September 17th, 2023 “Paul warns against judging one another“
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
In our Gospel reading this morning Peter asks a question that I suspect many of us would like to know the answer to! Peter asks Jesus - how many times should I forgive someone who has wronged me? Jesus’ answer seems a bit hard to swallow - in effect he is saying there is no limit on the amount of times that you should forgive. Jesus is reminding Peter that God’ forgiveness has no limits and this is the example to follow.
But we need to be very careful when we hear and interpret these words and how we might put them into practice in our own lives and situations. Yes forgiveness is important and yes we should be trying to model our lives on the way Christ said to live. But there is a murky area here.
But this is not a free pass for people who abuse others. For people who have been victimized and traumatized by the actions of others the onus is NOT on them to work toward reconciliation with their abusers. This only heaps on more hurt.
When you hear and read these words from the Gospel of Matthew be aware that they can be hurtful and painful if used to prop up the behaviour of abusers. Hurting another is never acceptable. Forgiveness does not mean excusing someone for abusing us or other people nor does it mean working to restore a relationship with that person even as abuse continues.
We gather together on Sunday mornings because God has called us to come, to hear words of grace and forgiveness, to speak words of grace and forgiveness, to eat and drink with one another around a table of love and peace and to extend that table of reconciliation into our communities.
I would like to take a closer look this morning at our reading from Romans. Romans is Paul’s only undisputed letter that is sent to a community that he did not personally found and support. It seems from our reading that there are divisions in the community and Paul wants to address them. We can surmise that the community was diverse. There were probably Jewish Christians and Roman Gentiles. In a city the size and importance of Rome there must have been people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds. Some have now found themselves exploring a new faith. They have become one body - unified in their desire to follow Jesus Christ.
But as we heard last week - where two or three are gathered there will be conflict.
And there will be differences in many things. Paul does not insist on complete agreement or unity over what to eat or how to observe Holy Days. Paul does want the Church in Rome to understand that it is not up to individuals to judge one another. That is a job that is to be left up to God.
Paul’s theology here is the theology of the Cross - the theology that Lutherans also observe.
In the first century the cross was a symbol of derision and shameful death. But the cross was reclaimed by Christians as a positive term that expresses God’s redemptive actions through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians then and now mark ourselves with the sign of the cross in water, in oil and in ink as an expression of a counter - cultural identity. Paul argues that Christians are defined by the cross of Christ who died for us all.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans he does not take sides. He is acknowledging that there are differences in the community. He is urging the Church in Rome to avoid judging one another. Paul is speaking about doctrinal issues and he knows what he is talking about. Remember Paul had serious conflicts with other leaders of the early Church, specifically James and Peter.
For the Romans it seems that their different viewpoints might be so serious that they could be used as a basis to deny fellowship. And to Paul that is just not acceptable. It still is not.
Paul’s concern is the spirit of the Christians who are arguing. Conflict and divisions can rapidly escalate and can feed a growth of hate. We see this daily as people take sides over issues and begin to vilify one another. To demonize one another. This is not the body of Christ. In our world it seems that people are often energized by their hate. The rapid rise in social media platforms and use have only fueled this along with a culture that seems to gobble up misinformation.
Paul would have harsh things to say if he was writing to the Christian Church today. We have allowed our differences to define us - not our unity in Christ. Our identity is not defined from political, economic or moral standing or from identification with some people in opposition to others.
As Paul reminds us we are the Lord’s. And because we are the Lord’s we are to see the face of Christ in everyone and to see each person as a beloved child of God.
Paul never forgets that.
It seems that sometimes we do.
Scripture continually warns us against being quick to judge others. Paul reminds us of this again in his letters to the Romans. We are called to live in community. And because we live in community, we will find that there are conflicts. Some people choose to form or find their community only with those who are in complete agreement with them. This does not sound like the Kingdom of Heaven to me. We are called to live in community that pushes us out of our comfort zone. We are invited to listen and to learn from those who see things differently. It does not mean we have to agree. But we must find a way to deal respectfully and honestly with conflict and differences.
As Paul was cautioning the Romans, our life as followers of Christ is not a list of do’s and don’ts that have sucked the joy out of our faith. Paul urged the Church in Rome to accept diversity of viewpoints and practices. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome to caution them against judging one another, to avoid judging others religious practices or experiences. Paul reminded the Romans to leave judgment to God.
Wise words from Paul that we would do well to take to heart.