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Pentecost 17, “To Do or Not To Do…”

Pastor Gary Wong September 27, 2020

Romans 14:5-9

5 One person values one day above another. Another person values every day the same. Let each person be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The person who honors a certain day does this for the Lord, and the person who eats does this for the Lord, because he gives thanks to God. And the person who does not eat does this for the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 In fact, not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself. 8 Indeed, if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this reason he died, rose, and lived, to be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Our country has sometimes been described as a melting pot of nations. Every year, thousands of immigrants from around the world come to the “land of the free” in search of a better life. Besides their personal possessions, each group also packs along their own unique traditions. Norwegians favor lutefisk and lefse, while Germans prefer sauerkraut and brats. Following traditions, whether old or new, can be fun as long as everyone understands that we have the freedom to dive in or stand back. But what happens if a person is pressured to follow or refrain from a particular tradition, or someone is criticized for his or her choice—especially when that choice has an effect on a person’s faith? The Apostle Paul addresses that issue in today’s lesson. Paul reminds us that in Christian freedom we may choose to follow or not follow a particular tradition. Paul also reminds us that out of Christian love for a brother or sister whose faith is new or one who is struggling in his walk with Jesus, we would want to make a choice that is going to build up our fellow believer. As we meditate upon this portion of Scripture, we are reminded and encouraged that whatever we choose to do or not do, let’s do it all for the glory of God.

As we begin our meditation, it’s important that we understand that the freedom that Jesus has won for us is not a license to do whatever we want. Jesus died to pay for the sins of the whole world, which means that we who believe in and follow Jesus have also died to sin. We now have the freedom, motivation, and joy to live for Christ and to make God-pleasing choices. Practically speaking, though, what areas of our lives is Paul talking about? Simply put, we are free to make choices in whatever areas that God has neither commanded nor forbidden in his Word. But where God has spoken, his is the final word. For instance, there is no debate that we are saved solely by God’s grace and not by our own works. So, while doctrine is off the table, there still are a lot of areas (which theologians call adiaphora) where each person can make a different, yet God-pleasing choice.

Another thing that we want to keep in mind is that while we are free to make our own choices, our choices can have an impact on others. It’s also true that other people’s choices can influence us. It’s human nature to judge what others do or don’t do. Problems can occur, however, when other people’s choices don’t line up with our own. Apparently, that’s what was happening among some of the Christians in Rome. Those believers didn’t have one, centralized worship facility like we do; rather, those disciples gathered around the means of grace at the homes of fellow believers. An important part of their fellowship was the so-called agape meal—a meal much like one of our pot-lucks. When anyone mentions “pot-luck” to a Lutheran, everyone knows what they’re supposed to bring. A Lutheran pot-luck always has hot dishes, Jell-O salad, bars, and coffee. When it comes to pot lucks, Lutherans don’t have any confusion or conflict because everyone is on the same page.

Unfortunately, when it came to traditions, the Christians who made up the church in Rome weren’t on the same page. The Jewish Christians, who had started the church, had far different traditions than the Gentiles who were joining the congregation in ever-increasing numbers. And while those cultural differences were not a barrier to the unity that they had in Christ, those differences did present challenges in trying to blend two different groups into one harmonious congregation. Paul cites the choice of foods for this fellowship meal as an example of where a clash of cultures caused a problem.

Here’s how those differences might have caused hard feelings. Let’s say that Aaron and Miriam Goldstein, a nice Jewish couple who had helped establish the congregation, hosted an agape meal. Miriam prepared a delicious beef roast, along with some homemade kosher pickles. Meanwhile, Julius and Claudia Maximus, a Gentile couple whom the Goldstein’s had brought into the church, brought barbecued pork ribs. The meal passed without incident, although there was little conversation between the couples. It wasn’t until they were in their own homes that they expressed their frustrations. “I can’t believe that Claudia brought pork ribs!” Aaron fumed. “You’re absolutely right”, Miriam agreed, shaking her head. “It was disgusting the way they pigged out on those ribs. Don’t they know that God doesn’t want us to eat meat from a filthy pig?” Meanwhile, Julius and Claudia were equally critical of their hosts. “I know that Aaron and Miriam led us to our Savior—and for that we will always be grateful—but they really hurt my feelings” lamented Claudia. “I spent hours making those barbecued ribs, and they didn’t even take a single bite! Are they saying that they’re better Christians than we are or that we’re not good enough for them?”

Friends—I’ve described the problem that the choice of foods caused between members of the church in Rome in a light-hearted way; but this kind of problem is not something to laugh about. The attitudes and feelings of members of a congregation who hold different opinions in matters of adiaphora have the potential—if not addressed—to cause a serious rift between members. These conflicts can disrupt the work of the kingdom or stop it altogether. Rather than strengthening and building up faith, faith is weakened. The worst possible outcome of such divisions would be that individuals would lose their faith altogether.

When we analyze the situation in Rome, we can see that this dispute over food really was a matter of differing degrees of spiritual maturity: one Christian demonstrated a stronger, more mature faith, while another Christian, who loved Jesus just as much, had a weaker, less mature faith. Even though the Jewish Christians knew that the restrictions against eating ceremonially unclean foods such as pork were no longer binding, they were having a hard time changing lifelong eating patterns. The Gentile Christians, on the other hand, had grown up eating anything and everything. So with respect to food choices, the Gentile Christians had a stronger faith than their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, what would be the results if a Gentile Christian were to eat pork in front of a Jewish Christian? The strong Gentile could easily be tempted to look down upon the hesitant Jew as something of a spiritual wimp. On the other hand, a Jewish Christian could easily look down upon the Gentile as an indiscriminate slob who is either ignorant or disrespectful of God’s Word. In either case, feelings would be hurt, motives misconstrued, and actions misjudged.

Friends, what would you do to heal the rift and reconcile fellow Christians who are at odds with one another? God’s Word says, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). In other words, when it comes to matters where there can be differing points of view, it is not our place nor do we have the right to judge a fellow believer. Each Christian is entitled to his own opinion and is free to choose to do or not do something according to his own conscience. A key point that Paul makes is that as Christians, “not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself” (v.7).

Now, our attitude before we came to faith in Christ was that nobody could tell us what to do. By nature, we were totally selfish. We made choices that would be in our own best interests, without regard for God or anyone else. By nature, we would never have chosen to believe in Jesus or be guided by his Word. Sadly, those choices lead us away from God and towards everlasting suffering in hell. Fortunately, God spared us from the punishment that we so richly deserve. Jesus willingly put himself under the rule of law and then kept God’s law perfectly in our place. Jesus then suffered the penalty God’s law prescribes for sinners: death. Because of his love for us, Jesus willingly gave up his life so that you and I might have eternal life through faith in him. Paul eloquently and succinctly sums up Jesus’ love for all mankind: “For this reason, [Christ] died, rose, and lived, to be the Lord of both the dead and the living. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:9,8).

What wondrous love that our Father has lavished on us! So what is our response to his amazing grace? Once again, Paul gives us the answer: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord” (v. 8). In other words, in whatever we choose to do, we do it to honor, thank, praise and glorify God. The question, then, is how can we apply this truth to our lives as members of God’s family? Our text suggests that one of the areas is worship. Paul reminds us that we now have the freedom to choose when and how we worship the Lord. While we are using pages 15 and 38 from the Christian Worship hymnal, we have the freedom to follow other orders of service. In the area of music, we are not limited to hymns composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. An organ isn’t the only acceptable musical instrument. We can also praise the Lord with an electric guitar or a steel drum band.

Yet, in the exercise of our Christian freedom, we ought to consider whether a particular worship practice is a blessing or a stumbling block that might weaken a person’s faith. While we follow many of our time-honored Lutheran traditions because they have served us well for nearly 500 years, we dare not doggedly follow them simply because “we’ve always done it that way.” On the other hand, we shouldn’t change things simply for the sake of change. The decision to add, discard, or change a worship practice depends on whether that practice is centered on God’s Word, proclaims Jesus as the only way to salvation, lifts up the congregation, and glorifies God. If it doesn’t do that, then we change—now, that’s the kind of change we can believe in!

Dear friends, we were once slaves to sin. In his love, God sent Jesus to set us free from sin, death and the power of devil. We now belong to the Lord and have the freedom to worship and serve him with our lives. As we exercise our Christian freedom, let us strive to build each other up and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior. And in whatever we choose to do or not do, let’s always give glory to God. Amen.

“Love in Christ is Strong and Living” (CW 490)

Text: Dorothy R. Schultz, b.1934

  1. Love in Christ is strong and living,

Binding faithful hearts in one;

Love in Christ is true and giving—

May his will in us be done!

  1. Love is patient and forbearing,

Clothed in Christ’s humility,

Gentle, selfless, kind, and caring,

Reaching out in charity.

  1. Love in Christ abides forever,

Fainting not when ills attend;

Love, forgiving and forgiven, shall endure until life’s end.

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