St Barnabas & St Michael, 26th May 2013
After taking a break for Pentecost last week, this week we’re back on track with our sermon series in Romans, where we’ve reached Chapter 14.
Life without God (Ch 1)
All attempts to please God fail (Ch 2)
The law of God and the Jews (Ch 2)
The need for faith – Abraham (Ch 3-4)
Salvation through faith in Christ (Ch 5)
Living as Christians – sin and grace (Ch 6-7)
Living with the Holy Spirit (Ch 8)
Our future victory in Christ (Ch 8)
God’s judgement and mercy (Ch 9)
God and the Jews (Ch 10-11)
And a huge shout of praise (Ch 11)!
In the first eleven chapters of the book Paul laid the foundations of his teaching about the church, the body of Christ … not going through it in detail, but you can see a brief outline above.
All leading up to one word, right at the beginning of Chapter 12 – Therefore …
Therefore … in view of God’s mercy …
Love must be sincere.
Therefore … in view of God’s mercy … then, as we’ve seen, the next two chapters are full of practical instructions as to how to live in view of God’s mercy … as his people, the church, and we have spent the last few weeks looking closely at the details. In the first sermon in this series, Rev Tim gave us this outline …
Seeing the church from God’s point of view …
We are the body of Christ
We belong to God
We belong to each other
As the people of God we belong to each other, and our primary focus is to love one another sincerely, and continually. We’ve looked at the practical ways we put that love into action, at the difference it makes to our lives and to our witness, even how it affects our relationship with the ruling authorities!
…there is no authority except that which God has established.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another …
And then, at the end of Chapter 13, Paul reminds us that time is short … that one day, Jesus will come again … that the temptation will be to go back to our old ways, but that we should persist as Christians for the sake of Christ Jesus.
Accept him whose faith is weak …
And so we come to Chapter 14 … and it can seem, as if all of a sudden, Paul is getting bogged down in the details … he writes about eating vegetables, and which religious festivals we should avoid or celebrate, and about Christians taking offence at each other over issues that some regard as unimportant. But this is all still part of our life together … and that’s how important Paul thinks it is, that he spends so long on the details. So we need to work hard to understand what’s going on here …
Perhaps you think it’s obvious, and maybe I missed it, but why, after such rich teaching in the previous chapters, does Paul spend this extended section on this apparently insignificant detail of our life as a church? I suppose, because it’s not as insignificant as it first appears!
First of all, who is the weaker brother? And, of course, by contrast, who then are the strong … as in Romans 15:1, We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak … clearly Paul regards himself as one of the strong. Let’s be clear that this isn’t about character – it’s about faith. This doesn’t refer to someone who is shy, or awkward, or meek … or to the loud and confident. This is about someone who hasn’t yet fully understood what it means to live as a Christian. That’s why they are struggling with these details of what they should eat … in the context of that day, most meat available in the markets had been sacrificially slaughtered. Rather like Halal meat today, the ritual of slaughter had a religious origin … so the early Christians had to decide for themselves whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a God they not only didn’t believe in, but that they didn’t believe existed in the first place. It was complicated, and Christians disagreed as to the right thing to do.
Paul is clear that in Christ we are free to do as we please as long as our aim and motivation is to serve and please God. Look at Romans 14:14 …
As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
Paul’s constant prayer for believers is that they should grow in knowledge and understanding. For example, in Ephesians, Paul wrote,
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. (Ephesians 1:15)
And in Philippians …
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight … (Philippians 1:9)
And in Colossians, which we’ve been studying in our mid-week meetings …
… we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. (Colossians 1:9)
Paul’s constant prayer for believers is that they should grow in knowledge and understanding in order that they might live lives worthy of their calling to be God’s children and that by doing so they bring glory to God.
So Paul is using the word ‘weak’ (or more accurately, without strength) to describe those who are genuinely seeking to please God but who haven’t yet fully understood their faith, their freedom in Christ, or how to live as Christians in the context of wider society. Elsewhere, Paul describes the strong as ‘those who are mature’, that is, fully grown.
No-one comes to that knowledge overnight … Paul himself had studied the scriptures for years, and still failed to grasp who Jesus was until he had that dramatic encounter with the rise Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus! At that point, even he was still weak in the faith, and had a lot to learn … but the acceptance of one man, Barnabas, ensured that he was welcomed by the church, and had opportunity to grow in faith, making mistakes along the way, until he was able to lead others, plant churches and write letters that today are part of our scriptures, still, 2,000 years later, shaping the church.
Accept him whose faith is weak. This weaker brother may be a new believer, or someone who has failed to grow to maturity for any number of reasons, but they are still part of the body of Christ. And we are to welcome and accept them, accept each other … why?
I had some help from a commentary by John Stott (BST), and he gave us six good reasons …
accept the weaker brother because God has accepted him (v2-3)
accept him because Christ died and rose again, and is Lord (v4-9)
accept him because he is your brother (v10a)
accept him because we will all be judged by God (v10b-13)
accept him because he is your brother for whom Christ died (v14-16)
accept him because the kingdom of God is more important (v17-21)
Just a brief word about each, then … some are more obvious than others!
Accept him whose faith is weak …
…because God has accepted him (vs1-3)
The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him (vs3)
What is the opposite of acceptance? Whether it’s through pity, contempt or pride, rejection is the result of judgement, and in the context of faith, judgement is often sinful. We are called to be realistic about ourselves, before presuming to help another … that’s the point of Jesus’ ridiculous illustration in Matthew 7 about the plank and the speck! When Jesus said, Do not judge, or you too will be judged, we often fail to read the next verse … For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
So the weaker brother here may well be tempted to condemn the strong for failing to observe the laws and traditions of his upbringing. Judgement and acceptance work both ways.
In Matthew 7 Jesus said, … in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you … we call it the golden rule. Stott writes,
It is safe to treat others as we would like them to treat us, but it is safer still to treat them as God does. The former is a ready-made guide based on our fallen self-centredness, while the latter is a standard based on God’s perfection. (p.361)
God has accepted him.
…because Christ died and rose again, and is Lord (vs 4-9)
He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (vs6)
What matters is not our actions but our motivation … if the motive behind the way we live is to please the Lord … that is what matters to God … and should therefore be our main concern. To stand by and judge someone’s actions by our own understanding of faith puts us in the wrong, not them.
And in case we think this is simply about living here and now … Paul goes on,
For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (vs7-9)
We live now in the light of our future in heaven, secured through Christ … and both here on earth and then in heaven, we all belong to the Lord.
…because he is your brother (vs10)
You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?
Although I’ve been using the word ‘brother’ for some time – and of course, that includes us sisters, too – it’s significant that this is the first time in this letter that Paul has referred to a fellow-believer as a brother. He’s making a point …
Our fellow-believer is related to us in the strongest possible way … we are family. That is why our judgement should be tempered with generosity and tenderness. I realise that not all families relate like this … but as Paul has been teaching for nearly three chapters now, this is God’s family, and our family likeness is in Christ.
… because we will all be judged by God (vs10-13)
So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God (vs12)
When we stand before God to be judged … whether or not we have trusted in Christ … we will not stand there pointing at someone else, telling God that he deserves to be judged but I don’t! This is one rare occasion on which Paul is speaking to the individual, rather than to the church, and each of us as individuals will give an account of ourselves to God, not of each other.
… because he is your brother for whom Christ died (vs14-16)
Paul is unambiguous here … if there is a clash of conscience … the strong should support the weak. As the stronger brother, Paul is persuaded in Christ that no food is unclean. But if another believer has doubts then it would be wrong to persuade him to eat against his better judgement. Instead, the stronger brother should also abstain, in fellowship with the other, in order to strengthen his faith and growth in discipleship. There will be a time to disagree, a time for the weaker brother to learn more about living for Christ, but it will happen in God’s time and we should not force it.
Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died (vs15)
and finally … because the kingdom of God is more important (vs17-21)
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (vs17)
And because, as we have seen throughout, the love we have for each other as the body of Christ, the family of the church, the people of God, that love must be sincere. We have a continuing debt to love … not only those we approve, but all our brothers and sisters in Christ. And that love is shown by our acceptance of each other.
We are all at different stages in our relationship with God in Christ. Some of us are new to faith, still finding our way round what it means to be a disciple. Others of us have been disciples for many years … and we may, or may not, have reached a measure of maturity in faith … but we should all be striving for it … seeking to grow in our knowledge and understanding, reading the bible to learn more about God, joining with others to have it explained to us, or to share our knowledge, giving the Holy Spirit access to every part of our lives, being transformed by the renewing of our minds … which takes us right back to Paul’s starting point in Chapter 12.
I’ve said before, be patient with me, God hasn’t finished with me yet. He hasn’t finished with you, either … but you are still my brother or sister in Christ, and in loving and accepting you, I seek to live for him, and to build his church. And I hope you’ll join me …