Today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the many moments in the Bible when there is fighting at the dinner table. Over the last few weeks we have explored together how Paul is applying practical ways for God’s children to live in community with one another. Like last week’s gospel lesson, today’s passage explores how we navigate the moments of conflict that happen in our community.
There are two differing opinions and convictions about faithful living in relations to food that is seem to be happening in the church in Rome. This is a problem Paul has addressed before with other churches along the Mediterranean. Is it okay to eat anything you want, or are you more faithful to God when eat just vegetables? While this issue might not seem like a big deal to us today, it was a big deal to those early Christians, especially for those who were committed to eat only vegetables as way to showing their devotion to God.
The “Vegetarian Christians” (we will call them) were concerned the meat that was purchased at the market originally had another purpose. They knew there was a possibility that the animal was originally killed and offered as a sacrifice to the pagan Gods. Then after the sacrifice and worship experience was over the sacrificed animal was taken and sold at the market.The fear of possibly eating meat that had a part in worshiping other Gods led to their conviction and religious practice to only eat vegetables. Those who ate anything, (we will call them the “Eat Whatever We Want Christians”) did not seem to be as concerned about where the meat came from because in their eyes it had nothing to do with their devotion towards God.
So in the church in Rome sat the “Vegetarian Christians” and the “Eat Whatever We Want Christians”. The “Vegetarian Christians” thought the “Eat Whatever We Want Christians” were going against God by eating meat, and the “Eat Whatever We Want Christians” thought the “Vegetarian Christians” were over thinking how to be faithful to God and focused on details that did not matter in discipleship towards Christ. Both sides dug in deeper convinced their way was the right way. They dug in so deep they began fighting and quarreling with one another.
As we read scripture and as we read our newspapers we know that this was not the first time and definitely not the last time there has been great conflict in the church, and in our global communities over differing convictions. The reality of our diverse and pluralistic world is we will not all share the same view point or convictions with those in our communities. Sometimes our differences do not seem to be a big deal, but like today’s passages sometime these differences in view points may lead to tension and fighting.
At our own dinner tables we might not fight over meat and vegetables, but we might find ourselves in conflict with friends, family, and strangers over social, political, and communal matters. It might be that we have strong convictions about all these matters, and when we look across the dinner table at our neighbor we realize they have differing viewpoints and convictions than us. Maybe even as the conversation on the issue intensifies we realize all our deep convictions are polarized from each other. How do we navigate these moments of tensions?
Paul wants to challenge us all to think about how we handle these kind of moments. As we find ourselves in conflict over viewpoints and convictions with our neighbors Paul wants us to remember who we belong to. We do not belong to the social, political, or communal convictions of the world…we belong to God. In verse 7 he says, “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord…we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be lord of both the dead and the living.”
We belong to God, who loves us through Christ. We were created to be loved by God, and we were created to love. This verse also holds the key to how we view those whom we find ourselves in conflict with…they belong to God too. In those moments of conflict and even bitter disagreement, Paul is reminding us to remember that even the person or persons we despise are children of God too, and like us they are always in reach of God’s transforming grace.
In seminary you have the privilege of taking a course on Christian Ethics. My Christian Ethics professor, Dr. Marcia Riggs, created a space where we did not engage in debate of which side was right and wrong, but in dialogue towards something she calls transformative mediation. In one of her recent essays entitled “Loves the Spirit” Transformative Mediation As Pedagogical Practice she writes, “The concept of dialogue is critical to intercultural communication because it is more than simply conversation; it is communication that nurtures relationship. This is the case because dialogue is based upon mutual respect and listening and learning from one another over time; “earning such respect comes through a willingness to accept the ‘otherness’ of others.” She expresses that conflict and tension are not something we should avoid because when we live in the tension of various viewpoints and convictions, the very tension becomes opportunities for creative responses to move forward as community of equals.
I remember as a class we dived into how we all viewed many current issues of the world in the year 2005 with the lens of Christian ethics. Our class engaged in dialogue over issues of race, how our nation should respond to terrorism in the aftermath to 9/11, healthcare, incarcerations, and so many other systemic matters. As I read her essay, I was reminded of her seven expectations for us as a class as we engaged in difficult dialogue with lots of various worldly convictions and viewpoints. I think they are handy for us to hear as we explore Paul’s charge to us to navigate conflict in the communities that surround us.
We will guide one another in allowing one another’s interpretations to stand, and we will engage as equals with alternative (not antagonistic) interpretations.
We will not be afraid to stretch the boundaries of the community, seeking out missing voices in the persons of others and/or in unfamiliar texts and other sources of knowledge and information.
We will seek to create an atmosphere where conflict is respected as a catalyst for moral growth and change, as a basis for coming to new understanding.
Everyone will seek to be courageous rather than judgmental.
We will uncover differences in a non-violent space that invites self- criticism and mutual criticism.
We will mediate (rather than seek to resolve) the tensions created by self-criticism and mutual criticism.
We will regard learning as open-ended moral discourse.
There were many times when our class was engaged in passionate dialogue that I remember Dr. Riggs pointing us back to the lens of Christian Ethics and challenging us to remember to allow scripture and Christ’s words, actions, love, and grace to join our passionate dialogue on the latest global and national issues. After all, as Christians we believe that “we do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.” Paul is proclaiming to us today that as Christians our entire life is centered around Christ who lived and died for us.
As children who belong to God, our created purpose and our calling is to love, or to quote that simple passage from 1st John; "we love because God first loved us”. Paul is making it known to the Romans and to all of God’s children, that in those moments when we find ourselves in conflict, love is the key towards transformation and stronger communal living.
As we let love lead our dialogue with one another, Paul reminds us to not judge those who have different viewpoints and convictions, but to leave that to God. He does point out that we are still to hold each other accountable that love is the foundation of all our convictions and viewpoints.
Is what you are doing or saying loving towards others? That is the test question that Paul tells the children of God to ask themselves as they seek a life centered on Christ, and as they hold accountable themselves and others in their community. After making sure to mention to everyone in Rome that people can glorify and honor God in various ways, some with meat and some with only vegetables; he also points out that love should be the foundation to all that we do. In verse 15 he writes, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”
Paul brings up a great point for our communal living. Some times we can find peace and tolerance in our differences, and sometimes when our differences cause pain and are not founded in love, there needs to be some difficult and loving conversations that foster transformative mediation. In those moments, Paul is proclaiming we should lean on the conviction of love to guide us in the moments of conflict and tension. As Christians we believe that the conviction of love trumps all other convictions. When we allow love to join the dialogue, empathy appears in the places of pain; compassion appears in the places of sadness. When we allow love to join the dialogue justice appears in the places of injustice. When we allow the conviction of love to join the dialogue truth appears in the places where there are lies and denial. When we allow the conviction of love to join the dialogue transformative mediation happens and new beginnings happen.
Verse 19 is wonderful charge for us as we allow the conviction of love to guide us in all our relationships with those around us. It is also a wonderful charge as we navigate together the many divisive social, political, and communal issues that surround us in the year 2020. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
In those moments of tension and conflict with those in our community, whether it is passionate disagreements at the dinner table about meat and vegetables, or we find ourselves in the midst of polarizing view points over more complex systemic issues, may Christ’s love for the world join the dialogue. May a life centered on Christ claim our identity in those tense and conflicted moments. May our Christ centered approach lead to transformation and creativity towards new beginnings that is happening in God’s kingdom. Alleluia Amen