At first glance, you might wonder just what all this writing about eating has to do with your Christian faith. After all, the text was penned with Jewish and Gentile Christians in mind and specifically written for the church at Rome.
The Jewish converts had a problem with the rigid Jewish laws. To be fair, the Jews were ancestors of the priests, who had authored the Levitical Law, and their forefathers, who had tried to follow this law to its very letter. They were what some might call legalists.
I am certain you have heard the word, especially in the context of scripture. If you take a quick glance at the subtitles within the book of Leviticus, you will see some delicate instructions. For example, there are instructions about how to handle burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, or guilt offerings. You will find distinctions between clean and unclean food. You might also note how a woman purifies herself after childbirth and how a leper is purified.
As I reflect on the situation for the Jews in the late first century after the coming of Christ, it is like being raised in a home with rigid structure, rules, and regulations, only to be moved to another home where the parents have an open-door policy, less structure, and consequences of your own making.
You see, we cling to the familiar, even if the familiar is rigid and uncompromising. And so the Jewish converts to the Christian faith could accept the idea of freedom through Jesus Christ, but they were not ready to give up their long-held tradition.
In fact, there were some Jewish-Christians that were so radical they insisted Gentile converts also abide by the traditional Jewish law. With the controversy continuing, the Apostle Paul writes these words of advice to the church at Rome, words that remind Jewish Christians of acceptance, unity, and respect over differences in minor practices of faith and tradition and a not-so-subtle reminder that judgment is always left to God.
You might wonder what all of this has to do with you. The issues may not be the same, but the underlying call for unity amidst diversity is still important for us. We still remain divided on issues of minor practice and tradition. Let me cite some examples.
A) Christian Conversion. Becoming a Christian does not have to be exciting or glamorous. People come from all backgrounds and walks of life, and all can receive Christ’s love. Ruth Bell Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, writes in one of her books about her upbringing as a minister’s daughter. For her, the Christian faith surrounded her from birth. She never knew a time when she did not know Jesus. That is a very different kind of conversion experience than her husband had, who accepted Christ at a revival when he was sixteen. (1)
Is there a recipe for conversion? Is there a formula for certification in the Christian Church? I don't think so. I believe that every person's experience with conversion is different.
B) Baptism. There are some denominations that try to tell you how to be baptized. For instance, if you were sprinkled in the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Catholic Church but wanted to join an evangelical Protestant church, you might be asked to be re-baptized.
Is there a recipe for baptism? I don’t think so, as long as it is done in a respectful and meaningful way.
C) Worship and Communion. When my grandfather was a minister some fifty years ago, a woman transferred her membership to his congregation, and the church she left held a funeral service for her. In their minds, she was dead.
We argue over the way we worship: traditional or contemporary? The traditionalists think we are disrespecting their sanctuary when the band plays for the contemporary service. They argue that the formality and tradition is lost in this new form of worship. We argue about whether or not certain people can partake of communion in our churches. In some churches there is closed communion, where unless you are a member of that church or denomination you are not welcome to partake in communion.
Much like the woman my grandfather welcomed into membership, our Christian credentials are scrutinized. What does this say about Christian fellowship? The issue is whether these are questions of God or questions of man. At times, the Christian Church Universal can certainly rival any political organization. This is why any church can experience decline.
People want the church to be anything but political. And although a few thrive on constant conflict, the majority of people ask honest questions. Can you imagine a church where everyone agreed on every issue? How boring! We need healthy debate.
I have always been fond of the slogan: “In essentials, unity, in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity.” If only we focused on the last phrase, “In all things, charity.” To disagree on certain issues is a given. Debate and discussion within the walls of the church are important and healthy as long as we keep charity in mind.
The Apostles Paul and Peter, as well as members of the early church, debated many issues. Jesus also attempted to clear up all the confusion over “trivial” matters of the law. In Luke 10:27, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”
You cannot get much simpler than that, yet humans have a tendency to complicate the simplest concepts. I wonder if we have lost sight of Jesus’s teaching.
Rick Warren, an author and pastor of the well-known Saddleback Church, has written, “Did you know that Gandhi considered the claims of Christianity? In fact, he read the New Testament through several times and thought about making a decision. But around that same time, he made a trip to the United States in the area of the Bible belt. And the same thing happened at every town he went to. People wouldn't allow him in the restaurants because of the color of his skin. In his personal journals, Gandhi later wrote that he rejected Christianity, not because of Christ, but because of Christians.” (2)
“The Church is still fighting battles with labels: literalists or liberals, evangelicals or social activists, traditionalists or modernists. A few years ago, a Leadership magazine cartoon showed a pastor sitting with two obviously exasperated parishioners at a table in his office. The caption read like this: “Would anyone object to my praying with my eyes open?”
Jesus saw the walls of his day and wanted them down. Walls between Jews and Samaritans. Walls between the super-righteous and sinners. Walls between fallen humanity and God himself. Jesus gave his life to tear every wall down. Several years ago in Israel the family of a Jewish man with a fatal heart disease was praying for a heart transplant. They pleaded with a family of a comatose man who had been shot in the head by Israeli soldiers to donate the dying Palestinian's heart for the transplant.
The family refused, and both men died. A year later, another Arab and Jew lay dying in a hospital ward. This time, the man that needed the heart was a Palestinian. The Israeli family, unaware of the identity of the recipient, gave consent, and the transplant took place in a Jerusalem hospital. When the news broke, there was a storm of protest.
Israelis were enraged that the heart of their soldier should be in the body of an enemy. Most ironic was the fact that the recipient went into hiding to escape Palestinian rage. But the widow of the dead Israeli soldier knew her Hebrew Scripture. She knew the words of Jesus, and she was satisfied. She said, “If a person can be saved I feel it is a blessing.”
“That story could just as easily pertain to a Jew and Gentile or Christian and militant Muslim. The point is that intolerance is not a respecter of people or religions. It easily applies to us today. We, in the American church, may not be shooting at one another, but we have towering walls that keep us from communicating effectively.
Hatred is not inbred; it is taught. It is reinforced over time. Just like love can be. The western world cheered several years ago to see the despised Berlin Wall come tumbling down. But there are other walls. Can I give you a sledgehammer? A bulldozer? Or better yet, words of charity? Will you join me in dismantling the walls of intolerance?” (3)
1. Cited from Jesus - His Tender Compassion. Preaching Plus. David Stone,
2. Breaking Down the Walls. Cited from Dynamic Preaching Sermon Treasury,
Seven Worlds Corporation, 1991.