Getting Along With One Another
This past Wednesday, Sterling and one of his buddies left Central High School to grab some lunch. They weren’t breaking any rules, Central has open lunch for juniors and seniors – they can leave to pick up lunch somewhere if they want. That’s why there are so many restaurants and take out joints near the high school. So they grabbed some food, and then decided to come back here to shoot some pool while waiting for their next class to start.
While they were here, Sterling showed his buddy some of the, uh, unique parts of our building – the creepy back stairwell that doesn’t have any heat, closets and storage spaces under stairwells, and of course our stairwell to nowhere in the maintenance room. There’s a central stairwell that used to come up probably just outside the sanctuary, out where the foyer is now, that was covered when the current foyer was added at some point.
He was talking to Becky, and she said, “Yeah, our building does have some character.” And I was walking by and said, “Our building has lots of character, and its filled with lots of characters.” Look around the room this morning, and even though we aren’t all back meeting in person yet, you’ll see lots of different kinds of people. Old and young. Those who have a lot and those who have little. White collar professionals and laborers. Those who are single, dating, married, divorced, and widowed. People who have multiple advanced degrees and people who didn’t graduate high school. People who lean liberal and people who lean conservative. Vegetarians and hunters. And that’s just scratching the surface of the diversity God wants in his body, the body of Christ.
Revelation 7:9 paints a beautiful picture of the incredible diversity that makes up the body of Christ. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Back in 2008, author Philip Yancey wrote, “As I read accounts of the New Testament church, no characteristic stands out more sharply than [diversity]. Beginning with Pentecost, the Christian church dismantled the barriers of gender, race, and social class that had marked Jewish congregations. Paul, who as a rabbi had given thanks daily that he was not born a woman, slave, or Gentile, marveled over the radical change: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
One modern Indian pastor told me, “Most of what happens in Christian churches, including even miracles, can be duplicated in Hindu and Muslim congregations. But in my area only Christians strive, however ineptly, to mix men and women of different castes, races, and social groups. That’s the real miracle.”
Diversity complicates rather than simplifies life. Perhaps for this reason we tend to surround ourselves with people of similar age, economic class, and opinion. Church offers a place where infants and grandparents, unemployed and executives, immigrants and blue bloods can come together. Just yesterday I sat sandwiched between an elderly man hooked up to a puffing oxygen tank and a breastfeeding baby who grunted loudly and contentedly throughout the sermon. Where else can we find that mixture?
When I walk into a new church, the more its members resemble each other – and resemble me – the more uncomfortable I feel.[i]
But that kind of diversity isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to get along with people who are so different than us. I mean think about it, the people often the most like us are our families, and most of the time we struggle to get along with them. How much harder to get along with people who really are very different than we are. People who have had different experiences, come from different backgrounds, and who sometimes view the world very differently than we do. That’s the challenge that Paul starts to tackle in Romans 14:1-12. Let’s look at this passage of Scripture together this morning.
Uniformity – where everyone kind of looks alike, or at least similar enough, and talks alike, and thinks alike, and comes from similar backgrounds – uniformity is easy. Unity – sticking together in spite of differences – is much harder. And much deeper. Imagine the church in Rome – the cultural and economic center, and the capital city, of the Roman empire. It’s massive. And like any city, it has wealthy districts and incredibly poor districts. The empire’s power brokers are there. The elite. The educated. The wealthy. Leaders in commerce and trade. People from all over the empire, which stretched from what is now Germany and Belgium and France and Spain to the north and west, all the way over to the middle east and south into northern Africa, are there. The Romans surrounded and controlled the Mediterranean Sea and also the Black Sea. There were people there from everywhere. The biblical book of Acts tells us that one of Jesus’ disciples, a man named Philip, encountered a man from Ethiopia. I mean, the people were from everywhere. Jews, Greeks, Romans, Africans, northern Europeans, all coming together in Rome. And so as the church grew, all of these different kinds of people were starting to follow Jesus and becoming a part of the church in Rome, and the church was starting to have some problems. They were a divided people.
Divided, Paul says, between the strong and the weak. Those are some loaded words, aren’t they? Strong and weak. Almost universally, in all times and places, strength is considered a good thing, and weakness a bad thing. Strength is desirable. Weakness? Not so much. Now, in this passage, Paul isn’t talking about people being physically strong, or wealthy, or politically powerful, or smart and well-educated. He’s actually talking about those who are strong and weak in faith. Look at V. 1. Now, this strength and weakness isn’t in the quality of their relationship with Jesus, it’s in their understanding of the implications of their relationship with Jesus. Look at Vv. 2-3. And then down at Vv. 5-6. The thing that so often divides us as followers of Jesus is our individual answers to the question: “What does it LOOK LIKE, in everyday life, to follow Jesus?” Is it ok to drink alcohol or not? Is it ok to watch certain kinds of movies or listen to certain kinds of music or wear certain kinds of clothes? There are some things Scripture is absolutely clear on – sexual immorality and adultery and greed and taking advantage of the less fortunate. But there are other things, lots of things, that the Bible isn’t clear on, or doesn’t speak to at all. For the Romans, it had to do with what a person eats or won’t eat. And what days should be considered special, if any. And there was a group of people in the church with a Jewish background that was refusing to eat meat because they couldn’t be sure whether it had been a part of a sacrifice to a false idol as it was prepared or not, or that it had been prepared in a kosher way. And there was another group of people who ate whatever food was placed in front of them because they knew that the idols were false anyway, so it didn’t matter. One group that thought they could eat whatever they wanted, and another that worried about accidentally eating the wrong thing, so they stuck with vegetables.
And the Jewish group was observing the sabbath, likely on Sunday now, the Lord’s Day, instead of Saturday, the Old Testament, traditional Jewish sabbath, because Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday. And they were still observing the ancient Jewish feasts and festivals so that they remembered God’s great saving acts in their history, things like the Exodus and the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea and God’s provision for their people in the Wilderness. But the other group was treating every day the same. They weren’t resting on the Sabbath. They weren’t observing the Jewish festivals. Why? Because they weren’t Jews. Now, here’s where the problem, the division, really crept in – the eat only vegetables since we can’t be sure the meat is kosher and observe all of the holy days group was judging, and despising the group that ate whatever they wanted and didn’t observe the holy days.
AND, the group that ate whatever they wanted and didn’t observe the holy days was judging and despising the group that ate only vegetables and observed the holy days. So one group emphasizes their freedom in Christ. The other group is legalistic. But we have to remember, there’s no evidence that their hearts are in the wrong place. It was in observing holy days and abstaining from meat that they sought to honor God, as Daniel did in Old Testament times. It was a matter of conviction and conscience for them. If something didn’t change in the way these two segments of the church related to one another, we might have had the first official church split into two denominations – the Freedomists and the Vegetarians. Because that’s what we do, right? As soon as there’s a significant disagreement about something, we take our toys and go play somewhere else, right?
Paul does side in a not so subtle way with the freedomists. He calls them the ones strong in faith, which makes the vegetarians the weak in faith. Now please, don’t go tell someone I called vegetarians weak. My daughter is a vegetarian and has been for several years. That’s just the name I’m using to describe one of the factions. Paul does insinuate that the freedomists are right. But then he calls them to something more important than being right. He calls them to unity.
You see, these things aren’t core elements of following Jesus. What’s the core? Well, maybe a better question is WHO is the core? It’s Jesus, right? That’s what Christian means – little Christ. What did Paul tell us in Romans 10:13? “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” In 1 Corinthians 2:2 he says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” That’s the core, the central focus, of the Gospel. In a word, it’s Jesus. So the doctrine of the trinity, and the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection for our sin. That’s the core. It’s Jesus, and his commands. To be baptized and observe communion. And then, orbiting around that core, are what we might call important doctrines. Things like specific views of communion and specific ways of being baptized, whether we baptize infants or not, who can take communion. What type of leadership and organizational structure churches and larger church bodies like denominations should have. Views about how God created the cosmos. Things like that. And then, outside of that, farther out from the core, are things that fall into the realm of “who cares?” Things like whether we should sing to an organ or a guitar. Whether we should worship on Saturday and Sunday. Things like that. The problem comes when we make EVERYTHING we believe to be in the central core of faith. You have to agree with me about everything, or you aren’t a Christian. And that simply isn’t true. We can disagree about those things, some of them passionately because they’re important but not central, and still see each other as Christian.
So, in the core dogmas of the faith, things surrounding the person and work of God in Jesus, we agree. And in areas in which Scripture clearly says, as a follower of Christ, do this, or don’t do this, we are clear. So adultery isn’t ok. Speaking and acting in ways that don’t show love for God and love for neighbor aren’t ok. Taking advantage of people out of greed isn’t ok. And when someone gets caught up in that, and claims to be a Christian, we correct them. And when they repent and turn away from it, we forgive and move on. End of story. And of course, we all do those things. We all fall short. But we do hold one another accountable. We do offer loving correction. We do speak out. We are not to be judgmental, but we ARE to be discerning, able to tell the difference between authentic expressions of faith and a counterfeit. Correction is NOT judgmental. When someone speaks or acts in a way that is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, we need to speak out. Not to say, “That person isn’t a Christian” but to say, “That behavior isn’t consistent with someone intentionally following Jesus.” But in areas in which there are plenty of opinions but Scripture is either silent or not completely clear, it’s up to that person, walking in their own relationship with God, to figure out where God wants them to be.
In other matters, we show grace. And that was the problem for the Roman Christians. Look at V. 4. And then down at Vv. 10-11. They aren’t disagreeing about the core of their faith in Christ. But they’re in deep disagreement about the way that faith informs the way they live day to day. And instead of agreeing to disagree and holding together, they’re deepening the rift by condemning each other, despising each other, and judging each other. And I find it interesting that Paul tells both groups, the one he calls strong, insinuating that technically they’re right, and the one he calls weak, to knock it off and accept one another into full fellowship, because they are brothers and sisters in Christ.
And not only do we show grace, and refuse to condemn, we also stop trying to convince, getting someone to go against their conscience. Look at Vv. 6-7. Both the one who eats and the one who abstains, and the one who honors days as holy and the one who doesn’t, are both doing so out of honor for God in their hearts. To force someone to go against their conscience in one of these matters is to cause them to stumble. So don’t do it. Both are honoring God. So let each other honor God, whether in freedom or observance. Don’t try to drag them kicking and screaming over to your point of view. So we stop judging one another, because we all belong to Jesus, and we will each stand before God as our judge, and not one another. Yes, our building has a lot of character, and it is full of characters. We aren’t all the same. And that’s a good thing. A beautiful thing. Let us pray.
[i] Philip Yancey, “Denominational Diagnostics,” Christianity Today (November 2008), p. 119