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“Owing Love”
Series: Book of Romans 'Called to Belong' Part II
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Romans 14:1-23
Date: Jan 29th, 2023
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Occasionally I like to start the sermon at the end, and there are many ways a reflection on Romans 14 might be summed up:

It is more important to love than to be right. Pay attention to the part that really matters.

Welcome one another according to the example of Christ.  How not to be jerk/judge/despise.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. (with a nod to my brother George)

As we look at chapter 14, there are two verses that we should keep in mind from chapter 13.  We didn’t read them last week, as we were looking specifically at how followers of Christ are called to relate to civil authority.  Here they are, though, and they are key.  The first is 13:8 – “Owe no on anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  As followers of Christ, we belong to Christ.  As fellow members of the body of Christ, we belong to each other, and we owe to one another a debt.  This debt is to love and we never pay it off (it’s not that kind of debt).  I owe you love.  You owe me love.

The second verse that I’d like for us to keep in mind comes at the end of the chapter, and it is part of verse 14 – “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Jesus and the mercy of God in Jesus is at the heart of everything we’ve been looking at since January 8th.  In the verse before, Paul lists what the opposite of putting on Jesus looks like using day/night imagery and he says this – “Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling or jealousy.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”  Put on the armour of light is how Paul puts it here.  Elsewhere Paul talks about us putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony…” (Col. 3:12. 14)  I love this image and should think of it more often as I’m getting dressed.

Coming back to Romans, note that quarrelling and jealousy comes at the end of the list.  We would be in pretty solid agreement that getting wasted or out of our heads is probably not the kind of thing we should be engaged in as followers of Christ.  Debauchery should be avoided.  Overindulgence of the senses not a good thing.  What about cutting ourselves off from one another, though?  What about holding each other in contempt or judgement based on how we feel the Christian life is to be lived, or how the church should be run for that matter?  How about refusing to welcome one another or ignoring invitations to come around tables together when we disagree about things?

We will disagree about things.  Paul is continuing to talk about what a grace-shaped life looks like.  In our passage today, he’s talking about what a grace-shaped life looks like in the family of faith when we disagree on things.  He’s not talking about disagreeing on matters that are essential to Christian faith.  If you were to ask me, “What are the matters that are essential to the Christian faith,” I would point to one of the creeds of the church.  He’s not talking about these matters and the people to whom he is talking are not wavering in their faith in these matters.  A disagreement is happening and the disagreement is about how one properly responds to the good news of Jesus in matters of daily life.  In this case, what one eats, what one drinks, and what days are recognized as set apart.  Here’s how NT Wright describes the situation:

“Paul is addressing a situation which will be depressingly familiar to many who work within the church as well as many who work outside it. In this verse, he seems to turn from one party to the other. Here is a Christian with a strict conscience, whose background, upbringing and temperament all incline him towards a very serious view of his moral responsibilities. As far as he can see… the Christian is surrounded by a very wicked, corrupt pagan world. The best thing to do is to shun it completely; and if that means not touching meat, so be it. He then notices that this woman over here, who apparently claims to be a Christian as well, is buying, from the market, meat which has obviously come from a pagan temple. How appalling… She and her family are deeply compromised! The only response is condemnation. The Christian woman, meanwhile, has been taught the deep and rich truth that the one true God is the creator and redeemer of all things. The whole world belongs to him, including every piece of meat you might ever buy or consume. She knows perfectly well that she is called to holiness, to a lifestyle very different from that of the pagan world around. But she knows equally well… that outward regulations about what you can and can’t touch, taste and handle don’t actually go to the heart of genuine holiness... She gets tired of being sniped at and criticized by people who don’t seem to have learned what is, for her, one of the most basic and liberating of the gospel’s lessons. They seem small-minded, timid, unable to see beyond their own front doors. When she thinks of people like that, she despises them.”

Paul is talking about what it means to put on Christ.  He’s talking about what it means that love is the fulfillment of the law.  Paul is talking about what these things mean in the case of disagreements.  This comes to us in a world where, very often, having disagreements means that we don’t like each other.  Disagreement very often leads to enmity. Disagreement leads to division, to being divided into warring camps.  Stigmatization.  Labelling.  “Not so with you,” as someone once said. We’re not sure what the situation was in Rome.  We’re not sure who was in which camp and it really doesn’t matter.  Paul is not paying attention to who is in what camp.  He’s not using labels here.  Too often in we can be reduced to a label.  A denominational label.  I’ve said before there are reasons that I am a Baptist but I’m not primarily defined by being a Baptist.  Worse than that, we label ourselves conservative or liberal.  Progressives or evangelicals until these words become twisted beyond recognition or end up devoid of any real meaning.  Paul doesn’t assign any labels here and he doesn’t condemn anyone for what they believe about eating/not eating.  There is a larger concern here that must never be allowed to remain unaddressed.

Here is the concern.  Those who eat are despising those who don’t.  They are objects of ridicule.  “Look at them, stuck in that way, compared to us, who are so much more advanced!“  Those who don’t eat are standing in judgement over those who do.  “How can they think this type of thing is ok? Are those people even Christians?”  Maybe it goes as far as that. 

What is the thing that primarily defines us all as followers of Christ?  What label do we bear?  That label is child of God.  This is the purpose and fulfillment of life.  God has welcomed me.  God has welcomed you. Let us welcome one another.  Servant or slave of God is how Paul described himself when he began this letter.  We’re primarily defined by being household servants of God.  This is the meaning of the word for servant Paul uses in v4.  Members of the same household.  “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another,” asks Paul. “It is before their own lord that they stand of fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” I said last week that we’re not to absolutize Paul’s words, and none of these words should be taken to mean “anything goes” for us.  They’re not to be taken to mean that when we harm one another we should not seek to be reconciled.  They’re not to be taken to mean that we should make no effort to help one another when we go astray.  Paul is talking about non-essential matters in which one group of people are judging and the other is despising.  Do not let these matters destroy our unity in Christ.  The inner criterion which Paul gives us is that what is done or not done is done or not done in honour of the Lord and to give thanks to God. Our lives belong to God, after all.  Here is the matter of life and death.  We live and we die to the Lord, and so we are the Lord’s whether we live or die.  We belong to Christ, who died and lived again so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. So who am I to judge?  Who am I to despise?  Each of us will be accountable to God for what we have done, who we have welcomed, and what love of God and neighbour looked like in our lives. What have been the issues that have caused us to judge or despise, created divisions among churches or that have caused us to cease to welcome one another?  Drinking or not drinking?  Who is welcome at the communion table?  Dancing or not dancing?    Who can be a pastor?  Who can be a leader?  Who gets married?  One of the things we need to discern together is what constitutes an essential or disputable matter in the first place.  In the midst of all of this is the quote attributed to a 17th-century Lutheran theologian named Rupert Meldenius - “In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity.”  Whatever the question up for debate is, what Paul is emphasizing here is not the question itself but how we treat one another in the handling of the question.  Be welcoming, and not for the purpose of trying to bring others to one’s own position.  Someone has pointed out that “the kind of quarrelling that Paul rules out is not spirited (to which I would add loving) debate that can lead to greater clarity and understanding, but rather what he rules out is a kind of intellectual competition aimed at bringing about conformity to the dominant position. Welcoming should not bring others into coercive situations, but rather create space for exchange in the context of mutual respect (and I would add love).”

In the background of all of this, we have “Owe no one anything except to love one another” and “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  We come to the second part of our passage which might be titled just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.  As a follower of Christ, responsibilities we have toward one another trump our individual rights, or even our being right as individuals (although I must say in most if not all cases of “disputable matters,” we need to approach them bearing in mind the possibility that we might be wrong).  It is more important to love another than to be right.  This can be hard to get our minds around.  “Let us not, therefore, judge one another anymore, but judge this rather…” is how the KJV reflects Paul’s wordplay here as he’s using the same word for judge or decide.  If we want to judge something, let us judge, not to cause one another to stumble or hold each other back.  Read 14:13-15.

In the Kingdom of God; in the realm of grace; it is more important to act in love than to exercise my own right.  This may be difficult.  We learn from a young age that it’s good to be right.  We get fulfillment and purpose from being right – it helps us on tests and earns us approval from others.  We live in the realm of the One who did not stand on his rights, even equality with God, but emptied himself of all but love, as the hymn goes.  We are told that we are to forego our own sense of right and rights when it would be to the detriment of our brothers and sister who are in Christ along with us and to whom we belong.  This is the external check on our freedom in Christ when it comes to our actions.  The kingdom of good is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  We are called to pursue this peace in joy together and taking one another into consideration.  Righteousness is not rightness.  Righteousness is being formed in the image of Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant… and acted out of love for God and love for humanity and all of God’s good creation.  This is to be the pattern for our lives.  Someone has put it like this – “Human existence is from now on defined not in terms of solipsistic self-interest but in terms of relatedness to God, to the Lord Jesus, and to those who belong to this Lord. What has this to do with eating certain foods or observing certain days? For Paul, the essential point is not the doing or not doing but whether either is done “for God” and “in thanksgiving to God” (14:6). But “not living for the self ” also changes our understanding of life together. We learn that righteousness is not a matter of “being right” but a matter of “being in the right relationship.”

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” is how Paul put it most succinctly (1 Cor 8:1).  The limit of our freedom of faith in Christ is the good of our fellow follower of Christ.

  1. What might this mean?  A group of Toronto Christians who have been known to take a drink visit brothers and sisters in the Chapare region of Bolivia, where they do not.  What do they do?  A young man who is going to play in the praise band is wearing a hat during rehearsals.  Should I ask him to take it off?  A small group is going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together and wants to drink wine.  There are alcoholics in the group who haven’t taken a drink in decades.  What to do?  We may find our practices changing as we ask what does love call for.  For myself, I have a wide view of who is welcome at the Lord’s Table, as I state each time we gather around it.  When I would find myself in a church that doesn’t have such a wide view, I would disregard their rules and go forward to take communion anyway, knowing how to place my hands in the prescribed way and so on.  I don’t do that anymore.  I decided that my right to be involved shouldn’t supercede where they are in who is allowed to be involved.  I didn’t want any priest to be forced to go against what they believe to be right, even unknowingly. 

Paul is laying down the principles.  May we continue to discern together what they look like in our lives and in our life together.  May God make us people who reflect the mercy and unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and may this be true for every one of us. Amen