Last Sunday we dealt with the very difficult subject of how we as individual believers and members of the Church are to deal with a fellow-believer who is caught in sin. The process outlined by Jesus Himself was absolutely brilliant, but to our shame is frequently ignored. We emphasized the very great need for dealing with sin in the Church rather than sweeping it under the carpet and allowing it to fester until our witness is undermined.
Today, in the verses that immediately follow last week’s Gospel, we have Peter asking Jesus how many times we are required to forgive a fellow-believer who sins against us. Note that it’s not a matter of the person merely offending us or disturbing us in some way; rather Peter is asking about the Christian who actually sins against us. Perhaps Peter was not really listening to what Jesus had just said. But this is one of the times when we definitely can let Peter off the hook by seeing that it isn’t quite the same issue over again. Peter is asking about something in the realm of direct interpersonal relationships gone awry, where the sin, the guilt and the blame are clearly at the other person’s feet and, very importantly, where the other person seems actually to be seeking forgiveness, and that, not even for the first time! Peter’s question is one that most of us have asked; and most of us are naturally disinclined to keep forgiving anyone for sinning against us repeatedly. We often forget that when Jesus taught us how to pray, He had us asking God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. And who among us would like God to place limits on His forgiveness of us?
Peter’s question often gets mistranslated as, “How often? Seven times?” What he really asked was, “Shall I forgive him up to seven times?” And Jesus gives an answer that, translated from Greek to English, could be either 77 times or 490 times. But who’s counting? In either case, the forgiving is characterized by extreme liberality. Again it’s important to see that this is not the same as someone sinning in a way that negatively affects the Church as a whole. It’s a private matter that has reached a level where it may be seriously bothersome but it’s not spiritually dangerous. Peter thought that up to 7 forgivenesses should be ample, but Jesus raises it to a number we would be hard-pressed to count, whether it’s 77 or 490.
And obviously that’s the point: we should not be trying to keep count. And why not? Simply because we serve a forgiving God Who has embraced us in His arms of love when our debt of sin was paid in full by His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on the Cross. The love of God, our forgiving God, is not meted out by measure in a miserly fashion. His forgiving grace is abundant and boundless. So should ours be as well. And, unfortunately, that’s much more easily said than done on our part. What’s the human formula? We are quick to say, “That’s twice. One more strike and you’re out.” Jesus says that something between 77 and 490 strikes will still require our forgiveness. And it seems clear that God Himself is not counting the number of our offenses when all of them are covered by the blood of Christ! No wonder that when we come to this table we’re in perpetual awe of what the broken Body and shed Blood of Christ have done for us!
There’s another person in our lectionary readings for today who presents us with some serious personal challenges, and once again it’s an interpersonal affair. It’s that person who would like to think that he or she is the spiritually stronger person; but Paul, in his irritating table-turning fashion, chooses instead to label such a person as the spiritually weaker one! Why is it that over and over again Paul comes up with standards that are 180 degrees away from our own? Paul puts the matter in terms of eating habits, dietary restrictions, or the setting up of certain days as more to be hallowed than other days. And Paul seems to be saying, “Eat whatever you like and treat every day the same.”
Isn’t that the takeaway we hear most often from people quoting this passage in Romans 14? It’s certainly one I’ve heard many times. ““Eat whatever you like and treat every day the same.” But is that really Paul’s focus here? Definitely not! It’s a conclusion that may fairly be drawn from what Paul wrote, but it’s decidedly not his focus. His focus is entirely on how such differences, how such personal preferences, or even how such matters of personal conscience affect our relationships with other Christians.
And there’s the rub! Herein lies a standard ploy of Satan, and it’s a highly successful one. Satan has many ways of pitting Christians against Christians in order to weaken or even destroy our fellowship and our witness. It’s just another thing at the base of why we have such an overwhelming number of divisions among Christians, each strongly and even intransigently held. We dig in until we feel compelled to hold our ground at any cost. We have to be right, and those who disagree with us must surely be wrong.
I lived nearly 30 years of my life in Skokie, from the time that it had a heavy preponderance of Jewish residents right up to the time that the population had become quite mixed and many of the Jews had moved to Highland Park or Northbrook. One of the frequently heard jokes in Skokie 40 years ago was that it was the rose capital of the world because there was a rose-in-bloom on every corner. But another commonly heard joke most often told by the Rosenblooms themselves was that there was a synagogue on every corner in Skokie, and no one from one synagogue would speak to anyone from another one. That was a Jewish joke and, as with most jokes, there was some underlying piece of truth to it. But, synagogue or Church, it’s not a joking matter.
My former rector from the Church of the Holy Spirit here in Lake Forest wrote this week in his Monday Matters blog about a large nondenominational church in the southeast that initiated a now much-copied idea: asking everyone in the congregation to think of one word that they would repeat over and over daily for a full year as a sort of mantra, making something of importance to them individually become a focal point that might actually change the way they would live that year. I thought of two such words that I would have to choose between, and most of you know me well enough to be able to guess exactly what those two words would be.
I decided that I would defer “chesed,” the Hebrew word for God’s lovingkindness, and choose for the first year the word “one,” basing my choice on the seven occurrences of that word in just three verses from Ephesians 4: “There is one Body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (verses 4-6). One: what an amazing concept. What an unattainable goal. We desperately need to be right, and that means that the others need to be wrong. And as long as we cling to that, we never will sort out who is the weaker brother, who is the stronger brother and whether in God’s sight it makes a particle of difference.
Clearly Paul chose two areas that were contentious in his day, food and sacred days, areas that were causing disputes and divisions in the church at Rome. What would he pinpoint if he were writing to the Church in the USA today? I don’t even want to go there. Frankly, I think we’ve expanded the list beyond comprehension. And while Paul had the apostolic authority to step on as many toes as he wished without the least fear of anything worse than an occasional stoning or imprisonment, most of you are at least secretly hoping that I’ll be a bit more cautious before I attack one of your favorite pet-peeves. This morning I would prefer not to bother you with anything that specific. What I want this morning is for every one of you to go away in self-examination, determining for yourselves whether your personal quibbles are worth the division they could cause in the “ONE holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.” And then I want you to reconsider who it is that you’re labeling “the weaker brother.” You may think that this matter is not all that important, but you’d be dead wrong.
What does Paul say? “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.” Therein lies the real problem: contempt is a very serious matter, and so is judging others in this way. But doesn’t this conflict with last Sunday’s message? Definitely not. The judging that Paul condemns here in Romans is not at all the judgment that Jesus condones in the Gospel. The difference? It’s whether we’re judging by God’s standards, which absolutely is a requirement, or are judging by our own artificial standards, which absolutely is forbidden. And it’s also a matter of whether in the process our attitudes become contemptuous and judgmental.
When it comes to such peripheral matters as what we eat or what days we designate as sacred, we’re dealing with what we call adiaphora, matters that are indifferent, rather than matters that touch the core of our orthodox faith. And all too often we’re caught red-handed at blurring that very important distinction. We turn the peripheral issues into central issues and lose sight of all that really matters. The result is a division of the Body of Christ that should not and need not exist. If we could eliminate that, then many of the differences between denominations would evaporate like the morning mists and we would come much closer to viewing ourselves as truly ONE in Christ.
What else does Paul say in this passage that’s of central importance for us? Here’s one thing: God “accepts” the very people that we reject! Paul says that God is able to “make stand” the person whom we make fall. He says that “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind,” not necessarily in our minds! How hard it is for some of us to accept that concept!
And it’s almost as though Paul is rubbing our self-centered condemnations in our own faces when he makes it a matter of giving thanks to God, one of the responsibilities that remains at the very core of our being. What did Paul label in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans as step #1 in turning away from God? It was the failure to give thanks to God (1:21). Now Paul is saying that the persons we label as “weak” or “strong” are both giving thanks to God! Should we do anything at all to hinder their thanksgiving? Paul would say “may it never be!”
Paul wraps up everything he’s saying in the last verses of today’s epistle reading, where he returns to the issues of contempt and false judgment: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.’ 12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Are you clinging to some judgment of your fellow Christian that’s according to your standards and not according to God’s? Have you imported something into your faith system that God Himself would regard as artificial, peripheral and inconsequential? Take care to judge yourself before you judge your fellow believer! Chances are good that there’s a lot of middle ground here that you’re overlooking. And Paul may be telling you to set aside some of your most revered sacred cows because, in that day when “we will give an account of ourselves to God,” we may find that our labels of “weaker” and “stronger” were not God’s labels at all, and that our contemptuous and judgmental attitudes are the ones that are far more reprehensible to God than the practices that we condemn in others.
Have I just effectively contradicted everything that I said last Sunday? I think not. I could be wrong. But I believe with all my heart and, to be honest, quite fervently, that we are every bit as guilty when we ignore what Paul is saying in Romans 14 as when we ignore what Jesus said in Matthew 18. Both Jesus and Paul are after the very same thing: keeping the Church of Jesus Christ pure. This means not being the least bit reluctant to call sin “sin,” to identify it as such and to deal with it directly and forcefully. That was last week’s sermon, and it’s the command of Jesus. He even gave us a perfect methodology for dealing with such sin.
But at the same time we’re instructed by Paul not to show contempt and not to be judgmental in the ways that we view other believers whose consciences allow them to do or even believe certain things with which we disagree but on which disagreement we have little or no Scriptural foundation. Sometimes it’s really hard for us to let go of such things. I may be offended by those who refuse to worship God exactly the same way that I do while you may be offended that I do those very things. I may find the music others use in worship to be abhorrent and you may find the same music to be ministering to your soul’s deepest needs. Some of us may have strong feelings about what clothing should or shouldn’t be worn to church while others may be convinced in their own minds that you’re looking on the outside appearance while God is looking on the heart. Our Seventh Day Adventist friends and most Messianic Jews believe we have made a grievous mistake to move the Sabbath Day from Saturday to Sunday, while we may feel that they’re mistaken not to honor Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Each of us has our preferences with regard to food and drink, and sometimes we may find ourselves trying to impose those preferences on others as though they had some sort of Biblical sanction.
In the end, “says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” And in that day, we may find that our God is a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God in Whom “lovingkindness and truth have met each other,” and “righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10). How great would it be if we, both Jews and Gentiles, could turn today to such a God, allowing Him and Him alone to judge our hearts before His Holy Word.
God have mercy.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.