Sermon: Pentecost 14, 17 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 17thSeptember 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver


 (Ex 14:19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14:1-14; Matthew 18:31-35)

One of the special characteristics of our Parish is that we seek to welcome people from all church backgrounds. We don’t demand an absolutely uniform understanding of all aspects of the Christian faith. Of course we hold on to the essentials, such as those we express as we say the creed together. But we are not all the same, as I am reminded as I lead a service and see some people cross themselves and bow at particular points of the liturgy, and others who don’t do this. And of course you see the same thing up in the sanctuary: while there is a sharing together meaningfully in the liturgy and a togetherness in co-operation, there are individual differences in some of the details of what different people do. When I began to take part in the sanctuary, John Cornish was very definite that I should do what I was used to, and not feel that I should change my practices. We all seek to lead the services with meaning and dignity, but there is no regimented uniformity in absolutely everything.

As we come to our final passage in our readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see something which some of us might not have expected Paul to say; especially if we think of Paul as pretty inflexible in his views.

The starting point is Paul’s reaction to differences of opinions on matters that some people regard as important. This has always been a significant issue in the history of the church. Many would say that the major separation of the Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church in the middle ages was based on technicalities of doctrine and on issues of secondary importance. The Reformation commenced because leaders of the church refused to listen with care to those who were asking legitimate questions. And of course in more recent times there have been many disagreements with churches, and between churches, which have led to all forms of tension and division, and at times ungodly violence.

Tensions and potential division are perhaps to be expected when you are focussing on things that really matter to you, things that are important to people, matters of truth and of principle. And so the church has had many a conflict over doctrine and tradition, over organizational matters and rules for life.

The Christian church in Rome in Paul’s time had members from different backgrounds. Some were Jewish. In fact, the church may well have been founded by Jewish Christians who brought with them their knowledge of the Old Testament, and many of their Jewish traditions.

Other members of the church would have been Gentiles. They came to the faith without that Jewish background, without the same knowledge of the Old Testament, and without what some of them might have regarded as a lot of excess Jewish baggage.

Jewish Christians believed rightly that their Christian faith grew directly out of their Jewish faith, and the message of the Old Testament. Many of them would have seen no need to give up their traditions: circumcision, the Sabbath, rules about clean and unclean food, and so on. Indeed, they saw these things as very significant. Early in the life of the church, Jewish Christians had actually believed that Gentiles who turned to Christ should adopt the Jewish faith as part of their Christian commitment. Paul and even Peter made clear that to insist on this was to deny the Gospel. Jewish traditions were not to be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Proselytes – Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish faith – may well have been particularly strong on this issue, having already made that change themselves before they became Christians.

Paul seems to have heard, or at least suspected, that this difference was an issue in the church at Rome. There were Jewish Christians and perhaps others who held onto traditional rules and restrictions. And there were others who would insist that they didn’t need to take those things on board. “We’ve been set free from these rules and regulations about food and drink and special days. None of these things will make us more acceptable to God. None of these things will get us any closer to heaven. We’ve got to get rid of these outdated rules. And you people who still practise them should grow up and get of these legalistic ideas.”

Yes, there was plenty of scope for tension in the church at Rome. Who was right – the “legalists” or the “libertarians”? In Chapters 14 and 15 of this letter, Paul sets out some important principles on the matter. And though the issues might not be the same for us, the way Paul tells the Romans to handle them is important for us to take on board ourselves.

Well, whose side is Paul on? Who is really right? At one level Paul agrees with those who see the Old Testament rules as no longer necessary. We are not required to eat kosher food. We don’t have to worry about whether a piece of meat comes from an animal offered in worship to a pagan god – an important issue to many Christians in those days.

The rules about food and special days in the Old Testament were significant in their time. But they have done their job, and we are not bound by them.

However, we also have to ask what rules we are talking about! Do we ditch the Ten Commandments? Do we toss out the moral demands of the prophets and of Jesus? Not at all! We don’t obey them in order to earn God’s acceptance: but we do seek to obey them because we are God’s beloved children, seeking to please our loving Father, and because we are forgiven followers of Jesus.

But rules about offering sacrifices and various ceremonies are no longer relevant, because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins. The sacrifice we offer in response is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and of faithful service to the One who has saved us.

And rules about special days are no longer relevant, because our faith is a seven-day-a week thing. Of course observance of Easter and Christmas and Saints’ days can be a very helpful thing: but it is not something that can be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Special days are helpful, but they are not fundamental.

And yes, I do include Sundays in that. The observance of Sunday is helpful: as a weekly festival of the resurrection, and a day for us to gather regularly for worship as Christians. It is not so long ago that Sunday had to be a serious day and often a joyless day for many Christians, especially for children. It is great to make Sunday a special day. But I do not believe it can be demanded as an essential part of the faith. However I do urge you to keep coming week by week! As Christians, our faith is certainly personal, but we are also part of God’s family, God’s community, and of course we express that particularly as we gather regularly for worship.

And what about food and drink? We don’t of course get uptight about kosher food, and I don’t think that vegetarianism is seen as a major spiritual issue. And as far as drink is concerned, we know that the scriptures do not forbid alcohol, although they do warn against the abuse of alcohol. Some Christians feel that abstaining is what God wants them to do. These sorts of things are matters that individuals will make their personal decisions about.

Paul wants us to see that the central issues of our faith still matter, and we need to be faithful in these areas. But there are many areas where Christians will legitimately have different views.

We have freedom in Christ, but we have been set free to love one another and to love our neighbour. So Paul says that we are not to condemn or judge or look down on others, even when we believe they are mistaken.

And we need to be careful of forcing our views onto others. Of course we can explain what we believe, and why we believe it, and even why we think it is important. But if we do not persuade someone about a matter, we are still to love them and accept them. It is God who is the judge, not us. And sometimes, says Paul, in love we will accommodate people who do things differently, people who perhaps seem narrower or stricter than we think is necessary. We might in love choose to do what they feel comfortable with, rather than insisting on our own freedom.

The unity of the church does not mean that there must be uniformity in all things. We are to love and respect one another, even when we are aware of our differences.

As Paul says, none of us lives to ourself. We live to the Lord: let us then live as the Lord’s people, remembering how the Lord has loved us and accepted us in Christ, and humbly loving one another as Christ has loved us. Amen.

Paul Weaver