Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8, 9b-10)
Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (13:14)
As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, I want to again remind us that Romans is one letter; it was not written with chapters and verses in mind; therefore, I wanted to revisit the end of chapter 13 before heading into chapter 14. Looking at what comes before and after helps us keep things in context, and reminds us that the entire theme of Paul’s letter to Rome is about God’s love, grace, and acceptance, no matter who we are or what we’ve done/do, and his encouragement for us to clothe ourselves in Christ as we learn to love others no matter who they are or what they’ve done/do.
With that in mind, chapter 14 leads us right out of chapter 13 into the territory of not judging other believers who have different convictions than we do. The first four verses of Chapter 14 read:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Whew. I imagine each one of us can be indicted by those verses. Do we judge Jesus’ followers who practice their faith differently than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers whose faith in Jesus leads them to make different life choices than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers in any way, shape, or form?
Pastor John made an excellent point when he talked about judging others. He said to judge is a form of idolatry. We place ourselves in the role of God and make our own determination about who is acceptable and who isn’t–who will stand and who will fall. It’s not our place. Up to this point in the book of Romans, we have learned that God accepts us based on his grace, not on our behavior, and we are asked to do the same for others. When we turn Christianity into a behavior based religion and then police the behavior of other people, we’ve lost our way.
Do you recall the moment after Jesus’ resurrection when Peter and Jesus were walking together and talking about Peter’s future? John was following at a distance, and Peter asked Jesus “What about him?” Jesus reply was: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (Jn. 21:21-22). In other words, you focus on your personal relationship with me, and let others do the same. My relationship with them is not yours to question or to judge. I think that’s what Paul is trying to communicate in Romans 14.
Pastor Beau, in his prayer at the end of Sunday’s service, prayed that God would remind us that we’re not asked to conform to one another; we’ve each been uniquely designed and created with beautiful diversity. Pastor John reminded us over and over, and Pastor Beau returned to it in his prayer, that we are invited into unity in Christ, not uniformity. This is such an important point to remember. Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.
As Paul continues through chapter 14, he brings up other areas of possible division such as different ways to observe the sabbath, holy days, or not observe them at all, and eating meat or not; he reminds the church that even in their differences, each of these people are giving thanks to God, living for the Lord, and will die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (v. 8). Can we accept that? Can we accept (with sincere love) those whom God accepts? And who does God accept? Everyone who embraces his gift of grace through Christ.
Paul brings his point home in verses 13-15 when he writes: Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.
What is Paul’s point? Don’t judge; instead, act in love and be sensitive toward those who have different convictions than you. Paul reminds us the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit...Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (vs. 17 & 19).
What will lead to peace in the body of Christ? How can we build one another up? How can we edify one another? This is what we need to focus on.
As chapter 14 draws to a close, Paul writes So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (v. 22). In other words, don’t sow division, don’t judge, don’t condemn, don’t exclude, don’t provoke…
Pastor John reminded us of a few things at the end of his sermon that can help us move toward unity:
- Recognize that we are all part of the same family.
- Recognize the beauty in the different ways we seek to honor God.
- Recognize we all have been offered grace when we all should have been judged
- Recognize we are not God.
Living in this space requires humility. It requires an openness to learn about others and from others. It requires letting go of black and white thinking. It requires considering a different perspective. It requires grace.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, gives us clues on how to do this:
I plead with you to walk holy, in a way that is suitable to your high rank, given to you in your divine calling. With tender humility and quiet patience, always demonstrate gentleness and generous love toward one another, especially toward those who may try your patience. Be faithful to guard the sweet harmony of the Holy Spirit among you in the bonds of peace, being one body and one spirit, as you were all called into the same glorious hope of divine destiny. For the Lord God is one, and so are we, for we share in one faith, one baptism, and one Father. And He is the perfect Father who leads us all, works through us all, and lives in us all! And he has generously given each one of us supernatural grace, according to the size of the gift of Christ. (Eph. 4:1-7 TPT)
What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and every one else?
What if our social media feeds were filled with messages of God’s hope, love, encouragement and acceptance rather than all of the issues that divide us?
What if we began to celebrate the beautiful diversity portrayed by different cultures, ethnicities, denominations, faith practices etc. in the body of Christ rather than feel threatened by or superior to it?
What if we trusted God enough to lead us all, to work through us all, and to live in us all? (Eph. 4:6)
What if we trusted the Holy Spirit to work in all of us, giving us the desire and power to please God? (Ph 2:13)
What if we let go of our judgments and followed Jesus’ admonition to Peter: ...what is that to you? You must follow me? (Jn. 21:22)
What if we really followed Jesus who tells us by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (Jn. 13:35)
What if we made every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification? (Rm 14: 19)
As I ponder Luanne’s words about this week’s passage from the book of Romans, I am once again confused about how this book has been represented by so many different people. Truly. Paul is wordy, yes. And when we look at individual verses, I do understand how things have been misconstrued and misinterpreted over time. But I keep thinking to myself as we read and study, He’s saying the same thing… Over and over, in so many different ways, so that we don’t miss it: Jesus. Grace. Transformation. Unity. Love. Love. Love.
Instead of landing there–where I truly believe Paul intended his readers to land–we end up skipping whole sections and pulling words out of context–and completely missing the point.
This week’s passage is one I haven’t often heard preached on in its entirety. Certain verses from this chapter are often pulled out, but I’ve rarely heard it preached in context. I am grateful Pastor John took on the whole chunk, knowing it may be difficult for us to digest. It is challenging because it puts us in our place as the created ones. Paul reminds us that we are not God. We are not in charge of who’s in and who’s out and what’s required to remain in good standing. We don’t love that, do we? We want grace for ourselves–but do we want the same grace for others? Paul simply cannot imagine not extending the grace we ourselves have received to the world around us. So he exhorts us all to live and love as we have been loved. His letters let us know that he can’t imagine living any other way than in the way of Christ, the one who totally transformed his life. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Friends!!! Do you see how loved we are by God? How accepted, embraced, and wanted we are?? It’s AMAZING! Wouldn’t all of life and all of our relationships be so much better if we just treated each other the way God treats us? Let’s do that!”
I’m aware that I took a lot of liberties with that short paraphrase of Paul’s thousands of words. But I really do think that’s his point–especially in this chapter of Romans. Let’s revisit a couple of the verses Luanne included, as a reminder of Paul’s actual words:
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. . . Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.
(Romans 14:1, 4, MSG)
The way that Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 4, the highlighted portion above, makes it pretty clear, doesn’t it? God is the one who invites. God is the one who welcomes. God is the one who corrects and teaches. God doesn’t need our help to be God.
These words are a reminder that we don’t know it all. If we embrace that truth, it will keep us humble and seeking. There is an ignorance that is desirable to attain. I know that sounds odd–who wants to be called ignorant? Stay with me here, though…
In her latest book, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, professor, author, and theologian, summarizes some words from 15th century saint, Nicholas of Cusa:
“There are at least three kinds of ignorance that show up in those who seek God, he says.
First, there are those who do not know that they do not know. They think they know everything they need to know about God.
Then there are those who know that they do not know but who think they ought to know. They know that they don’t know everything about God, but they’re still trying to remedy that.
Finally, there are those who know that they do not know and who receive this learned ignorance as God’s own gift. It relieves them from the terrible burden of thinking they have to know everything God knows. It frees them to live in a state of perpetual wonder. It saves them from ruling out new life for themselves and those they love on the grounds that they know how things work and life like that isn’t possible. This is very high-level ignorance, Nicholas says. Those who accept it do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but they can live with that because they trust that God does.”
Taylor goes on to write, “We are the people who don’t know how things work but who trust that God does, whose high-level ignorance frees us to live in unusual ways and say unusual things… What will that look like? How does it work? Who will be there and who will not? Hear the good news: we do not know–and we can live with that, because we trust God does.” (Always a Guest, pg. 182-183)
I love the idea that “learned ignorance” frees us “to live in a state of perpetual wonder.” I also want to live into a trust that accepts that there are just some things I don’t know. What a beautiful space to exist within… the Knowing of God…
Pastor John told us on Sunday that there are 88 different churches here in Casper, Wyoming. He reminded us that some congregations worship in charismatic ways, while others lean into liturgy, and he mentioned that there are things in every denomination that are unique to them, things that don’t always make sense to others. Each church does things a little differently, just as every family functions in their own way. He reminded us that this expansive tree with all kinds of diverse branches has one source–Jesus. Any time branches are mentioned, I automatically find myself in the gorgeous landscape of John 15. Sunday was no exception. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus said about what matters most:
“I am a true sprouting vine, and the farmer who tends the vine is my Father. He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest. The words I have spoken over you have already cleansed you. So you must remain in life-union with me, for I remain in life-union with you. For as a branch severed from the vine will not bear fruit, so your life will be fruitless unless you live your life intimately joined to mine. I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless.” (John 15:1-5, TPT)
Jesus makes it abundantly clear here that fruitful living is not achieved by getting our theology just right, adhering to this rule or that, or by looking at all the other branches around us and judging how we measure up. He says nothing about tending to or criticizing other branches, either. Fruitful, abundant-life living is achieved one way: by living connected to our Source, the vine that is Jesus himself. We don’t grow ourselves. We don’t tend or prune ourselves, we don’t even clean ourselves up. Our streams of fruitfulness do not depend on our own efforts, or on our perfect understanding of theological principles. Getting it right is not part of the equation–because there is no equation. Jesus doesn’t give us a formula for understanding the kingdom, he invites us into a family, knowing that all of us together will more fully represent the God who made us all so beautifully diverse as unique expressions of the vastness and wonder of all that he is.
Isn’t that what Paul has been getting at in this letter?
Make every effort to… Love others… offer (and receive) grace… Model Christ…
Pastor John asked us on Sunday, “Can we extend grace to what we don’t understand?”
We can’t figure it all out, friends. There is no black and white list of how to worship God perfectly, how to live perfectly, how to explain the mysteries of God succinctly and rightly. Our God is much too big for the boxes we want to house him in, too expansive to fit into one worship style, too magnificently brilliant to be limited to one right way of thinking.
Isn’t that a relief?
If we had to have an explanation for every grand idea of God; if we had to be able to explain scientifically every miracle that Jesus performed on earth or be able to give bullet points on how exactly a dead body is resurrected in order to be counted faithful, we’d all be doomed, right? I would! I can’t begin to understand–much less explain–the mysteries of God. And I am so glad I can’t. It keeps me where I need to be… a branch dependent on the Vine, very aware that I am not God and I don’t have to know. As I experience Jesus in the ways he reveals himself to me, the way I worship, pray, and live changes. It will never look exactly like the way someone else chooses to worship, because we each get to have our own beautiful relationships with God and we express ourselves differently. I love that. We can absolutely learn from each other as we all grow–being willing to listen and learn something new is completely different from judging our differences.
Luanne asked us a series of questions at the end of her portion, including this one:
What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and everyone else in the world?
She also wrote, “Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.”
The message is consistent, friends. Throughout scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and–we hope–here in this blog: It’s all about love.