Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.

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2013-09-22 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
22nd September 2013
Readings: Romans 14:1-8, Romans 14:13-17, 22-23

Reading 1: Romans 14:1-8

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 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. 4 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. 5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 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.

If this sermon needs a title, I think I would borrow it from the name of a classic book by James Dunn: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. But I want to begin with a confession. When I began to think about this sermon on Friday – by scrolling through facebook, which as everyone knows is the best way to prepare for work – I came across a podcast by Mark Thiessen Nation, whom many of you remember as a director of the London Mennonite Centre (LMC). It was a sermon on exactly this section of Romans, and he had preached it to Eastern Mennonite Seminary the very day before I saw it. Well, it would be foolish to ignore such a piece of serendipity – or perhaps guidance. So this sermon depends somewhat on what he said. I could of course have just played you his sermon, but that would be cheating.

Mark’s sermon was called ‘Why are vegetarians weak?’, which is a great title, although he never directly answered that question. Instead he said it was the wrong question, because the issue is not who is right or who is wrong, who is weak or who is strong, but the context in which these questions were being raised. You may not be surprised that much of what he said came from what scholars call the new perspective on Paul, of which we’ve heard a lot in the past months as we’ve explored Romans. Essentially, he was saying that this chapter, and most of Romans, is addressing the issue not of works versus faith, or law versus grace, but how Gentiles and Jews could live together in harmony in the church.

Eating together was at the heart of this problem. Up to the coming of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles couldn’t eat together because the Gentiles didn’t observe Jewish food laws, especially in regard to meat. By eating ‘trefe’ or unkosher food with them, Jews would be breaking their own dietary laws. Most importantly, Gentile meat would not have had the blood drained out, and it would have been dedicated to idols before being sold in the marketplace.

Along comes Jesus, who breaks all sorts of Jewish laws about cleanness and uncleanness. Then there’s Peter’s dream in Acts 10 about clean and unclean animals, in which God tells him to regard no one as unclean; followed by Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Suddenly you have an ethnically and culturally mixed church. But you still have a problem, because some of the Jews in the church feel uncomfortable about eating things they weren’t allowed before. As Mark pointed out, some of the Gentiles might feel bad too, since eating meat offered to idols was part of the life they’d left behind in following Jesus.

Why is any of this important? Because eating together is at the heart of the new Christian community. It’s not just about a bit of bread and wine – it’s about regular meals together in which previously disparate groups get to know each other and learn more of God from each other.

Some new Christians simply avoided the whole problem by not eating meat at all. Vegetables didn’t pose all those moral problems. Others simply said, “Idols don’t really exist, and Jesus has cut through our categories of who or what is clean or unclean, so we’ll just eat anything if it helps our relationships with others”.

What is Paul to do? Which group is right? Well, you might have expected him to give a ruling: “This is the Christian way to tackle this conundrum”. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read or seen under the title ‘The Christian view of …’. Why not the more modest claim of ‘A Christian view of…’? It seems we are always more comfortable with being told what to do or to avoid in unambiguous terms. Listening for God’s Spirit is so much more complicated than just following a rule.

Is it right to eat anything you like, or to eat only vegetables? Paul refuses to answer the question.To quote from one of George Eliot’s characters, he more or less tells the two groups, “You’re both right and you’re both wrong, as I always say”. For some, eating anything is right, for others, sticking to safe vegetables is right – it depends on their own conscience.

But if this is the case, are there no absolute norms? Can everyone just do as they feel best? Absolutely not! This is where Mark’s sermon offered a very useful image: that this issue has both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The horizontal dimension is that we should do whatever is necessary to maintain loving community with our fellow Christians. The vertical dimension is that all our ethical decisions should be based on our relationship with God. It’s about relationship, not rules. If we do something that makes us feel guilty, whether it’s eating non-kosher food or failing to keep a particular feast, then that disrupts our ability to face God with confidence.

So whatever we choose as our moral stance on a disputed issue, it should foster both of those relationships, horizontal and vertical, and not damage them. And perhaps (and this is my thought not Mark’s), the fact that a horizontal and a vertical line make a cross should warn us that this may involve a certain amount of sacrifice, not least of our freedom to act independently.

How does all this work out in practice? Let’s hear another extract from chapter 14, which puts a bit more flesh on the bones that Paul has already outlined.

Reading 2: Romans 14:13-17, 22-23

13 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. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit… 22 The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. 23 But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

The first verse of that extract, verse 13, sets out two key principles. The first is that we have no right to condemn others for their honestly held moral views, which they may have spent a lot of thought on working out. The second is that even if we disagree with them, we may at times have to modify our actions to avoid upsetting them. When Paul talks about not putting a stumbling block or hindrance in their way, I think he’s talking about not leading others into actions which for them would feel like sins. So if you invite for dinner someone who believes he or she shouldn’t eat meat offered to idols, then don’t feed them that, even if you feel perfectly at ease eating it yourself.

It’s interesting that in the first extract we heard, those who have moral qualms about failing to eat kosher or keep feasts, are described as the weak; while those who feel perfectly at liberty to eat anything, or who have abandoned special days, are the strong. Is this Paul’s view, or is he just quoting how the Roman Christians have categorized each other? If the latter, then he doesn’t contradict it. He seems to accept that the stronger you are in faith, the less you need rules and regulations to keep you on the path of righteousness, and can instead rely on God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In practise, some Christians seem to me to have totally reversed this belief. They regard those who are strictest in their principles as strong Christians, and those who are what we might call more liberal, as weaker Christians. Meanwhile, those who follow rules may glory in their right to be offended, and effectively become not the weaker brethren but the stronger, as they dominate the church with their scruples. This is not at all what Paul intended. We don’t have a licence to offend, but neither do we have a licence to be offended. Essentially, Paul is saying that cleanness and uncleanness, the guiding principle of much Jewish law, is all in the mind.

Actually I find it fascinating that on Mark’s podcast, the woman who read verses 13 onwards, read verse 14a as “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is clean in itself”. This is the opposite of what Paul says, that nothing is unclean in itself. Maybe it was just a slip, but it does seem to reflect a mindset that has often dominated in the church: that everything in the world is dangerous until it’s been spiritualized. It was in reaction to this attitude that I recently posted on facebook, “We do not say grace to bless our food; we say grace because our food is a blessing”. God made the material world, and made it very good; so nothing God has made needs any justification other than its existence. The question is, what you do with it.

Rather than anything being unclean in itself, Paul states that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean”. This is perilously close to Hamlet’s assertion that “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Maybe Paul would agree with Hamlet. However, if your brother or sister in Christ thinks something is unclean, then for God’s sake don’t shove it in their faces.

Well, then, are vegetarians weak? Only if their vegetarianism is an attempt to gain favour with God by keeping self-imposed rules. I became a vegetarian at 14, before I was a Christian (although I was already exploring faith). It was very much an attempt to make myself morally righteous by giving something up – as I was only 14, there weren’t very many other vices I’d actually taken up yet, so it had to be meat.

Certainly the Roman ‘liberals’, if one may call them that, regarded themselves as stronger for not having to keep to kosher laws. Nevertheless, Paul punctures their supposed strength by pointing out that they have no right to flaunt it before those with more delicate consciences.

Ultimately, we come to what Mark identified as the key verse, verse 17:

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.

A verse which will be familiar to anyone who frequented the London Mennonite Centre in the past, as the second half of it was on a poster hung on the wall in the chapel.

On the strength of this verse, Mark states that the whole chapter – and half of chapter 15, which he covers as well – is actually about discernment. We need discernment to work out which issues are actually central, and which are peripheral. And in Paul’s eyes, the central issues are justice, peacemaking, and inner joy – or perhaps shared joy. This brings us back to the image of the horizontal and vertical diimensions: justice and peace are about how we relate to, essentially how we love, each other, while joy in the Holy Spirit is about our individual and communal relationship with God, about how we receive God’s grace. All other things, as Queen Elizabeth 1 said, are trifles.

I’d like to sum up by quoting a statement which was often quoted by Wesley, but which I find from Google actually originated with St Augustine:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”.

I’m a little surprised to find myself agreeing with St Augustine, as I think he got a number of central things wrong – but I suspect he also got a load of things right, and this is one of them: in fact it’s basically a summary of Romans 14.

Of course we are still left with the task of working out what are the essentials and what are the non-essentials; but our guideline is the third part of that summary: “in all things charity”, or as we would say, “in all things love”. If the love of God and neighbour is not apparent in our debates, then we’ve already lost the plot. So to quote from a parallel passage in 1 Corinthians, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God”.

We no longer have the issue of what to eat or not eat, or whether to keep holy days or not; but I’m sure you can work out for yourselves what the equivalent issues are today. And as we debate them, remember 1 Peter 4:8, which echoes what Paul constantly reminds us:

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins”.

In other words, it’s far less important to work out what is a sin and what isn’t, than to keep our love for each other alive while we discuss it. Amen.

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