One of my colleagues in campus ministry knows his faith is weak. He’s not ashamed to confess that he doesn’t watch R-rated movies without checking with some of his soul friends or accountability partners. Watching some such movies takes him to a place that’s not good for him as a disciple, and so he counts on friends giving him good advice. They don’t judge him; they don’t think they’re better Christians than he because they don’t have such problems. Every Christian needs to have such folks in our lives, who we can trust to watch over us in love and not judge or mock the ways we believe are best and faithful for us and to keep us company on Christ’s Way.
Paul knew about Christians with weak faith as well as strong, and he writes about them in today’s reading from his letter to the Christians in Rome. The weak eat only vegetables while the strong are meat and potatoes kind of folk; the weak put a priority on one day of the week as more sacred while the strong treat every day the same. It might not sound like a big deal to us, but my friend who wonders about R-rated movies gets it. What may not be a big deal for one can challenge another.
Being true to Christ in 1st century Rome’s more complicated than you think. You don’t get your meat at the local grocer but from the local pagan temple, where it’s been sacrificed to a pagan god or to honor the emperor who’s honored like a god. So the weak in faith don’t eat meat to show their utter loyalty to Christ; the strong eat whatever’s put in front of them because they know the gods aren’t real and Caesar only thinks he’s in charge. In the same way the weak especially setting aside one day for God are perhaps honoring the Sabbath; or they know that pagans pay special attention to the moon’s cycle and particular days as having magical power or mystical importance. Again, they want to show their complete loyalty to Christ. And those with strong faith don’t fret it; they know all power comes from God, not the moon or the stars.
We don’t fuss and fume over those things, but we have real conflicts in the church over what does matter to us: drop down screens; contemporary vs. traditional worship; baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; monthly or weekly Communion; meeting local needs or over there; how we interpret scripture; how we think and act on social issues as disciples; whether the flag should be allowed in an embassy of heaven and a sanctuary devoted to the Lord of all nations.
So how do we live together when faith leads us different ways? Paul gives some very helpful advice. First, don’t judge each other. It’s not our place, or our job. As Pope Francis responded when asked about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge another?” Paul reminds us that God has already accepted the person with whom we differ; they’re part of God’s posse, so who are we to question God’s commitment to them? If you live your faith and life in Christ differently from me, what’s that to me? You’re not my slave, but Christ’s. I’m not your master; Christ is. Whatever happens with your faith and life is Christ’s business, not mine, and Christ has the power to raise both of us to life.
Paul’s not saying anything goes. How we live and trust in Christ matters. My friend with weak faith clearly knows that. But we’re to think deeply and carefully and prayerfully about it means to be true to God’s will and purpose, and to act on our own convictions, in line with what we discern to be Christ’s Way. I’m not at the center of your life; I’m not even at the center of my own life, to decide on my own all by myself how to live for Christ. We both live to the Lord, for the Lord; we both belong to the Lord; our actions and attitudes are to please and honor Christ alone, not ourselves nor anyone else. How I experience God’s work and will in my life may not be yours; my life doesn’t have to be the mirror image of yours. But both our lives are to reflect the love and mercy and grace and healing power and light of Christ. We’re not to judge one another but to love and honor each other in Christ. In one translation of these verses, Paul seems to call out folks individually: “You then, why do you pass judgment on your fellow-Christian? And you, why do you look down on your fellow-Christian? We shall all stand before God’s tribunal; each of us will be answerable to God.”
I have enough trouble living faithfully myself without judging your discipleship. Later in this chapter Paul advises, “Let’s make up our minds never to put a stumbling block or obstacle in a fellow-Christian’s way. All I know is that the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing is impure in itself. The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. All who show themselves servants of Christ in this way are acceptable to God and receive human approval.”
Why does this matter? We’re the only Bible some people will read; we’re the face of Christ some will most remember. We convince the world the gospel’s true, or they decide it’s a lie, based on the evidence seen in our us. At the funeral of a dead relative, one of my cousins said, “She was the meanest Christian woman I know.” Sadly there was some truth there. Our relative was quite ready to be judge and jury to let you know where you’d gone wrong. But that wasn’t her job, and her scowl was the face of Jesus some turned from. Truth is, many folks won’t go near a church because we’re so judgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Why does this matter? When we judge others and build barriers there’s little room for love. John Wesley knew that Christians sometimes were unable or unwilling to live in communion with one another and he said, “The pretenses and excuses for separation may be innumerable, but the lack of love is always the real cause.”
Why does this matter? When we lose our focus and misplace our priorities as disciples in Christ’s community, we fall into following the world’s familiar ways. Can’t get along? Move to another neighborhood, go your separate ways, unfriend her, stop talking to him, get a divorce; demonize your opponent to win at all costs. But that’s not Christ’s Way: he welcomed all, made room for a tax collector and a terrorist among his disciples, he was the friend of sinners, which includes me, and you. Christian community reflects the life of the Triune God who is one in three and three in one, united but not identical. Such life together is an act of subversive resistance to the world and to those who conquer us by dividing us into parties and factions. Wouldn’t it be great if our words of welcome in worship were to saints and sinners, regular pew sitters, those here for the first time or after a long time; married, single, divorced, young, old, straight, gay, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Green Tea Party – more mellow, less irked: all welcomed by the Christ who died and rose for all; all welcomed because above all else we honor and serve the Christ who holds us together and meets us at his Table. That’s Gospel truth, for sure.
Why does this matter? Today we United Methodists are more at risk of giving up on each other than at any time since the Civil War when we could not find a way forward over slavery. Those were not our best or more faithful days, but eventually the Spirit in love made us one once more. Today we risk doing something similar with regard to sexuality. In my entire ministry life, matters related to homosexuality have been debated, even fought over. Last year, our General Conference stepped back from the edge of division to establish the Commission on the Way Forward to discern if and how we might live together in mission and ministry, even in our differences. The truth is, good and faithful friends of Jesus can deeply disagree and be deeply convicted that their understanding of faith and life is still valid. Can we live together in Christ in that tension and diversity? Can we trust and respect each other’s deepest convictions and commitments in Christ, even if yours is different from mine? Can I admit I might be wrong or honor the truth you profess; can I see that there’s more to God than I know; that God’s ways are beyond my small ways; and we’re both accepted by God and Christ can make us both stand?
My friend Kara is a University Chaplain in the British Methodist Church. This summer she visited an artist’s glassworks studio in a small English town and struck up a conversation with the owner, Jill. Jill asked Kara what she does for a living. Preachers can often be pegged, so Kara chose to say she works at a university in student welfare. Jill asked about issues students face, and Kara said that in addition to typical ones like homesickness or relationships, students wrestle with some very complex issues around sexuality and gender identity. That’s when Kara remembered she wasn’t in a particularly progressive part of England; Jill’s body language seemed to shift to a more aggressive position as she asked “And what do you think about that?” Kara took a deep breath, looked at Jill and said, “Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ So I think that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and painful for someone else.” Jill stared at Kara for a very long time and then her demeanor softened as she said, ‘You must be very good at your job.’” There was open grace and truth there, and humility and love, too.
John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand;” he also gave us this wisdom for life together in Christ’s church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity. Paul could live with that. May we do the same, thanks be to God.
- David M, Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.