We Live for the Lord
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 10, 2014
Romans 14: 1-12 (CEB)
Welcome the person who is weak in faith—but not in order to argue about differences of opinion. 2One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them. 4Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand). 5One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions. 6Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God. 9This is why Christ died and lived: so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God. 11Because it is written,
As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me,
and every tongue will give praise to God.
12So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
There’s an old story about a stranger who came into a small town one day and stood in the center of the town square. He had on a very strange coat. It was black, and sewn into it were patches of cloth of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Word quickly spread of this strange visitor, and pretty soon, the townspeople gathered around in curious silence. Finally, a brave soul dared to ask about the significance of the man’s unique coat.
The stranger immediately began to point to different patches and explained that they represented the sins of different people in the town. He proceeded to explain each patch. Embarrassed, some people left the square. Others were indignant, while others shook their heads in denial of the stranger’s accusations. After describing every patch and denouncing every sin, the man turned around and headed out of town. As he went, the townspeople noticed that on his back was a dark patch of cloth that covered almost his entire back. Obviously, the townspeople wondered out loud what, and whose sin that patch represented. As they wondered and murmured, suddenly, a voice rang out loud and clear; “That represents his own sin, for he is willing to point out the shortcomings of others and yet fails to see his own.”
You remember those words from Jesus, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” The idea is the same here from Paul in these words to the Romans we heard a few moments ago. Only Paul isn’t talking in sweeping generalities. There’s a specific problem of division and judgment among the Roman Christians, and Paul is tackling it head-on. You see, the Jewish people have a deep history of dietary restrictions. They can eat meat, but only certain kinds of meat that has been prepared in very specific ways. So, in order to ensure that they were not inadvertently breaking any of their dietary laws, Jews and Jewish Christians of Paul’s day would often avoid meat altogether, choosing to stick with a vegetarian diet. However, the Gentile Christians did not have such dietary restrictions. So they, even after their conversions, went about eating meat if they desired.
The result of these varying practices was that each camp was being exclusive of the other. They felt that because of “their beliefs”, they were the only true Christians. The Jews excluded the Gentiles because the Gentiles did not stick to kosher meats or a vegetarian diet. And the Gentiles reviled the Jews because of their strict legalism. 2,000 years ago, Christians were fighting about diets. And we’re still fighting about stuff today, aren’t we? By comparison, we can probably think of numerous controversies about which we too are so passionate that we cannot honestly avoid portraying our opponents as misguided and completely confused in faith. In fact, it’s not just that we question the validity of the faith of our opponents on these issues, the opposing views often also become the basis for denying fellowship to those who think differently from us. Do some of those issues come to mind?: homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, evolution, creationism, ordination of women, and on and on and on. Whatever your stance on such issues, if you see any controversy dividing the church today as a basis for exclusion of fellowship, then Paul is speaking to you.
I hope we are all squirming just a little bit now. Because how many times has someone walked through the doors of the church and we have thought to ourselves, “That person shouldn’t be coming to ‘my’ church”? This is something we are all guilty of doing, just like the Roman Christians. And what Paul said to the Romans and to us is that so-called “issues,” or even “hot-button issues” should not divide us, should not be a reason for judgment and even exclusion. Indeed, there are some beliefs which should be common to all Christians. They are contained in our creeds, they are captured in the questions asked of new Christians wishing to be baptized and join a church. Do you repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord? These beliefs speak the truth of the nature of God the Father, the saving work of Jesus Christ his Son, and the continuing power of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s church and in the lives of believers. They don’t speak to the issues of our day because one’s beliefs on such issues are not pertinent to one’s faithfulness as a Christian. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism put it this way: “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
It’s important to note here that Paul does not take sides, even in the midst of strong differences of opinion. This particular issue of dietary laws was so volatile that Paul’s colleagues, James and Peter, debated it on a regular basis. But Paul has no interest here in advocating for right or wrong. Instead, his concern is to prevent the sides from becoming so polarized that they no longer respect each other. Have you ever seen something like that? Two opposing groups so split that they can’t even muster a grain of appreciation for the other side? Sounds a little like modern U.S. politics, doesn’t it? Not mention a lot of other divisive issues that rule the day.
Again, Paul is not negating the political, or doctrinal, or moral realities of our life together. We humans will probably always be arguing about something; there may even be times when, in regard to certain moral issues, we act forcibly. But what Paul does in these words to all Christians is disarm the finality of all such judgments we may render against one another by reminding us that our judgments are not ultimate. There is only one judge. There is only one Lord. And from beginning to end we stand, not because we are in the right, but because by grace we are the Lord’s. Did you hear that? “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 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.”
I want to share with you all what Paul’s words here mean to me, personally. When I look at someone; the way they live their life, the convictions they hold, the positions for which they advocate, the question is not whether they are right or wrong. I can’t answer that question. Number one because I don’t know everything that is right or everything that is wrong, and number two because I am not the judge, God is our judge. Instead, the question I have to ask is, “Is that person acting in faith? Is that person living for the Lord?” Because ultimately, that’s the best any of us can do. We may come at the Christian life from different angles, we may live it out in different ways, but what matters is that whether the same or different, our whole lives grow out of a complete dedication to God in Christ Jesus.
Let me give you an example. I have a good friend I went to seminary with. He attends church faithfully every single Sunday. During the week, he works as the Executive Director of a religious lobbying group in Washington DC. He’s openly gay, and this past week he got arrested in front of the White House, where he was protesting Obama’s immigration policies. Now, your or I might have a problem with my friend’s life choices. We may disagree with the positions for which he advocates. But I cannot deny that he is acting in faith, and neither can you. We cannot deny that to the best of his ability he is living for the Lord. He is a child of God the same as you and me. And as soon as we stop seeing another person as a child of God and view him or her instead as the personification of a sin, it becomes easy to enjoy the energy of disdain and self-righteous opposition. The reason we believers cannot lord it over each other is that there is one Lord—and to that Lord, and that one Lord alone, weak and strong alike owe allegiance. From that Lord, and that Lord alone, weak and strong alike receive welcome.
I think we can all agree on a least one thing, and that is the fact that it’s pretty disgusting to watch all the energy wasted in maintaining division and opposition in our world today. Terrorist groups and countries alike spends billions on weapons every year. Politicians fork over tons of money so they can spew their vitriol at the opposing candidate all over TV. Families disown one another and then spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid each other while at the same time worrying about the well-being of the people they once loved. We fight wars, we march, and protest, and riot. We spy on each other just so we can collect a little “dirt” on some people who don’t think like us. We divide denominations and congregations. We split families. We fight the same fights over and over and over again because we are 100% convinced that we are right and thus everyone else is wrong. That’s a lot of energy. It takes a lot of time and effort and resources to maintain a position of opposition all the time and in every aspect of life.
But we forget that our identity does not come from our political, or economic, or moral standing, or from our stance in opposition to others. Our identity comes from God. So, just imagine with me for a minute what it might look like if we took all of that energy of self-righteous indignation and instead directed it all towards living for the Lord. Do you see the possibilities? If we live for the Lord, then by Paul’s standard, we will welcome those who are weak. We will be tolerant of differences, remembering that people come to know and love God through diverse experiences and religious practices. We will focus not on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye, but on the log in our own. We will change the world, just as Christ changed us. And you know what? I can’t think of anything better!