Thursday, September 14, 2017

Quarreling Over Faith

It's Holy Cross Day, and it might be better for me to write about that celebration, but I can't leave the epistle lesson for Sunday (Romans 14:1-12) untouched this week. This week, I've written about forgiveness and have even called into question the legitimacy of the death-celebration associated with the Red Sea tradition, but I haven't written about Paul's words to the Roman church, and, when I read them this morning, they seemed especially interesting to me.

Paul writes, "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." Think about that for a minute. Paul is telling the Roman Christians to invite and include individuals whose faith is not as developed as that of the core members of the Christian community. That makes sense. Isn't that what the church does--invite seekers into their fellowship so that they can grow in faith? But the second half of what Paul writes reminds me that sometimes the church invites people into her fellowship in order to quarrel with them and let them know that they aren't Christian enough. That was a problem in the first century, and, last time I checked, it's still a problem in the twenty-first.

What was going on in Rome? In this passage, Paul seems to identify two issues that were dividing the strong in faith from their weaker counterparts. The first issue is food: "Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables." In the Roman Empire, meat was often sacrificed to idols before being sold in marketplaces. In order to maintain their religious identity, faithful Jews traditionally abstained from all meat unless its provenance could be verified. Many Gentile converts to the Christian faith, however, did not understand why they would need to give up meat simply because it had been sacrificed to an idol. What does it matter that a statue of wood or precious metal happened to be in the same room as the animal that was slaughtered? What does it matter that a prayer or incantation to a false deity was uttered as the meat was butchered? Many followers of Jesus knew that such idolatry was empty practice. Meat is meat, or so they thought. Others, however, weren't so sure.

I've never been a smoker, but I've heard that some people who were once smokers enjoyed being around other smokers because exposure to the second-hand smoke made it easier to resist their own urge to light up. Other former smokers, however, found the presence of smokers too tempting. It was similar with pagan-offered meat. For some former pagans, the consumption of meat was too closely tied to a former religious life, and the reintroduction of meat to their diet might mean a relapse into pagan ways. These were the weaker believers. Paul wants to be sure that the people who don't care about meat don't invite those who do into their fellowship only to serve them meat and berate them for being weak and faithless when they refuse to eat it. Sound familiar?

The second issue Paul raises is one of festal observances: "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." In other words, if you think it's right to observe Jewish festivals, go for it. If not, that's fine, too. You can be a follower of Jesus and go to services on Yom Kippur, and you can be a follower of Jesus without ever noticing when Easter is.

How many people or congregations or denominations define faithfulness according to their own strict custom? If you're a real Christian, you won't drink. If you're a real Christian, you won't miss church on Sundays or Wednesdays. If you're a real Christian, you won't sing secular Christmas music or write "x-mas" instead of "Christmas." If you're a real Christian, you won't say "alleluia!" during Lent. If you're a real Christian, you won't permit your children to be rebellious or your wife to speak out in public. If you're a real Christian, you won't have lunch appointments with other women unless your wife is present. You know what? It's possible to follow Jesus and never drink a sip of alcohol, and it's possible to follow Jesus and have a glass of wine every night. It's possible to follow Jesus and have a strict, literal interpretation of scripture, and it's also possible to follow Jesus and believe that almost every word in the Bible is metaphor. It's possible to be a faithful Christian and faithful reader of the Bible and believe that same-sex marriage is forbidden, and it's possible to be a faithful Christian and a faithful reader of the Bible and believe that same-sex marriage is God's will.

When it comes to navigating difficult social and religious issues, keep these words in mind: "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." As Steve Pankey likes to remind us, adiaphora is one of his favorite words. It means something that is outside the moral law. It means that it's not important enough to split over. It means that you can have your opinion and I can have my opinion and we can both be faithful.

People in our church are as bad at this as anyone. We think it's our job to sucker-punch someone with "weaker" faith because he or she reads the Bible with a narrow mind and classical, evangelical interpretation. We make fun of Baptists, but their churches are growing while ours decline. It's ok that we don't have the same approach on many things, but we'd do well to stop quarreling and start sharing the good news of Jesus with a broken world. I believe that there is no church better positioned to bring the gospel to the contemporary, skeptical, over-secularized world than the Episcopal Church. We are the flexible, faithful, sacramental community of believers who, if we'd just remember to talk more about Jesus and less about ourselves, could evangelize the twenty-first century. Romans 14. Let's keep reading these words until we stop worrying about how much better we are than other "weaker" Christians and start inviting the whole world into the Christian community.

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