Monday, September 15, 2014

Sermon on Romans 13:11-14:12, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in Light of Christ's Eternal Rule", Part 13

The 13th and final sermon in a series on Romans 6-14, "God's Greater Story".

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today is our 13th and final week in the book of Romans—and we’ve been slowly digesting a considerable portion of the book: chapters 6-14. Like any “meal” from God’s Word, the food is rich and filling—filling us with God’s truth, with the knowledge of His love and mercy for us in Christ Jesus, and with His Holy Spirit. And yet the “table” is always far from empty, as there is much more that we could return to. God’s Word is a never-ending feast for the hungry soul—a banquet which never runs out of the well-aged wine of wisdom, nor the nourishing bread of life. And hopefully you’ve gained an appetite to return and dig deeper into Romans yourself. This would be a great opportunity for you to read through the entire book of Romans again on your own, and review its message to you. If you can do it all in one sitting to pick up the overall flow—all the better—it should take less than 1 hour.

Our series has helped us to see our lives in the Light of God’s Greater Story, His plan of salvation for all of our lives, and for all Christians. In the last verses of chapter 13 Paul reminds us of the coming hour of our salvation—the day of judgment, when Christ returns. This brackets the end of our reading as well—that we will be individually accountable to God at the judgment. This great realization—the realization that Jesus is coming again to return in judgment, and that we are all answerable to Him—changes the way that we look at even ordinary, mundane matters, like what’s on our daily menu. What’s on my daily menu? Huh? What does that have to do with spiritual things and the judgment?

Well, Paul was speaking to Romans who were apparently quarrelling in their church—some were exercising their freedom to eat meat, while others were vegetarians. Those who were confident in their faith and freedom were looking down on those with a weaker conscience, who were eating only vegetables. And those who were vegetarian were judging the believers who ate meat. It seems like a petty situation, and we don’t know much more about why this was dividing them. It seems silly. But aren’t there plenty of other matters that have divided Christians in their churches, that were plain silly? Matters that had nothing to do with the doctrine or teaching of the faith. Matters that were not concerned with what is right or wrong, or sinful or not sinful—but matters unrelated to our salvation. Matters over which people took sides and judged each other or treated the others as nothing.

Where do we store this or that? What color the carpet should be? Finding fault with the method that one person uses to get a job done, when you think you have a better way? And if you crossed the country to churches of every denomination, how many people do you think have left one congregation or another over just such petty quarrels? Of course, in the midst of these disagreements, people may feel passionately about something. There may be a long tradition behind what they believe or do, and anything else seems wrong. Or another may have no concern for what other’s think or do, and therefore “despise” their brother. Judgment and criticism spring up, and needlessly divide Christians against one another. That’s not to say that there are never matters that are serious enough to warrant disagreement, or where there’s a clear right and wrong as defined by the Bible. We are to fight for and defend the truth.

But Paul is talking about matters that don’t relate to our salvation. They are nothing that God has commanded that we must do, and nothing He has forbidden or outlawed us from doing. Lutherans call these “adiaphora” or “indifferent things”, because they make no difference for our salvation. But Paul is instructing us that even these ordinary things of daily life, that make no difference for our salvation, can become a stumbling block for someone or create divisions if we make a law out of something that God has not made a law. Or if we judge and criticize someone for exercising their freedom, when they are guilty of no sin.

Paul is warning both “strong” and “weak” Christians—those who have a firm knowledge of the Christian faith and their freedoms, and those who have a tender conscience—that they must be considerate about even these “indifferent matters.” We should never let them become the battleground over which we judge another, or the cause for us to trample on someone’s weak conscience because we have to prove our right to exercise a particular freedom. Take for example the question of alcohol. Drinking in moderation is acceptable for the Christian. Wine was common at the meals in Jesus’ day, and the apostle Paul once told the young pastor Timothy to drink a little wine to help with a stomach ailment (1 Tim. 5:23). However, the Scripture is clear that drunkenness is a vice. Now there are many Christians who abstain from alcohol altogether, for a variety of very good reasons.

Some may wrestle with alcoholism, and know that it is wisest to avoid altogether. Others may have seen the detrimental effects that drinking has had on friends or family, and wish to have no part in it, or be tempted by it. Or as Paul says, someone may do a certain thing as their own way to honor God. There may be still other reasons. Some groups of Christians believe the temptation so great, that they forbid alcohol altogether. But if a Christian who has self-control and knows their freedom, then exalts themselves in this freedom and disregards the sensitivity or tenderness of another Christian’s conscience—they are abusing their freedom and may be tempting their brother or sister in Christ. It’s no longer a matter of what am I free to do or not do, but a matter of whether I am looking out for the needs and best interest of the other. Paul reminds us that no one lives to themselves or dies to themselves. Attitudes of radical individualism are not fitting for the Christian—and we should avoid creating a stumbling block for our brother. And on the flip side, one who is uncertain in their own conscience, should not do something that they are unsure about—nor should they judge others for doing so.

This extra consideration and avoiding of judgment flows from the realization that we are one body in Christ, and that if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. We are a community of believers in Christ that have a bigger end in sight—eternal life. We need to keep our perspective on even the most ordinary matters of life that might become the grounds for quarreling and disagreement. There are certain matters that God has made clear in His Word are a matter of truth, on which we cannot budge. But beyond those, we have freedom. Freedom that ought to be used responsibly, and not to trample on the consciences of others. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we might belong to Him. He set us free from the terrible weight of our sins, so that the dread of judgment might not hang over our heads. He did not die for us so that we might judge one another or quarrel over mere opinions.

We will all stand before God’s judgment seat, and have to give an account of ourselves before God. We each bear personal responsibility, and we answer to God—not to any other master. And so we are not to judge—God alone is judge. So how does anyone stand to face this judgment? Paul says the Lord is able to make a person stand. If we believe in Christ Jesus, we stand in Him—God has already passed judgment on Jesus and found Him innocent. He bore our guilt on the cross, but God raised Him from the dead—innocent because death had no claim on Him. And so the only way a Christian can stand in the judgment is to live by repentance—turning away from our sins—and faith—turning to Jesus for our forgiveness and hope.

Paul would write to the Corinthians that he did not fear the judgment of any man—nor did he even judge himself—because he knew that God alone was judge. He lived and worked in good conscience—and knew this didn’t mean he was free from blame—but that the Lord alone would be judge (1 Cor. 4). His trust was wholly located in Jesus. And so should yours. No one will be able to stand in the judgment on their own, but the Lord makes His servants to stand. Alone with our sins, we could do nothing but fall before our master. But coming to Him for His mercy, and living by repentance and faith, the Christian is made to stand by the mercy of Jesus.

Mercy is not our personal possession, but it is God’s gift to all who will not despise it. Christ’s death on the cross fully answers for all the sins of the world—so that no one need face judgment alone with their sins. So why would anyone turn aside from so great a gift? There is an urgency to our faith. Remember Paul said, salvation is nearer now than when we first believed! The day is coming when every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Christ has already accomplished this salvation for all people—so now is the day of salvation—now is the day to turn from sin and call upon His Name to be saved. So live with Christ’s mercy—the mercy that God extends to the world—live with His mercy extended toward others. And with God’s mercy extended toward others, we will be compassionate in dealing with sin, when it is sin. We will keep God’s judgment in view and not make mountains out of molehills—or turn indifferent things about which God has made no law, into laws that create unnecessary divisions among us.

God has called us into a greater story, a bigger picture than we can sometimes see from our elevation of 3-6 feet off the ground. God has written our lives into the story of salvation that infuses all of our daily lives and activities with meaning and purpose. He has wrapped us up into the story of His mercy and love for a people who so easily go astray, who hurt each other, who tumble into trouble or propel ourselves into rebellion. While we often muddle our way through the maze of life, God’s Word in Romans invites us to view things from His perspective, from above—and to see that all this is so much greater than we imagined. And the reach of God’s redeeming love is greater than we have imagined—and that it reaches all the way down to us. And back in the daily stories of our life, our gaze will now be upturned—upturned to Christ our Savior in whom we trust, and for whom we wait. And our ears will be upturned also—to listen attentively to what the story of His incredible, eternal love means for us and how we are to live. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Romans 13:11-14 reminds us of God’s coming judgment and the urgency to be watchful for Christ’s coming, and to put away sin and believe in Jesus. How does this mindset change our perspective when dealing with mere “opinions” (Rom. 14:1) that people might argue over? “Opinions” includes anything that is neither commanded by God, nor forbidden by Him as sin. Matters that are explicitly commanded or forbidden by God are a matter of truth, not opinion. What are some “opinions” that people might quarrel over today?
  2. Lutherans call these matters that are not commanded nor forbidden, “adiaphora”, meaning “indifferent.” Christians have freedom in these matters, because they don’t make a difference in our salvation. But how does Paul warn that they can become harmful, in how we treat others? Romans 14:1-4, 10; 1 Corinthians 10:23-32; Galatians 5:1, 13-15; Colossians 2:16-23.
  3. What is the greater reality that we live for, and that should be our focus? Romans 14:7-9. How does this focus affect both the “horizontal dimension” of our relationships with our neighbor, but also the “vertical dimension” of our relationship to God?
  4. Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 for a parallel description of how Paul anticipates standing before God’s judgment seat. Why does he have a clear conscience? Why is continual repentance and trust in Jesus the only way to maintain a clear conscience? Who makes the believer to stand or be upheld before God? Romans 14:4

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