Sunday, September 28, 2008

Low Carb Faith

Low Carb Faith

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romans 14:1-12

Some believe in eating anything,
while the weak eat only vegetables.

I guess they had different things to argue about in churches in Paul’s day than ours, like what was on the after-church supper menu. The weak eat only vegetables...? Come again? How is it that vegetarianism was singled out as a sign of weakness? Was Paul an Atkins diet guy, a three-meal-a-day meat eater, a man of low-carb faith? This is one of those times when it’s important to know the story behind the story.

Paul’s words refer to folks in the first century church who would eat only vegetables because they had religious scruples involved with the consumption of meat, most likely meat that was first offered to idols in pagan temples, then sold in the open markets afterward, a common practice by which temple priests raised money. The problem with consumption of meat from the markets was that you could never be sure that the meat you had purchased hadn’t first been offered up as a sacrifice to a pagan god. So some folks decided to forego meat altogether. We know that Paul wasn’t one of them, in fact he seemed to see it as a sign of weak faith: since he didn’t believe pagan gods existed, he had no problem eating meat, regardless of the source.

The issue seems distant from us now, doesn’t it? As with many church controversies over time, this one eventually faded into virtual irrelevance.

Church people across the centuries are famous for our ability to major in minors. If it was decided that meat-eating was inferior to vegetable eating, what would come next? Vegetable comparison, that’s what: broccoli’s superiority to celery, maybe, or green beans over summer squash.

A low carb carnivore himself, Paul nevertheless saw the need to change the subject.

I love the way our passage begins, the first word of Paul’s instruction to them is one of my favorite New Testament words: “Welcome.” Now, we all want to think of ours as a welcoming church, though it strikes some people, I know it does, as a side issue, not the main thing. But it is not a side issue in the New Testament. Just check the forms of the word “welcome” in any Bible concordance and see how busy it keeps you looking up all the references. My concordance lists 59 places in The New Testament where it is used. It is used more frequently than the word “praise” in the New Testament, more than “compassion,” more than “healing,” and more than “comfort.”

This is good news, really. It’s likely that few of us think of ourselves as healers, probably not many claim to be world-class praisers or are recognized for the vast comfort and compassion we hand out to others. But what does it take to be a welcomer? Well, not all that much, just about anyone can do it, all it requires is an extended hand, a heart that is opened just a crack wider, and perhaps saying the word out loud to others every now and then: “Welcome.” Not a difficult task, yet it receives very high praise as an act of pure gospel in the New Testament.

Undervalued, that’s what I think it is. So, Paul says, “Welcome...” But welcome whom? If we are supposed to throw the door open, run out the red carpet, get the guest room ready, whom is it for? Well, that’s the difficult part in the church, isn’t it? Church is like family, you don’t get to choose your family, your family chooses you, at least sort-of. First our family chooses us, then they are stuck with us. In the church, we are the collection of people who have decided to throw our lot in together in this place to be a church. Maybe we have an idea of the way our fellow church members ought to look, how they ought to act, what sort of clothes they should wear, the kind of manners they should have when they are here, whether or not they should have bacon and eggs or granola for breakfast, and maybe sometimes we look around ourselves here in this sanctuary and mutter under our breath, “Well, whatever I had in mind for the way a church family should look, this sure isn’t it!”

Paul reminds us with that opening word that welcome comes before everything else. We don’t get to choose the way our church family looks because welcome is the first word, not some qualifying test. You are welcome here. Sit wherever you like, there are no reserved seats. Whoever you are, whatever baggage — literal or figurative — you carry in here, you are welcome. Maybe you favor a different hairstyle, maybe you like to say your prayers in Portuguese, or Gaelic, maybe you wear the same tie every Sunday, maybe you don’t own a tie, maybe your blouse could stand ironing, maybe you have just a tad too much starch in your blouse, maybe you find gospel hymns objectionable, maybe gospel hymns are your favorites, maybe you prefer a church filled with stained glass windows, maybe you prefer a church with no windows, maybe you think the organ music is too loud, maybe you think the organ music can’t be loud enough, maybe you wish the ministers would do away with their black robes, maybe its the robes that make you feel you are in church, maybe you think a hundred other things and others think a hundred things that are just the opposite.

No matter, the first word to us, as it was to those Romans in this 14th chapter, is “welcome.” If we were to wonder about our main task in the church, we wouldn’t have to go a lot further than that one word.

Now, what was Paul adding to that word? Well, just the sort of thing I have been describing. The Roman church was filled with Presbyterians, people who were entirely willing to disagree about anything and everything. Some in the church had been Jews, some had been pagans, some may have been a mixture of the two. Some members might have had scruples about eating meat because most of the meat you could buy had first been offered at one of the hundreds of pagan shrines. So some would just rather not eat meat than chance to eat something which had been made an offering to a god they didn’t believe existed.

Of course, being Presbyterians, others disagreed, saying that meat offered to gods they didn’t believe existed anyway would do no harm, so they ate meat. Paul called the vegetarians the ones who were “weak in faith.” Sounds pretty critical on first glance, but there is another way to look at it. Paul wrote to the Corinthians also and he used this word “weak” this way: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world...”1

Hmmm, it sounds as though weakness comes with higher recommendations than we might first have thought. There’s more: Paul also wrote, “For [Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”2 Paul also wrote, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”3

So when he counsels us to welcome those who are weak in faith, it could just be that their weak faith has eclipsed what we thought was the strongest part of our own. The lesson in that is that we are not worth much to the kingdom on our own, we are meant to be a sociable church, an hospitable community of saints, a gathering of the faithful, not a collection of lone rangers who pay each other little heed, and reserve contempt for those we judge to be weaker or lesser in some way.

Here is the rub: Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of 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.” Wow, how lucky for them, the Lord will come along and make them stand, unlike those of us who are able to stand on our own, that wouldn’t be it, would it? No, standing on our own strength is definitely not the main subject of the gospel, not even encouraged in its dark little side chapels. No, before God all are the weak ones, is that not true?

Anyone who thinks they are strong enough to stand before God will one day learn their error. How wonderful that Paul encouraged the building of a fellowship that recognized this from the outset, and set about creating the church as an hospitable place where the welcome did not wait until we became strong, the seat in the pews is not reserved for those who already know their Bible, the singing of the songs is not the personal and private domain of those who know the songs of faith already. If you are today in a church for the very first time ever, you cannot be any less welcome than the person who has occupied a pew in church every single Sunday for the past fifty years.

Paul said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” Exactly. If we did, who would need a church? Who would need welcome, who would need to gather? Faith would be a matter of thinking good thoughts, or obeying certain rules, but it would be something we would accomplish on our own. No, Paul says we do not live to ourselves, and it is a lesson that no people on earth have a harder time learning than Americans, who like to think of ourselves as up-by-our-bootstraps people, self-made, rugged individualists. In the face of this sort of thinking, Paul simply holds up a mirror of ourselves in our death masks. “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; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

The only hope for us is that we live and we die to the Lord. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God in our living and in our dying, and we join in humility with others in the fellowship, whether their hair is parted the way we like it or not, like a beleaguered ship full of sailors for whom the only hope is the Lord who calms the sea for them and leads them safely home.

Why is welcome such an important word? Why do we do this thing, why do we say hello to each other and offer blessings as our first act of worship, why are we called so forcefully to be a fellowship of welcome and hospitality? It is because we have been welcomed. Carrying a load of trouble? We are welcome in this place where we may set our troubles down. Burdened by a backlog of bad things in our lives which we regret? We are welcome here, regrets and all. This is our home because we have nothing to prove here, only our humble prayer for the love of God and our extension of that love to each other is needed here. That is why we do what we do, for the love of God.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 I Corinthians 1:26-29
2 II Corinthians 13:4
3 II Corinthians 11:30