The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
September 13, 2020
Proper 19, Year A
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Paul’s message to us in Romans could not be more appropriate for us in the United States today. Paul is dealing with some squabbles in the church at Rome about different forms of piety. Paul opens the chapter with the plea, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” Some are vegetarians and some are not. The reason for being a vegetarian is not what we might think. It is not that there is a concern over killing animals. The Jews had eaten meat from the beginning. It was part of their religious festivals. The problem that the early Christians had was that when you bough meat in agora, it was most likely from and animal that had been killed as part of a sacrifice to the pagan gods. Since the meat had come from worship false Gods, to eat it might be seen as participating in that pagan worship. Other Christians took the position that since the pagan gods do not really exist, the worship of them is meaningless, and any meat that came from such a religious rite is harmless. Paul calls the more scrupulous “the weak,” and the ones who feel free to eat meat “the strong.”
Paul not concerned about which position is right. Paul cares that it is a cause for fighting. The people on one side pass judgment on the people on the other. He continues, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” Notice, that when we think we are welcoming someone, it is really God who is welcoming them. Since this is God’s community, God’s house, and God’s table, only God gets to make judgments about the guests.
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Paul goes on to another topic that we can quarrel about: the liturgical calendar. “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” We see the same differences among us all the time. There are those who find recognizing certain days as special as helpful to their relationship to God. Or making the sign of the cross, or saying the angelus, or using a rosary, or reading a chapter of the Bible every day, or keeping the Sabbath. Others find such things an unnecessary and unhelpful accumulation of empty ritual. Paul, like Jesus, pleads that we keep our eye on the ball. Observing the Sabbath is a useful spiritual practice, but if there is an opportunity to make a person whole, Jesus does not hesitate to do the work.
Paul is not trying to sort out which is better. He is saying that neither position is worth fighting with a brother or sister about. Our unity is more important than being right. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he says the “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul always puts the health of the community ahead individual vindication. “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”
It is not part of our job description to pass judgment on others. God is the only one who gets to do that. We need to be clear about the difference between disagreeing with someone and judging someone. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” This does not need much explanation. Those of you who are language buffs, may find it of interest that in the phrases “live to ourselves” and “live to the Lord,” there is not preposition in the Greek. The are just words in the dative case. The dative case gets used in many ways, and I had a Latin teacher who said that when you don’t know what the dative case means, you can always start with, “with relation to.” Thus, we don’t live with relation to ourselves; we live in relation to God. That is to say, that everything we do and say and experience is happens in the context of God. All our live is lived in God and filled with God, and in relationship to God. And so is our death. So also everyone else’s life is lived in relation to God, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Paul continues, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.” Since we all live and die in relation to God, we have no business passing judgment on anyone. We may disagree with someone. Sometimes we must. But is one thing to say someone is wrong or misguided or blind and another to say they are wicked or evil.
In our country we are now experiencing a time of division more severe than any in my lifetime. It is very tempting to label those who do things we think are wrong or damaging as wicked or evil or as an enemy. We can oppose some one strongly and not damn them. Of course, we should strive for what we perceive as right. When we do so, we always remember that both I and my opponent stand before God. And that do matter what we may think about the actions of our opponent, and no matter what God may think about the actions of my opponent, my opponent is loved by God just as much as I am. That is really hard to swallow. It is the wine in the cup that Jesus drinks.
I will confess that I am frightened for our country. I pray that God will help us through this time of divisiveness. I pray that I can love the people I think are wrong. I pray that I will want to love the people I think are wrong. I pray that God will guide us to the promised land of compassion and justice for which we all long.
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.