This coming Sunday will mark a special Sunday for me. It will be 8 years since I was formally inducted as Vicar of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong. It will also mean that I am the longest serving Vicar in the 75 year history of Christ Church! This is not something I intend to dwell on in the service, but perhaps something I can mention here! It is also on the way to becoming the longest time I have served in one post since ordination. So far the longest I have stayed in one position was while Chaplain and Tutor at Bedford.
I always hoped that I would spend 8 years here, but now I am looking beyond that and am concerned that in staying in my present position, I shouldn't fall into a rut. There is a danger, I think, when you have been at a place for a while of getting into a routine in a way that you don't attempt anything new. Given that, as regular readers will know, one of my constant concerns is the way in which church life can suffocate what it is we actually are called to do, I am anxious that the next few years should not just be more of the same. Quite what they should be is another question altogether!
For the past two Sundays, I have preached on Romans 12 and 13, the set readings for the day. As I wrote yesterday, I will be preaching on Romans 14 this coming Sunday. In Romans, Paul writes for eleven chapters about salvation, sin, the law, righteousness, and the place of Israel in the purposes of God. He concludes what he writes by focusing on the greatness of God's mercy to all, both Jew and Gentile.
In chapter 12, Paul appeals to his readers by these very mercies to offer themselves completely to God's service. In the way that a priest in the temple would offer a dead animal in sacrifice to God, we are to offer our own bodies, that is our very selves, as living sacrifices to God. Paul then continues to spell out what this means in practice. He concludes with a call to believers to wake up and serve the Lord in love.
How does he follow all this in chapter 14? He discusses whether we should eat meat and vegetables or just vegetables! This seems an amazing anti-climax after his theological discussion in chapters 1-11 and its rousing application in chapters 12-13.
I was reflecting on this when listening to Barack Obama, the democratic contender for the Presidency in the United States, on TV earlier today. On Tuesday, Barack Obama said in a speech attacking his opponents in the race for the White House that 'you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig'. This led to Republican outrage claiming that it was an offensive and sexist reference to Sarah Palin.
The Democrats have responded that no such slur was intended and that John McCain, the Republican contender had used a similar line earlier in the campaign. The problem, of course, is that last week at the Republican convention in her acceptance speech of the nomination as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin had made a joke asking what the difference was between a 'hockey mom and a pit bull'. The answer: lipstick! The answer was delivered with a gesture pointing at her lips.
The crowd listening to Barack Obama's reference to pigs and lipstick clearly took it as a reference to Sarah Palin. Obama denies he meant this and in righteous indignation has complained that when America is engaged in two wars, is facing rising unemployment and an economic crisis, not to mention the problems of global warning, we should not be focusing on comments about lipstick!
Whether Obama intended them to refer to Sarah Palin or not, they were certainly unwise. What gave them meaning for those who heard them was the context in which they were uttered. And after Sarah Palin's joke last week, it was impossible for them to be understood any other way. Either way, Obama appears either nasty or naive.
His reaction to the complaints about his comments that this controversy is just silly and trivial also misses a very important point. The seemingly trivial issues are symbolic of much more serious and important issues. It may be about lipstick on the surface, but underneath it is the whole issue of male-female politics and what is and what is not acceptable in political debate. Interestingly, ordinary people seem to get this better than professional politicians like Barack Obama and his team.
Many of us find it hard to express and put into words deep philosophical ideas. It doesn't mean though that at some level we don't get them. What we do is to express them in ways we can understand and articulate. People may not be able to give a philosophical explanation of sexism and the rights of women, they do know, however, that appearing to describe a woman as a pig is wrong in the same way using similar language to describe a black man would be wrong.
The debate in Romans (don't worry I have forgotten it!) about meat and vegetables may seem trivial to us and almost unworthy of a place in a great letter like Romans, but, to those affected by it in the Roman Church, the debate reflected and illustrated the very issues that Paul had been dealing with in the first eleven chapters of Romans. Paul's response to how the debate should be handled reflects what he says about the need for love of one's neighbour in chapters 12 to 13.
As in the controversy over Obama's remarks about lipstick and pigs, what gives the discussion about meat and vegetables its significance is its context. The context in Romans is the relationship between Jew and Gentiles that Paul has been so focused on in Romans. For Jews and for many Jewish-Christians what you ate or did not eat showed who was in and who was out. In Galatia, Peter had withdrawn from eating with Gentile-Christians when Jewish-Christians had arrived. In a different situation in Corinth, eating meat offered to idols demonstrated how strong your faith was. There those who thought themselves the most spiritual despised those who refused to eat meat offered to idols. The 'what you eat or don't eat' debate wasn't so much a debate about food as a debate about theology.
A popular saying tells us 'we are what we eat' and that was certainly true theologically in the first century.
Paul understands all this perfectly well. He responds to the issue in the Church of Rome in two ways:
1. He makes it clear where he personally stands. Those who eat meat are indeed 'the strong'. They have understood all that Paul has said in Romans 1-11 about faith and the Law and have drawn the right conclusion. He doesn't see those in Rome who refuse to eat meat, probably because of scruples based on the Law, as more pure, but as weak. Whatever else it meant, Paul would certainly have seen dying to the Law as meaning that the Christian was free from the Law's dietary requirements!
2. Paradoxically though, this does not mean that everyone in the Church in Rome should eat meat. Drawing on what he has written in 1 Corinthians, Paul won't allow the strong to despise the weak. They may be weak, but they are still brothers and sisters in Christ. The strong at Rome need to understand not only the argument in Romans 1-11, but also the argument in Romans 12-13 where Paul reminds them that we are to love our neighbour as ourself. What is more, our neighbour in this instance is a brother or sister for whom Christ died.
In other words, what I believe about what God has done for me in Christ means that I can eat anything, but what God has done for me in Christ means that I shouldn't if it hurts someone else for whom Christ died.
It's not just about lipstick and wasn't just about meat!