things, they are arguing about diet and about the observance of special days. So lets talk about diet first. The conflict is between those who eat meat and those who are vegetarians. Now, if these two groups were arguing today, it would likely be about how much land and water it takes to raise cattle, or about the relative health benefits of eating and not eating meat, or about how ethical it is to raise animals for meat, or how much pain they feel when they are slaughtered. These are all potentially interesting questions. However, none of these questions are the questions that Christians in Rome were considering when they had their conflict over diet.
For them, the issues were different. There were probably two main things in question for these early Christians. The first has to do with the method of butchery. There are specific regulations in the bible about the proper way to slaughter animals. This is part of what makes meat kosher or not. Living as they did, in the Gentile city of Rome, it would be hard to ensure that any meat they might have bought in the market had been butchered properly in the way prescribed by scripture. If it wasn’t possible to get Kosher meat, then maybe it was best not to eat meat at all. Or perhaps, these sorts of regulations did not matter for Gentile Christians. Maybe it was okay for Gentile Christians to eat non-Kosher food because the Kosher laws only applied to Jews.
But there was another issue that also had to do with the slaughter of meat. In the ancient world, nearly every religious tradition practiced animal sacrifice. When we modern people imagine animal sacrifice, we usually think of a cruel ritual in which an animal is killed and then its body is burned on the altar of some god. Occasionally the ancients did perform these sorts of whole burnt sacrifices, but most of the time things worked a bit differently. A person would bring their animal to a temple and hand it over to the priest. Then, through whatever rituals were prescribed by that god, the priests would slaughter the animal. Then they would begin the butchery process. Typically, only the undesirable parts of the animal, like the bone, fat, and blood, would be burned for the gods. The priests would take a portion of the meat for themselves, as payment, and they would return the rest to the person who had brought the sacrifice. They would take it home and use it for their meals, or to a market to sell. A temple of animal sacrifice was actually much more like a butcher shop than it was like the images we usually have in our heads. This is how animals were slaughtered at the temple of God in Jerusalem. It’s also how they were slaughtered at the various pagan temples throughout the Roman world.
This presented a problem for Christians in Rome, though. If they bought meat in the market, chances are that it had been offered to Jupiter, or Mars, or Isis, or some other pagan god before it ended up in the shop for sale. So if they bought that meat and ate it, wouldn’t it mean that they were practicing idolatry? Wouldn’t they, in effect, be worshipping other gods? If they were too poor to buy meat and had access to meat only when it was distributed for free at public festivals, then it was most definitely meat that had been sacrificed to foreign gods. For this reason, many Christians, following the example of the Book of Daniel, decided that as long as they lived in Gentile cities, where meat was offered to the gods before it was sold, they would simply refrain for eating any meat and be vegetarians.
Others, though, had a different idea on the matter. They argued that since there was only one true God, all of the pagan gods were really nothing at all. They didn’t exist. Therefore, even if meat had been offered up to Apollo, there really was no Apollo, so it hadn’t been offered to anything except some inanimate statue of wood or stone. If the pagan gods weren’t real, then what did it matter if meat had been sacrificed to them. It was fine to eat meat from pagan temples, because those pagan gods didn’t really exist anyway.
The other conflict was over the setting aside of days. Some people set aside certain days as holy. Maybe Saturday, as the Sabbath commanded in scripture, or maybe Sunday, as the Lord’s day. Other people said that every day was the same, and there was no need to set aside a special day for God. Ancient Rome, by the way, had no weekends. Every day was a work day, though there were plenty of holidays and feast days and days off to watch the games or the gladiators. The fact that Jews, and some Christians, took off one day a week for religious observance, seemed like a strange oddity to most of their Gentile neighbors.
And so, Paul is writing to Christian communities that disagree over what the proper thing is for Christians to do. We modern Christians still have our arguments. And interestingly, we still argue about things like diet and scheduling. Most Christians set aside Sunday for worship, but Seventh-Day Adventists insist that the proper day for worship is Saturday, the day prescribed by the bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses refrain from celebrating any holidays. Likewise, some Christians eat whatever they want whenever they want. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though, abstain from meat on Fridays and certain other fast days. Mormons abstain from caffeine. Some Methodists and Baptists abstain from alcohol.
But our disagreements are not limited just to calendars and food. We disagree about worship styles; should it be medieval worship, or nineteenth-century worship, or contemporary worship? We disagree about music; should it be chant, or baroque, or gospel, or rock & roll? We disagree about how to take communion; should we use juice or wine, should we dip into a common cup, or drink from a common cup, or have individual cups, should the bread be leavened or unleavened, should we celebrate it once a year, once a quarter, once a month, once a week, or once a day? We disagree about mission; should we focus on helping people in need, or on righting the injustices of society, or on winning souls for Christ?We disagree on worship space; should we have an altar or a table, what should we put in the middle, the altar, the pulpit, the choir, or the organ? Should we have an empty cross, or a cross with Jesus on it, or a projection screen? Is Jesus a man, or is he God, or is he half man and half God, or is he somehow all man and all God? When is the proper day to celebrate Easter? What kinds of clothes are appropriate to wear to church? What age do you need to be in order to be baptized, and how many times should you be baptized? What kinds of prayers should we say, and what things should we pray for? When should we sit, and when should we stand, and when should we kneel?
As you might guess, I could go on and on. And these are just the strictly religious arguments. I haven’t even touched the social arguments or the political arguments that we Christians have with one another. Things like, what is the proper response to violence, and when, if ever, is it legitimate to go to war? We have plenty of things to disagree about, to squabble over, even to fight over.
This congregation has a rather unique opportunity for disagreement. Most congregations are a part of only one denomination, and so many of the potential disagreements have already been settled. There is not only the power of denominational doctrine, but also the weight of long-held tradition within the particular congregation. But we are one congregation with two denominations. That means that sometimes the Lutheran way of doing things and the United Methodist way of doing things are not exactly the same. And we are also the joining together of two historic congregations. That means that even when the UMC stance and the ELCA stance do not conflict, there might be differences in the ways that Asbury has usually done things and the ways that Our Redeemer has usually done things. We haven’t been together for very long, so we are still building our own traditions together.
To be clear, all congregations have conflicts and disagreements. All congregations are made up of people who have different expectations, different histories, and different needs. My home congregation in Salem still had hotly contested debates over whether or not they should bring back the dossel cloth, a sort of tapestry the used to hang in the front of the chancel. To give some perspective, the dossel cloth hadn’t hung in the sanctuary since before I was born, but some people were still hot under the collar about its removal and wanted to bring it back. All congregations have disagreement and conflict. But our particular situation and identity mean that we often find ourselves with different expectations. And the fact that we are one congregation with two denominations means that when there is disagreement or conflict, we are likely to frame that disagreement as Lutheran vs. Methodist, or as Asbury vs. Our Redeemer, even when that is not the most accurate way to characterize the disagreement.
One example I’ve heard about that is the Lord’s Prayer. We use a newer translation of the Lord’s Prayer in worship, one that is different than many of you might have learned as children, but one that is much less archaic. Now, I have heard Lutherans complain about having to use the Methodist Lord’s Prayer. And I’ve heard Methodists complain about having to use the Lutheran Lord’s Prayer. The truth is that both denominations have the exact same position on the matter. Both have traditionally used the version with ‘trespasses,’ and both have recommended shifting to the newer, ecumenical text for several decades now. But since it seems like something new and different, it’s easy for us to assume that it must be a denominational difference, even though it isn’t.
All that is to say that this message from Paul about disagreement in the Church is particularly important for us. So what does Paul say to the Christians who are squabbling in Rome? He tells them to welcome one another, but not for the purpose of arguing over differences of opinion. He says that Christians who abstain from meat do so in order to honor God, and Christians who eat meat do so giving thanks to God. Likewise, Christians who set aside special days for worship, do so to honor God, and Christians who see every day alike also do so in honor of God, a God who, after all, is not confined to Sunday mornings.
And he says something else that is very interesting. He says, “Let everyone be convinced in their own minds.” Translated another way, “Each person must have their own convictions.” That means that they don’t have to try to convert each other, or to put each other down. It is alright for them to have different beliefs, and opinions, and practices. They can do things differently and all still be Christians. They can all believe what they believe in their own minds, and yet still accept the differences they have, still embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.
In the verses that immediately follow the ones we read today, Paul goes even farther. He says that it is fine to have your own convictions and your own practices, so long as they don’t become a stumbling block to others. He says that he knows that idols don’t amount to anything, and he has no qualms about eating meat that has been sacrificed before them. But, he says, he would rather never eat meat again if eating meat might cause someone else to stumble.
And that is a message we can still hear today. We can use that advice in this congregation. Yes, there will be times when we have differences. We might have different traditions around communion, or the celebration of holidays, or hymnody, or particular points of theology. And the first thing would should know is that it’s okay to have differences. It’s okay for us to have a variety of expression of our Christian faith.
But we also have to be mindful of how our convictions might effect others. Paul is very clear that we should not insist on our own way if it means that it might cause one of our sisters or brothers to stumble. Sometimes we have to rein in our own preferences for the benefit of others.
It’s not unlike that Willamette motto: not unto ourselves alone are we born. We are not only responsible for our own preferences. We are responsible for the welfare of our sisters and brothers. That includes the spiritual welfare of those we share this congregation with.
Now, we live in the most religiously fragmented society in the history of Christianity. There are more denominations now in the United States than there have ever been in the history of the world. It used to be that the church favored unity over what they called schism. It was more important that the church stay one than it was that everyone believe their own things, or the exact same thing. But these days, we’ll break off into different denominations over just about anything. And even though the Mainline Protestant denominations have started working together more closely, it still hasn’t led to much of what we call organic unity.
This is what makes us special. This is what makes our project here so important. We have been called by God to live that organic unity. We have been called to work against the trend. Christianity has been moving toward greater and greater division, greater and greater factionalism. But we have been called to live the unity that is so sorely lacking in the Church universal. We have the chance to be an example. We have the chance to lead the way, to show how Christians with different backgrounds can take seriously our belief that we are part of one body, that we are members of one family: God’s family.