Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity. This is the last sermon in this series!  Next week, I am planning to start a new series on Philippians.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 14:1-12

St Paul begins chapter 14 of Romans with the word, ‘Welcome’. Then again in chapter 15, he tells the Romans believers that they are to:

‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:7)

We begin every service at Christ Church with a welcome. In days sadly now past, we used to begin each service with the notices, the first of which was always a welcome to all present, and to any newcomers or visitors in particular. We have maintained this welcome in our Broadcast Services. It is important, and it is sincerely meant. All are welcome to join us Christ Church, and we are glad you are here.

St Paul, however, while also meaning this when he tells us to ‘welcome one another’, means more than this. And to understand what that more is, we need to understand why on earth St Paul finishes a letter as important and as serious as Romans by talking about vegetables. He introduces the subject in chapter 14 by writing:

‘Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.’ (Romans 14:1-2)

At first sight, it might be thought that St Paul is about to discuss whether or not we should become vegetarians. Whether we should or not, that, however, is not what he has in mind. Those he refers to who eat only vegetables are not vegetarians as such. These particular ‘vegetarians’ are Jewish believers, and Jewish sympathizers, who want to live according to God’s Law and who are worried that the meat generally available is ‘unclean’ according to the standards of God’s Law and, therefore, not to be eaten. Because of the uncertainty of whether it is or not, it is easier for them simply not to eat meat at all.

That it is Jewish believers that St Paul has in view is confirmed by what St Paul goes on to say in chapter 14 about how ‘some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to alike’ (Romans 14:5). A concern to keep the Sabbath and observe the food laws of God’s Law were, along with circumcision, something that distinguished and separated Jews from everyone else in the ancient world.

This issue of whether it is alright for believers to eat meat is one that St Paul has encountered before only in another context. This was an issue he has had to deal with in the Church at Corinth, the place where he is writing the letter to the Romans from. The issue at Corinth, however, was somewhat different than here in Romans.

The ‘weak’ in Corinth were Gentile believers who had previously been involved in pagan worship. Much of the meat available in Corinth had previously been offered in sacrifices to idols. The weak believers in Corinth still thought that idols were real, and were in danger by eating such meat of falling back into idolatry.

The ‘weak’ St Paul is referring to in the letter to the Romans, however, are Jews who had become believers and who still wanted live according to God’s Law. St Paul draws upon what he has previously said to the Corinthian believers in what he now says to the Roman believers.

In chapter 13, St Paul has written of how ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour’ and that ‘love is the fulfilling of the Law’ (Romans 13:10). The loving thing when it comes to eating meat is for the ‘strong’, that is, those who don’t have a problem with eating meat of any kind, to take into account the feelings and scruples of the ‘weak’. Here, in Romans, this is those who don’t want to eat anything forbidden by God’s Law.

Our own reaction to this, of course, is to identify with the strong and to wonder what all the fuss is about. We get what St Paul is saying about being considerate and taking other people’s feeling into account (whether we do it or not is, of course, another matter), but, seriously, vegetables and eating meat … really? Is this really a fitting conclusion a letter as important as Romans?

I have been careful so far not to say that this was actually an issue in the Roman Church itself. Commentators are divided on this. Some think that this was THE issue in the Roman Church and that it is the key to understanding both why St Paul wrote the letter to the Romans and to what he writes in it. I have to say that I just don’t see it. Others think St Paul is just writing in general terms about an important issue, but not about one that was particularly a problem in the Roman Church. However, that doesn’t explain why he devotes so much space to it, and it would, quite literally, take up space on the scroll it was being written on – valuable space at that.

So why does St Paul write in this way? St Paul has devoted a lot of space so far in the letter to the Jewish-Gentile question. This has been in the background of all that he has written, coming to the foreground in chapters 9–11. Again, this is not an issue we are much interested in today, so we sort of just forget it once we get to chapter 12. St Paul, however, has not forgotten it.

St Paul has written at length in the letter about circumcision, God’s Law, and the place of ethnic Israel in the plan of God, all of which are issues that affected the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the Church. There is only one issue that he hasn’t yet dealt with, and now he does so in order to bring the letter to a conclusion. The reason he leaves it until the end is perhaps because having begun the letter with the unity and equality of Jew and Gentile in sin, he wants to finish with an issue that threatened the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ.

We need to remember that while the issue of ‘unclean’ meat is not that big a deal to us, it was to Jews then and, indeed, still is for observant Jews today.

The Syrian King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes from 175BC to 164BC subjected the Jews in Israel to a rule of tyranny, during which he tried to make them abandon their religion and adopt Greek ways. Many did. Others refused and suffered terribly because of it. Mothers who had their babies circumcised had their babies murdered and hung around their necks. Antiochus didn’t stop there. He tried to make the Jews eat ‘unclean food’. The first book of Maccabees tells us:

‘But many people in Israel firmly resisted the king's decree and refused to eat food that was ritually unclean. They preferred to die rather than break the holy covenant and eat unclean food—and many did die.’ (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)

The issue that St Paul is writing about in these chapters was not for Jews a matter of ‘opinion’, but a matter of life and death.

Food is pretty fundamental to our lives. We are becoming more aware of the importance of what we eat both in terms of our own individual health and of its the consequences for the health of our planet. But the importance of food lies not just in what you eat, but also in whom you eat it with.

Believers in places such as Rome and Corinth would have met in relatively small groups in different houses. St Paul refers specifically to one such group in Rome meeting in the house of Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16:5). We know that when believers met as a Church in groups, they met to eat (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). The Lord’s Supper in the early Church was a real meal with food and wine. Enough wine, in fact, for people to be able to get drunk (1 Corinthians 11:21)! If each of these groups were made up of people of like mind when it came to what it was right to eat, then a group that ate only vegetables would find it hard to meet with a group that ate anything. If the groups were mixed, it would be even more of a problem.

Now we may feel that the answer would be, as it is today, for believers to eat or not eat what they want. Like today when we go out with friends where some are meat eaters and some vegetarians. The vegetarians have one menu; the meat eaters another. But for Jews, and for many Jewish believers, it really wasn’t just about what you ate, it was very much also about who you ate with.

Eating together is a sign of friendship and acceptance. It is today; it was so even more in the first century. Our Lord you will remember was criticized by the Pharisees for ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them’ (Luke 15:2). Our Lord by eating with ‘sinners’ demonstrated that he truly welcomed and accepted them.

When St Paul tells the Roman believers to welcome those ‘weak in the faith’ and to ‘welcome one another’, he is insisting that unity in the Church matters and that believers must not let this issue divide them. They must not let it prevent them ‘welcoming’ each other to their meetings.

St Paul writes of the need for both the weak and the strong to respect each other. However, drawing on what he wrote to the Corinthian Church, he tells them that it is the strong, who eat anything, who should take the lead in making fellowship possible by not eating meat, if that is what it takes. He tells them:

‘Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.’ (Romans 14:19-20)

Although they may disagree on some of the details, most commentators basically see this as what St Paul wants to teach on this issue. And I am sure that we are right to hear this message in what St Paul writes. Unity matters in the Church, and we need to be prepared to make sacrifices for it. I am not, however, happy with this as a full explanation of why St Paul is writing about this issue here in the letter.

We began looking at this issue by arguing against the view that this was an unimportant issue, and while we have acknowledged that it was important for some in the Church, we are in danger of concluding that St Paul tells the Roman believers that this was an unimportant issue after all, and not one worth worrying about and certainly not worth dividing the Church over.

St Paul certainly doesn’t think it should be allowed to prevent believers ‘welcoming one another’, but I think that it is all a bit more complicated than that.

If, as many believe, St Paul is dealing with a pastoral situation that actually existed in the Roman Church, one in which the strong who ate meat despised those who did not, and those who didn’t eat, judged those who did, he goes about it in a rather strange way. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Firstly, St Paul throughout what he writes on this issue, labels the Jewish believers ‘weak’ and the Gentiles ‘strong’. These are terms that would be deeply offensive to many in the Church. Those that St Paul labels ‘weak’ certainly would not have seen themselves as weak. In the first place, they were doing what they believed that God had told them to do. This isn’t dietary advice from a lifestyle magazine, but commands in the Law of God given by God.

In the Scriptures, it is Daniel, a prophet of God, who eats only vegetables and who refuses to drink wine rather than risk compromising his faith while in exile in Babylon (Daniel 1:8-16). That’s Daniel of the Lions’ Den fame! This is not someone that you would normally think of as weak. There is even a Sunday School song holding up Daniel’s strength as an example for us to follow: ‘Dare to be a Daniel,’ it urges us. But here St Paul uses a word for those who do dare to be a Daniel that elsewhere is used to describe someone who is ill!

Now this could just be an unfortunate choice of words except that St Paul doesn’t just see the weak as weak. He writes:

‘We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak …’ (Romans 15:1)

The weak aren't just weak, they have 'failings', that is, they have a deficient understanding.

Secondly, there is some real role reversal going on here. One of the reasons that Jews refused to eat meat in the ancient world was because they couldn’t be sure it had been slaughtered in the way prescribed by God’s Law. Another was that they didn’t want to eat meat that had previously been offered in pagan sacrifices: ‘food offered to idols’ as it is more commonly described.

In Corinth, a Church dominated by the strong, St Paul is anxious that the strong should not lead the weak into sin. He is worried that if the weak are encouraged to eat meat offered to idols, they may be led back into idolatry. There he defines being weak as having a weakness for idolatry. Abstaining from meat, then, rather than being about being strong in keeping God’s Law, is associated with being weak and even having a tendency to idolatry.

Thirdly, in case anyone isn’t sure about where he is coming from on this, St Paul spells it out, he writes in no uncertain terms that the strong are right and the weak are wrong. He writes:

‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.’ (Romans 14:14)

The weak are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are wrong. St Paul is sure of that, but the strong need, nevertheless, to humour the weak – ‘put up with their failings’ is how he expresses it – and not ask them to go against their conscience, even if they are wrong. For them it is ‘unclean’, even if it isn’t really.

Pastorally, if your goal is to bring two differing groups or individuals together, this seems a dangerous approach. In Romans 14 and 15, St Paul argues that believers are not to pass judgement on each other (14:4, 13); they are each to be convinced in their own minds (14:5); they are to seek peace and mutual upbuilding (14:19); they are to be careful not to do anything that will hurt their brother and sister (14:20) or cause them to stumble (14 21); they are not to please themselves (15:1); they are, instead, to build up their neighbour (15:2).

This is all good conciliatory stuff, but then, St Paul has to go and spoil it all by describing those who eat only vegetables as weak, wrong, and failing. The weak are the last people to think they are weak. They think they are the ones who are strong by eating only vegetables! They are, therefore, more likely to see St Paul’s words to the strong as patronizing rather than reconciling.

Most of the Roman believers may not have known that St Paul uses a word to describe the Jewish believers that he has previously used to describe those with a weakness for idolatry. However, at least two of the leaders of the Church in Rome would have known. Prisca and Aquila, for example, were with him when he wrote to Corinth using it to describe believers there. If the Jewish believers in Rome found out that was how he had previously used a word he is now using to describe them, they would be unlikely to be very happy about it. Surely St Paul would realize this?

All this suggests that ‘eating meat’ is not a major issue in the Roman Church itself. If it is, then given how he expresses himself, St Paul can forget any support he hopes for from those he describes as weak!

So, what is going on?

As I have said frequently throughout this series of sermons, we need to remember what St Paul writes earlier in the letter. In Romans 11:11-32, St Paul addresses the Gentiles in the Roman Church directly, and warns them in the strongest possible terms not to be arrogant. I don’t know whether the Roman believers heeded the warning, but as I have said, it is a warning the Church in the future was to ignore. One of the more obvious ways that Gentile arrogance was likely to show itself was in this issue that St Paul is writing about in Romans chapters 14 and 15, which makes it such an appropriate way to bring the letter to a conclusion.

In warning against any possible arrogance on the part of Gentile believers by ignoring the dietary sensitivities of some Jewish believers, St Paul wants at the same time to protect the Roman Church from a problem that he personally has had recent and painful experience of and a problem which he has had to face constantly throughout his ministry. It is a problem caused for him by Jewish believers. In fact, by those he describes as weak! It sometimes goes unnoticed how St Paul actually ends Romans. It gets lost in all the personal greetings. St Paul writes at the end of chapter 16:

‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil. The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ (Romans 16:17-20)

St Paul is referring here to Jewish believers who themselves, out of a commitment to a particular understanding of God’s Law in the life of the Church and believer, refused to eat with Gentile believers who didn’t share the same approach to God’s Law. There may well have been ‘weak’ believers in Rome, but there can’t have been that many if St Paul feels able to write in the way that he does without having to worry about causing offence himself. St Paul knows, however, that the Roman Church does indeed face a challenge. It is the same challenge that faces him everywhere he goes and which he has just had to face at Corinth.

In Philippians, which we will looking at in the next series of sermons, St Paul warns one the Churches closest to him, in ironic way, of those whose ‘god is their belly’ (Philippians 3:2). He also writes to the Colossians:

‘Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.’ (Colossians 2:16)

St Paul knew from bitter experience that his opponents in attacking him demanded that Gentile believers obey God’s Law by being circumcised, if they were men, by keeping the sabbath, and by observing the food laws, which effectively meant not eating meat. St Paul has rejected this demand as contrary to the Gospel. He has explained how instead believers have become one in Christ by dying to God’s Law and its requirements. Believers fulfil the Law now not by only eating vegetables, but by loving one another.

At the same time, St Paul wants to guard against Gentile arrogance and make possible fellowship between a weak Jewish believer who still keeps the Law and Gentile believers who do not. This is to be achieved not by Gentile believers insisting on their rights in the Gospel, but, again, by loving their Jewish brother and sister in Christ.

In seeking to establish a basis for fellowship between Gentile and Jewish believers, St Paul does so not by surrendering the truth of all that he has written about Christ fulfilling the Law, but by arguing that when it doesn’t affect the truth of the Gospel, believers should be prepared to do what is best for their brother and sister in Christ. In so doing, he makes it clear that those who keep the food laws are ‘weak’ people, who need to be put up with, and that anyone insisting on keeping the food laws as a requirement for believers are just wrong and false teachers.

By tackling the issue in this way, St Paul seeks to protect the Church in Rome from the false Gospel that is often preached by those who insist on believers observing the food laws and not eating meat, while also guarding against any arrogance on the part of Gentile believers that may prevent unity and fellowship in the Gospel.

St Paul concludes both his discussion of this issue, and indeed his explanation of his understanding of the Gospel, with a wonderful passage in Romans chapter 15 that includes this verse:

‘For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’ (Romans 15:8-9)

St Paul began our reading this week by telling the Roman believers to ‘welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions’. He closes the letter by telling them to avoid those who ‘cause dissensions and offenses in opposition to the teaching they have learned’. There is a real tension here. How are we to know who to welcome and who to avoid?

We hear much today about inclusivity and diversity, about the need to be welcoming and accepting. We hear somewhat less about the need to ‘keep an eye’ on people and, if need be, to ‘avoid them’.

St Paul would tell us to welcome anyone, whatever their opinions, who in faith is obedient to the Gospel as he has explained it in this letter. He would tell us to avoid anyone who comes trying to divert us from that obedience.

St Paul was committed to bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5; 16:26) through his preaching of the Gospel of Christ. He wasn’t ashamed of the Gospel because he knew it was ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, but also to the Greek’ (Romans 1:16).

The ‘obedience of faith’ is both the obedience which is faith itself and the obedience that comes from it. St Paul has explained how we are all are ‘slaves to sin’ and how only through faith in Christ can we be ‘enslaved to God’ instead. We will all one day, St Paul tells us in the reading this week, ‘appear before the judgement seat of God’. ‘Every knee shall bow before him and every tongue shall give praise to him.’ And ‘each of us will be accountable to God.’

St Paul sought to be accountable to God as a ‘slave of Christ’ and as an ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ . He lived the ‘obedience of faith’. May we follow his example and do likewise in our own service of the Gospel.

Having, then, explained his understanding of the Gospel to the believers in Rome, St Paul’s hope now was that the Church in Rome, united in faith, would support him when he went to preach this Gospel in Spain. I just wish we knew whether he actually made it there.

I really hope he did.

‘Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.’ (Romans 16:25-27)


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