Welcoming differences in the Church
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Welcome to Rome, in the year 58.
Rome is an amazing city - a million people! Not many cities are even close to that in ‘58.
And Rome is not just about population - it is about power. Caesar. The Senate. The home base for everything Roman - including the Roman army.
A wealthy city, but also a frequently immoral city. Most folk aren’t Christian.... far, far from it. Yet the Christians have become a significant and noticeable presence, with little congregations scattered through the city.
But it is not easy being a Christian. The people of Rome a very tolerant in religious matters - you can worship as many gods and idols as you want, so long as you include the emperor, and also if you don’t mind everyone else worshipping a multitude of gods. And that’s where the Christians run into trouble here in the year ‘58. Because the Christians won’t worship the emperor. And Nero.... emperor Nero... well, he is really not very nice about it - his persecutions will soon get under way.
But the main thing is the neighbours – the everyday people around believe that the Christians take part in strange rituals and nocturnal rites, and that they are a dangerous and superstitious sect.
That is the life facing our fellow-Christian in Rome in the year ‘58. Better stick together, then, in the face of all of that.
But no. The Christians in Rome are finding lots of things to keep them apart from one another, things for which to harshly judge one another.
After all, some have become vegetarians to avoid eating meat that most likely was offered to some idol or other; others point to these and call them weak, because they, the ones who will eat meat, are far superior because they know that eating the meat really does not matter.
And there are some that are sure that one particular day should be kept as a special day in the week. Others are sure that each and every day is equally special. And the two groups chastize one another.
And there are some who feel that to be a good Christian, you really need to become a good Jew first. Jesus was Jewish, of course. And others argued the opposite - that there was no need to become Jewish, and certainly no need for circumcision.
And there are those who argue that Jewish Christians are better than Gentile Christians, while others argue that this is not the case.
And so it goes.
And so Paul, in Corinth, writes a letter to the Church in Rome. There are many things in that letter - but an important part is talking of how it is imperative that the Christians stop judging one another:
“Those who eat meat must not despise those who abstain; those who abstain from must not pass judgement on those who eat it.”
And he goes on to tell them that it is not up to them to pass judgement on one another - “It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
“It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
As in: God is going to make it so that each one gets a ‘passing grade’ - the one who eats meat, and the one who abstains from it; the one who considers all days equal, and the one who one day to be above all others, the one who..... God will make each and every one stand.
Therefore not up to the people to judge each other.
And all, Paul writes, are accountable to God.
Welcome to the year 2017.
We’re living in a rich country, and there are all sorts of pressures and turmoils that push upon us.
There are international tensions.
There are political struggles within our own communities and province.
There are all the challenges of living in a multi-cultural, bilingual and multilingual context.
There are the stresses of Christianity becoming less and less significant in our own society - loved by some, accepted by others, tolerated by others and held in disdain by some.
You would expect that we would all stick together in the face of all of that.
But not always.
500 years since the Protestant reformation began, creating two major factions in the Western Church - farther east the Greek Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox had already gone on a different path from the Roman Catholic Church.
500 years since the Protestant reformation began, bringing into reality Protestants...... except, as we look about we see that Protestants are hardly a cohesive group either. There are Protestants who judge each other: “they don’t believe in being born again, but we do,” some say.
We practice the baptism of people of any age, including infants: others find that unacceptable.
Oh, and speaking of baptism - what about the argument about baptism by immersion, right under the water.... or is a sprinkling at all to be accepted?
Some churches refuse to allow any instruments into worship, while others find that idea unthinkable.
Some churches, like our Anglican neighbours, have priests, while speak only of ministers;
Some churches have altars, while we have a communion table.
Oh, and don’t forget more about music - some use guitars and drums, while others would only accept the organ as the most holy instrument - even if it began as an instrument played in the Roman arenas, the site of many executions, among other events.
Ah, yes, and proper dress, please - what does that mean? Does that mean hats for the ladies, morning coats and white gloves for the men?
Does that mean the worship leader must wear a gown..... or must not wear a gown?
And that does not even begin to get into who can be a minister or priest.
And what does Paul have to say to us? Accept one another. Be clear: Paul is not talking about tolerating one another. Accepting one another is welcoming one another.
Now, to be sure, Paul is talking about things that are not essentials, and it can sometimes be hard to be sure what are essentials of faith and what are not. But what do we need to do about that? Talk. Be ready to talk..... in a welcoming and warm way that goes beyond tolerance.
The Rev. James Martin, a popular priest who published a book earlier this year encouraging a bridge between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church, has been disinvited from giving an address at Catholic University’s seminary, though he was not going to talk about LGBT issues at all.
The University itself distanced itself from the decision to disinvite him, saying:
“The campaigns by various groups to paint Fr. Martin’s talk as controversial reflect the same pressure being applied by the left for universities to withdraw speaker invitations,” said John Garvey, president of Catholic University. “Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”
The University, in this case, reflects Paul’s teaching better than the seminary: Welcome the one with whom you have a difference. Engage them in conversation, not in judgement.
There is a quote, frequently attributed to John Wesley, though the origins are much older than that:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.
This must be our approach when we look upon other churches.
This must also be our approach when we seek to live with each other, in our own community of faith.