I’m in a sermon series on the “one anothers” of the Bible. When I began preparing for the series, I knew for sure that it would be interesting, spiritually stimulating, and a great reminder to the church of how Jesus calls us to live.
I wasn’t ready for the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking, mind-blowing impact that it has brought to me and our church.
It’s one thing to say “forgive one another,” “serve one another,” “accept one another,” or “prefer one another,” and quite another to fully understand and embrace it. What did it mean when those words first rolled out of Jesus' mouth?
This past Sunday, I spoke on the subject of acceptance with “Accept One Another. ” I thought: how hard can this be? What is there to even say about this “one another?” We are to accept one another. Right? Let’s stand as we pray and close our service.
It seemed as if it could be one of the shortest sermons I’ve ever given. But as I dug into the text, pursued definitions, and sought the advice of brilliant theologians, I realized I was into something that would stretch me. There was more to these three words than I could have ever imagined.
It started with a verse in Romans 15:
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15:1)
It got a bit more complex when I got to verse seven in the same chapter.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
Seems pretty straightforward, but it isn’t.
I went back a chapter to Romans 14:1 which says, “accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” There were three disputable matters in play: what we eat, what we drink, and what we celebrate.
The issue of what we drink was the least of the issues in this discussion; basically, we should not drink wine if it causes problems for those around us. Wine was the primary drink of the day, but the issue of special days got a bit more complicated. There were some Jews who had grown up keeping certain days sacred. This was very much an “old covenant” issue and now being in Christ post-resurrection, it was a new covenant that ruled the day for believers. But under the new covenant, there were some who said that every day was special in the eyes of God and they saw no reason to continue the specific celebrations of certain days.
It wasn’t the issue of drink, but the issue of eating meat that seemed to be the biggest problem. Some said “eat only vegetables” and others said “eat good meat.” There were those who still practiced offering sacrifices to the pagan Gods they worshiped; they would kill an animal and offer it as a sacrifice on the altar of a pagan God. Any meat left over that wasn’t burned was often sold in the marketplace. There were some rather legalistic Christ-followers who felt that meat handled by pagans, or offered to pagan Gods, should not be touched by Christians. Other believers felt that the meat was perfectly useful for anyone even though it had the fingerprints of pagans all over it. It was good meat--why waste it?
Believers still struggling with the old covenant rules could not bring themselves to eat the meat of an animal used for sacrifice to a false God since it has been “‘contaminated” by the pagans. Other believers felt they had the freedom to eat that meat since it had been a offered to a false God, or in other words, no God at all. It was just meat.
The real wake-up call comes when you define the word “weak.” I’ll repeat the words of Paul: “we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.”
It would be easy to assume that the weak ones are those who ate anything put in front of them: meat, meat offered to idols, vegetables, wine. But Paul shocks us with a definition that is completely opposite from what we might think. Paul says the weak are those who have not yet come to a place of freedom in Christ where they can enjoy all food.
Paul says, “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” (Romans 14:14).
The weak among them were those who were afraid of giving up the routines of the past, the traditions of the past, and thus failing to enjoy the freedoms of the new covenant. Paul then makes clear we are to act in love toward one another, accepting our differences, honoring our preferences without judgment. The weak should not judge or condemn the strong and the strong have no business condemning or passing judgment on the weak. He makes clear that we must not allow what we eat or drink to “destroy the work of God.”
If this story was unfolding in 2018, it might be discussed in this way: “you eat only vegetables but I eat meat. You are wrong to only eat vegetables. I can’t believe you only eat vegetables. We can’t be friends because we can’t agree on this. I'll only hang out with meat eaters."
The vegetarian would say something similar: "You are wrong! How can you go along with killing animals just to fill your stomach? Have you seen the conditions in which they are raised and then killed? How can you possibly justify drinking alcohol? You can’t be my friend. You can’t be in my church. You are dead wrong in your thoughts and I’ll have nothing to do with such foolish thinking.”
Paul says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” This means I will respect my friends who do not feel the freedom to eat or drink certain things. I will not allow it to become an issue. That is how the “strong” ones handle this. If I invite my vegetarian friends over for dinner, I will not serve steak, but instead, I’ll serve vegetables. If I invite my Alcoholics Anonymous friends over for dinner, I will not serve wine--that would be reckless and insensitive. I bet if I do this, my vegetable-eating friends will invite me over for dinner and serve a fantastic platter of fresh steamed vegetables, and I will receive it with gratitude and thanksgiving.
For the early church, the issues were meat, wine, and special days. Today, the issues are hyper-loyalty to doctrinal camps, political parties, and destroying people who have a few skeletons in their closet. These days, I get grilled in our newcomer classes by those who cannot believe that we see women as called, gifted, and equipped to lead and speak in our church. Really?
Some believe God has predestined and decided who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. I don’t see it that way. Are we really going to let that divide us, to hinder our chance to show the world how Jesus taught us to live?
Every now and then people get in my face because I do not speak on the headlines each week. They say, “why won’t you take a stand for (fill in the blank here)?” I suggest they read the gospels and keep track of how often Jesus said they had to “take back their country for God.” Jesus never gave time, energy, or attention to dealing with a horrific government situation in His day. He never told His followers they needed to go to Rome and get their agenda at the forefront of the political reality of that day. Not once.
Jesus knew that if we would just “love the lord our God with all our heart, and all our mind, and and all our strength” and “love our neighbors as ourselves,” we would change the world. He did not say “love your neighbors if...” He said just love your neighbors.
Don’t you think it would be amazing if everyone professing to know Jesus got serious about doing what He told us to do?