STUMBLING BLOCKS

TEXT:† Rom. 14:13-23; Matt. 15:10-20

 

 

††††††††††† Back in 1979 I spent a couple of weeks in Germany with a friend of mine who had relatives there.† I will never forget that trip because it presented me with one of the most interesting moral challenges of my life so far.† Since we were staying with my friendís relatives, we spent quite a bit of time going around to visit other extended family that she had never met.†

One of those visits took us to an older couple down in Bavaria.† They ushered us into a small dining room and immediately broke out the liquor.† I have no idea what it was, but the appearance of the bottle put me into a tailspin.† Those were my fundamentalist days, and I strongly believed that it was wrong to put any alcohol into my body.† In my clumsy German, I tried to explain that I couldnít drink what they were offering.† They continued to offer, and I continued to refuse, neither of us really understanding the other.†

††††††††††† On the drive back to the home where we were staying, our host explained to me that I had deeply offended the couple.† They interpreted my refusal as an affront to their hospitalityÖthat what they had to offer was not good enough for me.† In their repeated requests they were offering me better and better stuff, until they came to the finest quality liquor they had in their home.† Still I refused, and they translated that as an insult to their hospitality.† I was horrified that I had hurt them.

††††††††††† Was I right or was I wrong to reject the drink?† Romans 14 would seem to tell me both yes and no.† On the one hand, Paul is right with Jesus in pointing out that itís not what goes into the body that is sinful.† As Paul says in verse 17, ďFor the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.Ē†

It seems on the one hand that I put a stumbling block in the way of that couple.† Even if they had understood my words, it is doubtful they would want anything to do with my religion, if it meant refusing hospitality that they offered from the heart.† I was not loving my neighbor and I was not an effective witness for my faith.† As I looked back, I felt I was wrong to refuse their gift.

But then there was verse 14:† ďIf anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.Ē† And worse, down in verse 23:† ďBut the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.Ē Because I honestly believed that it was against the will of God to take even a sip from that cup, Paul also seemed to be saying that for me to accept that gift and take a drink would have been wrong.

I was in a lose-lose situation in that home.† There was no way for me to have done the ďrightĒ thingÖnot because of what they were offering, but because I came into their home bound by the Law.† That event was one of the things that put a chink in my fundamentalist armor.† I could not find any peace with either solution, so I knew something was flawed.†

As I studied Romans 14, I could see the problem.† If I had come to them with a greater sense of Godís freedom and grace, then I would have been in a win-win and not a lose-lose situation.† If I wasnít so caught up in thinking that a particular kind of food or drink was sinful, then I would have accepted their gift and could have lived out verse 19:† ďLet us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.† Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.Ē† I could have had my schnapps and drank it too!

Romans 14, like most of the book of Romans, is a gateway to radical freedom in faith.† The thing that distresses some people is Paulís approach leaves the categories of right and wrong in very subjective hands.† ďDo not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.Ē† Wow.† But Paul is not talking here about the large moral failings forbidden in the Ten Commandments.† Heís talking about the failings of ritual purity and the seemingly endless list of doís and doníts, shoulds and shouldníts, that fill most religious communities and cultures.† How many of you grew up thinking youíd go to hell if you didnít wear a hat to church, if you didnít confess your sins before Communion, if you danced or played cards or drank?

In this chapter Paul is talking about how we do harm to others by putting too much emphasis on behaviors that really donít matter, but the themes echoed here have been present throughout the book of Romans, even in chapters that do deal with the larger sins.† It is one corner of a much larger mural of grace.

One of those larger themes that occurs twice in this chapter, is ďDonít judge others.Ē† For one thing, thatís Godís job not ours.† As he says in verse 4:† ďWho are you to judge someone elseís servant?† To his own master he stands or falls.Ē† In other words, people report to God, not to you.† Leave them alone.

But the good news that really makes the book of Romans sing began in chapter 3, when Paul said that it is not our good behavior that saves us, but our simple trust in Godís love and faithfulness.† That is really laid out in Romans 8 which begins, ďThere is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,Ē and ends with the majestic language of Godís love that will never fail us.† That theme of Godís love and forgiveness, is right here also.† Right after saying ďTo his own master he stands or falls,Ē Paul says, ďAnd he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.Ē

It is with that radical understanding of Godís grace and love that will declare you righteous before God even when you are clearly not, that Paul moves into the rest of chapter 14 and says, ďDonít worry.† God is in charge.† Donít get hung up on legalisms of how certain days should be celebrated or what to eat or drink and the like.† If youíre comfortable with it, give thanks to God for it and donít let others call it evil.† If you think itís wrong, then donít do it.Ē

Itís the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law that Paul is getting at in Romans 14.† Donít get bogged down in a detailed list of doís and doníts.† Look instead at the effect your behavior is having on your neighbor.† If you are harming the faith of others, youíre in the wrongÖeven if what youíre doing isnít technically sinful.† It isnít about the law and who keeps it.† Itís about the neighbors and who loves them.† Itís about the heartís desire to do Godís will and about the grace of God that picks us up instead of casting us down.† And that larger theme goes for all sinÖthe big and the small.

Paul is also saying that all our decisions should be based on what we believe to be Godís will.† Back in verses 5-6 he says, ďOne person considers one day more sacred than another; another person considers every day alike.† Each one should be fully convinced in their own mind.† If a person regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.† Whoever eats meat, eats to the Lord, and gives thanks to God; and whoever abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.Ē

We are to approach even the smallest things in our lives with a sense of sacredness and make whatever decisions we make based on what we believe about Godís righteousness and will for our lives.† Because back in 1979 I was so caught up in the law and fear of judgment, I couldnít accept the drink, even though it was offered with love and thanksgiving.† I believed it was wrong, and I was afraid of what might happen to me if I sinned.† Had I understood Romans 14, I would have realized that it wasnít about me.† It was about that couple and showing the love of God to them.† Whether I technically did the right or the wrong thing was immaterial.† God would have seen a heart that wanted to bless that couple, and God would not have condemned me.

All of that is symbolized this morning on the altar.† The sharing in the body of Christ is the reminder that God loves us whether we get it right or whether we get it wrong.† Itís the reminder that if our hearts are seeking God, then God does not condemn us.† Jesus hosts the meal and there are no bouncers.† We each answer to our own master, and when we come to the table we will stand and not fall, because the Lord is able to make us stand.

Romans does have a clear sense that we are sinful on a pretty regular basis.† But the book has changed so many hearts and lives because it sings the good news that Godís grace has left our sin in the dust.† There is no more condemnation, the only one judging us is the one whose love we canít escape.† Live intentionally, love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.† Legalism ended in death on a cross and only love arose from the dead.† So come, and share in the love of the Lord at the table.† Amen.

Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson


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