It has been a difficult year for sport. As many of you know, I have a keen interest in cycling, but we have had to wait until now to enjoy the top race, the Tour de France. One evening last week watching the bunch of riders known as the peloton trundle through the French countryside at an otherwise uneventful point in the race, one of the commentators, keen to fill a gap mentioned a tiff between two of the riders. ‘Do you know what that’s all about?’ he asked his colleague. ‘No idea’ answered the other, ‘but these little disagreements happen all the time between the riders’. I turned to Elaine and said: Just like church then!
Christian people in churches are just like cyclists and most other human beings. When they interact, they are apt to fall out over things, often little things rather than the really important stuff. Back in the eleventh century, the church in western Europe disagreed with those in the east over haircuts…and that was just the men! The westerners went for the tonsure; the shaving the crown of the head while in the east it was all long hair and beards, something that’s still apparent amongst eastern orthodox clergy today.
We come now to our final passage from the book of Romans. Paul writes very personally to the Christians in that great city. He finds that they are falling out things that they don’t need to. Some of them were Jews who had strict rules over what they ate. If they ate meat, it must not be pork and it must have been slaughtered in a kosher way. In Rome, they could not be sure of this, neither could they be sure whether it had been offered to Roman gods or not so many of them became vegetarians. For the non-Jewish Gentiles among them, none of this mattered. The Jewish Christians were also still keen to maintain their festivals, Passover, Tabernacles etc while the Gentiles judged all days to be alike. Clearly these differences of approach were causing quarrels amongst them.
When we look at ourselves and church life today, what are the issues which can cause similar division? Style of worship and music is a flash point for some. Length of sermons and content can trouble others. In parts of Wales, the use of Welsh becomes contentious. But often we can just all fall out over the timing of a meeting or where flowers are placed. What does Paul have to say on these matters:
- Welcome those who are weak in faith or conviction. (Romans 14.1) Indeed, he describes vegetarians as weak! Remember the veggies in question are not giving up meat for the same reason that they do today. Probably, Paul felt that his fellow Jews should have a stronger faith to enable them to overcome their inhibitions about eating meat in Rome. The key point though is that we should all work to encourage those new to Christianity, those who are still trying to understand what it means to be a Christian, those who struggle with faith. Arguments about minor issues should never be allowed to put them off.
- We should not pass judgement on others. (Romans 14.4 &10) Paul has made this point before. (Romans 12.19) God is our judge so why should we waste our time and breath trying to do his work? When we have legitimate concerns, it is better to talk the matter through with those concerned than be evasive or gossip with those not directly involved. Nine times out of ten, the result will be good. If not, then we just have to hold our tongue, walk away and find a way to carry on remembering always that we can prayerfully let the matter rest with God.
- Each of us is accountable to God. (Romans 14.12) This is a key principle in this passage mentioned a number of times in different ways. Indeed, it is a truth which forms the basis of what Paul has to us in Romans. We can’t hide behind the faith of parents or grandparents or the corporate faith of the church or even that of the vicar. We all stand before the judgement seat of God. (Romans 14.10) We can’t hope that our good deeds will outweigh the bad ones. Jews tried to live by the law of the old testament, Gentiles were mostly ignorant about that but to both Paul says, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3.23) So, if we are accountable to God. None of us can rely on our background or the good bits of our lives to please him. What can we do? Paul has answer for us: ‘we can be justified by his grace (love) as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 3.24) In the mystery of Jesus’ death, God offers redemption, salvation from sin as a gift to every human being, Jew and Gentile alike so that we may be ‘justified’ before God…just as if I’d never sinned. So, Paul writes in chapter 10 of Romans: ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (verse 13)
You are accountable before God for your own belief and actions, not those of others. The challenge is this: have you received that free gift of redemption, justification, salvation from God? If you have and you continue daily to seek in your renewed relationship with God, how does it play out in the way you live your life? That is the essence of the message in this great letter that Paul writes to Christians at Rome.
It is also the essential message of the Christian faith. While we might have our disputes about music, forms of service and the positioning of furniture, there are many clear givens in the bible which the church has agreed on over the centuries and are summarised in the creed. These include the nature of God as utterly holy and pure, his loving creating healing power present amongst us in the Holy Spirit and his ultimate role as judge of the world he has made. But also, Jesus, totally human, totally divine in whom alone in the amazing work of the cross God might reconcile the world to himself in spite of its sin. ‘For to this end Christ died and lived again that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14.9)
It is the resurrection which proves Christ’s authority. Children in communist Russia were taught that Lenin knows everything, he is always with us. Today, you can see Lenin’s body. The only way he is still with us is because he is soaked in formaldehyde. Jesus’ tomb is empty. No bones have ever been produced and there was no pilgrimage to his place of burial for 300 years. Christ is risen. He is Lord of the living and the dead. Is he your Lord?
Trinity 14 13th September 2020