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One of the issues in the Christian Church is now and
always has been, “Why can’t we just get along?”
Even the slogan of the current television advertising campaign in the United Methodist Church--“open hearts, open minds, open doors”--seems to suggest that there may be those who are suspicious that our hearts, minds and doors are NOT so open.
But, like I said, it has always been this way. There are hundreds of denominations within the Christian church because too often we just can’t get along.
And even within the largest denominations, of which the United Methodist Church is one, there are multitudes of subgroups which cannot get along, some of which would split off if there were truly more to be gained by leaving than by staying.
Well, we didn’t start it. It started a very long time ago.
In fact, during the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, Christians were spending as much time in disagreement as they were in agreement, before they could finally come to some understandings that we today take for granted as the doctrines of the church.
Even in the first century, when the church was very young, when congregations were struggling to establish their identity, they had troubles getting along.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul, in the opening to the fourteenth chapter, instructs them, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.”
Even today, sometimes Christians like to welcome the unchurched, the unbelievers, for the purpose of letting them know that their thoughts and beliefs are wrong. And sometimes we even welcome OTHER Christians for the very same reason.
I once served a congregation in which there were several women who belonged to a quilting group. The other members of this quilting group were of another denomination. And one of the women from my congregation told me, “We get along just fine as long as we just talk about quilting or the neighborhood news. But we don’t dare talk about religion.
Their denomination believes that they are the ONLY denomination and that everyone else is damned.”
But Paul is not only concerned with abstract doctrine. He is also concerned with many of the religious and social practices of the time. He points out,
“Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” Now, if you don’t know what Paul is talking about, you are liable to interpret this to mean that strong people stuff themselves, while vegetarians are weaklings.
But that is not it at all. You need to understand that Christianity was not a religion without roots. Jesus was a Jew, and many of the new Christians were formerly Jews. Well, they still held on to the Jewish dietary laws. And those laws required a purity of the food they ate.
However, the Jewish Christians were of a different mind on this. Some, including Paul, concluded that there were no food taboos in the kingdom of God. This was the group that believed in eating anything.
But there were others, in an effort to avoid eating meat that was not pure, that was not kosher, ate only vegetables.
Paul tells the Romans,
“Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”
It almost sounds like Paul is talking about fasting, but he is not. The abstinence and the eating here refer to non-kosher foods.
Most Christians I know don’t pay any attention to kosher food laws. But I can think of other areas of our lives where some of us establish certain standards to follow, while others do not.
I know that there are Christians who will not attend a movie that is not rated G. They consider that to be a rating of the purity of the film. Others will drop that standard of purity to PG or PG-13.
Personally, I ignore that rating system; and, in fact, in spite of the language and the sex and the violence, I usually find movies rated R to have better plot, character, and dialogue; better acting and directing.
And Paul tells the Romans,
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Who are we to pass judgment? Each of us stands or falls before our own God. Our Christian neighbor down the road, or across the continent, is not accountable to us. We may have our own observations on that person’s behaviors, but the judgment is not up to us. Judgment is between that person and his or her God.
Actually, Jesus had much to say about judgment.
For example, his suggestion at the gathering of those prepared to stone the woman caught in adultery, in the eighth verse of the eighth chapter of the gospel according to John: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
And in the fourth verse of the seventh chapter of Matthew, he asks, “...how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye?”
“Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
This is true even today. Most Christians tend to believe that Sunday is the sabbath and a holy day. But the Jews--and some Christian groups--observe Saturday as the sabbath. The Jews have festivals and feast days.
The Roman Catholics have many days in honor of the saints. Some United Methodists, including myself, consider Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday as special holy days to be observed.
But there are other United Methodists, including pastors, who would not agree. One United Methodist pastor told me that he did not observe Ash Wednesday because it was, in his words, “too Catholic.”
But the really important part of this verse is that second sentence: “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
“Let those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”
Clearly, Paul seems to be saying, WHATEVER you do, do it in honor of the Lord. Indeed, it is not WHAT we do, but our motivation for doing it. Jesus was quick to condemn some practices; but it was not the practices in and of themselves that he condemned.
Rather, he condemned the motivation for the practices. For example, in the sermon on the mount, when he addressed almsgiving and fasting and praying, he assumed his disciples would follow these practices. But he warned them against following them in such a way that they simply drew attention to themselves, honored themselves.
Paul tells the Romans, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
For believers, life and death do not take place in a vacuum. Living and dying are meaningful. They have a purpose.
We might also say that everything about our lives is a manifestation of what we believe. And all of our sacrifices are indications of what we value. Our lives are long, ongoing messages to God.
I sometimes wonder what God makes of all the greed in this world. In the Financial Times awhile back, there was a series entitled “Barons of Bankruptcy.”
This series reported that the 25 largest public bankruptcies in this country since the beginning of 2001 resulted in investors losing over 200 billion dollars, workers losing almost 100,000 jobs, while approximately 200 senior executives and directors at those companies since the beginning of 1999 earned over 3 billion dollars, or about 5 million dollars a year apiece.
In other words, companies and jobs are destroyed. Public value and investments are destroyed. But a handful are getting filthy rich. Now, far be it from me to stand in judgment, but how do these people live with themselves? Do they have any values other than the dollars they can accumulate? Perhaps not.
We live in a time of perpetual dread of terrorists. Those who highjacked those four airliners in September 2001 were successful. Our nation has been truly terrifed ever since.
But at least for me, equally terrifying is the fear that our culture is evolving a value system in which the accumulation of material wealth matters more than the valuing of human life and human and civil rights.
But with regard to “living to the Lord,” Paul continues, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
One way of looking at this is to understand that Jesus did not merely live and die. Did not die and disappear from history leaving us with just another prophet. Did not die and recede from our memory leaving us to fend for ourselves. No, Jesus died and lived again. And a resurrected Jesus is still with us. We are accountable to him. As believers, whatever we do, whatever sacrifices we need to make, we are his and he is with us.
Is Jesus judging us? The story of the woman caught in adultery, to which I referred earlier, has an interesting ending.
After all the potential stone-throwers back off and disappear, “Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.”
And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Does Jesus condemn us? No. But he does call upon us to be accountable. To be responsible.
Paul continues, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
Why DO we pass judgment? Why DO we despise? Because we want to play God. Because we want to be in control of creation. We want everything to go OUR way. But Paul reminds us that we are NOT God, that we, too, just as those we judge, will also be judged.
Maybe we would be better off judging ourselves; asking ourselves how we would truly fare under God’s judgment.
Is it possible to know God’s judgment? And if so, HOW would we know it? I think in many respects that it IS possible to know. I think our Bibles give us numerous stories for reflecting on God’s judgment. Stories that can serve as parables. The outcomes of events of thousands of years ago can give us clues to God’s judgment.
Paul cites the words of Isaiah. “... it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
And I think that this is a truth that transcends religion. It doesn’t matter whether we believe in God, or Allah, or Zeus, or whatever, or nothing at all. Ultimately, our lives must be obedient to whatever natural or spiritual forces that govern our lives.
And I believe that even those who are not religious experience gratitude in some form for that which maintains their lives.
Obedience and gratitude. These, and not judgment, should be what we concentrate on. For, as Paul concludes, each of us will be accountable to God.
And if we are obedient and grateful in all that we do, we need not fear God’s judgment. And if there is judging of others to be done, God will take care of that.
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