Sunday, October 14, 2018

To the Lord, Not You: Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

Hey, get a load of this. You all know CNH, right? Case New Holland? Remind me – raise your hand if you ever worked there. Yep, okay, so picture this. Let's say there's this fellow named George. And he's a business systems analyst. Where's his office? (CNH Technical Center.) Alright, so George is in the office. He's minding his own business. He's doing his work. All of a sudden, this other guy walks over to him. That guy's name is Hank. George doesn't really know Hank. Hank doesn't even work in the same building. Hank's from the maintenance department. He spends a lot of his time over at the plant, doing everything from to servicing the machines to cleaning the bathrooms from time to time. But here Hank is, bumping shoulders with one of the business systems analysts. And Hank asks if George has a moment to talk.

So the two of them find a place nearby with a couple chairs to sit down. Got a picture of the scene? Oh, and Hank's carrying a briefcase, which doesn't seem quite in character. But he opens the briefcase and pulls out some forms. Where he got them is anybody's guess. And Hank says to George something like this: “Now George, I've had my eye on you, and I've been a bit concerned about how things have been operating around here. So I think it's high time I sat you down for a thorough performance evaluation; it really is overdue. I hope you'll be cooperative, because I'm facing a difficult decision whether to keep you on.” That's what Hank says to George. Okay, now let me ask you: That scenario I'm describing – can you see anything wrong with that? It's a serious question; let's hear some answers. (George doesn't work for Hank.)

Exactly right: George doesn't even work for Hank! There is nothing about Hank's job, there's nothing in Hank's role at the company, that would authorize him to carry out a performance evaluation of another employee or to exercising hiring or firing power; much less an employee who works in a different department. George is a fellow employee, not an underling. And now let's take it a step further. Imagine that Hank launches into his line of questioning, and starts evaluating George as if he were a maintenance worker. Now, there are a lot of things that CNH probably expects of employees in general, regardless of department. But when you get down to the details, those are two pretty different jobs for the company. Measure George like a maintenance worker, and he's going to come off not looking so swell. If the tables were turned and George tried to evaluate Hank like an analyst, Hank wouldn't look too great, either. Their jobs come with different sorts of customs, even if both are trying their best to make the company a success. But neither's got authority to treat the other like an underling. George's response here to Hank would be to say, “Excuse me, buddy, but I don't work for you.”

The picture Paul paints of the situation in Rome isn't so different from that crazy scenario. We've heard already about some issues in the Roman churches because of Gentile Christians looking down on Jewish Christians who had been exiled for five years and only back in the city for maybe three. And now we find out that there's a big divide laid over top of that one, which is similar but not quite the same. Move around among the Roman church meetings, and you'll find that not everybody agrees, even in the same church, on a few things. Rome's a diverse place for Christians. And I'm not talking about disagreement on the fundamentals – they're all on board with that. I'm not talking about any significant doctrines, or even major questions of Christian ethics. But there are some other customs and other matters of conscience where they're not seeing eye to eye, and they're forming factions over it.

Take, for example, what to eat. There are some believers in Rome who look at themselves as 'strong.' And they don't bother with the old dietary restrictions you'd find in Leviticus. They have the confidence to eat foods that used to be considered unclean as well as foods that used to be considered clean – the typical Roman menu is no obstacle to them. But then there are other believers in Rome – the ones the strong look down on as 'weak.' And they aren't ready to move beyond those dietary restrictions yet. For them, there's something unsafe about it – and they don't know where to get good kosher meat, so they stick to a vegetarian diet just to be sure (Romans 14:2). When Roman Christians get together for a fellowship meal, the 'strong' are rolling their eyes when they see the 'weak' heading to the salad bar again and again, and the 'weak' are muttering under their breath at the compromises the 'strong' have made to justify eating the meat available in the market.

What's more, they can't even agree on how their calendars should work. Some folks in the Roman church – the 'weak' – want to keep observing the rhythm they grew up with – sabbaths every week, and assorted Jewish holidays here and there. Or, maybe, a few of the Gentile believers still think in terms of the lucky or unlucky days of Roman astrology, and instinctively treat them different. Whereas those who think of themselves as 'strong' say, “What's the big deal? A day is a day – just treat each day like the one before it” (cf. Romans 14:5a). So they aren't seeing eye-to-eye; and what's worse, the 'strong' are dismissive of those they see as 'weak,' making fun of them for their extra scruples, while those same so-called 'weaker' ones are judging the 'strong' for all the stuff they see no problem with. Without even realizing what they're doing, Paul sees them trying to administer performance evaluations to each other (cf. Romans 14:3).

And Paul sees a huge problem with that. As usual, his case turns around the gospel. Paul reminds the Roman believers of the story they should all know by heart: “Christ died and lived again” (Romans 14:9a). On behalf of the God who aimed to welcome sinners and show life-changing hospitality to them, Jesus Christ – the Word of God spoken in human flesh – allowed himself to be taken to a hill outside Jerusalem, having been beaten and mistreated and abused, and let himself be nailed to a cross between a pair of terrorists. He let himself be classed with and treated like a criminal, and ultimately put to death. Christ has died. But that wasn't the end of the story the Roman believers, whether Jew or Gentile, whether 'strong' or 'weak,' had come to hear about Jesus. So far from being the end, it was scarcely the start. Because on the third day, the tomb was empty. And it was because Jesus had stopped being dead. He'd left the world of the dead behind and broken through to a new kind of life – real, bodily life, resurrection life, life in the fullest sense the word has ever carried, life like this world doesn't even know yet! Christ is risen.

Why? Why did he die and live again? We know one answer Paul gives: that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses” – that's his death – “and raised for our justification” – that's his new life (Romans 4:25). It was for our benefit, to deal with our trespasses and to justify us. But in today's passage, Paul gives a different answer: “For to this end Christ died and lived again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). Because Jesus has taken charge in both places, the world of the dead and the world of the living, he's got a total Lordship over both. And those are really the only two options, aren't they? Jesus is Lord if you're alive, and he's just as much Lord if you're dead or dying! Neither is outside his purview. Got a question about how you should be living? You'd better consult Jesus – he's Lord of the living. Got a question about what comes after death? Better consult Jesus – he's Lord of the dead, too. Life and death are completely in his hands. So Paul can say that “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” (Romans 14:8). If you're alive, you're living in light of Jesus Christ being Lord over the living. If you're not alive, or soon not to be alive, you're not leaving Jesus' jurisdiction one bit, and you'll answer to him in death or dying just as much as in life or living. Nothing we do in life or in death is self-defined: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Romans 14:7). Life and death aren't self-employment gigs. Jesus is Lord.

Paul lays that foundation so we'll get this point: If Jesus is Lord over the whole realm of the living and over the whole realm of the dead, if Jesus is the reference point of life and death itself, how much more must Jesus be the reference point for petty things like what we eat and what we drink and what kinds of calendars we use and whatever else we can come up with?

So in Rome, people labeling themselves as 'strong' have been lording it over those they call 'weak,' and these others 'weak in faith' have been judging the liberties seemingly taken by the 'strong' who aren't troubled by so many bonus scruples. And Paul says, “Y'all cut that out right now! Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?”, Paul asks. They're equals. “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10). “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:3-4). See, he says, the folks with dietary restrictions or special holidays or whatever other custom – they don't work for the 'strong,' they work for Jesus and his Father. And God has welcomed them. And the others, the folks who feel free to eat anything and treat all days the same – they don't work for the 'weak,' they work for Jesus and his Father. And God has welcomed them, too.

It's like George and Hank. Hank's got no business giving George a performance review – George doesn't work for Hank, he works for someone else! And if the tables were turned, it'd be just as wrong. Who is Hank to pass judgment on somebody else's employee? Hank's take on George's performance is irrelevant; what matters is how George's boss sees his work – that's what decides if George stands or falls. And just the same, Mr. Strong and Mr. Weak are fellow employees of the same Heavenly Boss. They're on the same level. And none has any business trying to despise or judge or boss around the other. It doesn't matter what Mr. Weak thinks of Mr. Strong, or what Mr. Strong thinks of Mr. Weak; it matters what the Boss thinks about each. Performance review is not our purview.

That blows the whole thing wide open. The 'weak' don't answer to the 'strong'; they answer to Jesus. And then the 'strong' don't answer to the 'weak'; they answer to Jesus. What matters is the performance evaluation Jesus gives. “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 confess to God.' So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12). And you know what that Boss may take into consideration? Trying to meddle in the work of his office by carrying out unauthorized performance reviews. Hence why Paul tells each group to knock it off. The Heavenly Boss is the host of the company dinner, and whomever he welcomes, the other guests have no right to try to kick out.

So Paul tells the believers to keep gathering together for fellowship – but to quit badgering each other, mocking each other, judging each other, interrogating each other, when they gather (Romans 14:1). Instead of rejecting each other, they should take a charitable view toward the other side's customs: maybe, even though they do something different, they've got the same motive: to glorify God. “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6). The meat-eater in the Roman churches gives thanks to God for the food; he's trying to glorify God in what he's eating; and that's all the vegetarian at the next place setting needs to know. And the vegetarian who couldn't eat that meat in good conscience without thinking where it comes from – well, he gives thanks for his salad greens, he wants to glorify God, and that's all the carnivore chowing down on a steak needs to know. Recognizing that, both can move forward in love to try to make things easier for each other to stomach (Romans 14:13-23).

These days, in today's churches, we've got plenty of diversities in our customs – and again, I'm not talking about key doctrines of the faith, I'm not talking about the clear spots of biblical morality, I'm talking customs and opinions. Some, like in Rome, revolve around what's for lunch. Some Christians eat all kinds of stuff; some are pescatarians who leave out all meat but fish; some are vegetarians; some are even vegans. Some Christians go with a gluten-free diet. Some Christians have assorted food allergies. (I used to go to a church in Kentucky where so many people had food allergies of one kind or another that at church potlucks, each dish was clearly labeled with any possible allergen so nobody took the wrong thing for them.) And then different cultures bring different kinds of cuisine – some I like, some I don't, and your tastes may be different from mine. Paul would just tell us that whichever diet we've got, be thankful to God and honor him with every bite on your plate.

And then, not unlike Rome, we have different customs in our calendars. There are some churches who follow the Puritans in rejecting holidays like Christmas and Easter. Remember those Pilgrims way back when? The Thanksgiving guys? Yeah, they not only refused to celebrate Easter, they actually passed laws fining people for celebrating Christmas. Years ago I talked with one pastor who tried to imitate them; he said that in his church, they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus every day and saw no need for Easter. Our church, needless to say, follows a different practice. But that pastor's goal was to honor the Lord without special holidays; and if God welcomes him, my input isn't needed. Just the same, our goal is to honor the Lord with special holidays like Christmas and Easter; and if God welcomes us, the Puritan's input isn't needed.

Or think of this one: In some churches, the Christian calendar is basically reduced to Christmas and Easter; other seasons need not apply. But in other churches, they make a bigger deal out of practices like Advent and Lent. And the closer you get to the Catholics or the Orthodox, the more other kinds of holy days will start cropping up – feasts and fasts of every kind, commemorating saints and biblical events and everything you could dream of. Some of those things, we in this church celebrate; some, we don't. Other churches may vary. And even in this church, how I observe it and how you observe it may look different. But our job isn't to nitpick each other's customs. It's to honor the Lord in whichever approach we're convinced is good.

Let's take it further. One of those extra celebrations in Western Christianity has been All Saints' Day, which long ago got pinned to November 1 as a general celebration of all the saints and martyrs and confessors. The night before it was celebrated with a vigil: All Hallow's Eve. Today, with its popular celebration being derived from the Christian vigil and various Irish and German practices, we call it Halloween. And boy are we Christians good at fighting over whether we can or can't celebrate Halloween, and how! Paul might stress to do nothing you can't do in honor of the Lord, and then to think through your own convictions and follow them, and to leave the performance review of those who differ to God. Because those whose customs differ from yours – well, they answer to the Lord, not to you.

Besides food and calendar, there are other customs where we might differ. Paul hints another difference in Rome was that some folks refused to “drink wine” and others didn't (cf. Romans 14:21). How to deal with the question of alcohol is a longstanding debate in the church. When I was in seminary, the school's president told a story about how, when he was young, he came from a tradition that avoided alcohol, but he was studying in Scotland and staying with this staunch Scottish Presbyterian woman. In her tradition, there was a big taboo against music in church – that was a big no-no. But she had a shot of whiskey every night before bed, because that wasn't a taboo in her church circles. The EC Church has long had that taboo. Up until just the other year, if you were an EC Church member and you drank even a sip of alcohol, you were violating the oath you swore before God when you became a member. We took a totally hardline stance. Now our Discipline has eased off a bit: it recommends total abstinence from alcohol, but doesn't command it. We know the Bible forbids drunkenness (Isaiah 5:22; Romans 13:13), and we also know that Jesus turned water into wine and that beer was one of the required offerings the Israelites gave to God (John 2:1-11; Numbers 28:7). How we reason through the issue may differ, and our customs may differ. What matters is that we honor the Lord and that we love each other too much to make each other stumble (Romans 14:20-21).

On plenty of other customs and opinions, believers differ. For instance, tattoos. Some Christians are against tattoos; others bear one or more themselves, and we have such in the church today. A century ago, I bet you'd be hard pressed to find any tattooed believers in this church. Now, things are different. Some believers will still consider tattoos something they just couldn't settle their conscience with; others see no problem. We may well differ. What matters is that we honor the Lord and welcome each other in love. We may prefer different styles of music – I doubt what you listen to is something your great-grandparents would've been comfortable listening to, and maybe some of your grandkids like styles of music you think is just noise. My own playlists tend to be filled with a mix of old hymns and heavy metal. Our customs may differ. What matters is that we each honor the Lord in the music we listen to, and that we welcome each other in love. We may have different ideas of how certain things ought to be done. The list could really go on and on. But you know by now what matters: that we honor the Lord and welcome each other in love.

Because, in the end, if the person next to you in the pew is vegetarian or a meat-eater, if they observe Lent or Halloween or none of the above, if they have beer in their fridge or tattoos on their biceps or not, if they listen to country or metal, if they like traditional hymns or more contemporary music – they're accountable to the Lord about it, not to you. We hold each other accountable where God has clearly and definitively spoken – which is a lot of things – but when it comes to matters of inference and deduction, of custom and opinion, our job is not to review each other's performance, but to get ready for our own review at God's judgment seat. So whatever it is you do, think carefully about it. Think reflectively about it. Act out of firm conviction; like Paul says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5b).

Remember who the Lord is you answer to. It's the Lord who was born in Bethlehem, a guest in a local common home, undecorated and unadorned. It's the Lord who submitted to baptism by his cousin John, not because he had any particular love of the river or any particular need for it himself, but because he wanted to fulfill all righteousness for you. It's the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount, and who taught in parables, and who worked wonders. It's the Lord who challenged the Pharisees and the scribes and the chief priests for the countless burdensome rules they loaded on people's backs, but who also cherished the deep wisdom underlying the Law he himself gave to Moses long before. It's the Lord who accomplished his victory, not by bending other people to his will, but by taking on the form of a servant and becoming obedient all the way up the road to Calvary. It's the Lord who's Lord both of the dead and of the living, and who himself, once dead, now is living evermore.

He's the judge of life and death; he's the judge of each custom and each opinion. It's to him that you and your neighbor will have to explain why you stuck with a custom or opinion, adopted a custom or opinion, or rejected a custom or opinion. He'll tell you whether you made a fair call. But most of all, he'll judge whether you treated your fellow servants, your brothers and sisters, well; whether you welcomed them as he welcomed them; whether you loved them as he loved them. He's the one you'll think of as you do all things “in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6). So when it comes to what's clear and central, encourage and exhort each other in love; but when it comes to customs and opinions, think carefully, follow your conviction, and leave others to God's verdict (Romans 14:4a). And remember that God takes an interest in seeing you – and them – stand, and not fall (Romans 14:4b). He doesn't want to see anybody flunk – not George, not Hank, not me, not you. Honor him, follow him, focus on him, and he'll make sure you stand. Because Jesus is Lord. Amen.

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