September 07, 2020
The Proper 19A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 18:21-35 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 14:19-31 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 14:1-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Author: Scott Hoezee
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. We surely never hope that God gets to the point of being finished with forgiving US!
Some years ago the late Lewis B. Smedes published a popular book titled Forgive and Forget. In the book Smedes spent quite a while looking at the positive mental health benefits that accrue to people who do not stew on things but who rather let hurts go through the forgiving of others. At one point he had a line to the effect that when you forgive someone, you set a prisoner free and the prisoner in question turns out to be yourself. At the time Smedes came in for a lot of criticism from some in the Christian community who found this approach to be altogether too psycho-babbly, too therapeutic, too inwardly focused when it came to the whys and wherefores of forgiveness. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We forgive not to help ourselves but because it’s the God-like thing to do and our main focus should be on healing others, not ourselves.
Some of these critics had a point but they may have missed also a larger point: this need not be an either-or. Let’s say God created us for shalom. Let’s say that the bad things we perpetrate against others as well as the bad things inflicted on us by others disrupt that shalom. When things are out of whack between us and another person, we feel unsettled. Things are out of joint. Forgiveness is a divine gift when God gives it to us because it restores our relationship with our Creator. We feel better. But presumably there is a sense in which God feels better too. Our restored relationship brings God joy, too, and if it is true that restoring God’s own joy may not have been the chief reason why God forgave us in the first place, it’s not unimportant either.
So also for us: maybe we do free ourselves for more joyful living, for a more settled feeling of shalom in our souls when we forgive another person. That it should have that effect on us ought not come as a surprise, though. It would make sense if our forgiving others restored also our own sense of balance in God’s creation. Because forgiving would make us more human in the sense of making us better bear God’s image.
Smedes was right: forgiving is good for us. It’s part of the mutual webbing together of all reality and of all our relationships. And that is the very definition of shalom.
Author: Stan Mast
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” Well, not so fast, children of Israel. You have walked away from your enslavement in Egypt, but your former Master is chasing you down. Once Pharaoh awakened from the midnight horror of losing his oldest son and looked at his situation in the clear light of a new day, he realized that he had made a mistake in letting Israel go. So, he mustered his motorized divisions and rumbled after his former slaves, who appeared to be wandering in confusion not far away.
It is fascinating, and telling, that Israel’s God was involved in Pharaoh’s frantic push to recapture his escaped slaves, while those slaves had barely acknowledged their God yet. Verse 8 of this chapter says that, after Pharaoh changed his mind (verse 5), Yahweh hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as he had done throughout the Ten Plagues. Why would Yahweh do that? We’ll see in a moment.
But first, notice how Israel responds to the sight of Pharaoh’s army. “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to Yahweh.” It’s about time they called out to their Liberator, but their faith was short lived. In the next breath, these liberated slaves were ready to go back to prison. With a storm of angry questions, they turned on Moses and said an awful, nearly blasphemous thing. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”
It wouldn’t be the last time they would say something like that, and they aren’t the only children of God who have said the same thing. When faced with an impossible situation, God’s people often focus on the seen difficulty, rather than on their unseen God. We pay lip service to God with a momentary cry for mercy, but we are governed by our fear of Pharaoh, or whatever threatens our life. And we choose for the devil we know, rather than the danger we don’t know.
You would think that Ten Plagues and Passover would have convinced Israel once and for all that Yahweh’s power and love were greater than anything in Egypt. And you would think that Pharaoh would have been permanently cowed by the God of Israel, having seen all of his gods defeated by Yahweh. But there is no accounting for the stubbornness of evil and for the weakness of faith. So, we should be grateful for this story, because it shows us God’s complete victory over evil and his overflowing grace toward the small faith of his weak children.
As Israel gazed in horror at the advancing Egyptians, Moses gave them a strange order: “stand firm” and “be still.” Resist the flight or fight impulse that is instinctive when we are threatened. Do not try to run away. Do not even think of attacking that army. Instead, “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” If you do that, you will see your invisible God overpower your visible enemy. Your faith will become sight.
Having heard from Pharaoh and Israel and Moses, we finally hear Yahweh speak. He tells Moses what is about to happen, and why. “Tell the Israelites to move on.” Yes, they must stand firm in their faith and be still in their hearts, but they must keep marching into their full liberation. Well, yes, but there was the little matter of the Red Sea that blocked their forward progress. “Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the waters, so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” The Egyptians? No so much.
The key point in the ensuing action is that Yahweh is the main actor. Israel need only stand firm, be still, keep marching, trust and obey, and they will be saved. So “the angel of God… went behind the Israelites… coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel,” forming a protective barrier so that Israel could escape through the Sea.
Then Yahweh “drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land… with a wall of water on their right and their left.” The Egyptians, whose hearts Yahweh had hardened (verse 17), plunged after the Israelites on that dry ground between those walls of water. But as they thundered on, “Yahweh looked down… and threw the Egyptian army into confusion… made the wheels of their chariots come off….” When Moses stretched out his staff once again, the walls broke, the waters rushed back into place, and “Yahweh swept them into the sea…. Not one of them survived.”
Modern readers, sensitized by a century of violence, might recoil in horror from a God who would act with such destructive power. Why would God do such a thing? God answers our questions with a very clear response. God had two motives: the one private, the other public, the one for the church, the other for the world.
Verse 30 says, “That day Yahweh saved Israel…. And when the Israelites saw the great power Yahweh displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared Yahweh and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” God’s chosen people had a God given mission to bring the knowledge and love of God to the world, but the world in the form of Egypt had frustrated that mission by imprisoning Israel for over 400 cruel years. After exercising infinite patience with those evil persecutors, Yahweh finally acted with decisive power to save Israel and, through them, the world.
One of the reasons for this “second liberation” was to move Israel to complete trust in Yahweh and in his servant, Moses, who would lead them to the Promised Land. We’ve already noted how Israel should have been moved to complete trust in God by his first act of liberation through the Plagues and the Passover. But their faith was weak and small, and they needed a demonstration of God’s saving power and love that they would never forget. The parting of the Sea and the destruction of their enemy served that purpose for the rest of Israel’s history. Whenever their faith wavered, they remembered this event, this decisive act of salvation.
And then there was God’s second motive in this decisive act, the public motive, the one that had to do with the world. Today, people make a great deal of the distinction between private and public religion; we must keep our religion to ourselves, practice it in private at home and in church, but keep it out of the public square. For the purposes of a functioning democracy, that may be necessary. But in this story, God shows us that he not only saves individuals in church; he also deals with nations in public.
When he told Moses what he was going to do, Yahweh said, ”I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army…. The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I gain glory….” In claiming to be god and in worshipping the other gods of Egypt, Pharaoh and his people had robbed God of his glory (Romans 1:21-23). As Yahweh was defeating these idol-worshipping people, they cried out, “Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt.” In their defeat, they acknowledged that Yahweh is God, the God who saves his people and judges those who rob him of his glory.
The world does not work properly, indeed, it falls into ruin, when humans “fall short of the glory of God.” So, in his love for the world, God acts in history to bring the nations to acknowledge his sovereignty. The nations won’t do it easily or readily. Even the worst plague, even the death of loved ones, even the loss of wealth, even the destruction of mighty armies often won’t make people bow the knee. But in his severe mercy, the Lord keeps intervening in the affairs of both individuals and nations. He will not rest until “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see ourselves in Israel’s situation. Our backs to the Red Sea and a might army attacking us, we are in an impossible situation today. What can we do as a seemingly invincible virus attacks, and whole nations are brought to their economic knees, and the people don’t trust their leaders, and everyone is tempted to either flee or fight? Well, even as we must “move on,” continuing our march toward liberty and justice for all, we must “stand firm… be still… and trust the Lord to deliver us.”
The word “deliverance” in verse 13 is yeshua, which is, of course, the Hebrew version of Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.” Even as Israel always looked back at the parting of the Read Sea, so we look back at the salvation God gives to us through the Red Sea of Christ’s blood. As we face impossible situations, let us repeat the words of Romans 8:37; “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Israel’s frequent desire to return to Egypt even though it was the house of bondage reminded me of a scene from the prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” One of the “lifers” is unexpectedly granted parole. He has spent decades in prison, where his every action is controlled by the rules of the house. So, when he is free to do as he wants, he doesn’t know what to do and he yearns for the good old days in jail. When he can’t get back in, he hangs himself in despair. The prison of the world is sometimes more appealing than the strange new world in which God gives us liberty. That, of course, is why he gave Israel the Ten Commandments and why he gives us the Holy Spirit. The Ten gave shape to their new liberated life and the Spirit gives us the ability to live that life.
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is difficult to carve up Psalm 103, though the Lectionary does its best to try doing so anyway. There really is no reason to not preach on the entire Psalm, and in this sermon starter that is pretty much the direction my commentary will go as well.
What impresses you most of all about this well-known and lyric poem is how broad and capacious it is. Here is a psalm with true SIZE to it. The whole song dances on the border of hyperbole. Actually, it crosses over into the Land of Hyperbole quite often. This is one of those psalms that has to be understood as being true only in the longest possible run. Because for now and taken literally, we know that not every life is redeemed from the pit. Not every life or every time. Not every disease is healed. Some are but many for now are not healed. No doubt in the end God will work justice for ALL the oppressed as verse 6 says but for now, there are plenty of oppressed people who will never live to see justice this side of eternity.
We could spend this entire sermon starter deconstructing this psalm and seeking to hedge in its enthusiastic speech with a long string of caveats and “Yeah but . . .” statements. But let’s not do that. Yes, let’s duly note that a touch of realism needs to qualify this poem for the here and now. But let’s not tear down its lyricism on account of that. That would be like taking a Shakespeare sonnet like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate” by noting that in most relationships there are times when we are tempted to compare our lover to a winter’s day, more chilling and more cold! By why do that? Sometimes you just need to be swept up into the lyricism of a sonnet or a poem. Getting caught up in the romance of it all is the point.
So also with Psalm 103: here is a song designed to sweep us off our feet, to impress us and wow us with the enormity of our God and of this God’s compassion, grace, and love. Again, the sheer scale of this poem is what is as impressive as anything. When it comes to describing God’s love, ordinary speech just fails this psalmist. So he has to reach for impossible speech, hyperbolic speech.
How big is God’s love? As high as the heavens are above the earth. How high is that? Who knows. Infinite maybe. When God takes our sins away from us in God’s gracious forgiveness, how far away from us does he throw our sins? As far as the east is from the west. How far is that? Who knows. I guess they never meet. Maybe that’s infinite too. How long does God’s love stay with us? From everlasting to everlasting. How long is that? Who knows. It’s indescribable. Probably infinite. But for sure a good, long while!
A friend of mine once noted that when it comes to the communicable attributes of God—that is, those traits of God that we can share like love, goodness, faithfulness—our tendency is to take what we know of goodness, for instance, on the human level and then when we apply it to God we just make it BIGGER. Goodness squared. Goodness cubed. Goodness raised to a power of 10. But what if it’s not like that? What if God’s goodness is not just like our goodness magnified a bit but what if it is qualifies as a different kind of thing altogether? What if the goodness of God—while perhaps spilling over a bit into human goodness—is finally just such a different animal than on the human plane of existence that it finally defies our ability to describe it or even fully to grasp it?
The poet of Psalm 103 understood that I think. And thus if it seems that at times this psalm’s promises seem a bit too sunny to be true on this side of the kingdom of God, we can understand the reason. Here is a believer who is gob smacked by the enormity of God and of God’s compassionate love, of God’s grace and mercy.
And in being swept off his feet by this vision of God, the psalmist is certain that all the things that for now make life miserable will not have the last word. Even as for now there are many times when diseases are healed and afflictions are lifted, so in the end they all will be. Yes, we are mortals. We are finite. We are that proverbial morning grass that springs to life but then before you know it we also wither and die. But the brevity of this current life is not all there is either. At least that will be true for all of us who can be caught up in the divine love that this psalm demonstrates is finally beyond ordinary description.
In some traditions Psalm 103 is recited as a responsive reading following a celebration of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. I have experienced this psalm many times in that context. And without fail on those Sunday mornings when we as a congregation recited the lines “he heals all your diseases,” we had the names of some members of the congregation in the church bulletin whose diseases were not getting healed at all. Indeed, we recited those words about healed diseases and lives redeemed from the pit sometimes in the shadow of a recent funeral or two where we had to bid an earthly farewell to a dear brother or sister.
Yet we recited those words in the wake of having just taken the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus to ourselves once more. We had just gotten caught up in the grand drama of redemption that played out on the cross and through to the empty tomb. We had just re-witnessed a divine love for us that defies description, a love that once inspired a hymnwriter to pen the well-known stanza “Were the whole realm of glory mine, that were a present far too small” to express gratitude back to God for what Jesus did on the cross.
There are times in the Christian walk of discipleship when engaging with a bit of hyperbole is exactly what we need to boost us along. On the face of it, hyperbole expresses something that isn’t really true. Then again, when it comes to the Gospel, hyperbole expresses something too good not to be true. Psalm 103 knows that. So what else can we say but “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and all my inmost being praise God’s holy name.”
The late Rev. Fred Craddock preached a sermon once on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In that case he took off from the end of John 21 where John claims that if everything Jesus ever said and did were written down, “the world could not contain the books that would be written.” A ridiculous statement on the face of it but that’s the Gospel for you: it defies description. As we have noted, Psalm 103 is good at hyperbole too.
In his sermon at one point Craddock noted that preachers used to be better at using hyperbolic speech in their sermons than a lot of modern preachers seem to be. We’re far too tame. We downsize everything to keep it manageable. By way of illustration of how it used to go in sermons, Craddock mentioned a one-time frontier preacher who in one of his sermons tried to do the impossible; namely, describe eternity. But he tried when he said, “Imagine a giant granite mountain towering 15,000 feet. And then imagine that once every 100 years a bird flies past that mountain and ticks against it with one of his wings. When that bird has managed to whittle that mountain down to the ground, in eternity that would be before breakfast.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Americans live in a “me first” culture that would rather talk about our rights than our responsibilities. We like to sometimes loudly assert our right to privacy, our right to choose, our right to bear arms and even our right to cheer for the New York Yankees. After all, doesn’t Americans’ secular Holy Grail, the United States Constitution, guarantee us those rights?
Yet I suspect Americans aren’t alone in, when in talking about responsibilities, preferring to talk about others’ responsibilities rather than our own. After all, even Christians naturally believe that others’ primary responsibility is to ensure that we can exercise our rights.
Paul, however, turns all of that upside down in this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson. In it, after all, he talks primarily about the responsibilities not of others, but of his readers. The apostle assigns Jesus’ followers the privilege of doing what we can to live in community with the Christians around us.
The context for this assignment is a controversy that threatens to split wide-open Rome’s Christian community. The issues revolve around believers’ observance of dietary laws and holy days. So Romans 14’s proclaimers might compare it to traditional debates about alcohol consumption or Sunday observance.
Paul, however, is like an artist who takes lovely old paintings out of shiny frames and put them into more rustic frames that highlight their antiquity. He reframes the Roman controversy in order to help us glimpse its beating heart. The apostle insists that Rome’s debate is about more than the kinds of arguments Christians sometimes have about whether to play hockey or soccer on Sunday. This issue is really about Jesus Christ and his community’s identity.
By reframing Rome’s church’s tensions, the apostle shifts the focus off the individual members of the community and onto Jesus Christ. He shifts Christians’ perspective from our own natural myopia to the Lord’s point of view. In doing so he hopes to keep that community from tearing itself apart.
While we’re not sure just which particular Romans’ faith was what Paul calls “weak,” we sense they weren’t morally or physically weak. The weak people about whom the apostle writes weren’t apparently, for example, especially susceptible to sickness, temptation or even heresy.
Instead, some Romans’ consciences were vulnerable to pressure from things like dietary practices and religious observances. It seems as if eating certain foods or doing certain things on the Sabbath offended them strongly enough to threaten their faith.
Other Romans’ faith was, however, stronger. That doesn’t mean that it was somehow better or less vulnerable to temptation. Instead, some Romans’ consciences allowed them to do and eat things that bothered others’ consciences.
Yet it’s not always easy to recognize just whose faith is weak and whose is strong. Sometimes those whose faith is “weaker” hold opinions that are strong. Few Christians seemed spiritually “stronger” than someone I’ll call Earl. He felt passionately about things like traditional Sunday observance and worship styles. The strength of Earl’s beliefs seemed to point to the strength of his faith.
Earl simply couldn’t see the other side of issue about which he felt passionately. That doesn’t mean he was spiritually or morally inferior. I think it simply means that Earl’s opposition to things like contemporary worship was so strong that its practice would threaten his weaker faith.
In our text Paul seems to side with those whose stronger faith allows them to do and eat a variety of things. Yet he rejects arrogant attitudes that spring from such strength. The apostle respects the consciences of those whose faith is “weaker.” However, he also rejects the narrow view of things they take. So in our text Paul is what we might call an “equal opportunity critic and encourager.”
For a reason the apostle doesn’t explain, “weaker” Christian siblings believed that Christ had not freed them to eat meat. So they ate just vegetables. Others, however, believed Christ had given them the freedom to eat all things. Yet those “carnivores” apparently looked down on or simply rejected the “herbivores.”
Paul calls those whose faith allows them wider latitude in what they do and eat to “accept” those whose consciences are more restrictive. He calls those whose faith is stronger to, in fact, welcome their “weaker” Christian siblings into both the Christian community and their hearts. The apostle invites his readers to adopt a posture of outstretched arms, instead of crossed arms or even arms held tightly at our sides.
Paul challenges Rome’s Christians whose faith is stronger to view those whose faith is weaker the way God views them – as those God made in God’s image and cares for deeply. Quite simply, he calls them to genuinely love those who don’t share their understanding of Christian freedom.
Yet that’s seldom easy. Think of the issues that have split both Christ’s worldwide church and local churches into thousands of splinters. Baptism. The Lord’s Supper. It’s natural to look down or even condemn those with whom Christians disagree on those issues. It’s even natural for the church to spend endless time debating those issues that we may not fully resolve on this side of the new earth and heaven.
It’s tempting, in other words, for the church to become like a middle school playground football game. The players spend more time arguing about rules, penalties and touchdowns than they do playing football.
It’s also easy for Christians to put each other on a kind of trial in which we interrogate with whom we don’t agree. We naturally act like theological barristers who are out to poke holes in other’s theological cases. If “defendants” can’t come up with a sufficiently clever argument for their perspective, we accuse them of fundamentalism, liberalism … or worse.
Paul isn’t talking about issues that are central to the Christian faith. He’s not talking about arguments over things like God’s creating work, Christ’s divinity or the Spirit’s presence. The apostle isn’t challenging us to accept heresy.
Yet what’s peripheral to the Scriptures may seem almost heretical to Jesus’ followers. That explains the depth of the passion that some issues arouse in the Christian church. It also reminds us that nearly all of us have some “weakness” in our own faith.
That’s why Christian love is the true heart of Romans 14. Paul is inviting his readers to let the gift of the Holy Spirit’s laser surgery help us see even those with whom we disagree as God sees them. After all, far more unites even Christians who disagree, after all, than divides us. Jesus’ followers find our primary identity not in our theological stances, or ethnic or socio-economic status, but in our Lord Jesus Christ.
We’re not, first of all Canadians or Americans, fans of the Maple Leafs or Red Wings, middle class people or even members of the Christian Reformed Church. Romans 14’s hearers and proclaimers are, first of all, Christians for whom our adoptive brother Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again.
So God’s adopted sons and daughters may disagree right now about whether we should worship together in-person, online or some “hybrid” of those two. Yet we agree that we’ve all been baptized into Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Christians may disagree about whether we can baptize people or celebrate the Lord’s Supper online during a pandemic. Yet we agree that God has graciously welcomed all of us into God’s kingdom. So when we disagree, God’s beloved adopted children remember that by God’s amazing grace, we belong not just to the Lord but also to each other.
Paul insists that Christians’ responsibilities are like a lovely picket fence the Lord graciously erects around our rights. Our Christian responsibilities to each other limit the exercise of our rights. The limit of my Christian freedom is the fence that is my Christian brother or sister’s well-being.
So while I, for instance, think that Christ has freed adults to drink alcohol in moderation and to do whatever doesn’t hinder them from fully participating in worship on Sunday, I also know that some Christians don’t agree with me on those issues. At the point that my exercise of my Christian freedom threatens their Christian faith, I need to voluntarily restrain beliefs and myself.
We live in a culture, however, that teaches us to ask, first of all, what’s good for me, not what’s good for you. While it may be slowly shifting to emphasizing how what offends me should restrain you, the overarching issue is largely the same. Our personal comfort remains the standard for others’ behavior.
That means we need the Holy Spirit to radically re-orient our lives. Instead of letting our North Star be our own interests, the Spirit wants to make our guiding light God’s desire for the good of others.
Jesus Christ, after all, lived, died and rose again for even Christians whose faith is weaker than wet tissue paper. He sent us his Holy Spirit in order to transform his followers into people who increasingly imitate him in the way we think, talk and act.
When Jesus’ adopted siblings needlessly offend Christians whose faith is weaker, however, we weaken what that Spirit is building. When Christians use our Christian freedom to do things that shake others’ faith, it’s as if we’re heavy rain that erodes the foundations of a house. Then we’re sabotaging the individual Christian and Christian community that God is building.
God has called Jesus’ followers to build up, not tear down each other. So why would we, for instance, enjoy a plate of meat at the expense of our fellow Christians? Why would you and I drink alcohol if it endangers the Christian community?
In his book, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham describes American President Bush’s popularity. As he was growing up, he very popular with other boys. They liked him and felt “protected and secure in his orbit” (35).
But one time he stepped out of character and used an anti-Semitic slur to describe a Jewish friend. The sensitive Bush accused himself for this gaffe for the rest of his life. Interviewed by Meacham nearly seventy years later, “Bush volunteered the story and cried, shaken by guilt over a remark made in the 1930s. He shook his head in wonder over his own insensitivity. ‘Never forgotten it. Never forgotten it.’ (The classmate remained a Bush supporter and friend for many years.”) (Ibid).