The reading we just heard from Romans is the beginning of one of the most remarkable passages in the book, indeed one of the most remarkable passages in the New Testament. It is not as well-known as I think it should be.
When he writes this letter, Paul had never been to Rome and so he probably didn’t know much about the issues dividing the Christian community there. But Paul could assume that the Christians in Rome were experiencing some divisions since they were human beings and fight is what human beings do. And Paul knew a LOT about divisions in other Churches. So, in our passage, Paul discusses two of the divisive questions that he knew personally.
First, Paul notes, “some believe in eating anything, while [people he calls] the weak eat only vegetables.” This disagreement makes intuitive sense. Although our issues are not exactly the same as theirs in the first-century, we still debate the ethics of food. Should we eat meat, or not? Should school cafeterias serve peanuts, or not? We talk about things like that, and sometimes we fight about things like that.
Second, Paul says, “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” Probably he is talking about keeping Sabbath. Should the Christian community observe the Sabbath on Saturday, as it says in the law? Should Christians shift worship to Sundays, as eventually happened? Or should Christians drop the idea of Sabbath altogether and view every day as the same, as is mostly true of the culture around us today, when business are open seven days a week and youth sports are (or used to be before the pandemic) scheduled on Sunday mornings?
Paul had his own views on these issues, of course. Paul was an opinionated person! Paul doesn’t say much about the Sabbath, but he tells us what he thinks about food. There is no specifically religious reason to avoid any kind of food. Immediately after our passage, Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14). In principle, a Christian can eat anything.
But Paul isn’t trying to teach the Christians in Rome about food here. Paul is trying to teach them about community, about what it means to be united in Christ even when they disagree. Food is just an example of the kind of thing they might disagree about.
And Paul’s point about community is both obvious and mind-blowing. Paul says—this is an amazing thing for Paul to say—Paul says, don’t worry about who is right. Paul says, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain.” And, “those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat.” Paul adds, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” And we are all servants of another because we are all servants of God.
I repeat, Paul thought there was a right answer on the question of food. But Paul thought unity and love should be more important for Christians than getting the answer right. I am going to say that again. Paul thought unity and love should be more important for Christians than getting the answer right.
How about those folks who thought some foods were unclean? They were wrong, as far as Paul was concerned. But rather than correct them, Paul says “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” Let those who are wrong on this question be fully convinced in their own minds. This is amazing stuff, especially coming from Paul!
A bit later, Paul adds another amazing point. Even if, as he says, “nothing is unclean in it itself,” Paul goes on to say “[food] is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (14:14).
Presumably Paul hopes that, over time, people who, wrongly, consider certain kinds of food to be unclean in themselves will come to realize that it really doesn’t matter. But until they do, they should follow their own consciences. And until they do, people who know better should not harass them about it.
Food is just an example. Another example is whether and when and how to observe the Sabbath. There are many, many other examples, including ones that strike considerably closer to home.
Christians have a long history of fighting bitterly about things that do not much matter.
Thankfully, as best I can tell, most Christian groups have come to recognize that we in fact agree more than we disagree. And we are becoming more tolerant on those points where we do disagree.
I saw this in our diocesan conversations about sharing Eucharist during the pandemic. I have my own strong feelings about what I think we should be doing. Not everyone in the Diocese agrees with me. That is because their faith is weak, and they are wrong, of course. (That’s a joke!!!)
In fact, I have been really impressed by the conversations we have had. Overwhelmingly people have been honest about their disagreements, thoughtful about their reasons, and committed to loving unity with each other despite our disagreements. Paul would be proud.
Unfortunately, our nation is not nearly as good at this these days. People on the left, the right, and the center often seem more interested in scoring cheap political points or seizing partisan advantage than in working together to pursue the common good. Too often people, and I don’t just mean politicians, I mean many ordinary Americans, are more committed to their own view about what is right than they are to their fellow citizens. What Paul is saying in our reading for this morning is that we can be committed to our own views and also committed to people with whom we disagree. We can, and we should.
It is important to add that some things are worth fighting about. I suspect that Paul would tolerate a range of opinions about the Eucharist. But Paul would surely insist that the Eucharist matters, that sharing the body and blood of Christ is part of what makes us Christian.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus makes it pretty clear that mutual forgiveness is not an option; it is a Christian obligation. Jesus commands us to forgive each other, and to keep forgiving each other, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And if seventy-seven isn’t enough, then more still.
One of the contested issues in our culture right now is racial justice. There are different opinions on what racial justice looks like. But every Christian is supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, including the neighbors who don’t look like us. And we are all commanded to respect the dignity of every human being. We can debate what that looks like, but not whether or not we should do it.
But Paul’s point in our reading for today is not about the non-negotiables. Paul is talking about the importance of mutual love and unity even when we disagree. Paul is reminding us that a lot of battles aren’t worth fighting even when we are sure that we are right.
Someday, Paul says, “every knee shall bow to [God] and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
While we wait for that day, our task is to be faithful to God’s will as best we can, to love our brothers and sisters as best we can, and, as the serenity prayer says, “to accept the things we cannot change; to change the things we can; and especially to have wisdom enough to know the difference.
May it be so, here at Saint David’s, in our Churches, in our nation, and in our world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan