It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.
Some scholars talk about Jewish, Pauline, and Gnostic groups coexisting at this time slowly forming their identities as Christians, without necessarily giving up their identity in other groups. For example, I might have been a Jew attending synagogue, and also happen to be interested in following the way of Jesus, meeting with other Jesus followers at one of their homes.
Paul’s response to this eclectic collection of believers, was to keep the focus on their shared beliefs and aspirations. Jesus was the Messiah, through whom God offers salvation. Following Jesus, as Paul often reminded them, meant dying and rising with Christ as a new creation in Christ, wholly aligned with God’s will, and united with other Christians through Christ.
But, even that much, which we could consider among the most essential components of our faith, would have been open to different interpretations, and different ways of expressing these truths in the world, based on individual or group traditions, styles of worship, and varied experiences of the sacred. Keeping this community a cohesive whole would have been a daunting task, since many followers would be inclined to see any perceived differences as reasons to think poorly of their brothers or sisters in Christ, or even suggest that they be more welcome in some other community of believers.
Paul’s letters often deal with these potentially disruptive differences. For example, in today’s reading, there seems to be some argument over what one should or should not eat, and over whether certain days be set aside as particularly holy. Some believed in avoiding particular foods while others felt their faith wasn’t dependent on following a special diet. Some felt that certain days should be set aside as more holy than others, perhaps a day of fast or festival, while others treated each day as more-or-less alike.
Paul was careful not to take sides, and instead of focusing on the differences themselves he drew attention to what he considered the real issue: one group despising and judging another for being different than they were. And, you know, putting it that way, the problem is a universal one. Human beings have this way of judging each other for just about anything. Otherwise trivial differences become reasons for us to divide ourselves into mutually despising groups. This is precisely what Jonathan Swift satirizes in Gulliver’s Travels, with the Lilliputian people going to war over which side of an egg a person cracks first. Paul would probably appreciate the story of the Lilliputians, especially given the way he starts today’s reading.
He calls the differences in community, differences that could lead to animosity and quarreling, simply matters of opinion, relative, subjective, with his only recommendation that a person be “convinced in their own minds” on whatever these opinions happen to be. I imagine he probably upset some of his audience who didn’t like hearing their cherished practices and beliefs called trivial matters of opinion.
But this was Paul’s way of reminding them of what they risk when focusing on anything, but the most essential elements of Jesus’ teaching. He was reminding them of what’s at stake, namely creating separation and division in a community of Christ meant to be characterized by agape, a kind of love more about letting our heart be fully open to each other and less about our own needs and wants. Paul is continually using his letters to remind those early churches of the centrality of loving each other, of serving each other out of that love. In that type of community, judging one other would be evidence that we could be doing better.
Another reason for reminding us of how our differences might be more trivial than we think, is to point us back toward what isn’t trivial. It’s a way for Paul to use the relatively trivial to remind us of the absolutely essential. Do you feel like observing a day as special? Do so in honor of the Lord. Do you want to eat or not eat a particular something. Do or not do so in honor of the Lord. Whatever we do, whatever we avoid doing, whatever we say or avoid saying, even whatever beliefs we hold, in all things honor the Lord.
What Paul describes as essential for us as Christians is that we all belong to Christ. We live and die according to God’s will, and if we fully surrender to God’s love and mercy, then how can we judge and despise each other. When we love one another with open hearts, without judging, without creating separation where none need exist, that’s when we’re letting Christ’s light shine as God lives through us.
In Paul’s day as today there are quite a few of these potential areas of disagreement. For example, some Christians use incense, others not; some Christians have priests, others don’t recognize a priesthood; some have a closed Eucharist table, others an open one; some celebrate the Eucharist once a month, others every day. Is Christ really present in the bread and wine? There are plenty of answers to that one. Is grape juice OK to substitute for the wine? Some say “yes,” some say “no.” How about the bread? Leavened or unleavened? Does it need wheat flour? What about a hamburger bun? Some Christians don’t use liturgical colors to mark the season, and if you do, there’s the Roman Rite colors, the Byzantine Rite, the Coptic Rite, and the Russian Orthodox colors. Christians even vary on some of our most fundamental beliefs, challenging what it means to be called Christian: was Mary a literal virgin? Was Jesus’ resurrection a physical, bodily one, a mystical, spiritual one, or both? And how exactly are we saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection? What does it mean to be saved? Theologians have plenty of answers to that one, too.
Now, you might clearly recognize some of what I named as trivial matters of opinion as Paul might say, and some might seem to you as being very far from trivial. Either way, the central thrust of Paul’s message remains the same: can we learn to rest in some very simple and essential piece of God’s truth such that we recognize each other as children of God, living more by way of inclusion and less by exclusion. Can the proof of our shared fellowship in Christ be the agape love we have for one another regardless of our differences?
That’s the challenge Paul gives us, and it’s certainly not easy, because humans are just so good and judging each other for all sorts of things. Maybe that’s how we feel a little safer in the world, judging who’s right and wrong, who’s in and out, and making sure our group is the right one. Maybe we feel better about ourselves and more secure in our own beliefs and practices if we can disparage those who are different then us. This kind of thinking and behavior can reach Lilliputian proportions, but we can put a stop to it if we take a moment and reflect on Paul’s message.
A good place to start would be to take a closer look at ourselves. Saint Teresa of Avila once wrote that if we feel the need to change something in someone else, or change anything at all, really, the first thing to do is consider what might need to change in us. If we find ourselves judging others and creating unnecessary separation and conflict, we need to quickly turn our attention inward, and pray that by our Lord Jesus Christ’s mercy we be delivered from this habit of separation and judgment. We can pray for the integration of Jesus’ wisdom into our whole being, loving God completely, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The fruit of this love is the opposite of judgment, it’s our embrace of all our sisters and brothers as they are. Although we may have plenty of differences it remains true that the Holy One created human beings as perfectly beautiful and in God’s image, shining like stars with the light of Christ. It’s a light reflected through the prism of this world as a diverse offering pouring forth from within each unique human heart. We pray that with God’s help we bear witness to that light, and instead of creating separation from difference, see diversity as a cause of celebration.
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