Division

Weak and Strong

Romans 14 (NLT)

As Paul begins by encouraging tolerance of “weak” believers, he implies that other Roman Christians are strong in their faith. What may surprise some readers is that the strong, himself among them, are presented as being less concerned about rules.

This teaching is very much in line with Jesus’ ministry. A regular Bible reader can think of many situations where Jesus broke or bent the rules of his day because something larger was at stake, often irritating the very rules-oriented Pharisees in the process.

Paul is by no means encouraging a libertine lifestyle. (Neither was Jesus!) We have to keep what Paul says in context with the rest of Romans, where he often is clear about particular sins that must be avoided. It does seem, however, that there are rules, written or unwritten, in church life that may create discord.

Paul seems to be aware of division in the early church in Rome, but it is not completely clear to us what issues caused the division. There’s a strong possibility the Christians were debating whether it was okay to eat meat; most meat in the urban marketplace came from animals slaughtered during sacrifices to pagan gods.

There also seems to have been some dispute over the best day for Christian worship, possibly because Jewish Christians still saw Saturday as the Sabbath, while Christians not of Jewish descent figured any day would do. A second kind of food dispute also is possible, this one between Christians who wanted to follow Jewish dietary laws and Christians who saw no need to do so.

Again, note that as Paul deals with the divisive matters, he tends to cast those rigid about the rules as weak, in danger of starting disputes or even falling away from faith because they see others breaking what they perceive as a firm rule.

Paul’s solution, however, is not to tell those of weak faith to change. In fact, he’s careful to repeat earlier teachings about the importance of leaving judgment to God. Instead, he encourages a basic goal for the Roman church, and really, for any church. Without abandoning his call to holiness found in the rest of Romans, he calls all of us to strive for harmony. To accomplish harmony, we need tolerance and forgiveness for each other.

In the process, we lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. We grow stronger in the faith together. Such a process also causes us to emphasize the importance of the person before us, rather than the issue vexing us.

As Christians, we know the Bible doesn’t encourage situational ethics, but we do believe similar situations can call for different responses, assuming we’re not falling into or tolerating ongoing sin in the community.

In modern Western churches, we don’t have much of an ongoing debate regarding the consumption of meat. We do sometimes have strong differences of opinion about alcohol consumption, particularly among churchgoers in the Southeast United States.

For the record, I try to live by the Bible, and I cannot find any prohibitions against the general consumption of alcohol in Scripture. The Bible has much to say about drunkenness—what I would call a loss of control endangering self or others—but little about abstaining from drink, unless you’re taking a vow of some sort, along the lines of a Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. (In that case, you also cannot cut your hair.)

As a Christian, I’ve found myself employing different tactics around the issue of alcohol depending on the people involved.

In my pre-clergy life, I had a co-worker who was a serious alcoholic and very prone to succumb to drunkenness. The problem was we worked in a field where alcohol consumption was prevalent at cocktail parties, conferences, dinner meetings and such. Having no tendencies toward alcoholism myself, I felt free to drink in moderation, but I and some other Christian co-workers chose to abstain when around our friend. We hoped to keep him from feeling socially isolated, and perhaps we even altered to some degree a culture that was dangerous for him.

A few years later, I had to approach the use of alcohol in a different way. By then, I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The school at the time had an ethos statement asking students not to drink alcohol, in deference to some of the seminary’s participating denominations that had strict rules about such things.

While traveling, I ran into another former co-worker who wanted me to sit down and talk at a restaurant he liked. In part, he was wanting spiritual advice. He also really, really wanted me to try a beer that had impressed him. I declined a couple of times, but I began to sense my reluctance was shutting down an otherwise important conversation. I think I was signaling to him I had somehow become less accessible in my transition to professional ministry.

I decided to have the beer. (Forgive me, Asbury Seminary.) The conversation opened up again, and as we sat there, I began to realize the beer was acting like a form of communion.

Paul also tells us we individually need to grow into a special kind of Christian, one confident in his or her faith. This is not false confidence or bravado. There’s a difference between being blindly assertive and truly confident. Paul points us toward a quiet confidence that comes from a strong prayer life and a deep knowledge of the Bible.

When we reach such a state, we can in good conscience say we have identified what is right and what is wrong, and then live accordingly, glorifying God with our lives as best we can.


The featured image is a photo of an ancient Roman marketplace, by Venanzio Cellitti, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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The Deepest Kind of Riches

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.

I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Some churches seem to have everything. And yet, when they forget one thing, trouble ensues.

In writing to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul began with a joyful, thankful tone. And he was right to do so. Many blessings had fallen on the Christians in Corinth, even as they lived in the midst of a cosmopolitan economic hub full of competing ideas about religions and morality.

In particular, Paul noted, the Christian Corinthians had received “spiritual gifts,”  a subject he discussed in greater detail later in the letter, in the part we mark as chapter 12. There, we learn he meant specific abilities given to Christians by God’s Holy Spirit so we can better serve Christ’s kingdom. Paul specifically mentioned gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and languages. Like most of Paul’s lists, this one was not meant to be exhaustive; instead, he was just highlighting some key abilities any Christian community would value.

In chapter 12, he was also quick to point out that no one Christian has all the gifts—this was in part to emphasize their need to work together. For you see, the Christians in Corinth had a basic problem. They were not working together, and often for the silliest of reasons.

Within the church, the Corinthian Christians had developed what we might call personality cults. One group would claim, “I follow this person,” while another would say, “No, I prefer to follow this guy.”

Paul himself was perceived as one of these factional leaders, even though he did not want to be one. There also was a Christian leader named Apollos, known for his eloquent preaching. Some claimed allegiance to “Peter,” presumably the Apostle Peter, and others took the high road, saying they followed Christ.

Paul’s solution was to point these Christians back to their core reason for existing. Focus, he told them, on one thing: the Good News, what he also described as “the message of the cross.”

The world around them likely would find the message foolish, he warned them. But preach it, teach it, and live it just the same, he was saying, for it is a special kind of foolishness, one designed to unravel what the world calls wisdom.

We are much like the Corinthians, living in a world where many ideas come together, and where we have access to almost anything we want, assuming we can afford it. This extravangance can be distracting, and certainly, we can be driven into factions, even within churches.

But can we not all agree on one thing—why we gather as Christians? We gather because of Jesus Christ and how he has revealed himself on the cross.

I have wondered if some people struggle with building their lives around “one thing” because they’re afraid they will somehow get bored. If that is so, it is unlikely they have truly explored the idea of Christ and the cross.

Most religions have mysteries to be explored, ideas that confound and obsess their deepest followers. These ideas require meditation and prayer to explore, and through that experience, the follower is changed. Zen riddles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?) come to mind.

Christ’s work on the cross is our riddle, our mystery to explore. The problem is we have come to take it for granted—we have let the strangeness and the mystery of it all slip away.

In American culture, we are too quick to explain it. Often, we talk about the cross in terms of transferred punishment, with the Son of God absorbing what was meant for us. It is certainly one good way to understand the cross, but if you really take time to explore that idea, it does have its weaknesses. So God’s not satisfied until the one he calls “Son” is horribly abused and killed?

Over the centuries, other theories have been put forth. Was Christ essentially the payment of ransom to Satan, who held us captive because of sin? Did Jesus come to replay the role of Adam, providing a sort of “do over” for humanity? Did Jesus enter the realm of death so he could battle and defeat evil, winning the truly ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship?

I have particularly enjoyed studying how views of the cross change with each culture. When the Japanese began to hear of Christ, most of the European views of how the cross worked did not resonate with them. But being in a culture where shame was the worst thing that could happen to you, Japanese Christians understood the cross in terms of Christ absorbing the shame we all share for sin.

It seems as if looking at the cross in so many ways could in itself be divisive. But however it works, the cross is an act of love, a unifying love that makes no sense. It is the act of an infinitely strong God choosing to love weak, broken beings so much that he would do anything to save them.

It also results in unyielding hope. In death, even shameful, horrible death, there is resurrection! Out of such nastiness comes eternal joy and bliss!

The truest, deepest kind of riches are to be found in the Good News. Understanding this becomes our great motivation as Christians and as the church. It is only reasonable and natural we share this truth with others, not only as an idea, but in action, as we draw on our richness of spirit to help others.

And in the process, as we preach the cross, teach the cross, meditate on the cross, and continue to live the message of the cross every day, we of course find unity and strength.

Division

Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
   and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
   and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?


After a reading like that, I suppose I should begin with some comforting words.

Yes, God is love. Yes, grace is freely given. Our God is a patient God, doing all he can to draw lost people to him. Forgiveness and the gift of eternal life are being poured out on us in buckets, despite so many people standing under umbrellas of cynicism.

That said, at this point in Luke, Jesus has clearly gone apocalyptic on us. He uses language designed to remind us of the terrible suffering and sacrifice necessary to make all that grace and love possible. And ultimately, we are reminded that we are called to choose sides in a great cosmic battle, with no regard to what our choice may cost us in this life.

Jesus’ apocalyptic language forces Christians to consider our core beliefs. Fire and baptism are purification words. Jesus was saying that despite his lack of sin, he would go through the purifying fire of crucifixion for us, and that ultimately all of creation will be purified through this act. Humans can actually choose where to stand in all of this—with what is pure and what will remain forever, or with the dross to be burned away.

The great gift of the cross is that we now have a choice. Before, we were all just dross, lacking the purity to be in God’s presence.

I think even Christians struggle with some of this tough language because we confuse adherence to the truth with being judgmental. Clearly, it is God’s business to judge, not ours. My own personal approach to this is to be as laissez-faire (libertarian) in my approach to the secular world as possible, while at the same time exercising my right to declare the importance of choosing Christ and living the Christian life.

Don’t ask the state to look like the church, and definitely don’t force the church to mimic the state or society in general. If we’re really convinced the Holy Spirit is at work in this world, we should never doubt his ability to win minds in what is sometimes called the “marketplace of ideas.”

This approach doesn’t satisfy all Christians. If it did, groups like the Moral Majority would have never sprung up. This approach does, however, let us focus on messages that have made Christianity successful for nearly two millennia, rather than getting bogged down in the events of the day. Let’s consider those messages:

Christ is the answer. By that, we mean the answer to all the big questions in life, questions like “Is there meaning to life,” “Why do we suffer,” and “Is there more than just this life?” And yes, Jesus made some exclusive claims to being the answer—he claimed oneness with the Creator, and said the only way to the Father is through him.

C.S. Lewis and other writers and theologians have noted that such a claim creates a “trilemma” for anyone considering following Christ. Taking his claim at face value, Jesus can be just one of three things: divine, insane or evil.

Universalists, people who say there are many paths to God, don’t like exclusivity, but you have to reject significant portions of Scripture to deny Christ’s claim. There may be ways for people to carry in them the light of Christ without having heard Jesus’ name, but once introduced to him, they should recognize him right away.

Being Christian does make you different. Being seen as countercultural seems to be in again. Welcome to the original countercultural movement, the one that challenged the most powerful empire on earth. It is a movement that truly changed the world, declaring early on that people are the same regardless of gender, color or social status. Yes, the body of believers can behave like a cluster of big institutions, and yes, Christians often fail to act like Christ, but this differentiating truth remains.

There is clear guidance from God available to us. People are craving something by which they can steer their lives.  They want something they can trust, something not likely to blow about in the ever-changing social wind. The Bible is God’s long-standing revelation to humanity. Even the newest material in it is nearly 2,000 years old. Its truths about God and how God wants to relate to humanity have served people well in a wide variety of cultures, be they in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Industrial Age or Space Age. (What are we in now? The Digital Age?)

Yes, not everyone will agree with these basic messages. Some people, maybe people in your own homes, will become angry upon hearing them, turning on you or at least turning their backs on you.

That’s okay. Jesus said it would happen. He also said he would make it all right in the end. Look it up.


The featured image is Joos Van Cleve’s “The Last Judgment,” painted some time in the late 15th or early 16th century.