Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
13th of September 2020
Today is my first Sunday with you as your minister, and it happens to be the last Sunday on which the lectionary gives us a reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Since Trinity Sunday we have had fourteen straight weeks of extracts from this wonderful letter, and I hope to be able to explain in full just why I think that it is so wonderful in 2023. For now, let us look at this final passage that the lectionary offers us.
In it, Paul may be addressing issues that he knows are already of concern to the church in Rome, or he might be trying to pre-empt problems that have caused division in other Christian communities. Whichever is the case, after sharing the gospel with the Romans, Paul tells them to live their life in a manner worthy of that gospel. Such a life is based on love, because ‘the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law’. (Romans 13:8-10). It is not love, today’s passage reminds the Romans and us, to quarrel over opinions or to pass judgement on one another.
When deciding what food Christians can eat Paul considered himself to be among the ‘strong’ in faith. A few verses further on from this reading he writes: ‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.’ Paul is writing before the gospels themselves were written down, but he is clearly drawing on the tradition of Jesus declaring all foods clean. (Mark 7:18-19) But not all people agree with him. ‘Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.’ We know that in Corinth, where the temples sold the meat that had been sacrificed to idols, some members of the church were afraid that eating this meat would be idolatry. (1 Corinthians 8). There might have been a similar problem in Rome. Or Jewish Christians living in a non-Jewish society might have been vegetarian to make sure that they were not eating meat that had been improperly killed. In the Acts of the Apostles the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem send a letter to Christian Gentiles telling them ‘that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’ (Acts 21:25) It might be that those who are eating only vegetables are trying to follow these instructions.
The second question is about observing days as special. We are not quite so sure what Paul felt about this himself. It could be a question of Jewish Christians, or Gentile Christians who had been God-fearers, continuing to observe the Sabbath and Jewish festivals. Or the controversy might have been about the pagan understanding that some days are luckier than others, although that is less likely. We cannot be sure.
Whatever was behind these distinctions, Paul is clear on how the Romans should respond to them. The Romans are to welcome those who disagree with them into their community. Neither of these issues is to divide those who follow Christ, because their mutual submission to Christ unites them. Paul does not suggest that the church needs to have a single set of practices. In fact, he suggests that that would be wrong. What is important is that everyone eats or abstains from eating, or observes or does not observe particular days, in honour to the Lord and giving thanks to God.
This is, Paul reminds the Romans, because all of us are fellow slaves in the service of the one Lord. It is not up to us to judge each other; judgement belongs to God. (Of course, as Paul has spent most of the letter telling us, when we do face God’s final judgement, we already know that we will be judged righteous not because of anything we do or do not do, but through Christ. ‘[T]hey will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.’)
The passage about life and death, which is often quoted at funerals, might be from an early Christian hymn: ‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.’ It is as comforting as nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,’ which Paul wrote earlier in this letter. (Romans 8:38-39) But it is not simply reassurance. Paul is again reminding us why we should not judge one another: one day each of us will stand before the judgement seat of God.
Reading this passage, we might think that we are left with a church in which nothing is to be condemned. However, compare today’s reading with Paul’s response to another question about food, the question of whether Jews and Gentiles can eat together. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is appalled that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles after condemnation from the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. (Galatians 2:11-13) That separation, of Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, was contrary to the gospel. In the matter of circumcision and table-fellowship Paul is very ready to condemn his brothers, and pass judgment on those who have bewitched the foolish Galatians. Eat meat; do not eat meat; but do not demand that Gentiles be circumcised, do not separate Jews from Gentiles at table, because in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female. (Galatians 3:28)
For Paul, living a life worthy of the gospel means living a life in imitation of Christ. It means showing love and compassion, and while sometimes that means keeping what we believe between ourselves and God, at other it means protesting loudly when Christians are being separated from one another, when our neighbours are being wronged.
Attempting to divide the body of Christ is not loving. In the Barmen Declaration of 1934 the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany told the German Christian Movement that they were wrong to impose Hitler’s ‘Aryan paragraph’ on the church. In the Belhar Confession of 1986 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa said, among other things, that they rejected the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and colour. Implicitly, without ever mentioning the word, the DRMC declared that Christians could not support apartheid. Both these cases could be seen as some members of the church passing judgement on their brothers or sisters, but in both cases the judgement came out of the love that is the fulfilling of the law. The members of the Confessing Church and the DRMC remembered, as Martin Luther King Jr. later wrote, ‘that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbour, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is’. They condemned racism and anti-Semitism, while seeking not ‘to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding’.
Following their example, when faced with potentially church dividing issues, we must decide their relative importance. Are they as unimportant as the question of whether or not to eat meat? Are they as important as whether Jewish and Gentile Christians can share table fellowship, whether non-Aryans can belong to the church in Germany, whether white and black South Africans can belong to the same church? If we listen to today’s passage and believe that we are never to pass judgement, we will not be living lives worthy of the gospel, not be hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good, loving one another with mutual affection. (Romans 12:9-10) Today, as we come to gather around the Table at which Christ is the Host, we do so condemning anything that seeks to deny this table fellowship to others. Amen.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Loving Your Enemies’ in A Gift of Love (Penguin, 2017), pp. 46-49.