Everybody Welcome 2 – Unity and Diversity. Romans 14:1-15:7.
God of welcome, you invite me into your family. I sit at your table now and savior your Word to me. Help me receive all the nourishment You have for me today. Amen.
Story of Lloyd Cook.
When I was at Keele University Christian Union, there was a tradition. Every first meeting of the CU, in September as new academic year began, a local preacher – Lloyd Cook – would come and preach. And his message always swung round to a theme – he’d encourage everyone there: regardless of whatever Christian tradition you came from, you were welcome, whether you’d call yourself, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic you were welcome; and for people to feel comfortable to worship in whatever way they preferred – not to feel they have to copy others, so whether you raised hands in worship or did not, whether you kneeled or danced, all was fine…
It was a point – we were united in Christ, yet there was diversity and people did not have to conform or should not feel pressured to…
Unity and Diversity
A church is a community of unity and diversity. A community united by the good news of Christ, and through the good news of Christ; a community united, by the intention of God – we are the Body of Christ, by his great marvelous plan – we did not come up with it; a community united, by the indwelling presence of God – the Holy Spirit – each of us individually a temple of the holy spirit. There are many other ways we are united I am sure you can suggest…
But a church – such as All Saints – is also a place of diversity. Some examples – we are a church of various cultures and from different lands – Ireland, UK, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, Denmark, India, Germany, South Africa, United States. Did I miss anyone?
We are a church, with members from different denominational or backgrounds from different church traditions. Very few members of All Saints would say their background is Anglican.
Into that mix of diversity, of course we bring our variety and emphasis of Christian spirituality –
worship styles, preferred contemporary worship songs or hymns,
the value we may or may not place on silence,
how we approach prayer,
our preference of Holy Communion weekly or perhaps less often,
and our diversity over what we feel, in a church’s life,
should be most important – prayer, corporate worship, service of others, discipleship, community, evangelism.
Finally there our diversity of personality, of life experience,
of spiritual gifts, of talents and strengths,
of life status, single, married, parents,
grandparents, employed, unemployed,
what music we like,
and what films we like.
Once you get into it, we realize quickly, a church is a community of unity and diversity. And that is important point to remember when seeking to be a community where everyone is welcome.
We do not only welcome people like us
and we do not create distance if they are different to us –
everybody is welcome.
Romans 14, Paul is speaking to a community of unity and diversity. The first part of his letter – chapters 1-11, has been about theology – the good news in and through Christ and what that means – unity. Then 12-15 he shares practical means and what it means to live this out.
‘’Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’’
Now, when by the time we get to Romans 14, focuses on the attitudes of believers to each other, he spends 30 verses on it – so it is clearly a matter of concern to Paul.
The clue is in the starting and end verses –
14:1 Welcome those who are weak in faith.
7 Welcome one another, therefore,
just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
The NIV used language of Accept.
The section – 14:1-15:7 – begins and ends with Welcome. The first word – welcome those who are different. Last word to remember ‘welcome’ as Christ as welcomed.
Those who are ‘weak’ and we will come to what that means – those who are ‘weak’ in faith, are feeling unwelcome.
Paul had just reminded the church – ‘let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another… Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love as Jesus told his disciples, the night before he died, love to be the mark of his followers, and he goes on to say – love one another as Jesus has loved us…
Paul is challenging an unloving trend in that church.
We need to dig into the context.
So some years before the letter, ‘’Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome over their constant disturbances of Chrestus’’ – words from Suetonius. The confused report suggest disturbances caused in the Roman Jewish community by the preaching about Jesus as Messiah. Christus would sound like Chrestus. Acts 18 we hear of this explusion – Priscilla and Aquila had to leave Rome.
So it is quite possible, this would have included Jews who were part of the churches in Rome, leaders and lay members. After Claudius died a few years later, his decree would have lapsed – new emperor, new ways etc – and so the Jews who had been affected by it, some or many would have returned to Rome, to their home. However, they return to churches which have been led for some years by Gentiles, with certain practices. So we have tension between the Gentile patterns of worship and community life, and the returning Jewish believers in Christ. This unease or even resentment – Paul uses some hard language such as judging, condemning, looking down upon – leads to Paul to write a letter calling Christians – Jewish and Gentile – to extend a genuine ‘welcome’.
Now, it may all seem quite trivial at the start, if we quickly read. Some felt they could eat what they wanted; others avoided meat, and wine. Some regarded some days as special; others regarded no day as particularly special. This is seen in v1-6. So is this simply a dispute about vegetarian practice or being temperate – ie drinking alcholo or not – or holy days? Why would Paul spend so much time on this?
The underlying issue was much more important than we may think. The key fact to appreciate is that the issue of clean and unclean food, the issue of Sabbath observance had become fundamental in Jewish identity. Leviticus 20:25-26 – the law of clean and unclean foods, mirrored, reflected being set apart to God, from other nations. 1 Maccabees 1, an intertestamental Jewish writing – so from the era around 170 years before the birth of Christ , part of the Apocrapha, writes, after describing the persecution of the Jews, it goes on to say : ‘many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food, they chose to die rather than be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.’’ Blood of martyrs spilt in defence or standing for these views.
To avoid unclean food was part of the Jewish identity, part of their practice, which was connected to their worship.
It was the same with the Sabbath. This command to keep the Sabbath day, was stated in Genesis, repeated in the commandments, and part of the preaching of the prophets like Isaiah in Isaiah 58. Many Jewish believers may have been stunned to see Gentiles, keeping perhaps a different day – the Sunday, the day of resurrection, when the Sabbath began from Friday evening to Saturday evening.
So these are not just matters of personal choice, these were convictions, they were traditions, which were deeply rooted. They were deeply meaningful. The way they were brought up.
Ways that helped them nourished their faith in Christ.
To call them into question was to call into question precious things they believed and practiced.
Have you ever had deep personal convictions / traditions challenged?
One I remember is singing. You stand to sing – don’t you? Don’t you?
When I was at Missionary School, we were, in small teams, working with different Czech churches. Ours – a Methodist Church – first hymn, I remember I was almost – with a couple of others – out of our seats to sing. Nope, here, they sit to sing. Every Sunday… But that is what you are meant to – isn’t it??? Yet those Czech’s worshipped the Lord as much sitting as I would have standing…
Quiet Times. Every day right. That is what a proper Christian does? When I was a curate – assistant apprentice minister – Jolanda was working for Youth for Christ. Her Boss, Phil Pusey shared: he was a dad with 3 amazing but very energetic kids, very demanding at home, supporting Maria his wife etc. So he just couldn’t get a proper quiet time at home. So he changed his pattern – to go in once a week earlier to the office, to spend time with God. Know I know Phil, he preached at our wedding, godly man… yet I learned, my tradition, it wasn’t the only way…
Back to Romans 14. It is likely the avoidance of meat and wine, is likely to be a Jewish practice – or Gentiles who had embraced Jewish lifestyle rules – the aim, to keep the rules of clean and unclean foods. The concern for holy days is likely to be the Sabbath, possibly the days around the main Jewish festivals possibly as well, as such as the 7 days following Passover.
I would believe, Paul introduces the word ‘weak’ as part of the language which may have been used by the Gentiles towards the Jews. For him to agree with this language, would go against his teaching in this letter, which is we are not to judge, we are accepted by Christ, therefore accept one another.
There is division, or dissension in the community, over how the Christian life is lived out, what habits people are doing. Note Paul is not saying one or the other group is sinning. He calls out sin in other places – such as chapter 13 – with language such as ‘let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ Paul does not use this approach here.
This is about traditions, convictions, deeply held by one group in particular, convictions and traditions not shared by probably a majority of the church community.
What is happening here. Tragically both sides appear to question the Christian standing of the other.
So things have moved from difference, valuing the tradition, learning from each other, perhaps, agreeing to disagree, to a form of exclusion.
‘Unless you live out your faith, or hold the same views as myself or my tradition, you are not a ‘proper Christian’.
We may not say it, but we would say they are second class Christians.’
To use my examples. To be a proper Christian, you have a quiet time each day. To be a proper Christian you stand to sing…
So. Paul teaches. He speaks and says – ‘the weak’ to accept the strong as fellow Christians.
His main argument as you see v4-12, is that God accepts people, whose views and practices they regard as unacceptable or they would never do.
‘Let not the one who does not eat, pass judgement on the one who eats for God has welcomed him.’’
Paul then, v13-18, declares his own views on foods – that there are for him, a Jewish believer in Jesus, that there were no unclean foods. He came to that conclusion ‘in Jesus Christ’ v14 – part of his faith being reflected upon. So he has a different view.
So, we expect Paul to tell, those who want to avoid ‘unclean’ foods, to sort themselves out.
But he says so powerfully: ‘’All food is clean but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to anything else that will cause your brother to fall.’’
No. Paul says, the strong also have a responsibility to recognize the scruples of the ‘weak’ and respect them as true brothers and sisters in Christ. Does our expression or insistence on our tradition, actually make them stumble – for we say our way is the only way …
It is about genuine acceptance and respect for the integrity of the other. One side truly welcomes the other, however diverse they are.
It is about priorities Paul says:
The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
Paul is saying: focus on what unites. But there is diversity. In that diversity how can you build your brother or sister up, than leaving them not welcome, or less as a Christian because of your insistence that your way is the only way to be a Christian.
But hey ho. It would be so much easier if we were all same – like some version of the Minions. Diversity is tough. Especially when we hold some strong views on how to live out faith. Paul says, think of the other. So at times we restrict ourselves or adapt us.
Yet as we talk with others, we learn, we are enriched, as we learn another way to approach faith or about other practices.
So in a diverse community, that is struggling with that diversity,
Paul’s antidote, is to keep clear on the primacy of faith, and make the benefit of the other believer, a much higher priority than one’s own views and advancement.
Love God, Love your neighbour, love another another,
welcome / accept one another as Christ has accepted you…
you have welcomed us into your kingdom
and your heart’s desire
is to draw every human being to yourself.
Grant us clear eyes to see people as you see them,
sensitive feet to stand in their shoes,
and warm smiles to welcome them in your name.
Give us such generous hearts,
that our church becomes a foretaste of heaven
where every soul you send us, finds their loving home
in the community of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen