"A Welcome Difference"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts November 19 & 20 , 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Romans 14:1-4
1 Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Differing on Harry Potter
Well, the new Harry Potter movie is out. Among the masses of people who've plopped down $9.50 to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are millions of faithful Christians. Of course there are also millions of faithful Christians who refuse to expose themselves or their children to Harry Potter. So, no doubt, once again the body of Christ will pummel itself for a while, as the anti-Potter folk attack their pro-Potter brethren for flirting with evil, while the pro-Potter Christians accuse the anti-Potter Muggles of being narrow-minded and judgmental. Thank God, in less than three weeks we'll all be distracted by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which will bring most Christians together again, even though it has plenty of magic and a witch, and was written by a Christian who smoked a pipe and drank alcohol.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for my website with the title: "Hoodwinked by Harry Potter?" It turned out to be one of the most popular pieces I've written. In this article I try to answer the question: What's a thoughtful Christian supposed to do with the Harry Potter books and movies? My answer, in a nutshell, is that while all Christians should avoid the evil of real witchcraft, Christians may freely differ on the question of whether or not it's appropriate for them and their children to be exposed to the fictional witchcraft of Harry Potter. In other words, as long as all Christians regard genuine witchcraft as evil, I believe it's okay for us to come to different conclusions about whether or not exposure to make-believe witchcraft is acceptable.
This position hasn't satisfied everybody. Some Christians who love Harry Potter believe I've been too generous with Harry's detractors. And those who believe that Harry Potter represents a Satanic threat to the have been downright nasty to me in their e-mails. Last month, for example, I received a scathing denunciation from a pastor who believes I've sold my soul to the Devil because I've said that it might be okay for some Christians to read Harry Potter or go to his movies.
This sort of skirmish isn't new in the church. For as long as there have been Christians, we always seem to end up fighting over things that clearly aren't in the center of our faith. The New Testament gives plenty of examples of this sort of combat. In Acts 6, the earliest Christians bickered over the distribution of food to widows and who should have been responsible for it (Acts 6:1-2). In Galatians 2, even Peter and Paul got into a nasty argument over whether it was okay for a Jew to eat with Gentiles.
It's ironic that the early church was plagued with food fights, since we Christians love eating together. Food is almost as important to our corporate life as worship . . . almost, I said, almost. But food can get us into trouble with each other.
The Problem with Food in the First-Century Church
This was especially true in the first century for several reasons. The Corinthian believers, for example, were in a row over whether or not they could eat meat, since most of the meat in Corinth came from pagan sacrifices. Some Christians thought eating meat meant participating in pagan worship, while others believed they were free in Christ to eat any food.
The issue in Rome appears to have been a little more complicated since the Roman church had a large Jewish-Christian contingent. Many of these folk, though they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, nevertheless continued to practice their Judaism, especially with respect to eating (keeping kosher). So the different eating practices in the Roman church included various options: Jewish Christians keeping kosher and Gentile Christians not keeping kosher; "free in Christ" Christians eating meat; "strict conscience" Christians eating only vegetables.
This wouldn't have been a problem, except for the fact that people in the various camps were quarreling. Romans 14:3 is especially chilling: "Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat." So the "free in Christ" folk were despising those with whom they disagreed. And the "strict conscience" believers were judging them in return. Not a pretty sight!
Problems Like This in the Church Today
Folks, this sort of thing continues to happen in the church of Jesus Christ, sadly enough. There are all sorts of causes. Food isn't such a big issue anymore, but alcohol . . . now there's something to get Christians fighting among themselves. The same is true of theological issues upon which Christians disagree, including: baptism, communion, the ordination of women, eschatology, the authority of Scripture, and so forth. Sadly enough, we Christians find it all too easy to despise or judge our brothers and sisters in Christ over issues that matter, but that aren't central to our faith.
This kind of thing has happened in our own church. Since I've been your pastor, there have two main sources of conflict that have led us, not only to disagree with each other, but even to treat each other poorly.
The first has to do with politics. We're a diverse church politically, with faithful members active in both major parties. I expect we've also got some Greens and Independents. But every now and then we forget about our diversity and assume that everybody here shares our political views. So somebody sends out an e-mail to a broad collection of IPC folk, using the men's ministry mailing list, for example, and in this e-mail that person expresses strong partisan opinions. You should see the Internet sparks fly! Yikes! Folks get hurt and angry. They say things they shouldn't be saying. And, soon enough, we slip into despising and judging.
The second, and in the last fourteen years, most controversy-prone aspect of our life together has been change in the non-essentials associated with worship. To my knowledge, nobody in this church has ever suggested that we stop worshiping the one true God, or that we stop basing our worship on Scripture, or anything like that. Our core theology of worship has remained rock-solid for the last 29 years and 11 months. (Did you know we'll celebrate the 30th anniversary of IPC's first worship service on Christmas Eve this year?)
But, even though our basic philosophy of worship has remained constant, over the years people have had the audacity to suggest that we sing more praise songs, or less praise songs . . . or include drums in worship, or forbid percussion in worship . . . or wear robes, or not wear robes . . . or add some additional worship services to our roster, or limit ourselves to two services on Sunday morning. These items have led to lots of "quarreling over opinions," to use the language of Romans 14. Worse yet, I've heard some folks judge those with whom they disagree. I remember one Saturday evening when a regular in that service shared during a lay witness that "we really worship on Saturday evening, unlike what happens on Sunday mornings around here." Whoa! Now them's fightin' words.
What Should We Do with Our Differences of Opinion?
So what are we supposed to do with all of this? What if we differ over Harry Potter, or politics, or worship styles? What should we do . . . and not do? Let's turn back to Romans for guidance.
Romans 14:1 begins: "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions." When Paul speaks of the "weak in faith," he means people who don't yet understand what it means to be free in Christ. They're the folk I was calling people of "strict conscience." It's probably more accurate to say "hyperactive conscience." They err on the side of legalism, not freedom in Christ.
In the rest of this chapter, Paul is going to argue that we are free in Christ with respect to eating restrictions (14:14, 20). In light of what Christ has done, no food is unclean (14:20). In 1 Corinthians Paul explains that it's okay in some circumstances to eat meat that has been offered to idols in pagan sacrifices (1 Cor 10:25-26). So, from a theological perspective, the free in Christ people take the day.
But this is not the points of Paul's argument in Romans. In fact, the main thrust of Romans 14 is not to get the "weak in faith" to bulk up theologically. Rather, it's trying to get the "strong in faith" to "welcome those who are weak in faith" (14:1). As I've said many times during this series, this means far more than shaking someone's hand at the door. It's a matter of embracing people, helping them to feel at home, gathering them into your fellowship. In the case of the Roman Christians, it means, in particular, that the strong must not "despise" the weak. Moreover, it means that when the body of Christ gathers together, the strong should not insist upon their freedom in Christ by chomping down a big, non-kosher slab of meat that had just been sacrificed to Jupiter. Yes, in Christ they are free to enjoy the steak. But they mustn't use this freedom in church if it causes others to stumble (14:21).
Chapter 15 completes the argument of Chapter 14. It begins: "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (15:1). Then, after pointing to the example of Christ, Paul adds,
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (15:5-7)
The strong need to make special allowance for their weaker brothers and sisters. But all people are to live in harmony and to welcome each other in the way Christ has welcomed them.
So what might this look like in practice in our church today? Let me talk about some practical examples by picking up the issues I had mentioned earlier.
The Case of Harry Potter
I started this sermon by referring to Harry Potter. I explained that I believe Christians can differ on whether it's right to expose themselves or their children to the Potter books and movies. Now, as you may have guessed, I fall on the "free in Christ" side of things. Though strongly affirming the evil of real witchcraft, I don't believe it's wrong for me or my family to read Harry Potter or watch the movies. In fact, we went as a family on Friday night to see the latest film. And I saw several IPC folks in line, including one of our elders.
To tell you the truth, I've discovered that the Harry Potter books, which I like much more than the movies, are filled with wonderful illustrations for the Christian life. Connie Neal wrote a book called The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker. It's great stuff for preaching. Yet, if you look back at my sermons over the past six years since I've known Harry Potter, I think you'll find only one, tiny sermon illustration from the books and movies (not counting today). Why have I avoided using such a rich resource for illustrations? Because I know that my referring to Harry Potter in a sermon would offend some of you, and I believe, on the basis of Romans 14-15, that I shouldn't do this. I need to forego something I would like to do and am free in Christ to do for the sake of harmony in Christ's body at IPC.
The Case of Politics
Earlier in this sermon I mentioned that politics has been a divisive issue around here. This is especially true because many of us care a whole lot about matters political. Since I've been pastor here, we've had members who have served in all sorts of governmental positions, both elected and appointed. Yet, when it comes to politics, we see things from widely diverse perspectives.
I'll never forget an incident that happened on our patio some years back. If you've heard this story before, please forgive the redundancy. I was talking with two men, both active, faithful members of our church. Somehow the conversation drifted over to local politics, and then to the mayor of Irvine, who at that time was Larry Agran. Most of you know that Mr. Agran divides the house pretty quickly in our city. Some love him; some hate him; few are neutral. Anyway, one of the men with whom I was speaking launched into a vicious attack on Mr. Agran. The other man remained strangely quiet. Finally, the first man noticed the other man's silence and said, "Say, you're very quiet, and you look a bit distressed. Do you disagree with what I'm saying about Larry Agran?" The quiet man finally spoke, "Well, in the last election, I was his campaign manager!" You should've seen the look on the other man's face. Utter shock, amazement, dismay! I'm sure he was trying to figure out how a brother in Christ could be such a fool.
Now, obviously, there was great potential here for a vicious fight, even for lots of despising and judging. But, to their credit, both men refused to go there. Finally the critic of Larry Agran managed to speak, saying, "Well, I'm rather shocked. Can you help me understand why you supported him for major? I don't get it." And so the Agran supporter did. And when I left them, they were having an open, respectful conversation about the matter, without despising or judging.
Now, honestly, I'm not sure the church patio is the best place of political conversation. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I want this church to be a safe place for persons of all political persuasions. This is especially true for those in our church family who hold public office. Our brothers and sisters have served on the city council, the school board, and as leaders in the local political parties. One of our members has been a state assemblyman and senator, and, in all likelihood, will soon be our congressman. Ironically, in the last special election, he ran against another member of this church family. Now it's very tempting, I think, for us to want to talk politics with those in our church who serve in positions of power. And there is a place for this. But I would ask that our gatherings for and around worship not be this place. Even, and especially if an elected leader has just done something you really don't like, your calling is to welcome him or her as Christ has welcomed you.
Ironically, between services a man who heard my sermon in first service came up and said he disagreed with me about political discussion at church, even on the patio after services. He thinks this is the place where we need to air out our political disagreements. Well, in synch with Romans 14-15, I'm okay with that brother's difference of opinion from mine. Moreover, this is a great illustration of the fact that my preaching comes with different levels of authority. When I say that God calls us to welcome each other, I'm simply repeating what is taught plainly in Scripture, so we all ought to believe it. Welcoming isn't optional for any of us. But when I say that the patio after worship isn't a great place to talk politics, this comes with a different level of authority. I am speaking on the basis of biblical truth, but I'm interpreting this truth in light of my experience as a pastor for 20 years. Therefore, you and I might not agree on the applications, and that's okay. But if you talk about anything on the patio that might cause others to stumble, then I'd urge to use great caution. Frankly, I see this as pretty close to the strong/weak issue in Romans.
Let me sum up concerning politics and our church. Friends, we mustn't let our political differences be a cause for judging others, or, God forbid, for division in this church. In the best case scenario, we can be like those two men on the patio, sharing our convictions with mutual respect and actually learning from each other. But, even if this doesn't happen, we must make sure we welcome those with whom we disagree politically.
The Case of Worship
Everything I've said so far also pertains to differences among us concerning worship. Though we have much in common, in many ways we are also a diverse community. We have different tastes, needs, and personal priorities. We come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. Some of us are trying to escape from the church traditions of our youth, while others of us are trying to replicate them. Moreover, we don't all like the same kind of music or the same level of formality in worship. It's a huge challenge, let me tell you, to find common stylistic ground for worship in this church, even with a diverse range of service options. And when we make changes in worship, it always happens that some folks are happy while others are upset. You know what? This will always be the case in our church. It's been that way for 29 years and 11 months, and it will be that way until Christ returns. If you know much about church history, you're surely aware that change in worship has always been a divisive issue. At least we differ from our forebears in that we don't kill each other any more of such things.
So what are we to do when we disagree about worship? We can have our differences of opinion, surely, but we need to express them with love and mutual respect. Moreover, there are times when some of us need to give up our rights for the sake of others. Usually this involves people who like the status quo accepting change they don't appreciate.
Years ago the major debate around here was about whether or not we should have any guitar-led music in our Sunday morning services. Some people were ardent advocates of this addition to our services; others were strongly opposed. One who was opposed was Tim, a faithful member of the choir and also an elder on Session at that time. Tim's point, as I remember it, was fairly clear. It went something like this: "Look, I like singing guitar-led praise songs at Forest Home, at the men's retreat, or other more informal gatherings. But, for me, our church is a place where I can sing hymns with great piano accompaniment. There are so many other churches out there with guitars and bands. I think our church should be an oasis of more traditional music." (You'll notice that Tim was not judging the folks who wanted guitars in church, though others on both sides of this debate were actually judging the spiritual maturity of those with whom they disagreed.)
Well, as the discussion continued in Session, one of the strongest arguments for including guitars in worship was the potential for drawing in younger generations, folks in their teens and twenties. After listening to this discussion for a while, Tim Cook spoke again, quite decisively, as Tim is wont to do: "Okay, I've made up my mind. Here's what I think. If having guitar-led music in our worship services will help one high school kid come to worship, or help one young person feel more at home here, then I'm all for it. I don't like it personally; but, if this helps us reach out to others and draw them in, then I support it completely." And that was that. Who in the room could disagree after Tim exhibited such biblical wisdom? Tim, an influential elder, a powerful debater - one of the "strong" at IPC, to be sure -- gave up his preferences in order to welcome others.
My friends, I can think of no better conclusion to this sermon than reading again the opening of Romans 14 and the conclusion of the argument in Romans 15. Listen to God's Word as I close:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. . . .
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.