I have a confession to make. I am pathologically incapable of ordering food in a restaurant without first knowing and discussing what everyone else is planning to eat. My first question is typically, “So what are you having?” It is, as if, I can’t make my decision until I know what other choices are being made. There’s something in my head that tells me, “We must have culinary variety.” So if I’m leaning toward steak and I know you’re also thinking about steak, well then, I’ll have to change my mind. Maybe I’ll get the fish or chicken. In the food utopia I’ve created in my mind, two people can’t order the exact same thing. What if I want to try what you’ve ordered? Even though we’re not in a Chinese restaurant (a whole other ball of wax) and won’t be served communal dishes, I want to leave open the possibility of sharing. Then there’s that one person who orders something, weird, askew, and maybe a bit gross. This throws the whole ordering process off. Because then, everyone at the table has to comment on what an informed culinary selection has just been made or how gross “fondue squid” actually sounds.
No longer are people simply ordering what they want. It’s now about approval, making a decision from the choices of others, and then judging what sounds strange of different to you. If you’ve ever gone out to eat and had this experience, you’ve had a snapshot of what life looked like in first century Christianity. People were big into food and they attached huge religious significance to what and how they ate. Eating was a life or death issue and I don’t mean just for the cow, sheep, or pig on your plate. And like any issue in the church, whether then or now, it was never all about eating. There were much more important theological and religious concerns just below the surface.
Paul is writing a letter to the Romans. The Romans are “the” Christian community to be a part of. They represent the intellectual vanguard of the growing Christian movement. In the capital of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, they represent the hope of the church in more ways than one. If we were to enter the door of First Church, Rome, we would find Latin speaking Roman converts. There are Jews who have heard Jesus’ message and believed. You will find immigrants from all corners of the empire who have made it to Rome and now identify themselves as Christian. They are multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and some bring with them other Christian experiences. Some have been to Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Damascus. Others knew nothing of the Christ until they entered the fellowship. And yet, they are all here, under this single roof, and claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Their connection to the wider world and other Christian communities has been largely fostered by Paul. Though Paul has never visited this church, he knows their mindset, he understands them, and is trying to support them as they become the disciples they have been called to be. He anticipates making a journey to Rome and this letter is a word of encouragement written for their whole community. When he gets there, he wants to meet them at their best.
Our letter and this snapshot from the 14th chapter, is an insight into the life of this early church and how Paul was attempting to guide them beyond a superficial faith into something more substantial.
Paul is giving the Romans, the church that really believed they had something going on by virtue of their geography, an extended lesson in how be welcoming, friendly, and hospitable. He’s teaching them how to be better people, better Christians, and how to have a better church.
Paul’s first rule: Christians welcome everybody; especially those who are weak in their faith. This is gesture of love and done in love. We don’t welcome people to church, especially those Paul refers to as “weak in faith” (i.e. people who are in different places in how they understand what it means to be faithful) because we want to argue with them. Paul wants the early Christians in Rome to see that differences of belief are something to be embraced and welcomed. Clearly, he doesn’t want people be threatened by people who say or do things differently.
Here’s how he puts it (and he’s using a dietary example to make his point-which tells us that there were probably people in the new church who wanted to keep Kosher or follow Jewish dietary restrictions-a very important discussion-and those who did not. There were people who believed that in order to follow Jesus one still had to follow certain Jewish practices. Others did not share this belief.): “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So some were kosher and some were vegetarian. He goes on in verse 3, “Those who eat must despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.” In other words, kosher people can be mean and vegetarians can’t be snobby-this is God’s party. God gets to decide who is let in, not us. And apparently, God’s got much bigger things to worry about than what people are eating.
Remember, “food” or “who ate what” was just the issue they used to mask the true nature of what they were upset about. They might look like racists or bigots if they said, “we don’t like people because those jokers from Asia Minor because they speak a different language and they have darker skin.” Instead, they said, “We’ll just get them on the food thing.” So when the issue came up they said, “It’s not because you’re new and different, you just don’t eat right.” Though everyone knew what they really meant.
So, if we were going to put this into today’s language, what would it look like? Would we still phrase this as a discussion about food? Is that the example Paul might use today?
He might say something like this. “Some were straight, some were gay, some were republicans, and some were democrats, some were white, and some were black but in church and in life, those who are straight must not pass judgment on those who are gay, and those who are gay must not pass judgment on those who are straight, democrats must not pass judgment on republicans, republicans upon democrats, white upon black, and black upon white.”
As important and meaningful as those issues are to us today, people were living and dying by the same concerns Paul highlighted in his letter.
The same concerns that plagued the Roman church are also in our churches today, it’s just that the terminology has changed. The issues of judgment, grace, and getting along with one another have not changed, they remain the same.
Paul goes on to say, and here’s where it gets really good, that in our own ways, our differences bring honor to God. God honors our differences and our differences honor God. That’s the second big point he’s making.
He says some people have a more positive outlook on life, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” In other words, we all have different perspectives. That’s who God made us.
If you honor the Sabbath or a particular day over another, you’re doing that in honor of the Lord, Paul says. “Also, he adds, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain (the vegetarians), abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”
Do you see what he’s saying? If you’re acknowledging God as the root, saying thanks, whatever you do and how you do it honors God. Are you genuine in how you live and give thanks to God? Paul indicates that if your heart is in the right place, you’re honoring God? That’s his big third point, “Who are we to judge other people?” He asks this quite bluntly: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sisters?”
Because, “we will all stand”, he says in verse 10. Yes, it’s a verse about judgment but God’s judgment is based on our equality with each other. People read that verse and go straight to that word judgment. Judgment is not our business, it is God’s business. God sees and embraces our differences while also saying, “We’re all equal.”
Our lives are about offering God praise. Paul closes by telling us, “It’s hard to praise God on bended knee and with your words (your tongue) when you’re distracted by your definition of the sins of others and you’re using your tongue (your words) to judge people.
How about us? Are we able to focus on worship, service, praise, and gratitude to the level Paul was encouraging the first church in Rome? Are we able to say when something is not about the eating or whatever people want to call the issue of the day? That being a person of faith is about not judging, forgiving, and living in community. You can fight about anything. The question is, are you willing to not judge the people you are fighting and remember that God died for all of us equally, no matter what issues we have deemed to be life and death or sink or swim?
So how do you praise God? How does one worship God if your attentions are focused elsewhere? It’s hard to worship and praise God if you’re too busy doing God’s job for God. You can’t praise God and judge the people around you. The two actions are mutually exclusive. One cancels the other out. This is what I want you to remember and hold on to today.