On Tuesday 11 September 2001 I was standing in our hall just after lunch when my sister rang me from New York to tell me that she was alright. I mouthed to Hannah to turn on CNN, just in time to watch the second jet collide with the Twin Towers. 9/11 stands as a symbol of the extremities that men will go to, to inflict terror and pain and attack those they hate and feel enmity to.
Our passage today might seem trivial; it talks about how to respond to vegetarians.
Of course there is a context. Paul has never been to Rome, and as far as we know was not writing to deal with specific problems or questions. Rather he is setting out his understanding of the faith in a general way as he would explain it to any new, unknown, group of people. He can imagine the church will have believers converted from within Judaism, and also believers who have come from a pagan background. People who might be bitter enemies, or at least feel that their culture and religion should lead them to follow separate lives, are now counted as part of the same family.
In Romans 1:5 Paul says that his main function is to call Gentiles to the “obedience that comes from faith”.
The rest of chapter one explains how humankind chooses to be disobedient. Chapter two imagines the Jewish converts all smiling and agreeing with Paul’s condemnation of Gentile sinners, so he turns to them and says that in judging others they are revealing themselves also to be sinners liable to judgement. The truth is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23,24) Chapter four confirms that the Old Testament teaches through the example of Abraham that we are saved only by faith in the cross and blood of Jesus, and God’s love will see us through judgement now that we are in his family.
If we are freely forgiven, do we still need to be obedient? Yes of course, and we find in chapters six, seven and eight that obedience comes from responsiveness to God’s Holy Spirit. We find ourselves wanting to do the things God wants us to, and we have a growing understanding “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Even when we cannot understand God’s purposes, as in the case of his people Israel who seem to have fallen away, we see that God is always merciful, calling us back to him.
In view of God’s mercies, therefore, we present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, giving ourselves to living God’s will and building up his body here on earth – the church. We each look out the gifts that we have been given and employ them in the service of others. We let love be without pretence. We submit ourselves to the governing authorities. We owe no debt but to love others as ourselves, which is perfect obedience, and the keeping of the law.
Question. How do we respond when people in close proximity live in ways that seem to cut across each other? How do we cope if people are living in opposite ways? If one is being obedient, does this mean that the other is being disobedient?
And so to vegetarianism, but not as we would understand it today. In the ancient world it was customary to invoke the gods on every occasion. In the marketplace a prayer to an idol would have been offered when meat was butchered and sold, in as routine a manner as we would use gloves and careful germ-free wrappings today. It was what one did. To a faithful Jew this would be abhorrent, especially as the meat would probably not have been killed in a kosher manner with all the blood drained out. The most effective way to keep to the strict dietary laws was never to eat meat if you did not know where it came from. You therefore tended only to eat vegetables in public. Some parts of the early church, especially those from a Jewish background, seem to have carried these ways into the Christian fellowship.
Others however were convinced that there is only one God, who has set us free from the Old Testament food laws. As idols are worthless, it really does not matter what prayers have been muttered over them. God has given us good meat to enjoy and give him thanks for. It becomes almost a badge of faith to eat the meat.
This might still seem arcane and remote from everyday life today, until you consider that there is growing pressure in our society to make all meat halal, that is, slaughtered in accordance with Muslim sharia law, with prayers said and possible issues of animal cruelty. (For more information see http://barnabasfund.org/Should-Christians-eat-halal-meat.html)
So two Christians have opposing stances, both based on a desire to be obedient to God and both based on their understanding of scripture. They are not bad people. They are good people trying to live well.
For Paul, the guiding principle is to build up our brothers and sisters. This is based principally on our love for each other, as spelt out in recent passages of scripture. It is based also on the firm understanding that we will each face judgement. God looks upon each one who has come to a faith in Jesus with love and has promised us eternal life, but we will also answer to him for our actions, our thoughts and our motives. We do not answer to each other. In chapter two Paul rounded on the upright, good-living religious types who looked down on their obviously sinful, pagan neighbours. Jesus warned us against inspecting other’s eyes for tiny specks when we have telegraph poles sticking out of our own eyes.
Some people find clear direct rules very helpful. This talk of being led by the Spirit sounds much too relaxed, diffuse, and unclear. Paul say that to live a life that seeks to be dependent on the promptings of God is to be truly strong.
As we each seek to be renewed, so we will find that we are truly Open For All. This is more than leaving the church unlocked, taking seriously the needs of those with mobility problems, providing free wifi, or any other surface things. Deep down, we realise that we are loved and accepted by God, without reserve, whoever we are and whatever we have done. He loves us. He loved us before ever we started to show signs of belief.
And we love each other. Deep down, we reflect God’s love that has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us (Romans 5). We love each other. We love the people of Camberley and beyond, whether they come here or not, whether they live tidy, organised lives or not, whether they are respectable or not. If ever we catch ourselves thinking or saying “You should not be doing that”, we are becoming someone’s judge, rather than the one who loves and accepts them.
Out of love I will fit in with the one who wants to eat salad or steak, I will sing Gregorian chant or the latest raucous chorus, I will have a glass of wine or have only water, I will do all I can to pass on the love and acceptance that God has so generously extended to me. This is the true obedience that we are called to. It might just change the world.
1. Do you consider yourself to be strong or weak, in the matter of rules and codes of behaviour?
2. How might “accepting one another” contribute to building up the life of the church, and perhaps of our society?
3. Which of the five core values of St Michael’s do you think might have been referred to in this sermon?