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The Work of God

  • November 12, 2017
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for November 12, 2017 (Proper 27 REV, Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Romans 14:1-3,7-10,15-23; Psalm 78:1-7; Matthew 25:1-13

Title:               The Work of God

“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:19-20).

My dear friends: what is this work of God that Paul wants to preserve? What is this beautiful thing created by God that Paul begs the believers in Rome NOT to destroy?

What is it? It is the church! This is the amazing work of God.

We are now coming to the end of Paul’s longest letter, this letter to the Church in Rome. We’ve moved through all of the thick theological discussions and now Paul is focused on practical matters that concern this local church.

And what is the issue at hand that he is addressing in this fourteenth chapter? It is the issue of eating food and drinking wine together. And in particular, he is focused on the issue of eating meat.

Why is this so important? Let’s remember the context. This is ancient Rome, a large city at any time, perhaps close to one million people in its heyday.

If you lived in this city, where did you get meat? These folks are not farmers. They are city dwellers. In ancient Rome, meat primarily came from the many temples of the city where animals were sacrificed in honor of the gods.

Roman tradition stated that the empire depended on the good favor of these gods. Animals were sacrificed in their honor and then the meat was sold. To purchase this meat for your household was to be a good Roman citizen.

Of course, the Jewish believers in that church had never eaten meat from the temples. But now they were together with Gentile Romans in the same church community, eating and breaking bread together.

So what happened when Jewish and Roman disciples got together to eat dinner? If they were at a Gentile Roman house, where did the meat on the table come from? Was it from an animal sacrifice in honor of pagan idols?

Should the students of Jesus even eat that kind of meat? What happened when some disciples chose to eat this pagan meat – as long as they thanked God for it – while others felt that it was wrong to do so?

These are the ones that Paul rather ungraciously labels as the Strong and the Weak. In his mind, the Strong were not bothered about the source of the meat, since in reality idols do not exist and everything comes from the One God who is Creator of all.

In Paul’s mind, the Weak were ones who objected to participating in pagan worship in any way. And eating sacrificial meat was clearly supporting the pagan temples, so out of love for God they wanted no part in that.

Well, what would you do? Would you abstain? Or would you eat this meat?

Both sides had a good point, but Paul takes his argument straight to the Strong and tells them that they must be extremely careful never to do anything that causes harm to the others.

“If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:15).

Friends, do you see what Paul is driving at here? It’s quite remarkable!

His point is that we are accountable not only for our actions. That much is clear. But we are also responsible for the impact of our actions. For the effect of our choices.

As members of the Body of Christ, Paul states that we must always be aware of how our actions are perceived by others. For Paul, then, perception is reality. And it is the only reality that matters!

Because if you fail to take into account how others are affected by your actions, then “you are no longer walking in love” (Romans 14:15).

Wow. This is raising the bar BIG TIME! Way high.

Now, to be fair, Paul is not actually saying that as Christians we are to live this way all the time. THAT argument could be made, except that Paul does not make that particular argument.

His primary concern is for how we treat each other within the church. And his one constant goal, which he harps on again and again and again, is the unity of the church!

This issue of eating meat was a real struggle in the early church. And it was leading to divisions and conflict. And Paul was heartbroken to hear news of anything that caused trouble for the community gathered in the name of Jesus.

But, I ask you, is this a divisive problem in the church today? The eating of pagan sacrificial meat? No, of course not.

So what can we learn from Paul’s teaching? How do we apply it?

I think that we can draw a direct parallel between the eating of pagan meat and whatever we might do today to satisfy our wants, desires and pleasures.

Just consider how stark is the contrast between Paul’s instruction to protect the weak among us, his order to do nothing that might cause harm to another AND the actual behavior of powerful men in our society whose lack of care and protection has been exposed in recent weeks – all in the name of fulfilling their desires and pleasures.

To be fair, the explosion of the #metoo campaign within social media has led to a dizzying array of accusations. For an outside observer like me, it is difficult to know how to think about the avalanche of these claims.

I know that many are absolutely true, that very few women would maliciously make these kinds of accusations. But at the same time, I know that each person is innocent until proven guilty. It is important to never rush to judgment.

But looking at our society as a whole, it is clear that people with power – and in particular, men with power! – are far too comfortable in abusing that power for their own personal pleasure. The flood of recent claims sheds light on the shameful ubiquity of this kind of violence and harassment.

Fifteen years ago, this kind of abuse within the church was exposed and people were justifiably horrified. But now we hear about it within Hollywood, among politicians, and in nearly every sector of American society. ***

If Paul were writing this Letter today, what do you think he would say about this disgusting predatory behavior, displayed also by many who claim to trust in Christ?

What is it that he wrote? “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15). Not what you eat, not what you do, not what you say or even what you do not say when you choose to stay silent. Allow nothing to bring harm to one for whom Christ died!

Perception is reality. And a dismissive attitude is never acceptable to God. No one is to be dismissed, and no one’s concerns are to be ignored.

But perhaps we should ask: is this even possible? Is this a realistic goal? To maintain a completely loving and mutually supporting community?

Perhaps not. After all, people hurt each other. That’s how life works. And there have always been divisions and conflicts within the church. But we must have goals. And we must raise the bar, and continually strive for excellence.

So I ask you again: What is this beautiful work of God that Paul was so eager to preserve?

It is the church. This beautiful new community that had never before existed among humanity. All different kinds of people coming together and eating together in peace and love and harmony. All because of this living Messiah known as Jesus of Nazareth!

Perhaps it is too much to hope for this kind of love and care in the world at large. Sadly, the power of sin remains so strong.

But what about within the church? Do you think that we can share in Paul’s great passion to protect and care for each other within the church?

Because, in Paul’s view, the person seated next to you right now is worth more than the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia or Bill Gates or anyone else.

Go ahead and take a look. She or he is the most precious treasure that you will ever encounter in your entire life!

Forget about diamonds or gold or stocks or any material thing. NOTHING is more precious than one for whom Christ died!

So perhaps it is enough to start right where we are, and to pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding within our own ranks.

To actually treat one another as precious treasures who deserve the utmost care. To strive for excellence and pay attention to how our words and actions are perceived by those around us.

So are you ready to walk in love in every choice you make, in your every word and action? Are you ready to pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding?

I’m ready! Let’s do it together and show the world what it means to be the Body of Christ. Amen.



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