Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

Paul tells us to welcome those who are weak and not to quibble about what he calls “disputable matters.” By weakness, he means the need to observe the Jewish laws, specifically about the sabbath and avoiding meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The sabbath was God’s special day set aside for worship – even though Jesus worked on that day – and these members of the church found it important to observe that day. They would have opposed work or professional football taking place on Sundays, as many people within the church have opposed.

The avoidance of meat is a little bit more confusing for us, but it comes from that big commandment to “have no other gods before God.” Well, for people living in Rome, most of the meat available in the markets would have come from the pagan temples, the temples to gods other than the Hebrew God. After the sacrifice, the meat would be sold at the market, and that was the basic funding model for the pagan temples. The trouble is, in the market, there’s no way to separate the unclean (pagan) meat from kosher meat that was good for Jews to eat. So, to observe the Jewish law, people would simply avoid meat altogether. It’s like the way that my Jewish friend Mike happens to keep kosher, because he’s a vegetarian for other reasons. Avoiding meat just makes it a whole lot easier.

Apparently, there were groups on either side of these questions in the early church Paul writes to here. This issue of Christian freedom is a huge question in the early church, especially in churches like Rome, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. The identity question was, “how Jewish do we have to be, in order to be faithful to Christ and this new movement in the world?”

These were not trivial issues. They were matters of faithfulness, matters of our basic relationship with God. That’s more important than just what kind of music we sing in worship or even whether we should install an elevator or put in new carpeting first. It’s more like arguing about the inspiration of the Bible, or abortion or sexuality, or the relationship between what kind of car you drive and when the world is going to end. Those differences between us are a lot harder to see past.

All the same, Paul calls them “disputable matters.” These matters of faithfulness are the sorts of things we can apparently disagree about and still go on living together as the church. Is Paul saying that faithfulness to God is less important than keeping peace within the church? Or does he measure faithfulness by the level of peace the church keeps with itself?

Now we find ourselves on the flip side of this issue. The question today is how we can be faithful to our God and our understandings, while still living in the freedom Christ gives us. We have trouble now welcoming people who need fewer rules in life, not more rules. People’s question when they look at the church is, “Can I be part of this church without being judged by it?” Our job now is to share the acceptance we have in God’s love, and that’s especially hard to do in the face of the church’s own long history of judging others. People expect judgment from the church, so it’s that much harder for us not to give it to them.

At the same time, if we read on in this chapter from Romans, Paul warns us not to obscure the good news with any extra scandal. God’s place with the weak and the outcast is already scandalous enough without our making that news any harder to take. Paul knows that we as the church are a unique people, and we should look different from the rest of the world. We each wind up asking ourselves how this good news looks in us. We can hope that we each live our own lives as Christ’s people and leave others to God.

We find ourselves trying to balance our duty to keep our books well with the call to live generously. Like all other members of God’s creation, we’re responsible to live in the truth as best we are able. However, Jesus reminds us that we are as far from the truth as anyone else. Like the first servant in that parable, we see others’ wrongs and offenses very well. Like that servant, we are even more in the wrong, if you measure us against God’s standards. But our debt is canceled, and we have nothing left to make right.

We are free to live in the truth. We’re free to share our truth without imposing it on others. We’re free to meet God as we have been called to be God’s people. Our calling is unique, even as it differs from the calling other people have received. We can be grateful that others have their own calls to faithfulness, different as they may be. We can be grateful for all the richness of Christ’s church.