(Romans 14: 13-23)
Polyticks is an East Texas term that we used to describe politics. Poly means many and ticks are a bloodsucking parasite. As you can imagine, politicians of all stripes are looked upon with disdain in the great State of Texas and, for what it’s worth, is a position many people take in other areas of the United States. Every election cycle you have people vying for these coveted positions who will say whatever it is they think you want to hear that will help them get in office or stay in office. They appear to thrive on painting their opponent as evil, some sort of anti-Christ who, if elected, will ruin everything. Once in, the goal of the career politician seems to be maintaining longevity at the cost of serving his or her constituents. I know that sounds somewhat jaded, but you have to understand I’m coming from over forty years of experience in one form of politics or another. The first thing to understand is that no matter what the position is, there is a basic job description, goal or mission statement that the hopeful candidate is promising to commit to for as long as they hold the position. Let me give you an example. When Teresa and I lived in her hometown of Coldspring, Texas, I decided it would be a good idea to run for School Board. I was appointed to fill an open vacancy previously held by my brother-in-law and, after a couple of years, I had to run for a full term. Now, you would think that the stated mission of the School Board would be to educate children, so they could become productive citizens. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. The stated goal is to win a State Championship in football. So, our new Superintendent of Schools and I began looking for math and science teachers to shore up our sagging educational performance. Well, it wasn’t long before people began to think I wasn’t committed to seeking the holy grail of a State Championship and, believe it or not, I drew an opponent when it came time for me to run for a full term. The widow of the deceased Athletic Director filed to run against me and, on election day, I had football players working the polls against me. You gotta love single-issue candidates. Fortunately, the voters kept me in office by a wide margin of votes and I kept the position until I ascended to an even higher political office, District Attorney. That’s a sermon for another time.
Fortunately for the Apostle Paul, he didn’t have high school football to contend with, although when you consider the size of the Roman Colosseum you should get a pretty good idea of what people find truly entertaining. But the principle is the same. The early church had a solid mission but an issue popped up that was causing a division in the church and began to impede the spreading of the Good News. As I’ve previously done, I’ve chosen the translation found in Eugene Peterson’s The Message as it puts the issue into language we can more readily understand.
As a bit of background, it was at the Jerusalem Council that the Jewish Church in Jerusalem asked the Gentile Church in Antioch not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul accepted it not because he thought it was wrong, but because the eating of this meat might offend many Jewish believers. Paul didn’t think it was worth dividing the church over, but the issue took on a life of its own and became a topic of great debate with firmly committed sides being drawn and people digging their heels in in opposition to one another.
Paul starts out by saying: Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. He says he’s convinced and Jesus is the one who convinced him, that everything as it is in itself is holy, and we, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it. Paul says that if you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? He reminds them that these people are people for whom Christ died. Paul is telling us that it is so easy to hang up on little things that become a stumbling block to others which may, ultimately, cause them to fall from faith and tragically lose their relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul tells them that God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of what you put in your stomach. It’s what God does with your life as he sets it right, puts it together, and completes it with joy. Paul says, your task is to single-mindedly serve Christ. Do that and you’ll kill two birds with one stone: pleasing the God above you and proving your worth to the people around you. Paul tells us that we should agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. We should help others with encouraging words and not drag them down by finding fault. He says that when we sit down to a meal, our primary concern should not be to feed our own faces but to share the life of Jesus. In doing so, we should be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love. Paul tells us to cultivate our own relationship with God, and not to impose it on others.
Accepting others is basic to letting them be. The problem in Paul’s day was really not a meat problem; it was a love problem, an acceptance problem. It still is. How often do we put conditions on our acceptance? If you will or won’t do something, then I will accept you seems to be the rule we live by with others. There are so many things that Christians can get hung up on that causes us to lose sight of the mission of the church. In the past it was things like movies, playing cards, going to restaurants that served liquor, music, dancing, and drinking to name a few. Today, we have issues such as abortion, gay marriage, gay preachers and politics. There are, for sure, others, but you get my point, things that detract from the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.
In the book I’m reading on Christian Leadership, Canoeing the Mountains, the author says the number one rule of the church is that the mission of the church always comes first, always wins. If what you’re doing or want to do doesn’t advance the mission, don’t do it! Get rid of it! So, how can believers handle controversial issues in a way that builds up the church rather than harm it? Well, we take our cue from John Wesley, our founder, and agree to disagree. We focus on what’s more important, getting our own way or living God’s way, in harmony with others. We must let God help us love one another despite our tendencies to do otherwise. We need to be strong in the faith and sensitive to the needs of others. We who are strong in the faith must, without pride or condescension, treat others with love, patience, and self-restraint in all we do in our daily lives.
So, when should Christians defer to a fellow believer’s beliefs? When it becomes a sticking point and it detracts from the work of the gospel. We need to focus on what unites us and not that which divides us as a people. We have to ask ourselves if it’s really that big of a deal. Is it a hill worth dying on? We ask ourselves how can we, as believers, show love and acceptance to one another in spite of differing opinions on certain issues? We do it by being courteous and non-judgmental. We do it by not making it personal, by not being critical or demeaning. We avoid labeling people and engaging in name-calling. And, how can we avoid causing fellow believers in Christ to stumble in their faith? We do it by constantly keeping the Gospel of Jesus Christ before us. We pause, take a deep breath, and ask the Spirit to guide us. We must be aware of what our actions may convey and how they can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Peace, among believers, always involves sacrifice. It requires people to consider the interest of others, as well as their own. In a world wracked by divisiveness and in a country where we feel as if our very moral fabric is being torn in two, we must set an example. We must be the voice of reason. Our love for one another must be the lowest common denominator. Our love must be what unites us so that we can keep the mission of the church before us and discard all that does not advance the mission of the church, passing the peace of Jesus Christ that passes all understanding. The peace that will lead to a world where all people live in harmony as God has always intended. A world free of the many human ticks who delight in preying upon our weaknesses and our inability to get along, for their own enjoyment and advancement, and not that of their fellow human beings, God’s beloved children, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Please pray with me.
We ask you, Father, to protect your church. Keep us from making our personal rights more important than the unity of your church. Keep us focused on the important things that will build your kingdom. Give us the strength to love and accept one another. Bind us together through your Holy Spirit. In the name of your loving son, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we pray, Amen.