Romans 15:1-13 (click to display NIV text)
July 22, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind towards each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was a week ago on Friday, when we had gone through so many days of heat and no rain, and the church lawn was dry and brown, that I looked out the office window and saw a fellow from the lawn service mowing the grass. There was no need to mow the grass, it was dormant and not growing, but he did it because the contract says they will mow the lawn once a week through the whole season. The mowing was meaningless, until later that afternoon, when a wonderful one inch rain fell, and then the grass began to grow again.
If you read chapters 12 through 16 of Romans without first reading chapters 1 through 11, and then try to put what you read into practice, it is like mowing a dormant lawn before the rain. The Gospel that Paul proclaims in the opening chapters is like the rain that makes the lawn mowing meaningful. First the Gospel, and then our response. First faith, then action. First grace, then mission.
Paul wrote to a church where people had come to faith in Jesus Christ. But many brought their religious traditions with them. Some came from strict Jewish observance. Paul Achtemeier writes, “The regimen of clean and unclean food had been, and remains, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Jewish faith. These restrictions were at the center of their religious convictions.” So when they came to faith in Christ, some wondered if they should continue with their dietary restrictions as part of their identity, or if they should live by faith in a new way. They were trying to understand what it meant to live by faith. These are not issues of Christian morality: sexual behavior, greed, pride, drunkenness and orgies, etc. This has to do with religious identity. Some, whom Paul says are “weak in faith” (14:1), continued to rely on their traditions.
Others, who were Greeks, came from a pagan background of idol worship. When they ate meat, it had been sacrificed to an idol. Eating meat was associated in their minds with all kinds of idol worshipping practices. When they came to faith in Christ, they were not sure if it was OK to eat meat. Some, still growing into the life of faith, decided to eat only vegetables. A dietary rule protected them while they were growing into faith in Christ.
Food laws and dietary restrictions have not been part of my religious upbringing. Except for big Jack Bergersen, the 6-foot, 8-inch center on our high school basketball team. On Friday nights when we had a home game, our coach would take us to a local restaurant for dinner together. It was a place that had grilled hamburgers. Jack, being Roman Catholic, could not eat meat on Fridays in those days, so his pre-game meal was a plate of French fries and an orange soda. Otherwise, it was very hard for me to see in what way Jack was a Roman Catholic or a follower of Christ. It seemed to me that his faith consisted of eating French fries on Fridays. I have wondered whether an authentic Christian witness to Jack might have been to use his dietary restriction as a beginning point for conversation, and from there move towards the meaning of a living faith in Jesus Christ. If that had happened, there might have been some value in his continuing to fast from meat on Fridays.
That is the issue here. When you are developing a faith in Jesus Christ, do you throw away your religious past, or is it of some use? On the way to strong faith, do you need some protection from what could be a stumbling block from your past?
In chapter 14 of Romans, Paul deals with this issue of faith and freedom. He tells the Romans to stop judging each other. Those weak in faith should not judge others who have given up the kosher diet and now have table fellowship with Greeks. Those strong in faith should not judge those who find it helpful to abstain from certain foods. Paul also says they should not act in their freedom in a way that will cause others to stumble.
In other words, Paul is saying that it is not always a matter of finding a right and wrong answer to an issue. What is important is our relationships in the church. What is important as people are growing in their faith is the need for encouragement and acceptance and love in the church. Our religious culture in America has emphasized convictions above relationships, and it has resulted in a fractured church that does not have the respect of the society. We fight and divide. When we disagree, we move down the block to the next church. Paul calls the church to care about relationships, even to the point of bearing with the failings of the weak.
Then he says we should not please ourselves, but please our neighbors and build them up. Many people in churches today are finding that letting go of self-pleasing activities, like dividing into groups of like-minded people, is actually leading them to ministries that they truly love. They are finding that serving Christ is much better than serving self.
Any church is made up of people of differing opinions and practices. Paul calls us to focus on Christ, to keep first things first. He sees the importance of encouragement in a church, and in building unity. This is not the same as tolerance. Tolerance is passive. Acceptance is active. Tolerance tries not to offend, and does that by minimizing the presence and call of Christ. Acceptance sees Christ as the example and always keeps the focus on Christ. Tolerance keeps an arm’s length relationship to avoid conflicts. Acceptance risks conflict so that the redemption in Christ can be fully known.
At the Covenant Annual Meeting we were told the story of the Hindustani Covenant Church in India. This church began a ministry to women involved in the sex industry as prostitutes. But how do you bring Christ to such a group? Do you stand on the street corner and shout at them about their sin? So this church got to know them personally, and then took a risk. They offered child care for the women when they were engaged in their work. That could easily be misunderstood. But it opened up a relationship for witness to Christ. Many of the prostitutes came to faith. Then the church felt they had to provide work for the women as they left their former life. So they started a business making communion wafers. The women who had been involved in a business of sin with their bodies now are in a business of making the body of Christ, and sharing that holy body with the church. The business is helping them grow in faith and understanding of holiness and redemption. At the Annual Meeting communion service, we used some of these wafers from India.
Paul says that God can give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus talks about a vineyard, and how the branches must be pruned in order to be fruitful. During our time in Washington, we visited some friends who own a vineyard. They gave us a tour and showed us some things about pruning. When the fruit forms on the branches, some of the leaves on the sunrise side of the fruit need to be removed, so that the sun can hit the developing fruit. But some leaves on the sunset side of the fruit must be retained, so that there is shade from the hot sun. So the fruit gets the benefit of the sun, but is also protected. When we help others grow in faith the Gospel light must shine brightly into their lives through strong witness and proclamation. But we must also provide the loving shade of protection and respect. In this way we always serve the glory of God.