September 17, 2017 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Diverse Opinions But United in Christ
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Epistle reading, Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Here ends our text.
St. Martin Lutheran church was located in an old neighborhood, and its members were getting older. But thanks to a revitalization effort in the community which brought some younger families into the neighborhood, and thanks to a revitalization program at the church, some of these newer folks were coming to worship. But even though they had unity in worshipping the same Lord and unity in confessing the same faith, there were some other things that divided them.
There was one man who traditionally came to worship in a suit and tie. This was one way in which he consecrated himself to the Lord. He knew church was a holy place where the Lord was present, so he put on his best. He was a little annoyed, though, that the new people dressed so casually. They should show more respect. But he didn’t know that for these new people, this was the best they had. Most young men didn’t even own a suit and tie. Instead they chose to come humbly, just as they were, without putting on airs. What amused the younger folks, though, was this one little old lady who always wore a hat to church. They often took bets as to what new feather or foliage would show up in her headdress each week. But this was how the woman was raised. From her youth, her mother had instructed her to wear a head covering as a sign of authority on her head. She put herself under her husband’s spiritual authority just like she put herself under Christ’s authority. Even though this custom no longer had any meaning in today’s society, it still meant something to her. And then there was that Monday night worship service. Some of the Sunday morning folks grumbled, “Why don’t those Monday night folks worship on the Lord’s Day like the rest of us?” But some of those who attended on Monday night worked on the weekend. Others liked the smaller service. Those with young children liked the projection of the liturgy and hymns on the wall so their hands were free to hold their child, but Sunday morning was hymnals only. Some went on Monday night just to avoid the judgment of the Sunday morning crowd. There was another man who joined the church who came from a Greek Orthodox background. He genuflected in the aisle before entering the pew, and he was always crossing himself during the service. This was his custom of showing reverence and remembering his baptism, but some of the long time Lutherans thought this was too high church and a little showy.
Now none of these personal customs or traditions, opinions or preferences were commanded by God or forbidden by him. None of them were sins against the Commandments nor were they against any Biblical doctrine. And yet, people were making judgments on others who practiced them. It wasn’t very loving, and it was causing divisions in the church.
The apostle Paul had heard similar reports about the church in Rome. The church there had started from the synagogues with Jews who came to faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. But it quickly came to include Gentiles as well, new folks who hadn’t grown up in the Jewish tradition. They had one faith, one baptism, and one Lord, and yet there were divisions among them. The Jewish Christians had grown up following all the Old Testament ceremonial laws. These laws were important because they were commanded by God and taught them something, but now that Jesus had come and fulfilled these laws, they were no longer required.
One of these laws was that the Jews were only to eat food which God had declared clean for them. They weren’t to eat unclean animals like pigs or catfish or vultures. This practice wasn’t just for dietary health though. It was God’s way of teaching them to come out and be separate from the Gentiles and their pagan practices. But now that Jesus had come and declared all food clean and God had shown the apostle Peter in a vision that he should go to the Gentiles and eat with them, this ceremonial law no longer applied. The Gentile Christians, who weren’t raised with this tradition, smirked at the Jewish Christians who still held to this custom and sometimes didn’t eat any meat at all. They were judging their brother. Yes, he was a little weak in the faith for not letting go of old habits, but these customs still meant something to him. So Paul instructs them, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Another ceremonial law to which the Jewish Christians clung was worshipping on the Sabbath Day or Saturday. As God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day so the Jews were to rest and worship on the Sabbath, which means rest. But since Jesus has come, who fulfilled this law by being our rest, Christians are no longer required to worship on any particular day. The early Church simply chose Sunday to worship in remembrance of the Lord’s resurrection on Sunday. The Jewish Christians had also grown up celebrating the festivals of the Passover, Harvest, and Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. These were all fulfilled in Jesus and no longer necessary, but the Jewish Christians still remembered their meaning even though they meant nothing to the Gentile Christians. But again, no reason to quarrel. Paul advises, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
In all these things, Paul is reminding the church at Rome that they weren’t to judge their Christian brother about matters of opinion or personal preference. They were to judge doctrine, whether it be according to Scripture or not. They were to judge sin in the church, whether it be against God’s command or not. But they weren’t to criticize one another about customs or traditions which the Lord didn’t command or forbid. While these things had meaning to the individuals who practiced them, they shouldn’t be used as weapons of division. Instead, they should unite around the one who brought them all together, Jesus Christ. They needed to remember that he was their master who died for their sins and rose again to give them life. Now that they were freed to be Christ’s servants, they didn’t live and die for themselves or live and die to judge their master’s servants. They lived and died to the Lord. Paul reminds them, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Instead of division, they should unite around their Lord, even as the saints in heaven united around the throne of God.
Now, in our church today, we have the traditions handed down to us from the apostles in holy Scripture. We have the teachings of our Lord in the Law of his Commandments and in the Gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We have baptism with water and the Word and the Lord’s Supper of Christ’s own body and blood in the bread and wine for the for the forgiveness of sins.
We have the Lord’s command to gather for worship together to receive his benefits through the preaching of his Word and the administration of his Sacraments. Practicing these traditions passed down to us from the apostles makes us one, holy Christian and apostolic Church. Upon these apostolic traditions, we cannot yield.
But we also have other traditions passed down to us from our ancestors which we call adiaphora. Adiaphora is a Greek word which means things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God. Which day do we gather for worship? How do we observe the church year – the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, and Lent – the festivals of Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Reformation? What color are the par aments to remind us of the season? What does the pastor wear to distinguish his office? Individual cup or common cup? Imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday or fasting during Lent? TLH p. 5 or 15 or LSB Divine Service I or III? Hymnals, service bulletins, or screens? These are all things which have not been commanded or forbidden by God. They are human customs, traditions, and preferences. It doesn’t mean that they’re not important, though. They do teach us and remind us and provide order. But we can’t be legalistic about them. We can’t say, “Thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord hasn’t spoken. And we certainly shouldn’t criticize our brothers in our church or other churches if they have different customs or personal preferences. In fact, in our Christian freedom, we’re free to change these traditions in any way which helps enhance our worship and the teaching of the Gospel.
Now we German Lutherans are kind of like the Jewish Christians. We have decades, even centuries, of our own traditions – traditions that have real meaning for us. But we also have folks like the Gentile Christians who are newer to our church – people who come to us from other church denominations or no church at all. They don’t know all the customs of this church, or they have customs of their own. Newer members might smirk at the traditions of the older members, and older members might condescend to the newer members, even exclude them from ministry and fellowship opportunities because they weren’t born and raised here. But this should not be. We are the body of Christ and all servants of the same master. Though we have different personal practices, preferences, and opinions, we shouldn’t judge or criticize our brother, but respect him and love him.
The apostle Paul warns us, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” On the Last Day, when every knee will bow before our judge and Lord in all his glory, you won’t be pointing your finger at the person next to you, complaining about his religious habits. Instead, you’ll give an account of yourself to God. This sounds like a very daunting, fearful experience.
But thanks be to God, you’ll confess to God the apostolic teaching and tradition passed down to you in the Bible. You’ll confess to God, “I believe that I am a poor, miserable sinner, but that Jesus Christ came to take my place under the Law, suffer and die on the cross for my sin, and rise to life that I might live forever in your kingdom. I now kneel before you, wearing the white robe of his righteousness which he gave me in baptism. I trust, not in any rituals or human traditions that I have done, but solely in his mercy, grace, and forgiveness.” The Lord will declare, “I judge you not guilty because you’re cleansed by my blood. Enter into the gates of heaven with your brothers in the faith.” And then the saints from every age, nation, and tradition, will worship our Lord with the same hymns, liturgy, and ceremonies, with one heart, mind, and spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.