A United Church in a Divided Age

Sticking together as a church through COVID-19—and our move to the NBC gym.

Chris Hutchison on September 20, 2020
A United Church in a Divided Age
September 20, 2020

A United Church in a Divided Age

Passage: Romans 14:1-5, 13-21
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Back in April, I think, I was talking to someone about this whole coronavirus experience, and how I believed it was going to be so good for us as a church. By being forced apart, we were going to learn how important and valuable it was to be together, and when the restrictions lifted we would find ourselves stronger, more united, more together than we ever had been before.

This person said something to me along the lines of, “I hope that will be true, as long as we don’t tear each other to shreds along the way over our differing opinions about this whole experience.”

At the time, I thought that they were being pessimistic. Overly negative. As the months have worn on, though, I think their concern was warranted.

The experiences of the past six months should have been profoundly unifying for the people of God. They should have brought churches together like never before. And yet often the opposite has happened. Strongly-held beliefs and convictions and opinions have been a source of tension and even division.

I wonder how much of this tension has been influenced by the news media and the current climate here in North America. In case you haven’t noticed, public conversations these days tend to be very polarized. There’s two sides and everybody on the other side all gets painted with the same brush.

Our public conversations these days tend to have a very strong us-vs-them feeling to them. Very little effort gets put into trying to actually understand those who think differently than us. It’s a lot of black vs. white, good guys vs. the bad guys, “we know the truth and everybody else is either wicked or stupid or both.”

And by the way, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just sign up for a Facebook account, or go on Twitter for 15 minutes. Or say anything out loud about any political or social issue.

And in the midst of all off this are the people of God. We know that we should be eager for unity, like we heard back in June. And yet we find ourselves in this moment where being united with those with whom we disagree is really tough.

And so we need to be reminded of what’s really true, what’s really important, and what kinds of things we should really be focusing on as the people of God. And we find that help this morning from Romans 14. There are two major lessons that enable unity that we’re going to take away from this passage today. Number one, we’re each accountable to the Lord, and number two, unity is way more important than our personal opinions and even freedoms.

We’re Not the First Ones

But first, before we explore those two lessons, we need to notice that this is not the first time in history that Christians have had to figure out how to get along despite having very different positions on a matter.

This is a really important place to start, because it helps protect us from the discouragement that we can face in our present situation. “We’ve got this amazing opportunity afforded by the pandemic, and instead we’re struggling with unity? Really? What’s wrong with us?”

Maybe you’ve had those thoughts. And so it might be helpful to remember that we’re not the first Christians to be in that spot. The early church also had some incredible opportunities that were threatened by the same dynamics. What’s what we’ve got going on here in Romans 14. The situation, in the background, is that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were worshipping together in the same churches.

That’s an incredible situation, isn’t it? This is the on-the-ground experience created by the wonderful truth that we read about again in our call to worship passage this morning: that there is one people of God made up of everybody who has been saved by faith.

“This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” wrote Paul in Ephesians 3:6. Through Christ, Jews and Gentiles are members of the same body. Not two different groups running on different programs, but one body.

It’s amazing. But can you imagine how tough this would have been to swallow when it was all so new and fresh back in the 1 Century? How hard this was for the Jewish believers in Jesus, who for years and years hadn’t been allowed to even eat a meal with Gentiles? Who would wash Gentile dust off of their feet when they’d get home from a journey? Who for centuries had been looking for the Messiah to come and give them a privileged place over all of the nations?

And now the Messiah has come, and He died as a sacrifice for their sins just like the prophecies foretold, but he also died for the sins of these Gentiles. It’s just like that parable Jesus told, where the guys who showed up at the end of the day got the same paycheque as those who had been working hard all day long.

And now these Gentiles—these uncircumcised Gentiles who barely knew a thing, who hadn’t been working hard to keep Torah all those years—these Gentiles are professing faith in the Jewish Messiah, and saying that all of the promises of Abraham are for them, too, and Jesus is pouring out His Spirit on them just like He did to the Jewish people at Pentecost. Wow.

When you were younger, did you ever have an experience when your mom invited that one kid to your birthday party because she felt sorry for them and wanted you to be friends, but you didn’t really like them very much, and you really just want them to go away, but your mom keeps giving you the eyes that say “be nice to them!”?

That might have been what this felt like for the Jewish believers in Jesus. All of a sudden you’ve got these people showing up at your gatherings and they’re wanting to get in on this whole thing, and these are people you wouldn’t have talked to a few weeks ago. And they’re do different from you. They don’t keep Sabbath. They eat ham sandwiches.

Like seriously, they pull their lunch out of their lunch box and it makes your stomach turn. They look different and smell different and talk different and live different, but they’re all excited about Jesus like you are.

We can only imagine how tough this would have been and how much tension there could have been in those days. And this is the situation Paul addresses here in Romans 14. “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:2).

The person eating everything was probably a Gentile, and the one eating only vegetables was probably one of the many very careful Jews who were so concerned about avoiding unclean foods that they abstained from meat altogether, like Daniel and his friends (Daniel 1:3-16).

Verse 5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike” (Romans 14:5). This is talking about the Jewish ceremonial days and the Sabbath. The Jews’ whole lives were built around this sacred calendar of feasts and Sabbaths, and the Gentiles had no concept of this. Saturday was just another day to get some work done.

So here’s what I’m trying to say: we are not the first Christians in history who have to try to get along with others who have really different beliefs and convictions and lifestyles than us. The glorious reality of being one in Christ brings with it all kinds of messy implications, and it always has.

1) Each of Us Is Accountable to the Lord.

So what does Paul say about this situation? How does he encourage these very different types of disciples to get along and be unified? The first truth, the first lesson for us, is that each of us is accountable for ourselves to the Lord.

We see this truth come out of the first few verses here in Romans 14, especially in verse 3: “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” (Romans 14:3–4).

Every disciple of Jesus has a one-to-one relationship with their master. I find it so interesting that Paul talks this way, because in our whole series on the church last year we emphasized the dangers of individualism. We emphasized how important it was for us to see ourselves as a body.

And yet, we can’t forget what makes us a body: our connection with the head of that body. If you are a part of the body of Christ, it’s because you have a direct relationship with Christ Himself. And then we are a body with everyone else who has that direct relationship with Christ.

And so Paul is saying to the Roman Christians that when they look over at that Christian eating ham sandwiches, or that other Christian eating only vegetables, or that one Christian working away on the Sabbath, or that other Christian doing nothing on the Sabbath, they need to remember that this other person has a direct relationship with the same Jesus that they do. They are servants of Christ, just like them.

“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” he asks. In that day, if you saw someone’s servant doing something weird, you wouldn’t stop them and say “Hey, knock it off,” because they’d look at you and say, “I’m responsible to my master, not you. Mind your own business.”

And that’s a little bit of what’s going on here. “It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (v. 4). And you’re not that master. Jesus is. And Jesus id going to take care of him. “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

Now there’s something important in the background here that Paul is assuming. He is assuming that as these different Christians live out their convictions, they are not doing so willy-nilly. He’s assuming that each of these Christians are doing what they are doing out of their best attempts to honour the Lord. That’s what we see starting in verse 6.

“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. 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.” (Romans 14:6–8).

So again, there’s an assumption here that these Christians hold to these different positions out of a sincere concern to honour the Lord. Please hear that. Romans 14 is not talking about cases of sin, where someone is obviously disobeying Scripture. This is talking about legitimate differences of opinion from people who are both trying to do their best to honour the Lord.

And in that situation, verse 10 asks the pointed question: “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” (Romans 14:10). And then verse 12: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).

There’s that truth again. We’re each accountable to God. That brother or sister you’re getting all judge-y with over there? They’re going to answer to God, not you. God is the standard of truth in the universe, not you.

And once again, the irony is that once we understand this, we’ll have an easier time with unity. We’re not going to “quarrel over opinions.” We’re not going to “pass judgement” on each other. We’re not going to “despise your brother.” You’ll be able to say, “They’re accountable to God, not me, so I don’t need to agree with them on every point. I don’t need to see everything the way they do. God has accepted them, and so I will too.”

2) Unity Matters More

So that’s our first lesson for unity today. We’re each accountable to God. That’s an important lesson, but it’s not the only lesson. If this was the only thing that Romans 14 told us, then it could lead us in the direction of apathy, of not really caring about each other. “Look, you’re accountable to God, and He accepts you, so I don’t really have to. Please go eat that food somewhere else.”

But that’s not where we want to land. This first truth just prepares us for what we hear in verse 13: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13).

That first step just clears the judgement out of the way. But once we’ve done that, the next step is to actively work for unity by not putting a “stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

What does that mean? What does Paul mean by “stumbling block or hindrance”? We see an example of this in verse 14 and 15. “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:14–15).

Here’s what’s going on here. Paul had come to a place of knowledge where he understood that nothing was “unclean,” in and of itself. This language of “unclean” comes from the food laws in the Old Covenant. Certain foods had been clean, and could be eaten, and certain things were unclean and could not be eaten.

Those laws had served a purpose, but that purpose had been served, and in the New Covenant they had been set aside. We read all about that in Mark 7 and Acts 10. As a member of the New Covenant, with the Old Covenant were in the past, Paul could eat a ham sandwich no problem.

But he knew that not everybody saw it that way. If a guy was still convinced that it was sin to eat a ham sandwich, then it would be wrong for him to do so.

I talked to a guy once who had pointed a gun at someone and pulled the trigger. And the gun misfired. Nobody got hurt. But he didn’t know that. He thought that when he pulled the trigger someone was going to die. And so it was wrong for him to pull that trigger, even if nobody actually got hurt.

It’s a similar thing going on here. There’s nothing wrong with ham in God’s eyes. But there is something wrong with eating ham if you think that it’s unclean. “It is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14).

And if you invite that guy over for lunch and serve him ham sandwiches, then that’s going to be a stumbling block or a hindrance to him. It’s going to be tempting him to do something that he thinks is wrong. Or it’s going to cause his relationship with you to be fractured because he thinks you are doing something wrong.

And so verse 15 says, “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15).

Jesus shed His blood for that person. And you’re going to harm him, destroy him even, over food? Really?

And yet I can here the objections. The Western, North American, individualist objections. “Well, if this guy is so bothered by what I eat, what if we’re going to spend a lot of time together? What if I’m around him all the time? Then that means I wouldn’t even be able to eat my favourite food anymore! What am I supposed to do, just stop eating ham?”

That sounds like a “gotcha” argument to us, because the thought that we would actually surrender our rights or privileges or freedoms for the sake of someone else’s conscience just seems ridiculous to us. “There’s no way I’m going to give up something I enjoy just because it bothers someone else. There’s no way you’re asking me to do that, are you, God?”

And God’s answer, through Paul? Verses 20 & 21: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” And then chapter 15, verses 1 and 2: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”

He said almost the same thing in 1 Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

Unity with our bothers and sisters in Christ matters way more than our personal rights and freedoms and opinions.

I want to do a quick test with us here. I want you to think about your favourite food or drink. The special treat that you just love to enjoy. Would you give that up, permanently, for the sake of unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ?

If your answer is, “Of course I would. They are way more important to me,” then you’re getting this. Praise God. But if your answer is more like, “Ya right I’d give that up. I’m not letting anybody else tell me what I can or can’t do,” then you need to ask God to do some stuff in your heart, to help you get this.

Because this passage is telling us that our answer should be “of course I’d give that up, if that was required.”

Now let’s acknowledge that it might not have been required to give it up entirely. As you read through Romans 14 you see that privately enjoying these things was still a possibility. “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Romans 14:22).

This is important, because it shows us that Romans 14 does not give these weaker brothers permission to become the police officers of the church. He’s certainly not giving ground to the legalists who said that you could not be a Christian at all unless you followed the Jewish food laws.

But here’s the deal: when it comes to Christian fellowship, we should have a disposition that holds unity as a significantly higher value than our personal rights and freedoms. We should have a heart that willingly surrenders our personal rights and freedoms and comforts and privileges for the sake of unity with our brothers and sisters.

That’s what it means to be, like Ephesians 4:3 says, “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We’re eager to please others, not ourselves. And if some of our personal freedoms needs to fall by the wayside, we’re good with that, because unity with the blood-bought body of Christ is what we’re eager for.

Application #1: COVID-19

So let’s talk really practically about what this passage and these two lessons might mean for us at this stage of our life together as a church. I want to speak to two areas of application, and perhaps you can think of more.

The first is obviously the whole COVID-19 scenario, which I’ve already talked about at the beginning of the message. One of the real difficulties of this situation, especially for us here in Nipawin, has not been the virus itself, but rather all of the differences of opinion over the virus situation and the way that those differences tend to create rifts in between Christians.

And so one of the major lessons coming to us out of Romans 14 this morning is that we are in sin if we allow our opinions about the virus to cause division between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Here’s another way we can put this: whatever your opinions and convictions and beliefs are about the virus, about the government’s response to the virus, about the use of masks—about any of this stuff—, there are sincere, godly Christians who are trying their best to honour the Lord and who hold to the exact opposite position that you do.

I know because we hear at the church hear from both sides. There are some Christians who are bothered by the way that we’ve gone along with the provincial government’s guidelines on meeting and masks. They think that we as a church are compromising by complying with these guidelines. And there are other Christians who don’t think that the guidelines have been strict enough, and that we as a church should have been doing more to protect people.

So there’s not just two positions, but three. There’s those who say that this is a serious public health crisis, and we should be doing our utmost to love our people by keeping them safe. There’s us as church leaders, saying “We’re not experts, so we’re just going to submit to our government leaders, just like Titus 3 says, and just like we do with speed limits and building codes.” And then there’s those who say “And what’s next, then, the Mark of the Beast?”

And less you snicker or laugh, each of those positions are held by people whom Jesus loves so much that he agonized and bled and died for on the cross. And the question for all of is, what’s more important to us: our position on the virus situation, or our relationships with our brothers and sisters whom Christ died for?

As I was thinking about this, I reflected on how much these tensions are fuelled by information. We take our different positions because we listen to different sources of news or information. Maybe you know someone or listen to someone whom you are convinced gives you better information than anyone else has.

And it reminded me of the words of 1 Corinthians 8, which addresses a very similar situation as Romans 14. The first three verses of that chapter say, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1–3).

Even if you have the best information and knowledge on the virus situation, if this knowledge is puffing you up over and against your brothers and sisters, instead of fuelling the really important work of love building up your brothers and sisters in Christ, then there’s a problem.

Because building up the body of Christ as we carry out our mission together is what really matters.

If you notice, as I preached last week about the word of God and prayer and our mission together as a church this year, I didn’t say a word about COVID-19. Because this whole COVID-19 situation is tiddlywinks compared to the great work of the gospel that we’ve been called to do together.

I remember hearing that when the Canucks were doing really well in the Stanley Cup playoffs, back in 2011, the emergency rooms in Vancouver were empty. People took a Tylenol and sucked it up because there’s history being made and they wanted to be a part of this great moment with the rest of their city.

That’s such a great illustration about how our opinions and ideas and convictions about COVID-19 need to take a back seat to the work of the gospel and our unity as a church.

Application #2: The Location Business

Now this message has been on my mind for months. But in His wise timing, the Lord chose that the Sunday I preach this passage would be the Sunday that we announce we’re temporarily relocating. We’re moving our service location so that we can be all together.

This move might be hard for some of us. It’s going to take some work setting up and so on. It might take some emotional adjustment, especially if you’ve been around EBC for a long time and have some history with this building.

But the question before us from Romans 14 is: are we willing to lay down some of our personal freedoms and conveniences for the sake of being together? Because that’s what this is about.

The warning to each of us from verse 20 is this: do not, for the sake of COVID-19, destroy the work of God. Do not, for the sake of where we happen to gather, destroy the work of God.

And the celebration for each of us from verse 17 is this: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking[—or of masks or gyms—] but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

I’m looking forward to a whole lot of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit in the months ahead as we press on together as a church on mission. With God’s help, let’s do this together.

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