September 11, 2017
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.
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: Doug Bratt
Its narrator so packs Exodus 14 with pyrotechnics that it almost begs for an update to Cecil B. DeMille’s classic, The Ten Commandments. Yet it’s easy to focus so much on all of its light, sound and fury that even its preachers and teachers may lose sight of its ultimate author.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is another example of brevity that demands a context. So the Lectionary’s preachers and teachers will want to look for ways to bring hearers from last Sunday’s Passover table to this Sunday’s “the angel of the Lord who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army withdrew and went behind them” (19). If, after all, we just start with the verse with which the Lectionary starts, we’re not even sure how a ragtag bunch of slaves turned into an army or where that army is even located.
That “army” forms when Egypt’s Pharaoh responds to God’s final plague on his country by chasing the Israelites out of Egypt. That army stands on the banks of the Red Sea as Exodus 14 opens. There the Pharaoh and his forces have hounded the Israelite army to the edge of annihilation.
This, understandably, terrifies Israel’s former slaves. They bitterly complain to Moses (for the first, but certainly not the last time) about leading them out of Egypt. While Moses responds by telling the Israelites to “stand firm” (13), God tells Moses to, instead, tell the Israelites to “move on” (15).
But, of course, to “move on” is to die – unless a way is made through the Red Sea’s death-dealing waters. As it turns out, it’s God who promises to make such a way. God calls Moses to raise his staff and stretch it out over the Red Sea “so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground” (16).
Once the Lectionary text’s preachers and teachers have somehow established that context, we can move forward with the Israelites. Yet not, apparently, before “the angel of God” and “the pillar of cloud” (19) that has been leading Israel’s army away from Egypt move behind her. What has guided those freed slaves now screens her.
What protects the Israelites somehow blocks the Pharaoh and his army. After all, while the cloud brings light to God’s beleaguered people of Israel, it brings darkness to their pursuers. It’s darkness that echoes both pre-creation chaos and one of the Egyptian plagues that now stretches over even Egypt’s pursuit of her former slaves.
It serves as a reminder that God never abandons God’s people, even as they walk in dark valleys that frighten them. God graciously both guides and protects God’s people. Yet God also sometimes impedes God’s children’s enemies, even through natural phenomena like clouds and darkness. On the Red Sea’s banks, God shows how God is even able to move seamlessly and immediately from one role to the other.
Such gracious guidance and protection, however, doesn’t always shield God’s adopted sons and daughters from trouble. Trouble, in fact, remains both behind and in front of God’s Israelite people. They are caught, as the old cliché goes, between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Thankfully, then, God is not done doing amazing things for and to Israel. Yet as Terrence Fretheim points out, God doesn’t act alone. God, in fact, uses a startling combination of human actions and natural phenomena to make a way forward for Israel where there seems to be none.
When, after all, Moses stretches out his hand, a huge gale arises out of the east to turn the Red Sea’s muddy river bottom into dry land. It is, as almost countless scholars note, an act of creation that mimics Genesis 1:9-10’s account of the creation of the first dry land. Mud turns into trail as God’s people cross.
There is much creative imagery here. It’s not just that God re-divides the water from the land. It’s also that God creates both light and darkness (20; cf. Genesis 1:3). What’s more, God creates a kind of new humanity (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), graciously forming a people out of a ragtag bunch of former slaves.
But, of course, divine creative and sustaining action always demands human response. God’s new Israelite people must respond to God’s work by passing through what scholars like Scott Hoezee call “the baptismal waters” of the Red Sea before they can receive God’s gracious gift of the land of promise.
Exodus 14’s preachers and teachers might take a moment at this point to explore with hearers what that hike may have been like. Frankly, I’m amazed that the Israelites even dare take a step forward. Sure, there’s a mighty wind. There’s also a dry path to safety and freedom. On top of all that, the Red Sea’s waters have piled up in high walls.
But who but Moses (and God) is to say how long all that will last? What guarantees do the Israelites have that the eastern gale will continue to howl? Who’s to say their trail won’t turn into muddy swamp? What guarantee do they have that those towering walls of water won’t collapse and come crashing down on them?
Just hours earlier the Israelites had bitterly accused Moses of leading them out of Egypt and into a vast cemetery. Now, however, they step into the dried-up Red Sea. Perhaps it’s a sign of their sheer desperation. Or perhaps this act is one of bold faith, one that will, admittedly, be contradicted almost countless times before they finally cross another river, the Jordan, to enter the land of promise.
When, however, the powerful Egyptians chase their former slaves into the sea, things turn out horribly differently for them. In fact, their tools of tyranny and violence prove to be part of their undoing. God first throws the mighty Egyptian army into “confusion” (24). God next loosens their wheels’ lugnuts so that those wheels fall off.
Then, when the mighty Egyptians have second thoughts about continuing their pursuit of their former slaves, God turns the Israelite’s highway through the sea into the Egyptians’ cemetery. When Moses stretches out his formerly life-giving hand a second time, it becomes an instrument of death.
The Red Sea returns to its former place, greedily swallowing up both those headed toward it and those in it. The new creation with all of its possibilities of life returns to the old creation, with all of its death. Once again, Egyptian parents will grieve, not, this time, over the death of their oldest sons, as at the Passover, but now over the death of their sons whom the Pharaoh had conscripted into his army.
It’s very hard for God’s sensitive adopted sons and daughters to celebrate all of this death. We lament the horrific cost countless Egyptian moms and dads paid for their Pharaoh’s intransigent disobedience. Egypt’s god, her Pharaoh, has dealt only death, while Israel’s God, Yahweh, has dealt both death as punishment, and life as a gift.
The Egyptian soldiers come to learn that the only living God, “the Lord is fighting for [the Israelites]” (25). They learn that Yahweh, not their Pharaoh, is the Lord of all the earth. However, that knowledge comes, in a real sense, too late for them. None of them survive their pursuit of the Israelites.
The freed and safe Israelites experience a similar epiphany. They see the Egyptian soldiers’ corpses littering the Red Sea’s banks. The freed Israelite slaves see “the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians” (31).
Unlike the Egyptians, however, they live to tell about and respond to it. Exodus 15’s response to what the Israelites have seen God do is largely one of praise. First, Moses offers a lengthy psalm to the Lord. Then Aaron’s sister Miriam and other women chime in, dancing before and exalting the Lord for hurling Egypt’s horses and riders into the Red Sea.
Those hymns, however, quickly die out. Before they’ve hardly even dried off from their trip through the Red Sea, the Israelites again begin to grumble against God and Moses. Desert trauma doesn’t even just make them grumpy. It also bends and distorts their memories of Egyptian suffering.
While as I note above, Exodus 14 reminds us that God is able to work through human and natural means, it remains tempting for God’s adopted sons and daughters to act as though it’s all up to us.
In the July-September, 2002 edition of Pulpit Resource, Carole Noren relates the story Linda Hutton of Disciples of Christ in Community tells about a milkmaid and a holy man. The holy man lived in such a remote place that he relied on her to bring him his daily food and milk. The milkmaid, however, often arrived later than the holy man wanted.
One day after he chewed her out for this, she explained why she was perpetually tardy. The milkmaid explained that she had to walk a long way along a river’s bank before she could reach a bridge that would carry her to the river’s other side.
So the holy man suggested that she, instead of crossing the bridge, walk across the water. That would save the milkmaid time and perhaps keep her from being late every day.
From then on the milkmaid was never late. That, however, piqued the holy man’s curiosity. So he asked her how she now consistently managed to arrive so early. “Why, sir,” she answered, “I did as you told me. I walk across the waters of the river.” At this the holy man said, “This I must see. Let me go with you, child, as you return to the village. I believe I can surely walk on water, if someone like you can.”
When they reached the river, the milkmaid boldly stepped into the water and walked to it other side. When she turned to watch the holy man, he hiked up his robe and stepped into the river.
However, after the man took a few hesitant steps he began to sink. So the milkmaid ran back across the waters to help him to shore. “What happened?” the shaken holy man asked her. “Well, sir,” she answered, “you said you believed you could walk across the waters, but you gathered up your robes so as not to get the hem wet.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 114 has been called the most exquisitely crafted of all the Psalms because of its four perfectly matched two line stanzas, its smoothly flowing parallelism, its use of personification, and its mounting suspense. All of this literary beauty combines to highlight the central theme of the whole Old Testament, if not the entire Bible.
This is the second of the six Psalms in a collection often called the Egyptian Hallel (Psalm 113-118), so called because each one begins with Hallelujah (except Psalm 114, unless Psalm 113:9 is really the introduction to Psalm 114) and because each one is related in some way to Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. That is obviously the case with Psalm 114 (cf. verse 1). It is a Psalm of praise without the usual invitation to praise (but remember what I just said about Psalm 113:9). Psalm 114 focuses on the reason for praise by eloquently summarizing Israel’s redemption story.
We know that the Egyptian Hallel was sung at the three great Jewish pilgrimage festivals. For example, at the Passover Psalms 113-114 were read before the meal and Psalms 115-118 were sung afterward. In other words, these were almost surely the words Jesus and his disciples sang that last night when he gave them the Lord’s Supper as a perpetual reminder of his life and death. Accordingly, these six Psalms reminded Israel of how they came to be a people.
Imagine families with little children and aged grandparents gathered in worship. Psalm 114 is read as the powerful story behind the greatest wonder of Israel’s existence. They had become “God’s sanctuary” in the world, the place from which God ruled the world, his “dominion.” In these few words, we are reminded of the heart of Old and New Testament religion—the God of the Universe is once again present in the world in the nation of Israel and, then, in the Israelite named Jesus of Nazareth.
Psalm 114 explains how that wonder happened by retelling the story of the Exodus. That was the means to the end. Note the wording of verses 1 and 2. “When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of a foreign tongue, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” It’s a matter of “when, then.” In two verses we move from Egypt to the Promised Land, from God’s supposed absence to God’s obvious presence.
Behind that story, of course, lies the older story of God’s exile of humanity from his presence in the Garden, the wandering of the Patriarchs with no permanent place to live, God’s repeated promise that he will be their God and give them a land to call home, and then Israel’s 430 year captivity in the God-forsaken land of those foreigners. Psalm 114 reminds Israel of how they had become the sanctuary and dominion of the God who had been so absent for so long.
God way of accomplishing that miracle was so wonderful that the forces of nature, the foundations of the created order reacted in astonishing ways. “The sea looked and fled, the Jordan turned back; the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” On the surface, those words are a reference to the parting of the Red Sea after the flight from Egypt, the stopping of the Jordan before the entrance to the Promise Land and probably to the shaking of Mt. Sinai when Yahweh gave his law to Moses and Israel.
But on a deeper level, verses 3 and 4 might also be one of those frequent Old Testament references to the primeval waters that represent chaos and evil. And the shaking of the mountains might be a reference to the foundations of the earth. When Yahweh delivered his people, the whole order of nature was shaken, even reversed. The humbled God is exalted and the exalted elements are humbled. This pictures the Exodus as a cosmic inversion. Water is removed from its place and then water is given where it had no place (cf. verse 8). The mountains that stand so tall and on which the mighty gods were worshiped in ancient cultures have been reduced to gamboling domestic animals.
How could that happen? Why did that happen? In questions that some scholars hear as a taunt over a defeated enemy, the Psalmist questions the elements over their behavior. Since God hasn’t been mentioned in the Psalm yet (the “God” of verse 2 is really the pronoun “his” in the Hebrew), these questions serve to heighten the suspense in the Psalm and in the worship where the Psalm would be recited. We’ve just witnessed a miracle in the Exodus. We’re part of an earthshaking wonder. How on earth did this happen? Why did the sea part and the Jordan stop flowing and the mountain quake and the entire creation tremble? Or perhaps a better question is, who did this?
That’s where verse 7 takes us. “Tremble, O earth….” That word suggests both fear and joy, twisting and turning in a dance and writhing in pain and agony. The earth should rejoice and fear that the Presence has returned to the earth. The Lord has always been here; he is, after all, the Maker of heaven and earth. But because of sin, the Lord has not been present as he was in the Garden and as he promised to be when he entered into covenant with the Patriarchs. Now the Presence of the Lord has returned to the earth, establishing a new sanctuary and dominion in the little nation of Israel which he has created and formed at the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and Mount Sinai.
There is no way of exaggerating the centrality of Presence in the Bible, or in our God-forsaken world. From the original Garden sanctuary where God walked and talked with his people to the New Heaven and New Earth where “the dwelling of God is with humanity and he will live with them,” the Bible is all about God’s plan to be with his people. That’s what he intended in creation and that’s what he will accomplish in redemption.
In between those happy poles of history, there has been much unhappiness, as Adam and Eve are send out from the presence of the Lord to wander in the world. But as they wander God promises that he will once again be with them. When it seems that he is not with them, they panic. Think of Moses’ conversation with an angry God after the episode of the Golden Calf. When Moses talks God out of destroying Israel, God says, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest (Exodus 33:19).” And Moses says, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” because that will spell destruction for us.
Now here in Psalm 114 Israel is reminded of the happy penultimate fulfillment of those promises. God’s Presence is back. He entered the Temple and dwells in the Holy of Holies. Israel is now his Kingdom on earth, a holy nation and a royal priesthood, from which God will extend his dominion over all the earth.
But Israel was not holy, not faithful, not a royal priesthood, so God withdrew his Presence from them (cf. the chilling scenes in Ezekiel) and sent them into Exile. It’s possible that Psalm 114 was written in Exile or just after. Its intent was to remind Israel of the history that had made them who they were and to invite them to not only praise God for the wonders he had done, but also tremble in his renewed Presence.
Today Psalm 114 calls us to rejoice and tremble in the Presence of God in Jesus Christ. Think of all the allusions to the Presence in the story of Jesus. Was it accidental that the angel told a worried Joseph that “his” son would be called “Immanuel, that is, God with us?” Was John just spilling words when he said that the Word who was God and became flesh actually “dwelt among us?” All preachers know that the Greek word in John 1:14 is “tabernacled,” which is almost certainly a reference to God’s Presence in the Tabernacle/Temple.
Isn’t it interesting that the 12 year old Jesus went to the Temple where he said he had to be “about his Father’s business?” What business? The very thing the Temple symbolized, namely being present with his people. And was it accidental that the essence of Jesus message was “The Kingdom of God is at hand…?” He had come not only to be the Presence of God, but also to reestablish God’s Kingdom on earth. Among his last words were these: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
How about Jesus’ claim that if the Temple of his body was destroyed, he would rebuild it in three days. And isn’t it telling that the crucial word from the cross was a cry that summarized the human problem. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I could go on and on with all the biblical references to God’s Presence. It is clear that the narrative problem of the Bible is the absence of God, and the focus of God’s miraculous solution to the problem was his Presence in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
James Luther Mays, as usual, says it better than I can. “Psalm 114 tells how the Lord came to be the Holy Presence in the midst of Israel and, at the same time, how the God who is sovereign of the whole world came to have this particular people as his dominion. It is thus a kind of poetic etiology of the situation assumed by all the Psalms. The church has read and sung this Psalm in the light of what happened in Judah and Israel through Jesus Christ. It sees in his death and resurrection yet another and a climactic theophany of the divine rule in which the Presence assumes a new relation to people and place.”
No wonder that the church of Jesus Christ is called “the Temple of the living God (II Cor. 6:16).” We are now that “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called…. (I Peter 2:9).” Such a privilege and responsibility should make us “tremble at the Presence of the Lord….”
It should be fairly easy to illustrate how central the absence of God is in human experience. Serious literature and film are filled with it. So is history. My “favorite” example is that horrific scene from Eli Wiesel’s classic account of the Holocaust, Night. To further subdue the Jewish prisoners in a death camp, the sadistic commandant has a child crucified in the presence of the entire camp. As they gaze in stunned horror, one agonized voice cries, “Where is God?” Another voice answers, “Up there! On that cross!”
He probably meant that God is dead. The Holocaust proved that to many of its survivors. But we could apply those same despairing words to the cross of Christ. Where is God in a suffering world? Up there, suffering and dying on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In that moment, the Lord suddenly came to his temple. The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The Presence of the Lord, formerly hidden behind that curtain, is now out in the open, on the cross, for all to see. “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, inevitably any number of people have been asking whether the issues half-a-millennium ago are still relevant today. Some even wonder if there has not been enough reform in the Catholic Church to warrant and undoing of all that Martin Luther kicked off back on All Hallowed’s Eve in 1517. In truth, church splits have proliferated since the Reformation such that you cannot even speak of “Protestant” in a singular term. There is no singular, concerted Protestant church even to consider some wholesale reunification with the Catholics. It seems we are good at finding things to argue about and split up over in the church.
Whatever else Jesus may have envisioned for his church, the one thing Jesus was clear about was that we’d never be finished with the need to forgive one another now and again. Similarly Romans 14 stands witness to the fact that from the very earliest days of the church, fellow believers have always had to work through differences of opinion within a given congregation.
Scholars have long debated just what Paul may have been addressing in Romans 14-15. Near as we can tell, it appears that in the Roman congregation, there were some former Jews who, although now converted to Christianity, believed that kosher food laws still applied as did the observance of the Jewish high holy days. However, there were also believers at Rome who thought that such rituals and food law practices had nothing whatsoever to do with being a Christian.
It didn’t take too long before each group was regarding the other with suspicion. Those who refused to keep kosher snickered at the immature spirituality of those up-tight folks who worried about silly things like not eating pork. How childish! How antique and quaint! On the other hand, the Jewish Christians found plenty of cause to look down on the others, too. How dare they live such casual lives!? If they’d only listen more closely to God’s Word in Scripture as handed down by Moses and the prophets, why they’d start keeping kosher in a heartbeat! Hadn’t even Jesus said he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them? Well . . . .!?
The congregation at Rome was clearly in trouble and on the verge of splitting up. In fact, it already had split in one sense: whole segments of the church refused to have anything to do with each other. You couldn’t even have a church potluck anymore. Long about the time you had everyone together, someone would unwrap the newspaper from around her casserole dish and there would be some scalloped potatoes with ham and bacon! Suddenly the whole fellowship hour would be finished! The Jewish Christians would be offended by the non-kosher ingredients and so wouldn’t touch a thing on the rest of the buffet, either. The Gentile Christians would be offended that these other folks could be so easily offended!
This is the tangle of issues that Paul needed to address for the sake of the larger church. But before we look at what Paul wrote, it is probably a good idea to notice something vital: whatever else we might make of this particular set of issues, notice that for both sides of the dispute, there were genuine spiritual, theological, and biblical components to these questions. The Jewish Christians saw it as a matter of fidelity to Scripture. The Gentile Christians saw it as a matter of the wonderful truth of salvation by grace alone and the freedom believers are supposed to enjoy in Christ. In other words, to the minds of the people involved, this wasn’t a matter of personal taste. This was not on a par with one person’s preferring Beethoven over Mozart. No, these were serious spiritual issues because they could be parsed in biblical/theological terms.
Paul himself never really denies that. But instead he trumps these more minor spiritual matters with a far greater spiritual reality: the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul clearly had his own opinion on this matter, and indeed he tips his hand pretty decisively when he refers to the kosher-keeping group as the “weaker” party! Paul all-but says that those who were not fretting about food laws did indeed have a more mature, fuller, stronger grasp on what the Christian life of grace is all about.
But if the so-called “stronger” believers thought that Paul’s agreement with them was going to get them off the hook, they were wrong! “You may be right in theory but you’re wrong in practice when you look down on these other people! Do you want to know why you should accept these other people just the way they are? Because God has already accepted them the way they are and that, my friends, ought to be enough for anybody!” Paul then goes on to talk a lot about the one Lord Jesus Christ whom all true Christians serve. Everything we do, say, think, eat, drink comes under the canopy of Jesus as our Lord and Master. So long as we are all under that same gracious tent, then we all have precisely one person to whom we are finally accountable and it is not each other but Jesus alone.
So if we encounter a fellow believer who bows the knee to Jesus, who can open his mouth to say, “Jesus is Lord,” then that should be enough. We don’t need to criticize every little thing about one another in the church. We don’t need to all march in lockstep on issues that are not central to our common confession. And this is true even when the things that differentiate us may be considered as spiritual or biblical issues (as was the case in Rome).
In the end, Paul tells both the weak and strong parties to leave one another in peace. Both were guilty of judging one another, of stratifying one another, of grading each other’s spirituality. And so both were told to knock it off! In life and in death we belong to Jesus alone. He is the one taking charge of us. Furthermore, it is his grace that covers us even if we do make the mistake of being alternatively too up-tight or a bit too permissive in the shaping of our piety. If Jesus is able to forgive us and bear with us, then we should be able to do the same for one another.
Of course, it goes without saying that this applies only to issues that truly are rather minor; to peripheral matters of opinion and not to central issues of the faith. We need to be able to distinguish between what Paul calls “disputable” matters and the core issues of the gospel itself. But just there is the rub! What counts as central and what counts as peripheral? Often we answer that by saying that central matters are biblically firm matters whereas less-vital issues are things that even the Bible doesn’t much spell out for us. But that hardly settles the matter. After all, in Rome 2,000 years ago the case for keeping kosher could surely have been built on very solid biblical grounds.
From our own experience we, too, know that many issues that crop up often do get turned into biblical matters. In the end, therefore, what inflames various controversies is the notion that where a person stands on a particular issue is a measure of where he or she stands on the whole Bible itself. Thus, some end up claiming that those who take God’s Word seriously will quite obviously take Position A whereas those who opt for Position B do so only because they are allowing personal preferences to shove God’s holy Scripture aside.
These are, of course, difficult and often very painful matters. Doubtless it was no less painful for the Christians at Rome. Yet Paul tells them, and by the Holy Spirit Paul has been telling Christians down along the centuries, to accept one another. The Greek word he uses there does not mean “accept” in the sense of merely tolerating those with whom we disagree but actually to welcome them, to fellowship with them. Paul calls for mutual love in and through disagreements and he consistently grounds that love in the Lordship of Jesus. In just twelve verses Paul uses the word “Lord” ten times. He hammers home this idea of Jesus as our Lord, and in verse 9 Paul makes clear that this Lord Jesus is a living Lord. Typically in his New Testament writings when Paul refers to Easter, he uses the phrase “he was raised from the dead.” Only in Romans 14 does Paul say, “he returned to life.”
This small twist of verbal cleverness on Paul’s part was a none-too-subtle way of reminding the Romans that they were in the presence of this living Jesus all the time. Jesus was not just raised up from a tomb and then whisked away out of sight. Jesus returned to life because life–my life, your life, our mutual life together–is what Jesus is most interested in right now and always.
Very few challenges in the Christian life can compare with the challenge of really loving one another in the Lord despite how different we all are within the Church. George Santayana once observed that Americans don’t really solve their problems, they just leave them behind. If there are issues that are difficult to resolve, Americans don’t bother tackling the issues but instead take advantage of all the space and options we have in this country and so just move away. And if we can’t go somewhere else, we leave certain things in the past, we just don’t talk about a given issue and so eventually it dies a quiet death from neglect.
This ethos affects the church, too. Some people join huge megachurches in no small part because then they can be anonymous. You’ll have fewer conflicts in the church if you also have fewer contacts. Others make a habit of moving around, casually transferring again and again, usually leaving a place long about the time there are some nettlesome differences they sense between themselves and others in the congregation.
But that may merely avoid doing the hard work of building community. Most of us do attempt this work, however. We struggle to follow Paul’s advice of accepting that we are all under the one and same Lord Jesus Christ and so we need to welcome and love one another even as the Lord has welcomed and loved us. But on our way to achieving that mutual love in and through differences, we will now and again deal directly with the issues that differentiate us. And that’s OK. Discussion is good. Conversation is needed. Even debate can be healthy. What we dare never forget is that we do all of that in the presence of the one Lord who returned to life and who is our constant companion right now.
A little later in Romans 14 Paul says, “Let’s not destroy the work of God for the sake of food!” Indeed, as we continue to face a world in which there are so many glaring differences among various Christian groups–and as we continue to build community right here in our own congregation as well–we need to keep the work of God clearly before us. If we do, then in the end we will always be able to come back together in unity, bowing our knees, opening our mouths, and together as the one people of God declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”
In Philippians, when dealing with a small controversy in also the congregation at Philippi, Paul at one point wrote, “Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near.” And there, as in Romans 14, Paul did not mean that we should behave because Jesus might come back one day soon and so you should be ready. Instead Paul meant that Jesus is a living and close presence among his people in the church. Richard Mouw once noted that while growing up, most of us are taught by our parents that there are certain things one simply does not say when in “polite company.” But Mouw noted that Christians of all people should recognize that they are always in polite company! The living Lord is near!