September 08, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Matthew 18 reminds us of a core Christian conviction: Forgiveness is something we live, something we embody, every moment. But that only stands to reason. After all, the very foundation on which our identity as Christians is built is nothing less than the death and resurrection of Jesus and the flood of gracious forgiveness which that grand sacrifice unleashed.
“Forgiven” is who and what we just are. Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver that you keep out in the garage and that you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose (and when a regular flat-head screwdriver won’t work). Forgiveness is not a specialty tool to be utilized occasionally.
Forgiveness is more like the clothes on your back. You don’t generally walk around the house naked and you surely never leave the house without some kind of attire covering you. Forgiveness is more like that: it goes with you, accompanies you, and is needed by you everywhere you go.
So what does this imply?
For one thing it implies that each and every one of us needs to be forgiven by God, and by others, every day. We need to be forgiven about as often, if not more often, as we need to eat. True, most days we are not guilty of anything huge. Most days we are not carrying around with us the burden of having committed adultery, of having embezzled money from our company, or of having been convicted of drunk driving. But there are always a slew of smaller sins, lapses, and faults. There are always those dark thoughts we’re glad no one else can see.
Seeing forgiveness as every much a daily matter as eating and drinking puts each of us into perspective. As Lewis B. Smedes once put it in a burst of alliteration: Forgiveness Fits Faulty Folks. The more keenly aware you are of your getting that gift every day, the more inclined you will be to distribute it to those who are in need of a healing, restorative word from you.
Someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That vital connection between God’s abiding forgiveness of us and of our in turn forgiving others tells us that we must forgive. It’s the family style for the family of God and it starts with the Father and goes on down from there. This is not some weird demand on God’s part, however. This is not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. No, the reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness. It is so great that it simply must and will change us.
The reason God expects us to forgive as a result of our being forgiven is the same reason you can expect to be wet after diving into a lake: water is wet and when you immerse yourself in it, you get wet. So also with forgiving grace: grace is magnetic and beautiful. When God immerses you in grace and saves your life eternally by it, you will be dripping with grace yourself. You will be full of grace and truth and so spread it to others. God forgives us daily. We forgive others daily. Forgiveness is our lifestyle. It’s our habit.
That very much seems to be Jesus’ point in Matthew 18.
Everyone who preaches is forced to do what the Common Lectionary also does; namely, preach on segments of the Bible. So the temptation is always there to zero in on the text at hand and forget about the all-important CON-text of any given passage. In this case, Matthew 18:21-35 cannot be seen in isolation from the previous Lectionary lection of Matthew 18:15-20. There we were given Jesus’ now-famous multi-step “method” by which to deal with those in the “church” who sin repeatedly and fail to repent. At the end of the day, Jesus says that when all good-faith efforts have failed to get this person’s attention, the offender must be put out of the church and treated like “a pagan or a tax collector.” And that would seem to be that. Unless, that is, you keep reading on to verses 21-35 after which one must conclude that whatever else it may mean to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, it apparently does not mean that this person’s exiled status relieves you of at least the desire to forgive him after all. We’re never finished with forgiving offenders. Not ever. What’s more, we should never want to be finished either.
In his memorable sermon “The Gospel as Hyperbole,” Fred Craddock points out that Jesus most assuredly had a way with words and with exaggeration as a way to get his points across. When it comes to conveying the sheer size of the gospel and of faith, Jesus refused to do what a lot of preachers today do; namely, make the gospel neat, tidy, manageable, as though the whole thing could get contained in pithy slogans and forty days of purpose or something. The problem with a lot of preaching, Craddock lamented, is that the gospel as presented is just not big enough. There’s not enough size to faith these days.
Jesus used hyperbole to get the point across. Jesus was not adverse to talking about someone’s walking around with an entire log protruding from his eyeball, or pondering a camel’s squeezing through the eye of a sewing needle, or someone’s swallowing a camel but gagging on a gnat, or telling a whole mountain to take a swan dive into the sea.
In Matthew 18 Jesus says that a certain servant had racked up a debt equivalent to thousands of lifetimes’ worth of wages.
Or as Craddock put it of this servant, “Now he has maxed out the card!”
So do we all. So do we all.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Israel’s Red Sea and Ours”
When you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, most everything you believe, or thought you believed, is sorely tested. In times of crisis all the old pat answers, all the most tried-and-true aphorisms, all those seemingly sturdy slogans which had previously supported you suddenly begin to feel brittle, and some of them crumble to dust. When your back is to the wall, even those things you yourself once said to people sound only irritating when others now speak them to you in your own dark night of the soul.
Years ago the fine teacher and author Lewis Smedes preached at my church as a guest pastor and he told me he would be preaching on themes related to the providence of God. I offered to pick out the hymns for that service, which was fine with Lew but he made clear to me that he did not want any hymns that talked about God’s moving in any “mysterious ways” with bitter buds becoming lovely flowers.
His request to avoid that song came back to me when reading Smedes’ beautiful final book/memoir, My God and I. In the chapter where he tells about the death of his first child, Smedes candidly says that when people tried to comfort him by reminding him that “God is in control,” in his heart he replied, “Not this time.” In referring to that hymn, one line of which says that “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain,” Smedes wrote that he doesn’t want God to make plain bad events because that must mean they weren’t bad after all. Yet our hearts tell us otherwise. We know they were bad and wrong.
When you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, much that you previously believed will be tested, refined, clarified. Hopefully your faith will come out stronger and more honest as a result. But there is also the possibility, grim though it is to admit, that your faith may be so badly shaken as to lead you, however briefly, to despair.
Israel was freshly released from a centuries-long captivity in Egypt when suddenly the people hit a dead end, and things unravel with remarkable swiftness. In an ironic twist, Exodus 14 shows both the Pharaoh and the Israelites in complete agreement for the first time in this book. But once he recovers from his grief over the death of his son, Pharaoh wakes up as from a bad dream and immediately reverts to his long-held stance that the Israelites belonged in Egypt. “Those people belong here, under my thumb!” the Pharaoh declares. A few verses later when Egypt tries to retrieve its lost property, the Israelites say the same thing to Moses. “Why did you take us out of Egypt! We belong there, under the Pharaoh’s thumb! Didn’t we tell you that we liked it there!”
It was a ludicrous thing for the people to say, though it won’t be the last time they will hanker to go back to Egypt. Never mind the deaths of their babies in the Nile, never mind the way attractive women were raped and old men were beaten to death by cruel taskmasters, never mind the back-breaking labor and the sheer grimness of life back there. All of that evaporates, vanishes from their hearts and minds and so suddenly Egypt starts to look like Club Med compared to death in the desert. With Egypt behind them and the sea before them, the people felt desperately afraid and so could no longer believe they had a bright future. Even God could not help them now.
We know this story very well, of course. Whether or not we understand the panic the people felt, whether or not we can approve of the dreadful things they said about God and about Moses’ leadership, the fact is we know what is next. The sea will open up, they will pass safely through, Egypt will be defeated by that same sea, and the people will repent of their prior doubts, giving praise to Yahweh who had truly revealed his might.
We know what happens but do we know why? When I was a child, I always assumed that the Israelites bumped into this Red Sea barrier for the same reason a westward trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will eventually cause you to bump into Lake Michigan; namely, because it’s there, it’s wide, it is in the way and one does not quickly skirt around it. True, you can go around such a big lake, but it takes a while and if an army happens to be hot on your heels, taking the long way around is not much of an option. In other words, I assumed the Israelites ran up to the brink of the sea because to get from Point A to Point B in a straight line, there was no choice but to run into this water hazard eventually.
But it’s not quite that simple. Scholars have long disputed just what body of water this is. The original Hebrew seems to say this was the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea, though no one knows where the Reed Sea would be located if that is its real name. Some think it was a marshy expanse of the southern Mediterranean Sea, others are not certain where it might be.
But the precise location is not the issue. Given where the Israelites started out in the northernmost portion of Egypt, and considering they were headed for Canaan sharply northeast of Egypt, it was not inevitable that their path would cross any bodies of water. As even Exodus 13:18 admits, God quite literally went out of his way to get the people stuck in front of a body of water. Given the vast tracks of arid desert in that part of the world, encountering a body of water was not like coming up against Lake Michigan en route from Grand Rapids to Milwaukee. It was more like deciding to go from Grand Rapids to Detroit but then choosing to do so by way of Cleveland, finally crossing Lake Erie westward to get to Detroit!
Why did God need this watery crossing?
Perhaps because Israel needed to be baptized.
Because Exodus is a theological sequel to the Book of Genesis. In Genesis the original creation emerged from the waters of chaos through God’s careful separating of the waters from the waters and the waters from the dry land. So now in Exodus God’s act of new creation through Israel must also include a separating of waters so that life can emerge from death, cosmos can once again triumph over chaos.
Beginning with the creation account, and continuing all the way through our baptism into Christ, water plays a key role in Scripture. The Flood narrative in Genesis is a story of un-creation in which the same waters that drowned the other creatures in the chaos of sin lifted up Noah’s ark to preserve that family and all the creatures in the ark. Earlier in Exodus the waters of the Nile became a graveyard for Israelite babies as a direct result of the chaos incarnated by the Pharaoh himself. Again, however, those same waters buoyed up Moses’ reed basket, preserving his life. Now the Red Sea will again become a source of life for the Israelites even as God again fights chaos with chaos, allowing the chaotic power of water to defeat the chaos of Pharaoh and his hosts.
Over and over again, water can be at once the source of death and the source of life, both. God draws life out of the waters of death, using water to preserve Noah, Moses, Israel by carving out islands of cosmos on the vast sea of chaos. God’s people do not fully avoid the threatening waters but are somehow preserved through them.
Yet we should never forget that were it not for God’s grace, we would be consumed. Make no mistake: the waters are dangerous. The people were not wrong to feel threatened and frightened when their only escape route from the chaos of Egypt was blocked by the chaos of the sea. When Yahweh tells them in Exodus 14:15 to “move on,” it surely looked as though Yahweh himself was intent on drowning the whole lot of them. “Move on!?” the people could have cried. “Move on to where precisely?” Death was behind them, death was before them. They were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and no earthly power was going to deliver them.
More than we realize many days, more than we’d care to admit even when pressed to do so, this is the human situation in a fallen world. Death is all around us and on our own, no matter which direction we travel, we will sooner or later bump into barriers from which there is no escape. You can eat right, exercise, watch your cholesterol, avoid smoking, drink in moderation, drive carefully, and take your vitamins but still you can drop dead at 50 from a blood vessel that bursts, from a drunk driver who plows into your car in a fatal way. Or you can grow old and full of years and expire quietly in your little room at the nursing home. As the people at Maybelline cosmetics say, “Don’t Look Your Age–Defy It!” But it’s a rearguard battle. You can defy your age for decades but still the day will come when you feel your heels catching the edge of a cliff, you turn around, and there is the Red Sea in front of you and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to defy it or avoid it.
It is at that moment when the words of Moses, cast now into a gospel context, need to ring in your ears and take root in your heart: “Do not be afraid. The Lord will fight for you–you need only to be still.” Or as Another once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me for I am the way, the truth and the life.” But the way of even Jesus leads through a cross, through the chaotic waters of death, if you will. Baptism ensures that we journey with him through that sea. But like Noah, Moses, Israel, Jesus, and untold numbers of Christians since, our new life emerges from the waters of death.
The Belgic Confession is one of the classic and more well-known confessions that emerged from the Reformation era in Europe. Strikingly, when describing baptism, one article in that Belgic Confession tells us that we are saved not “by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”
Calling Jesus “our Red Sea” is either a most colossal stretch of allegory or one of the most sublime of all truths. I opt for the latter. We live in a world of death, as the grim summer of 2014 so poignantly reminded us with jetliners being shot out of the sky, bombs falling in Gaza and Israel, ISIS marching across Syria and Iraq (beheading people as they went), and Ebola threatening so much of Western Africa. But Christians of all people–marching as we do under the sign of a cross–should know we also do not ignore nor escape death’s reality. If there is new life to be had and a new and better country at which one day to arrive, it will emerge through the waters of death as somehow the water that drowns all that which is evil becomes for us, by the alchemy of grace, a river of life flowing from the throne of God.
But the walk of faith is not easy. Death is not something we take lightly. Indeed, barring terrible pain from which one pines for release, even some of the most aged of Christians testify that when it comes right down to it, they are in no hurry to hook up with death. We baptize our children and we believe, we really do, that the power of our Jesus will preserve those little ones come what may. And yet we send our youth out into a world of terrorism, cancer, and warfare such that we cannot help but fret, cannot help but wish it were a safer world.
It’s not easy to believe in life in the midst of so much death. It was probably the same of the Israelites: they may have passed safely through the sea, but as they did so, I suspect most of them kept cutting their eyes at those walls of water, fearing like crazy that they could crash back in on them at any moment.
That’s the way life often feels in a dangerous world. But in faith we go on, we press forward, and we do the same thing the Israelites had to do: we live by the promise. We move on believing that love is stronger than death, that the one who said “Surely I am with you, always” meant what he said, and that the waters of baptism through which we have already passed, and in which our sinful selves have drowned, will somehow become for us a source of unending life.
By the time you get to the Book of Revelation, you discover the apostle John’s observation that in the new creation “there is no more sea.” In a book full of allegorical details most of which are not meant to be taken literally, this is one item that I am sure is not literal. The God who created the oceans and who makes clear in Scripture how much he delights in the frolicking of the creatures he poured into the seas cannot have a new creation where that marine life has no place. But in saying “heaven” will have no sea, I think we know what the Spirit was symbolizing for John. If water is a symbol of chaos and of that which can threaten human life, then of course that threat will have been once and for all eliminated when cosmos, the order, the wonderful life of God becomes the all in all.
For now in this world, those of us who have been saved through the waters of baptism by Jesus our Red Sea must still contend with death and a dangerous world. But those same waters of baptism assure us that we are finally safe somehow. Sometimes we still feel caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But thanks be to God that in Christ the way through that sea has opened wide as we follow our ascended Lord Jesus Christ to the glory he has prepared for us.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
It seems as if many people who claim to believe in God are largely deist in their theology. Their god may have somehow made things, but that god is largely uninvolved in the world’s daily activities. Even western Christians sometimes lean toward such deism. We easily act as though God acted to create the world, sent Jesus into it and then will someday end the world so we can all go to heaven. But in the meantime, we naturally act as if God remains largely uninvolved in what God makes.
This isn’t helped by a growing awareness of the physical causes of much of what happens in our world. The psalmists’ contemporaries thought of the gods as doing everything, including making the world, sending rain and sun, and carving out rivers and lakes. The 21st century seeks and has discovered physical explanations for much of what the ancients assumed the gods did. Who needs a god when we can identify the physical causes of rain, snow, good crops and nearly everything else?
Psalm 114’s cosmology, its understanding of the way things work in our world, is definitely pre-scientific. Its God is intimately and actively involved in the world’s activities. It even suggests inanimate objects such as the seas, mountains, rocks and the very earth itself act like God’s obedient servants.
Those who preach and teach this psalm won’t be able to bridge the gap between the psalmist and 21st century cosmology in 30 or 60 minutes. However, they should be aware of that disconnect as they lead worshipers through it. Worship leaders will also want to find ways to help worshipers consider God’s ongoing providential activity in our world, even in things for which we identify “natural” causes.
Psalm 114’s focus is on God’s liberation of God’s Hebrew children from Egyptian slavery. However, several more themes also echo throughout it. The poet refers twice to God’s presence in and with Israel. “Judah became God’s sanctuary,” the poet writes in verse 2a. In verse 7 she adds, “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord …”
What’s more, the theme of water is also prominent in Psalm 114. In fact, the psalmist refers to some form of it six times. “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back,” the psalmist sings in verse 3. “Why was it, O sea, that you fled, O Jordan, that you turned back,” he asks in verse 5. In verse 8 the poet asserts the God of Jacob “turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water.”
Yet if Psalm 114 is a hymn of praise to the God who freed Israel from Egyptian slavery, it’s Exodus with a “twist.” The narratives of the Scriptures, after all, refer to the Israelites passing through the sea in order to continue on to the land of promise. This psalm’s Israel, as it were, “stops” at Rephidim and Meribah.
Scholars like Richard D. Nelson suggest the psalmist is synchronizing and making present to worshipers the creation and exodus. He suggests the poet is portraying both creation and the exodus as part of ongoing battles between Yahweh and the forces of chaos. The primordial chaos and Jordan’s waters don’t simply dry up and divide. They turn around and run away in the face of God’s creating, sustaining power.
In a similar way the unformed creation and wilderness hills don’t remain the immovable objects they seem. In the face of God’s creative and sustaining power they get up and jump around like frisky spring lambs. In a similar vein, the psalmist suggests in the face of God’s great power, rocks turn into puddles and springs. The poet even invites the inanimate and largely immovable “earth” to “tremble before the Lord” (7).
In the face of God’s gracious onslaught against them, the forces of chaos should also “tremble.” Yahweh has shown, after all, that God can turn even death-dealing desert into land suitable for cultivation, chaos into order. In other words, not even chaos and death can resist the life-giving power of Yahweh.
Is there a hint in Psalm 114 of post-exilic Israel’s own deathly status? The psalmist, after all, asserts when God led Israel out of Egypt, she became “God’s sanctuary” and “dominion” (2). At the Exodus, in other words, God made God’s home among the Israelites. They became God’s “dominion,” the people whom God graciously ruled. This is not a picture of a dead folk, but a very lively one. Interestingly, the word English Bibles generally translate as “dominion” (mamslotay) can also be translated army. Might this hint at the role God’s redeemed people can play in helping to tame nature’s chaotic forces?
Christians have long linked the symbols of the Exodus to Easter. We’ve seen in the waters that fled before God’s power a symbol of the waters of death through which Christ passed when the Romans crucified him. Like the mountains that skipped like lambs and the rock that turned into water, God turned death’s tomb into a portal to life when God raised Jesus from the dead.
However, in Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery, Christians have also always seen a reflection of our own story, by God’s grace. God has rescued us from the dominion of sin and death to be God’s own people whom God graciously rules. In the face of God’s creating and sustaining power, even death must turn back and flee. From the “hard rock” (8) that is a life-giving stream of water flow, nourishing God’s peoples’ whole selves.
Psalm 114 serves as an ancient reminder that neither chaos nor death gets the last word in the life of either God’s creation or God’s people who are God’s “sanctuary” and “dominion.” As long as there is life, there is hope that the various waters will turn back and mountains will ultimately dance before the Lord of life.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
One of my favorite old hymns is “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” which ends with “on the cross he sealed my pardon, paid the debt, and made me free.” Today there is a great deal of theological controversy about that phrase “paid the debt.” Any satisfaction theory of the atonement is rejected almost out of hand by many mainstream Christians. On the other hand, that last phrase is very much in sync with the various liberation theologies of our day. But I wonder how many of our liberated congregants understand the depth and breadth of the freedom we have in Christ. Jesus once said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) But what does that mean in the details of daily life?
Throughout our study of Romans this summer, we have heard the apostle Paul expanding on those words of Jesus, explaining in great detail this wonderful thing he calls “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) We are free, says Paul, from sin and from condemnation, from all powers both human and demonic, from death and hell, even from the law of God. We are gloriously, radically free. Martin Luther said, “A Christian is a most free lord of all, subject to none.”
But it is not easy to live free. Indeed, down through the ages Christians have tended to swing between two extremes with respect to this matter of freedom. On the one extreme is anti-nomianism, the anti-law movement, which leads to libertinism, the belief that we are free to do whatever we want to do. That, in turn, results in a new bondage to sin. On the other extreme is legalism, the law and order movement, which leads to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude toward others. That ends in a new bondage to guilt. Those are the two sides of the teeter totter that Christians have ridden through the centuries, now libertines, then legalists, as we try to find a balanced way to live free.
This problem is as old as the New Testament. So it was natural that Paul would close his great treatise on freedom with this explanation of how we can live free. Here in Romans 14 and 15 he deals with what John Calvin called “the adiaphora,” the indifferent matters of the Christian faith, matters that are not central to our identity as Christians, even though at times they may feel that way. Paul calls them “disputable matters” in verse 1. They are disputable because the Bible speaks about them in different places in ways that are difficult to square with each other, so that Christians on both sides of an issue can appeal to the Word of God for support. What kind of matters? Well, matters like food and days, specifically unholy food and holy days.
What kind of food may a Christian eat? It was a burning question in the early church. It’s easy to understand why. Christianity grew out of Judaism with all its dietary regulations, rules given by God himself in the early days of Israel’s history. God’s people could not eat pork, for example, or shrimp. Many early Christians were Jews who carried all of their previous training right into Christianity with them. God had once said, “No pork BBQ and no shrimp cocktail.” To these Jewish Christians, therefore, it was a matter of declaring “God said it, we believe it, and that settles it.”
The same went for holy days. Long ago, in the Old Testament, God had set up a schedule for holy observances, not the least of which was the weekly Sabbath. That day was even in the summary of all covenant obligations, the Ten Commandments. It was a no brainer for these Jewish Christians. Of course, you keep the Jewish Sabbath, and the other holy days. Yes, Christians believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And we know that we are saved by faith in him. But we also have to keep those old rules, because God gave them to us. It’s very simple, said these Jewish Christians, for anyone who can read the Bible and who takes it seriously as the Word of God.
Well, in fact, it’s not that simple, said Paul, a Jew himself. It’s not that simple, because God has set us free from those kinds of ceremonial regulations. When Christ came, he changed things dramatically, because he was the fulfillment of all those things. Here’s how Paul put it in Col. 2:16, “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, or a new moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
So don’t sweat holy days and unholy food. In Christ, all days are holy. And remember what God said to Peter in Acts 10. “Don’t call unclean what I have called clean.” You are free from all that stuff that used to hem in your life. In Jesus Christ, you are free to enjoy your pork BBQ and your shrimp cocktail at a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. You are free, gloriously and radically free. All Christians should know that “when the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” It’s really very simple.
But, of course, it wasn’t that simple in Rome. It never is when you are dealing with these “disputable matters,” “the adiaphora.” So how do we deal with these issues of Christian freedom—clamp down with a law, or lighten up and do what we want?
A few years ago Dr. Stephen Carter of Yale University said that the answer to the disputes that divide society was civility. In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, he pointed out that America is experiencing a terrible problem with freedom. We have freedom of speech, for example, guaranteed to us by our Bill of Rights. We have a perfect right to speak whatever we want, theoretically. The problem is that an unbridled expression of that right can hurt other people and even destroy society. That’s exactly what is happening today in America. We are suffering from the elevation of self-expression over self-control. Everyone feels free to say whatever they want. They have a right, after all.
Dr. Carter said that the answer to what ails the body politic is civility. In place of the cynicism and selfishness that are destroying democracy, we need the combination of generosity and trust that comprises civility. I love his definition of civility—“the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers.” That’s what we need in American today.
Paul’s solution sounds a little like that on the surface. He talks about the strong and the weak. The strong are those who fully understand the implications of the Gospel for the Christian life. The weak are those whose faith has not grown to the point where they are comfortable with freedom and still feel the need for the old laws and rules. Here’s what he says to the strong– “do not look down on the weak.” I think we all know what he means—the smug smile of sophistication that whispers its disdainful contempt for those “poor, simple, uneducated, immature believers.” On the other hand, the weak must not “judge” the strong. Again, we all know about that—the self-righteous frown that fairly growls a condemnatory judgment of “those liberal Bible twisters who don’t take the Bible seriously anymore.” Paul says to the weak and the strong, “Don’t do that, either of you.” Sounds like civility, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It is much deeper than that.
You see, the problem with civility, or with any other social practice or law is this, How can we get people to be civil? Why should I? Why should I voluntarily limit my radical freedom? How can we motivate people to balance their own freedom with concern for others? How can we persuade people who are convinced they are right to take a step back as they deal with their “opponents?” Here’s where the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the answer. The answer is precisely that—Jesus Christ. That is what Paul explains in Romans 14:1-12.
Here’s the bottom line, the main point of the passage before us today. It’s not up to you to judge a fellow Christian. That judgment is up to God in Christ and, says Paul in verse 3, God has already accepted the person with whom you so strongly disagree. Paul is talking there about the great doctrine of justification, which teaches that God has accepted us as sinners, just-as-if we had never sinned, because of what Jesus did for us. Indeed, God has accepted us so completely that we who were slaves to sin are now servants of God, because of Jesus. Jesus is our Master. And we have no business judging the servants of another Master.
Furthermore, expanding on that business of masters, verse 8 says that “we belong to Jesus.” He died and rose for us, so that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. That person you want to write out of the church belongs to Jesus. That person whose views you simply cannot accept because they seem so clearly un-biblical belongs to Christ.
Finally, says verse 10, here’s the ultimate reality. One day each of us will stand before the judgment of God. Rather than looking down on each other in these disputes we have over the adiaphora, we should look up to the only one who has a right to make such judgments. Verse 12 says, “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” That should be our concern—not arguing our brother into the ground, not exercising our freedom, but living in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is our Lord and Master and Judge. We are radically free from all the stuff that ruins human life, but we are also finally accountable to the One who “paid the debt, and made me free.”
Verse 5 makes all of this very practical. Make sure your own conscience is clear. Be sure you are really convinced about your own point of view. The way to gauge that is to ask if you can honestly give thanks for what you do. Do you genuinely see this side of ribs, or this ice cold beer, or this round of golf on Sunday afternoon as a gift of God, and thus a good thing? Can you look up to Christ, your Lord and Master and Judge and say, “Thanks for this“?
Of course, it is very possible to fool ourselves in matters of conscience. So the ultimate thing is this. Make sure that your first concern is Jesus—not your freedom, not that other person with whom you disagree, but your Lord Jesus Christ. If he is the Lord, the center of your life, he can be the fulcrum that will keep you from tottering back and forth between libertinism and legalism. He will give you a firm center on which you can balance your freedom with your love. That’s what Paul means in verses 6 and 7 with the repeated phrase “to the Lord.” Be sure that whatever you do—whether it’s eating or not eating, observing special days or not, having pork BBQ and a shrimp cocktail on a Sunday afternoon picnic or keeping kosher in strict Sabbath observance—be sure that you do it “to the Lord.”
If you think this first century text is irrelevant to our sophisticated contemporary church, you haven’t sat between a committed vegan and a dedicated hunter at a church potluck. And you haven’t played golf with a friend who ruins every round with a tirade about the sloppy clothing his fellow church members wear to Sunday worship. And you haven’t had to referee a worship war in which an entire congregation is divided over the question of which kind of music best glorifies God and edifies the people. And you haven’t seen your Sunday crowds decimated by the absence of dozens of families who dedicate the day to AAU sports rather than service to God.
If you think that the question of adiaphora died with John Calvin, you aren’t paying attention to the contemporary church. These disputable matters give us the opportunity, not to win the argument, but to preach Christ as Lord and Master and Judge. It will take courage to address these things, but we can’t let the traditions of the past or the pressures of the culture rob our people of their radical freedom in Christ. We are free both from rigid 17th century Sabbattarianism and from rabid 21st century sportism. Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath—not ancient rules or the AAU.