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Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time
“Don’t drink, smoke, gamble, or go with girls who do.” Classic advice. It wasn’t the advice in my house growing up; we were allowed to have a few drinks in our teen years, and the occasional cigar or pipe wasn’t frowned upon. I was told if I got any tattoos I would be kicked out unceremoniously. In churches, I’ve seen the drinking rule enforced, I’ve seen unspoken dress codes, heard about the dangers of R-rated movies and secular music, been told that a Christian is a bad person for not homeschooling or sending their kids to a very specific type of Christian school, and naturally, if you vote the wrong way (Republican for the mainline, Democrat in evangelical churches), you might as well excommunicate yourself.
I would argue to you that not a single one of the things I mentioned is intrinsically a moral issue, a thing that we could say with definitiveness, “you are wrong for doing this, it is an immoral act in and of itself.” These, we might say, are up to the individual; if you can do one of these without it compromising your faith and devotion to God, it is not for anyone else, whoever they may be, to judge. This is essentially what Paul is saying, on the surface, of Romans 14. Specifically, he is dealing with religious practices; some eat meat, others only vegetables, some follow special calendars, revering certain days, and others do not. Paul’s word here is essentially that God has not spoken on these things, and won’t, and so it is a matter of conscience, of personal discernment, that determines the person’s choice.
Now this may seem an odd turn of subject, here towards the end of Romans. But it is actually the climax, the point we may say, of the entire letter. All of the previous theological argument has been leading up to this. Let us remember, what was the Roman church struggling with? Division. Jews and Gentiles in the church, acting with superiority or resentment towards the others, lording their advantages. The issue is unity, the wholeness of Christ’s Church. The issue is whether or not the Christians in Rome were practicing the Gospel mandate to Love, rooted in the righteousness of God who has in Christ has offered salvation to all.
Their lack of love, expressed as divisive senses of superiority and the attendant judging of each other, is the problem, and the answer has been the gospel: all are sinful but God has acted to save humanity by Christ’s victory over sin and death. All are equal in our sin and equal in the offer of salvation, and are ultimately all accountable to God.
Here, the direct conflict of the church in Rome comes to the fore, and it is here that all of this deep reflection on the gospel comes to bear on the issue they are facing. The gospel says we must be at peace with our brothers and sisters in faith, demonstrating the love of Christ to them. It says we must seek to be at peace with all, in the church and outside of it. And one of the chief and most destructive ways that we fail to do this is by making commandments for things that God has, simply put, not commanded.
Now this is not Paul saying there is no objective morality; he is not a nihilist or postmodernist. He is also not saying that there are no moral stances we can take on the grounds of Scripture. As Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religions says, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” If it is read there, or can be proved thereby, we ought to follow it. But so, so many things are not. And commandments declared on those things are from us, not God, and destructive to the unity and mutual love of the Church.
This is about each of us being accountable to God, who is our master and judge. And it is not the specific things themselves that concern him; it is our heart, and our discernment of what he would have us do, and whether we follow through on that or not. The gospel redeems us to be free in Christ, but for some, that freedom can be destructive. It is not wrong to drink, but if you are an alcoholic, it might be for you. I know now I didn’t need to get rid of my CD’s, but I was in a place in life where I thought I needed to, and as a weaker brother, I don’t regret that decision (maybe a little). Read 5-9. Whatever you do, do it to the Lord. If it is not explicitly immoral to do a thing according to Scripture, or a simple logical implication, then it is between you and God, and it is our discernment that determines whether we have the ability to do a thing unto the Lord. The freedom of the Gospel, allowing us to enjoy the goodness of the world, of our faith, of others, but only if we can do it unto the Lord.
The gospel lived out is each of us enjoying what God has given, enjoying it unto the Lord, thankful for the gift. But only, and this is key, only when it is “what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Our freedom is for us to enjoy, but never at the expense of another. “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” If you have an alcoholic friend, don’t drink around them; if you have a friend who struggles with lust, be careful what movie you watch. Most importantly, do not sit in judgment over the practices of your brothers and sisters in Church. That is why we don’t have mandatory fasting or private confession in the Anglican Church. Do I think you should fast during Lent? Yes! Ought I to judge for each of you whether to, or how, and from what? Surely not. If someone benefits from using prayer beads, please don’t accuse them of popery. If a person finds yoga a beneficial way to exercise and gives it to God, then let them discern that with their Savior. God has saved us all to participate in his life, but together, never standing above another, seeking God’s will for ourselves while also always putting the needs of our fellow believers before our own. We must be cruciform, self-giving as Christ was, for the sake of others.
Romans 14 can thus be summed up in three facets: we must have a cruciform acceptance of diversity in things that do not matter; we must also have a cruciform denial for the edification of others; and in all, we must be seeking to be obedient to Christ and do all to his praise.
We all want the life of faith to be easy. Clear rules make it easy, especially to judge others to make ourselves feel superior. We, however, are called to maturity, to recognize that some things are adiaphora, things indifferent. We are called to recognize the Gospel in our lives, that we can live in freedom in things indifferent, we must not judge another on those same things, and that for all of us, it is the Spirit who is to guide us, for it is to Christ that we are accountable. We, like Christ, must consider our fellows along the way, and be there for their support, not a stone to stumble on. We, freed by the gospel, are called to let the gospel ring clear in us, a note of love, that in all things, God might be thanked and praised. Amen.
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