Community over Conviction

14th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 14:7-23
14 September 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                                   

Last week we considered Moses, the Burning Bush, and Jesus’ question:  Who do you say that I Am?   Today we return to the book of Romans, where we were in August.   Remember that Paul has expounded on the glorious good news of the love of God that can never, ever be taken away from you or anyone else.   Then he challenges us in chapter 12 to be transformed, changed into people who live for God, who love like Jesus did, with the gifts you’ve been given, and even in the challenges of persecution, hatred, evil, that we followers of Christ are called to live peaceably.  As much as is possible (and a lot is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you!) we are to overcome evil with good.  

So we skipped chapter 13, but chapter 14 of Romans is all about community.   In order to have true community, we must avoid judging and being stumbling blocks to others.   In other words, we value community over the exercise of personal conviction.  

The two disputable matters in the opening of chapter 14 are these: Whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and whether or not Christians should worship God on certain required Jewish holy days.  Because I know these two issues have been burning in your minds all week, I thought we should address them.   (just kidding)   But really, we can learn something from how Paul handles these conflicted issues for the conflicted issues of our day.   Now before I read this, I want to reassure our newcomers at Peace that there is no serious conflict dividing this church.   But I do stand by my strong words of caution today, because I see too many churches that are leaving themselves vulnerable by tackling too much strong debate without care for community, thinking that that’s the path to consensus.   It is not.  Hear why:
Romans 14:7-23

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 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. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 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 of us will be accountable to God.

13 Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. 19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building. 20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; 21 it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. 22 The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. 23 But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. 
Your life and your death is not about you.  It is about God, whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ.   This concept is difficult for modern Americans, who for generations have lived into this notion of personal independence.  I was chatting with a friend, someone I know to be a Christian (not someone in the Peace community) and I was shocked by fierce language she used to describe a family conflict that had endured for 14 years.  She celebrated her freedom to assert herself in cutting this step-daughter out of her life.   Now I know it is healthy for us all to express our angry feelings, but I was concerned about her attitude.  She had convictions I could see, but her understanding of community (within her family) was severely wounded.  Where does my concern turn to judging her?

I see this problem in churches too, though not so often in this church.   Folks have a personal conviction and they bump into someone else who does not share that conviction, and rather than giving room for the other person, they write them off.   Often times they leave the church, looking for another church, where everyone shares the same personal convictions about everything – faith, family life, politics.   Good luck with finding that church where everyone agrees!!

Have you noticed that I am very reluctant to bring up controversial issues in worship?   I mention them, but I try to refrain from telling you how you should think about them, which could become an abuse of the pulpit.   Our Adult education team is very reluctant to present a class that is going to divide people by inviting them to assert their personal convictions in ways that destroys community.   Is this just conflict avoidance behavior?   No, it is a Romans 14 community concern.  Community is more valuable than personal conviction.   Richard and I don’t agree on everything.  If you’ve been around us long, you will have noticed this.   But community in our marriage trumps personal conviction – most of the time.  ;  )   My sister, a Southern Baptist, and I really don’t agree on everything.   She and her husband and Richard & I used to argue, but we gave that up.  We just do not engage the subjects that we know will divide us.  No point in picking a fight.  

There are many personal convictions that could divide this church Peace, if we let them: 

Our perspectives on immigration, military involvement abroad, gay marriage, Israel and Palestine, abortion, gun control, Muslim-Christian relationships are among the most divisive issues.   We could set up classes or debates on these issues, and we might have some fruitful and informative discussions.   But we must do so with great care and concern for preserving community.  We can have these discussions, but we always do so at the risk of someone (and all it takes it one – to the left OR to the right) setting off another person in the group, disrupting community for the sake of personal conviction.   And peace is diminished, and if it gets bad enough, Peace Church is diminished by it.   

For Paul and the early church, the problem was the same, the issues were different.   Nobody here cares about whether you eat meat or not.   We probably should care where your meat has been, if you eat it, but we don’t.   We do not care whether you worship on Saturday or Sunday.   We do assert with conviction that adultery is wrong, that abusive relationships of any kind are wrong.   We can agree that stealing, lying, cheating, murdering are wrong, and that disrespecting God or any human being is very wrong.   We will agree that loving God and neighbor is the key, but how that gets defined in specific ways, we will disagree.  

According to Romans, the problem is we judge one another.  The problem is we make others stumble.   The problem is we care more about expressing what we think/how we feel than preserving community with another human being, and especially a brother or sister in the church.   And Paul uses harsh language – we ruin one for whom Christ died.   We destroy the work of God!

We can summarize the lesson of Romans 14 in the following four points:

  • God is the Lord of the conscience.   That is one of our guiding principles as Presbyterians.  Your convictions are yours.  Be secure in them – such that you do not need force others to share them.   Your convictions may be wise and sensible but they are not necessarily authoritative for all people, places, and time. Some of the most confident assertions of the Church have later been cast off by the church 50 or 100 years later.  Some of the most confident assertions of the church in the Southern Hemisphere are quite different from those of the Northern Hemisphere.  

Let God be the Lord of your conscience as you interpret scripture for today.   Listen carefully to the Spirit speaking through a variety of voices.  You will stand face-to-face with God.  We all will.

  • Don't pass judgment on your brother or sister if they have a freedom or liberality in an area of faith and life that you don't have.   As the saying goes, when you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.   Jesus said, “Do not judge, that you may not be judge.  Stop examining so closely for the speck in someone else’s eye.  Get on with removing the log in your own.”   Oh, but it is so tempting to look for specks.   Let me see if I can see some specks in you all now….
  • If you experience a certain freedom in Christ in an area that is conflicted, never let your exercise of freedom cause a weaker sister or brother in the faith to stumble.  (The Greek word for stumble in verses 13 and 21 is skandalon, from which comes our word, scandal and scandalize) Be sensitive to their perspective; don’t scandalize them with your behavior.   Don’t express your freedom as if to say any intelligent Christian or any truly faithful Christian must certainly agree with you on that point.   It is not necessarily true.   Be humble in posturing yourself, that you may not make another person fall.  

  • Pursue what makes for peace and building up the others.   This quote connects well with the verse from Ephesians 4 that will be our call to discipleship which I will paraphrase here.  “Speak the truth in love, grow up into Christ, and promote the growth and the connectivity of the body of Christ.”

We simply cannot allow the kind of fierce debate that the world loves to passionately engage, with its destructive forces, invade our church and destroy the beautiful community that God has given us.   We have to live according to our God-ordained unity, building one another up in love.  With the Moravians, a 15th century movement started in Prague by Christian martyr, Jan Hus (a reformer who came along before Luther or Calvin), we can affirm "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love" *

Our name is Peace and peaceful and deeply respectful is what we will be in all our dealings with one another – always.

*Often attributed to St. Augustine, this quote seems to originate with Marco Antonio de Dominis, (1560-1624), a Catholic bishop in Italy.   It has been unofficially adopted by the Moravians and much appreciated by other Christians.