Grace Presbyterian Church
September 17, 2017, Pentecost 15A
The Strong, The Weak, The Lord’s, The Forgiven
Take a look at this cat in the picture on your bulletin insert. That’s Felicity. [see above]
Felicity is one of the cats that came into our household after Lynette Ramer’s death. None of their children could take them in, and well, we’re suckers for cute kitties. So Felicity and her sister Phoebe came to our place, doubling the cat population (we have since added a fifth feline member of the household).
It turned out that Felicity was, and I’m trying to be gentle about this, crazy.
She was terrified of basically everything. She hid under beds, she hid under blankets, she hid under her sister (and this was before they were even introduced to the cats already in the household). If anyone got near her she turned, if not quite vicious, definitely hostile. When Mickey and Pluto came into the picture things only got worse, with Pluto in particular becoming the focal point for a lot of hostility.
At one point the two got into such a fight that one of Felicity’s claws was damaged, and she had to go to the vet for treatment. When she returned home, she had to be kept in isolation from all of the other cats and given a litterbox with shredded paper (in our bathroom, as it turned out), as exposure to cat litter could have caused a much worse infection in the wound.
Of all things, it was this period of isolation that allowed something of a personality to start to show in Felicity. She hated the wound treatment Julia had to give her, but otherwise during this isolation she actually started to respond to the world around her with something other than hostility and fear. She actually accepted attention and affection at times, and even started to give it on rare occasion. Figuring that maybe it was better to go with it, we kept that space in our bathroom set up for Felicity. There were bumps in the road, to be sure, and she and Pluto still don’t get along, but now Felicity is a valued part of the family, no less loved than any other of the cats, and even ventures out into our bedroom and the dining room on occasion.
Okay, maybe it’s not a direct path from Felicity to today’s reading from Romans, but Paul might recognize in her (to the degree he wasn’t freaked out by us moderns keeping cats in our homes) one of the “weak” of which he speaks, within the dynamic of our home. And the point of Paul’s instruction here, or at least part of the point, is that the “weak” are called of God, chosen of God, forgiven by God, and loved of God every bit as much as the “strong.”
Of course, Paul doesn’t really help his case here by using words like “weak” and “strong” (and you’ll notice if you read on to verse 14 that Paul counts himself among the “strong” on this particular subject, having no problems eating meat). While it might be surprising that food is the thing that apparently trips up the Romans to whom Paul is writing, a very similar problem also prompted Paul to spill a lot of ink in his letters to the Corinthians. (For that matter, maybe if you’ve come together for a big family meal only to discover that one of the grandkids is a newly-minted vegetarian, maybe you do understand how food can become a flashpoint.)
To explain as briefly as possible, persons living in Rome didn’t exactly have access to herds of cattle from which to obtain meat to eat. Not completely unlike most of us, a Roman would have to go to a market to purchase some to eat.
Where that market differs from the Publix or Aldi up the street is that in some cases, the meat offered for sale might have had an interesting history. Rome, not unlike Athens of its time, harbored quite a few shrines to numerous deities, and in some cases those shrines practiced sacrificial offerings, in which the meat had been offered on or over an open flame – in other words, roasted or broiled.
Since the stone or wooden idol never was going to consume that offering literally, these shrines had an awful lot of perfectly good meat on their hands, and sometimes that meat ended up at the local market. This could be a problem to the discerning Christian supermarket shopper in two ways: (1) for some, the very idea of eating meat offered to an idol, i.e. a false God, was itself problematic (this particular question is what Paul addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians); and (2) meat offered in such fashion was very unlikely to be prepared according to Jewish dietary law, i.e. it wasn’t kosher, so to speak. The latter seems to have been the root of the issue in Rome, whether among Jewish-born members of the churches at Rome or among Gentiles who had converted to Judaism before following Christ.
In this, the one case in this letter in which Paul seems to be addressing a very specific concern in the church communities of Rome, his answer still points to the very universal teachings that have been laced throughout the letter. For example, only God can judge; it is not our place to presume to judge those who, by our standards, are “weak.” Sin is still always lurking, seeking any entry to create discord and hatred, and quarrels over food are as good an opportunity as any. Or, our freedom is not an absolute license to do whatever, whenever, however. Our freedom in God is freedom to build up the community, not to tear down one another over food, or the color of the cloth on the communion table, or any other matter great or small.
Or perhaps most of all, we aren’t the gatekeepers of the church.
In his systematic theological treatise Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin stressed as one of the most central tenets of Christian faith that God, and God alone, held all rule and dominion over everything – all created things, all people, everything. From this idea Calvin extrapolated that the ultimate fate of all people rests solely in the hands of God.
It all sounds good and theologically proper to us, but we’re not always good at following through on it. We – speaking broadly of the Church Universal – have an incredibly persistent tendency to appoint ourselves gatekeepers. They can’t be in, because they don’t believe <insert favorite doctrine here>. <My favorite Bible verse> says this, so they have to be going to Hell. No. To be more theologically precise, Hell, no. The moment we find ourselves slipping into anything like that mindset we are usurping the sovereignty of God.
And with exclusive sovereignty comes exclusive judgment. That’s how Paul wraps up this segment of his letter, reminding the Romans that judgment is the exclusive province of God and God alone. As verses 10-12 put it,
Why do you pass judgment on your brother and sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For all will stand before the judgment seat of God.
For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
We are not in a position to judge, and that holds true for issues far beyond eating or not eating meat.
Just as in chapter 12 Paul had reminded the Romans that vengeance was solely the province of God, here too judgment is solely the province of God. And that remains true no matter how many Bible verses you summon up by which to judge others. Something like this is also behind the truth of today’s gospel reading; rather than get hung up on a literal mathematical “seventy-seven times” (or “seventy times seven” whichever translation you prefer), to presume not to forgive your sister or brother is to presume the right of judgment, which belongs solely to God.
The flip side of this point is that in all cases, the meat-eaters or the vegetarians, Sunday abstainers or Sunday indulgers, the honor goes to God. Again, it’s not about a checklist – it’s not “eat this, not that.” Whatever you eat, do so honoring God. Whatever you don’t eat, do so honoring God. And yes, this goes well beyond meat-eating or not meat-eating.
Whichever we do, we do so in the Lord. We don’t do so only to ourselves – we aren’t islands; we are in the Lord. And as the body of Christ, we are in the Lord together, whatever we eat or don’t eat.
Leave aside the judgment and vengeance and gate-keeping; live in forgiveness, live in the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.