Our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans concludes today. Sermon delivered on Trinity 14A, Sunday, September 13, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning we conclude our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Hang on to your hats and keep up with me because there is a LOT for us to cover. Before we look at what the apostle has to say today, I want to take a moment to review some of the highlights we have looked at over the summer. In the first 12 chapters of Romans, St. Paul has reminded us of the awful predicament we humans find ourselves in. We are all slaves to that outside and hostile power that Scripture calls Sin and it both corrupts and kills us. No one is immune to its power and no own can free themselves from its grip without the help of someone more powerful than Sin’s power. That someone of course is God and St. Paul has proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to us: That at just the right time, while we were still helpless and enemies of God, God moved on our behalf to free us from our slavery to Sin and Death by becoming human and dying for us. Only by the blood of the Lamb shed for us can we hope to be spared from God’s just judgment on our sins and rebellion. For those who believe God has acted on our behalf in Christ by taking on his own judgment himself, there is now no condemnation for our sins despite the fact that the power of Sin still weighs us down in this mortal life. This is all a free gift given us out of the Father’s great love and tender mercy for us. As St. Paul tells us in chapter 11, “God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone” (v.32). Simply remarkable. But the apostle also makes clear that we are to respond to God’s great love and mercy by imitating our Lord in the living of our days instead of following our own selfish ways, relying on the powerof God to help us do so. In biblical parlance this is called repentance, turning back toward God in the power of the Spirit. As we have said repeatedly, the Christian faith is not another form of self-help. If that were the case it would have no Good News to offer and we would remain dead in our sins.
Now in today’s epistle lesson, St. Paul continues to exhort us to holy living and reminds us in yet another context to rely on the power of God to do so. Here he addresses how we should treat each other as fellow Christians, both within our parish family and beyond. Before we look at what St. Paul says, we must keep in mind two very important points. First, underlying all his teaching here was St. Paul’s deep faith in the love and mercy of God made known in Jesus Christ. As we have seen, we were bought with the price of Christ’s own precious blood and are united with him by faith and through baptism. We are saved from our sins by God’s grace, not by what we do or don’t do. St. Paul summarized this nicely when he said, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10.9). It is faith in Christ that matters, a faith that heals hearts and minds and transforms life, however imperfectly and messy that looks. And because of that faith, we no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ.
Second, it is critical for us to understand that here St. Paul was not talking about issues that define the Christian faith, e.g., Christian teaching that Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, or his saving death and bodily resurrection from the dead that signaled the defeat of death and the inauguration of God’s new creation. These doctrines and others were clearly taught in the NT and over the years the Church developed a consensus that reflected its one mind about these issues, various heresies and false teachings that regularly spring up notwithstanding. For issues of first importance, issues that affect our salvation and standing with God, St. Paul and the early Church held a much different view than he teaches in today’s lesson. We can see this in his rebuke of the church at Corinth for allowing a stepson to sleep with his stepmother, all in the name of “grace.” Any kind of sex outside the context of marriage is a sin and Scripture clearly teaches this throughout, despite many in today’s world who try to persuade us otherwise. How can you let this kind of sexual immortality go on? St. Paul roared. Not even the pagans allow this kind of depravity!
You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. …I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church…Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns (1 Corinthians 5.1-2, 5)
Or consider his response to the Judaizers who had infiltrated and corrupted the church in Galatia by teaching that Christians had to be physically circumcised to be saved, violating St. Paul’s clear teaching on justification by faith and denying the power and efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection. As far as St. Paul was concerned, those false teachers were wolves in sheep’s clothing. And what should you do with wolves who infiltrate Christ’s flock to corrupt and destroy it by teaching falsely? You shoot the wolves to protect the flock. Accordingly he told the Galatians, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” (Gal 5.12-13a).
Contrast this to what St. Paul teaches in today’s epistle lesson about issues of secondary importance, issues for which Scripture fails to provide a clear answer and/or which have never been settled in the history of the Church. In the church at Rome in St. Paul’s day those issues included dietary restrictions and the observance of holy days. In our day, the issue of the role of women in the Church or charismatic issues would be examples of these kind of secondary importance issues. Here St. Paul addresses the weak and the strong in faith. By “weak” St. Paul did not have in mind that these folks lacked faith in Christ but rather they didn’t understand that their faith in Christ meant that they were free from all previous legalistic requirements such as dietary laws or observing certain religious festivals. These requirements were not a basis for their Christian faith but rather part of their observance of it, i.e, they believed they had to follow these practices in order to walk with Christ properly. The weak in this context were most likely Jewish converts who struggled to cast off the old or at least blend them with the new teachings of the faith.
For St. Paul, it wasn’t the fact that these Christians observed dietary regulations/religious festivals. If doing these things helped them grow in their relationship with Christ, he would have been all for it. What the apostle is concerned about here is that by doing these things the weak would not perceive themselves as weak but rather saw themselves as upholding high religious standards and principles, all the while looking down their noses at those who didn’t uphold these practices (the “strong”) because the strong didn’t see them as important for growing in their relationship with Christ. For them, Christ’s death and resurrection had set them free from their slavery to Sin and Death so that they didn’t have to observe such religious regulations. To use an example from our day, tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross. There are devout Christians who will observe this feast as part of their devotional/discipleship practices and St. Paul would approve. However, if those who observe Holy Cross Day believe that those who don’t are somehow inferior Christians or that their rescue from Sin and Death depends on them observing it and other Feast Days of the Church, rather than trusting in the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection to save them, then St. Paul would likely take issue with these “weak” Christians of our day. Who are you to judge a fellow Christian for whom Christ died? We have a word for this and it’s called judgmentalism.
The problem of judgmentalism wasn’t just with “weak” Christians. “Strong” Christians also looked down their noses at those who did follow such practices. To despise a fellow believer in Christ suggests that the “strong” held their “weaker” family members in contempt out of some sense of superiority. Why are you weak guys observing dietary laws or religious holidays? You don’t need any of them to have a relationship with Christ. Christ has truly set us free. Make sure you stay free. Stop engaging in things that aren’t necessary. Loser.
Again, keeping in mind that St. Paul is talking about secondary issues here, the apostle warns both sides not to judge the other. We need to be careful about terms here, my beloved. When the NT warns us not to judge, it is not telling us to suspend moral judgment on behavior and thinking. There is far too much perversity in this world and to be living sacrifices to God requires us to make those kinds of judgments! What St. Paul is talking about here is the sin of pride and presumption. Each side condemned practices (or lack of them) out of a sense of superiority and sadly we continue to do this all the time to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Just look at Father Maney! He eats and drinks too much and preaches lousy sermons. He can’t be a Christian in good standing! And why does Father Sang cross himself? That’s just weird. Or Dr. Falor. Why he hasn’t prayed the daily office since Moby Dick was a minnow! I pray the office everyday and I’m pretty sure that makes me a better Christian and more pleasing in Christ’s sight! And how about those wussies who didn’t come back to chapel today to worship like we have? Second rate Christians for sure! Real men don’t eat quiche and real Christians don’t stay away from church. You get the idea. Nowhere does St. Paul prohibit vigorous discussion and debate over issues of second importance, only our presumptive judgment on our opponents. Iron sharpens iron. Presumptive condescension produces rancor, ill will and hopeless division. It separates rather than unites. This same argument would also apply to interdenominational conflicts within the Church regarding secondary issues. It’s one thing to prefer your own tradition. It’s quite another to condemn those who don’t see it your way.
Looking beyond our parish family and the Church catholic we see this kind of presumptive pride and sneering all the time, especially in politics today. It’s the way of the world and we are not to participate in it. Our sin is not that we disagree with those who do not share our political views. Our sin is in presuming our views make us more pleasing in God’s sight than our opponents. Still don’t believe me? When you heard St. Paul ask, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” who did you think of first? The person who has passed judgment on you and your views/practices and got you all hot and bothered, or did you think about yourself? If you’re like me, you probably thought about instances where you have been wronged rather than the times you served as a stumbling block to another’s faith. That, my beloved, is a sure sign of pride and presumption and St. Paul has some stern words for us here: Be careful of your judgmentalism and the proud presumption behind it. We all have to stand before God’s judgment seat and give an account of our lives to God. This should be enough to strike fear in anyone who takes the judgment of God seriously.
So what’s going on here? Is this the same Paul who earlier proclaimed the Good News that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ? If no condemnation, how can St. Paul say something like this, both here and in 2 Cor 5.10? St. Paul is not talking out of both sides of his mouth. What he is reminding us is that only God knows our hearts and minds and only God has the power to judge. It simply won’t do to make God’s grace an idol. We can’t presume because we say the right words and do the right things that God owes it to us to not condemn us. When we presume God’s mercy and grace on us while at the same time we are unwilling to extend them to others, or when we see ourselves as being superior to others because of what we do (or don’t do) compared to them, we are setting ourselves up as de facto judges and claiming moral superiority over them. Remember, we have been bought with a price. We are saved only by the blood of the Lamb shed for us to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin, a free gift from the Father’s loving and generous heart. Without that, none of us has any real hope to be spared from the fires of hell because as St. Paul has already warned us in chapters 1-3, all have sinned and all will therefore be judged.
This in no way negates what he has said earlier. God did bear his own judgment on our behalf when he took on our flesh and became human. At just the right time Christ did die for us, even while we were helpless and still God’s enemies. There is indeed nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. But this is God’s gift to give out of his tender love and mercy for us, not ours to presume. And because it is God’s free gift to us, it is God’s prerogative to withhold them from us if by our lives and our tongues we demonstrate clearly that we see the cross as nothing more than a get-out-of-jail-free card for us so that we can continue behaving as badly as we did before we knew Christ. We cannot and dare not presume God will rescue us from his judgment just because we call ourselves Christian or we read snippets of the Bible, come to church regularly, and partake in the Eucharist while all the time running down and sneering at our opponents. Our life and death are God’s, not our own, and we dare not presume otherwise. To be sure, we can rely on God being good to his word and promises to us that he has indeed rescued us from Sin and Death and from his terrible judgment in and through Christ. But we dare not presume it and show our presumption in how we mistreat or judge others with haughty contempt.
Christ tells us virtually the same thing in his parable in our gospel lesson this morning. The first servant had an impossible debt to pay, just like we cannot save ourselves from God’s just judgment on our rebellion and sin. The king took pity on the servant and forgave his impossible debt at great cost to the king. And what did the servant do? Did he realize the great grace and mercy offered him? Did he resolve to treat others similarly? Not a chance! He went after a fellow servant who owed him a manageable debt and refused to offer him the same grace he had begged the king to grant him. And our Lord’s punchline? If you want God to forgive you, you’d better do likewise. Don’t presume you have it automatically. Forgiveness is God’s prerogative and God owes us nothing other than judgment. So if you want God to forgive you, you’d better forgive others freely. We pray it every week in the Lord’s Prayer. Do you pay attention to it or dismiss it as inconvenient?
This warning not to presume God’s mercy and grace provides us with a healthy balance to help us live out our faith. We’ll surely get it wrong and no amount of do gooding will make God obligated to rescue us from his judgment. The knowledge that we all must stand in front of God’s judgment seat and give an account of our lives is the great equalizer and provides us with a much needed dose of daily humility. Yet we also dare to approach his throne with hope, trusting in God’s promise that there really is now no condemnation for those who put their hope and trust in Christ and live out their faith, however badly that might look at times. When we realize God owes us nothing but judgment but has moved instead to rescue us from that judgment, we can have confidence that the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge to heal and humble us and so be made ready to receive the eternal crown of glory in the new creation. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.