In 2009 my former church was going through growing pains. We were organized in a way that required many leaders to take initiative and get along. This speech reflects that.
In the letter to the church at Colossae, Paul says: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” It appears a lot of people in the first century can’t read. And no one has invented the printing press, yet, even if you wanted to get your own copy of something to read. So people read to each other. That seems nice to me. There is something about hearing something read that makes it more personal, I think, more communal. There is also something ceremonial about public readings, tribal. The new churches to whom Paul is writing are getting their identity shaped by doing new things together, like hearing a letter to them. So since this chapter of Romans is all about creating redeemed people and being together in love, let’s have a major reading of Romans 14:1-15:7.
Let’s take turns, a man and then a woman, and everyone read the parts that are in yellow. We’re going to read it slow and ceremonially. Let it sink in. Maybe you can imagine it is a time, like the first century, before last vestige of tribal activity was gathering on Wednesdays to watch Lost and having a letter read to you might seem important.
Isn’t that a great chapter? And did you notice how well it fits into our era! So often the Bible seems kind of dated (since it is 2000 years old) — but not this chapter.
The thing I like best about living in the postmodern world is that the post-Christian, Eurocentric countries hung on to and activated Paul’s message about acceptance. A great contribution to western thought from Christianity is the duty to accept others as having a basic, God-given freedom of conscience that should be respected. That principle is clearly stated in this chapter.
One of the things I like least about living in the postmodern world is that the Christians are known for NOT activating Paul’s message of acceptance. I’m not sure the reputation is deserved, since many Jesus-followers are performing the miracle of reconciliation all the time – they are mostly unnoticed as great lovers often prefer to be. But there are Christians who like to get noticed who are out there front and center. Such signs were in the background of the recent Equality Forum. Those are Christians making sure that they are known for not accepting what they consider unacceptable. Paul says don’t dispute about disputable issues, but it looks like there are not too many issues that Christians find indisputable.
My favorite example of disputatious Christians has always been the Amish, who are supposedly among the peaceful people of the world. But they are quite disputatious. Some won’t use any modern conveniences and are stuck around 1880. Others own vehicles but won’t drive them – they hire the English to do that. Others own vehicles but won’t allow any ornamentation on them – they are known as the black bumper Amish. Others can have chrome. They seem to accept one another’s weirdness OK, but it is kind of hard to imagine how someone got the argument going that started a new sect of black bumper Amish.
Acceptance forms a peculiar culture
In our church, in which some of us are the only-own-a-bicycle people, we are pretty good at accepting one another’s weirdness, too. But even though we are pretty acclimated to the best thing about postmodernism and we also like Paul’s ideas about accepting people, we still have our moments when we just don’t know how far acceptance should go. That is what Paul’s chapter is trying to sort out.
Like how much accommodation do meat-eaters make for vegetarians and vegans? How much should the rule-followers allow the footloose to NOT follow all the incomprehensible laws of Licenses and Inspections when we rehab another derelict building? Can a proactive peacemaker accept someone who thinks war can be OK? What matters of faith are not disputable?
As you can see in the chapter, these kinds of issues have always been with us. If we weren’t to be respected as people with individual choices to make, then we could just make rules and kill those on the other side – but God’s grace is more right than that kind of right.
The other day I was talking to someone about one of our blessed church leaders. There is a whole new crew of them now who are forming a new leadership team, if the Council approves this improvement on June 6. I was seeing that a whole new crew of people has a whole new level of acceptance to exercise. It is very interesting to see how these things work out. This group doesn’t fully know how to communicate yet, so they have to listen hard. They all have power in their respective teams and now they have to actively share it. They don’t have mutual habits and agreements set, so they have to create them. These things all take a great deal of acceptance. To make the team work well, everyone has to start with Paul’s fact that everyone has their own beauty and value before God and God is able to make them beautiful and valuable to us.
The postmodern mindset leaves God out of this process acceptance. Most of us leave God out these days, too. When someone is about to go for a new job, like one of my friends did last week, we say Good luck! not God bless you! “God bless you” has fallen out of favor unless you are sneezing in certain parts of the city – some places less than others. So our acceptance these days takes on a form of godliness but denies God’s presence. We have laws that enforce acceptance and lawsuits to go with them. Now it is popular to be a comedian who is all about not accepting people, since comedians get mileage out of being cleverly contrary.
But true acceptance is another miracle born of the Spirit. We rely on that miracle happening among our leadership team, who are at the heart of a church where accepting one another is elemental to our character. That kind of grace can’t really be legislated, or willed; it is part of being redeemed and being a redeemer with the Redeemer. 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
The point of accepting one another is not merely because it is SO much more pleasant than not doing it, it is to bring praise to God who crosses barriers and builds love in the world. The point of accepting one another is not just to be nice and be acceptable to God, it is much more active than that, it is all about redemption. Accepting someone like Jesus accepted you is an act of aggressive, world-changing love like the Lord’s.
Jesus concentrates this aggressive, world-changing love in the church until the church gets mass and pulls other people into mutual acceptance. But receiving someone where they are and respecting the light they have is also a weapon for goodness every day among people who don’t have intimacy with God or his people.
Like Paul said, the acceptance we have been shown by Jesus is the kind we should show. Jesus died and rose so that HE would be the Lord of all. Judging people as if we were the Lord is the reason Jesus had to die and rise, so He could gain his own authority and undo all that judgment with his world-changing acceptance. People will stand before Jesus and he is all about making them stand. If we’re moving with the Lord, we are doing that, too.
Using acceptance as a tool for spreading redemption
In Romans 14 and 15, Paul is mainly talking about accepting a person who is weak in faith. This mainly means that he or she has a tender conscience. They can be drawn into behavior that makes them feel guilty – either before God or others. Their faith is not resilient enough to stand up to pressure or argument. They may not have a lot of light or strength or love. So even though their conscience might tell them they should not take their clothes off, if you ask them, they might take them off. So don’t ask them. If they are alcoholic or just think drinking is wrong for them, they might be thrown into a problem if you, their trusted friend, served them a drink. Don’t do that. Stuff like that.
The example in Paul’s mind is all about meat that is sold at the pagan temple’s butcher shop. Some people don’t think they should eat demon-tainted meat, either because it might infect them, or because it is beneath them, or because their pagan mother-in-law might see them doing it and think they are violating their morals. Paul considers this a weak version of faith.
Paul, when he is just being himself, doesn’t care what people think and knows meat belongs to God. And he blesses it before he eats it anyway, so any demon influence is eradicated. I think he quite likes being strong and taking control of his temple-sold meat and eating it with gusto in the name of Jesus in the face of any so-called god that might lay claim to it. So he is talking to himself as much as anyone else. Because it is really even stronger to not act strong, like God acts weak for us. I’ll be “weak” if being “strong” injures someone’s conscience and set them back. If you’re having dinner with people of weak conscience, don’t serve them temple meat. And yes, you need to be aware of who it is who has problems with temple meat, as best you can. Just because you don’t know doesn’t make you any less responsible for messing someone up.
Paul is hardly saying, “Just keep quiet and don’t offend anyone.” I don’t think anyone thinks Paul is never disputatious! His whole letter to the Romans has been one long argument! The goal is not to avoid disputes altogether, it is to use acceptance as a redemption tool.
The heart of the matter is that is makes sense to err on the side of being overly accepting since that is how Jesus is with us. We aren’t avoiding conflict, just like God doesn’t avoid conflict with us. But our conflicts with others, just like God’s with us, should be based in an underlying love that accepts another person as someone God loves, someone Jesus died for and is someone Jesus is in the process of transforming. No one gets damned – certainly not for whether they think driving emission-spewing vehicles is acceptable or not, or whether they break your heart with their faithlessness, or upend you with their mindless sin, or torment you with their unprocessed psychology.
The strong should accept the weak
I tend to take Paul’s admonition to its logical extreme. He says the strong should accept the weak. I presume everyone’s faith is weak. I presume everyone’s conscience is as challenged as mine, even if they look strong and even if they think they are strong and I should not be presuming they have weak faith. I think we all have something that makes our conscience tender. It is always something. So it makes sense to start out assuming that I don’t know what I might be doing to someone. That makes me trust God, and it helps me not to trust my judgment too much.
So let’s get as practical as we can,
- since you have to go home and re-accept your wife or husband after hearing this, even though you feel a lot of judgment about all the disputable things they do.
- since you need to go back to work and deal with that obnoxious person you have been telling stories about.
- since you need to go on the sidewalk and meet up with a person who looks suspiciously like they might do something objectionable if you looked at them.
We all need to develop an aggressive acceptance that changes the judgment people normally live under into salvation and grace. We are making a safe place to explore and express God’s love when we start with someone where they are starting whenever we meet them and hope for their best in Christ, even if they are clueless about Jesus.
Very briefly, here are two of many things in the scripture passage that we can do that will help us develop and use this acceptance.
Make it a rule to Accept the one who is weak in faith…without passing judgment on disputable matters.
Most things that bother you just do not matter to God. Stop noticing what people are doing that seems wrong to you. Everyone will stand before God, not you, and the Lord is able to make him or her stand
Most things that bug us don’t matter that much, most things we want to hold on to don’t matter that much, but every person does matter. Even for the most toxic person, God has a plan in mind for what to do next to help them stand and to stop them from cutting the legs out from others. If you do not presume that and see them accordingly, it will be hard to accept them. That applies to yourself, too, since you need to treat yourself like God treats you.
Someone is going to bother you in the next half hour or so. I may be doing it now by bringing that up. Don’t just swallow being bugged or avoid noting how messed up they are – accept them like God accepts you. You’ll feel better; the world will be better. And you will certainly have a better place to have a conflict, if one is necessary.
Accept the one who is weak in faith…make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way… make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Don’t merely react well, be a proactive accepter. Be strategic. If not strategic, then at least considerate. If not considerate, then at least not a pain in the neck.
Paul wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Eurocentric societies have been all about power, all about competition, all about blame, all about fear of not getting what we want or all about fear of not being respected for who we are. Our minds are infected and in need of renewing. In contrast to Eurocentric ways, Jesus insists on a new mindset of love, born God’s love which graces us all day. We didn’t know God’s acceptance, but Jesus has made it known and is making it known to us. So we have something good to do every day. We make peace. We build people up.
We need to make up our mind to accept one another like Jesus accepts us — do it and learn to love it. It won’t do much good to look like you accept someone on the outside but you judge them when you are talking to someone else, or hold on to their badness in your heart. Being outwardly nice it better than not being nice, but it is not the life-changing acceptance that Paul is describing.
We need to take this habit with us into the street, too. For instance, there are laws about discriminating against Spanish-speakers. They aren’t working. But we are not necessarily working that well either. Spanish speakers inhabit our neighborhood, but they are still invisible to a lot of us. I won’t suggest that each of us can undo this invisibility, but we could plan to look at someone and smile on the sidewalk – at least have that much proactive acceptance! Say “Hi.” Same goes for moments with our landlords or our clientele. Same with the police and security guards. Same with the rich people and with the people working out at Sweat across the street. They are all potential brothers and sisters.
Paul is working hard to help us react well and help us act well. Just make sure to NOT think you can follow that law well and accomplish it. Accepting others starts with being accepted by God as he aggressively seeks us out in Jesus Christ and connects in love. It was hard to do that, and Lord knows we keep making it hard on him. Accepting someone who is weak in faith is hard because it is that good.