Sermon: Not unto Ourselves Alone

Sunday 17 September 2017
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24A

Romans 14:1-12

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, or the carbon footprint involved with the meat industry. 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 very different. There were probably two main questions 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 buy meat in the market, chances are that it has been offered to Jupiter, or Mars, or Isis, or some other pagan god before it ends up in the shop for sale. So if they buy that meat and eat it, wouldn’t it mean that they are practicing idolatry? Wouldn’t they, in effect, be worshipping other gods? For this reason, many Christians, following the example of the Book of Daniel, decide that as long as they live in Gentile cities, where meat is offered to the gods before it is sold, they will simply refrain from eating any meat and be vegetarians.

Others, though, have a different idea on the matter. They argue that since there is only one true God, all of the pagan gods are really nothing at all. They don’t exist. Therefore, even if meat has been offered up to Apollo, there really is no Apollo, so it hasn’t been offered to anything except some inanimate statue of wood or stone. If the pagan gods aren’t real, then what does it matter if meat has been sacrificed to them. It is fine to eat meat from pagan temples, because those pagan gods don’t really exist anyway.

The other conflict Christians in Rome are dealing with is over the setting aside of special religious 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 say that every day is the same, and there is 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, or rap? 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 human, or is he God, or is he half human and half God, or is he somehow all human 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, how should balance industry and ecology, or how we should respond to the criminal justice system? We have plenty of things to disagree about, to squabble over, even to fight over.

So what does Paul say to the Christians who are squabbling in Rome? He tells them to welcome one another, but not in order to argue about differences. 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 specials 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. 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 tolerate the differences they have, still embrace each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.

And that is a message we can still hear today. 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. For a long time, 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. At times, there was room for freedom of belief. At other times orthodoxy was imposed with force of arms.

But we are a long way from that world. When Martin Luther started the Reformation 500 years ago, he was not trying to break up the church, he was trying to reform it. When John Wesley started the Methodist Movement, he was not trying to start a new denomination, but that was the result of his work. Are we are left with a legacy of Christian fragmentation. And even though the Mainline Protestant denominations, like the ELCA and the UMC, have started working together more closely, it still hasn’t led to much of what we call organic unity. There are still separate denominations. This congregation, being both Lutheran and United Methodist, is a rare sign of hope for the unity of the church and ability to come together across denominational lines.

But even churches within the same denomination might have major disputes between one congregation and another, or even within a single congregation. In general, we have given up on unity as a value and have instead embraced radical individualism, which is not surprising, since we live in the most individualistic culture of all time. And as Paul does say, “Let every one be convinced in their own mind. Each person must have their own convictions.”

However, though we all may have slightly different beliefs, slightly different practices, the fact remains that we are all still Christians. We are all still a part of the one Church, of which Christ is the head, even though that one church may at times seem rather broken. We are all still sisters and brothers in Christ. And as sisters and brothers, members of the same family, we may have disagreements, but we still need to love one another. We still need to tolerate our differences. We still need to respect one another. We still need to find ways to build bridges across difference. We still need to welcome one another, in the love and peace of our one God, who created us all, and who loves us all, and who calls us all to love one another.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of difference and disagreement, let us act with respect and humility. It is not an easy thing. Many of our disagreements today strike right at the core of our understandings of justice and morality. And I am not saying that we should stand by silently while hate and injustice are preached in the name of Christ. Christian unity can never be an excuse for injustice and oppression.

But so many of the things that divide us are not questions of justice or morality, and in those things, we can learn to accept difference, we can learn to embrace diversity, to learn from one another while not seeking to impose our own preferences on one another.

And even in the places where our differences and disagreement strike at the core of our values, we can differ and argue and struggle without resorting to hatred. A person rarely changes their mind after being punched in the face, even if they were wrong. Rather, transformative change comes from people who are willing to have difficult conversations, willing to listen deeply to someone who’s views they find detestable, willing to seek out a human connection with the enemy, just as Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Who knows, we might even discover ways that we have been blind to our own hidden prejudices and errors.

Welcome one another, Paul says, but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. Each person must have their own convictions. We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we all belong to God. Thanks be to God.

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