Sermon: Essentials and Opinions

September 17, 2017
Romans 14:1-12
Just Peace Sunday

There’s a tempting way to describe the history of the Christian Church, and it goes like this:

In the beginning, there was Jesus, and Jesus taught his disciples the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And there was morning, and there was evening, and the Christian Church was perfect in the dawn.

Then there came the heretics, and the schismatics, and the people with bad theologies of every kind, and they tried to convert the pure Church to their tempting ways, which looked good but were, in fact, the very gateway to hell.

The Church, however, remained strong. At least, eventually. Sometimes the heretics were cast out quickly, but sometimes they gained control, and when they did, the faithful remnant formed a new Church to return to the perfection of the Church of the apostles.

And that is how we come to our perfect Church today. Amen. The End.

The problem with that story, quite aside from my overblown way of telling it, is that people believe it. And it’s not true. It simply isn’t true. Just twenty or thirty years after Jesus’ resurrection, Paul wrote to the church in Rome that they should stop arguing with one another. He didn’t even know this church well. Most of Paul’s letters (which we have) were written to churches he’d founded or at least visited often. Not Romans. He was planning to visit there, and he wrote to introduce himself.

And he’d heard that they were arguing with each other. From the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, he had hear that the people in Rome were arguing with each other.

Most of Paul’s letters reveal a lot of argument in the early Church, and Paul wasn’t afraid to join in. The great question of the day was the inclusion of non-Jews in the faith of Jesus, and Paul advocated for full inclusion with all his heart, mind, and strength. He described a full-on public argument with Simon Peter and Jesus’ brother James, two pillars of the Church, in Galatians.

Here, though, Paul revealed that there were faith practices that looked essential, but were really matters of opinion. And it was shocking: he called the dietary laws of Israel, which had been a matter of religious practice for centuries and which separated the worshipers of Israel’s God from those of other gods – he called the dietary laws a matter of opinion.

For centuries, Jews had kept the sabbath: avoiding work and gathering to worship on the seventh day of the week. Paul called that a matter of opinion, too.

It must have shocked his readers to the core.

Paul didn’t just say, “Tolerate the Christians who practice their faith differently.” He advised the Romans to support and encourage them, to appreciate them even, because they were practicing their faith in honor of the Lord. “And they will be upheld,” he wrote, “for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Oh, my, we don’t keep to this Scripture, do we? Christians judging Christians could be a spectator sport. Television producers looking for the latest reality program: Christians Judging Christians would be a hit.

If it’s any comfort, and I don’t see why it should be, the history of the Church is of Christians judging Christians from Paul’s day right on down to ours.

Oh, my.

Part of the problem is that not all matters are trivial. Paul knew that, and he entered the struggles over them passionately. For us, the twin questions are urgent and challenging: First, what is essential? And then, how do we appreciate those Christians with whom we disagree on the non-essentials?

Paul had already told the Romans where to look for what is essential. In Hebrew, he might have said, “hesed.” In Greek, which he used for the letter, he said, “agape.” Writing to Rome, where they spoke Latin, he might have used “dilectio” (but he didn’t). In English, we would say, “love.” In Hawaiian, with all the height and depth of it, “aloha.”

That’s no trivial criterion. It may be the greatest challenge ever set before human beings: to love one another as God has loved us.

Alicia Johnston, who left the Seventh Day Adventist Church over affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons, writes this:

“There are two ways to seek justice: in humility or in self-righteousness. Especially for those of us who have left many traditional religious restrictions behind, it’s tempting to stop fighting for something and start fighting against someone.

“When we do that, we can be sure all kinds of pettiness and partisanship are not far behind. We can be sure our self-righteousness will soon lead us into debates and judgements about all kinds of issues that are in fact tertiary to the cause of justice. When we speak up, let it not be because we are right, but because we can help. Let it not be because we think ourselves superior, but because we know ourselves to be equal.”

With protests in Saint Louis, and the Rohingya oppressed in Myanmar, with the Syrian civil war still raging and refugees still seeking shelter, with residents of the US Virgin Islands wondering why they seem to be less important and receiving less aid than the residents of Florida after Hurricane Irma, with North Korea testing ballistic missiles and the world coming to a climate change conference soon without US leadership, there are plenty of places to help.

But Rev. Johnston is right: When we speak up, let it not be because we are right, but because we can help. Let it not be because we think ourselves superior, but because we know ourselves to be equal.

It all comes back to love, that hardest challenge: to love one another when we’re divided by opinion. And to make love – the full consideration of our neighbors – to make love into THE essential.


The photo by Eric Anderson is copyright © 2011 the Missionary Society of Connecticut. Used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on September 17, 2017

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