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Dealing with our Differences

I have been remiss in not posting anything to this blog for the past six weeks. Mea culpa! So, I am going to try something new. I plan to post my sermon from the previous Sunday here every Monday. I hope you enjoy....

In November 2002 Time magazine printed a photograph of the back of Washington Redskins quarterback Jeff George (his helmet off, revealing a big, white-skinned bald spot) sitting on the bench flanked by two African-American teammates, each with a hand on his shoulder.

The caption read, “What counts most in creating a successful team is not how compatible its players are, but how they deal with incompatibility.”

In Acts 21:17-26 we see how two great Christian leaders, James (the representative of Jewish Christianity) and Paul (the representative of the mission to the Gentiles), dealt with their differences....

When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.

Once again, as we have seen throughout the book of Acts, I think there is a great lesson we can learn here from the life of the Apostle Paul. The lesson I see here is one about how to deal constructively with our differences. This is a lesson we desperately need to learn in our country after this bitter presidential election season, which thankfully will end in just 9 days. This is also a lesson we need to learn in our church as we face openly our differences over the issue of same sex marriage in the church and the full acceptance of LGBT Christians into the life and ministry of the church.

However, before we think about how to deal with our own differences today, let’s look back to the differences faced by the early church. What were the differences between James and Paul? James, as a Jew, believed in continuing to follow the ceremonial laws from the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was wrongly accused of teaching Diaspora Jews to turn away from Moses. Paul taught no such thing. Paul taught that the Gentile believers in Jesus were not under obligation to follow Jewish law. To Paul, the question of whether a Jewish believer in Jesus should continue to follow Jewish customs was a matter of indifference. Paul himself felt free to abandon such customs, but when it was important to the forward movement of the Gospel, Paul could compromise and practice Jewish customs, as he did in the case of having his disciple Timothy circumcised.

Once again, Paul makes a concession on this occasion, and he does it to keep the Jewish and Gentile branches of the Christian Church united. James has the same purpose in mind. He praised God for what God had done through Paul’s ministry. James wanted to see that ministry continue. He was afraid that the Jews in Jerusalem might bring a halt to Paul’s ministry. Therefore, he asked Paul to join in the Jewish purification rites of four believers among them who had made a vow. James also asked Paul to pay for their expenses, which could be hefty. Paul agreed to this. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

The principle practiced by Paul in Acts 21 is also taught by him in Romans 14 and 15. Paul’s answer to the problem of differences in the Church is that we all need to become servant leaders and in Romans 14 he tells us how….

Paul says that the first step to dealing with our differences is that we need to welcome one another. Notice in Acts 21 how the Christian brothers in Jerusalem welcomed Paul and his companions warmly. Paul commands us to do the same thing in Romans 14 and 15. He says in Romans 14:1, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Then in Romans 15:7 he says it again, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

Paul talks about the weak and the strong in the church. Who are these people? From the context of the passage in Romans we can discern that the weak were, for the most part, as John Stott says, “Jewish Christians, whose weakness consisted in their continuing conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and [holy] days.” The strong then are, for the most part, Gentile Christians who have developed an educated conscience and are rejoicing in their Christian freedom from having to observe a special diet or holy days in order to please God. Therefore, the distinction between weak and strong in Romans applies in Acts as well. Paul is the strong one who knows he is free from having to obey the Jewish ceremonial law. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were the weak ones who thought they were still bound by the law.

How does Paul say strong Christians should act toward weak ones? Paul’s message to the church is simple yet profound: welcome one another, or as some translations put it: accept one another.

In our church today, the issues we disagree about are different from the issues in the early church. However, I believe the way to deal with our differences today is the same as it was two thousand years ago: we need to accept each other, we need to have an overflowing, generous welcome towards all.

Paul says that one person’s faith allows them to do one thing, while another person’s faith in Christ allows them to do another. The one who abstains from the questionable activity and the one who does not must not condemn the other person.

“Why should we accept or welcome one another?” That is the big question. Paul, in his letter to the Church at Rome, gives us some reasons for doing this.

First, we should accept each other because God has accepted us. That is an amazing thing isn’t it? That God has accepted us in Christ in spite of our sin is phenomenal. Furthermore, not only did God accept us once, he continues to accept us.

Christ always welcomes us. In John 6:37 Jesus says, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Jesus always stands with open arms to welcome us. Therefore, we should always stand with open arms to welcome one another.

The second reason, Paul notes, why we should accept each other is because Christ died and rose again from the dead that we might belong to him. We are each, first and foremost, Christ’s servants. We need to constantly be asking: “What would Jesus do in this situation?” And then we need to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to do just that.

Thirdly, Paul says we should accept one another because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all part of one family in Jesus.

Back in the hippie days of the early 1970s, a longhaired, young man wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with holes in it walked into a well-dressed, very conservative church. The young man was a new believer and recognized his need to get involved in a Christian fellowship. That’s why he went to church. However, he arrived late for the service on Sunday morning and found that the sanctuary was packed. He headed down the center aisle looking for a seat. Nobody moved to make room for him. Reaching the front of the church, right near the pulpit, and finding no seat available, he squatted down and sat on the floor.

By this time, the congregation was feeling uncomfortable. However, from the back of the church, came a grey-haired elder in a three-piece suit. He started walking toward the young man using his cane as an aid. When the elderly man reached the young college student, he dropped his cane on the floor, and, with some difficulty, lowered himself to sit next to the young man.

As the minister started into his sermon he said, “What I’m about to preach, you’ll never remember. What you’ve just seen, you’ll never forget.”

I believe with all my heart that the Lord wants us to accept one another, and I believe God wants us to have a full and overflowing welcome toward everyone whom he might bring to us from our community.

The second major step to dealing with our differences that Paul mentions in Romans 14 is to give up judging one another. Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Romans 14:13)

As I have shared with you before, one of my favorite spiritual writers is Henri Nouwen. I read something everyday from his devotional book, Bread for the Journey. I find Nouwen’s words on this subject to be both challenging and helpful. Nouwen writes…

One of the hardest spiritual tasks is to live without prejudices. Sometimes we aren’t even aware how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we relate to people who are different from us in colour, religion, sexual orientation, or lifestyle as equals, but in concrete circumstances our spontaneous thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often reveal that our prejudices are still there.

Strangers, people different than we are, stir up fear, discomfort, suspicion, and hostility. They make us lose our sense of security just by being “other.” Only when we fully claim that God loves us in an unconditional way and look at “those other persons” as equally loved can we begin to discover that the great variety in being human is an expression of the immense richness of God’s heart. Then the need to prejudge people can gradually disappear.

We spend an enormous amount of energy making up our minds about other people. Not a day goes by without somebody doing or saying something that evokes in us the need to form an opinion about him or her. We hear a lot, see a lot, and know a lot. The feeling that we have to sort it all out in our minds and make judgments about it can be quite oppressive.

The desert fathers said that judging others is a heavy burden, while being judged by others is a light one. Once we can let go of our need to judge others, we will experience an immense inner freedom. Once we are free from judging, we will be also free for mercy. Let’s remember Jesus’ words: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

The third major step to dealing with our differences, Paul says in Romans, is that we need to build up one another.Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19)

Sometimes I wonder whether we ever truly realize that all day long we are doing one of two things. Either we are building one another up or we are tearing one another down.

I love what C. S. Lewis says about this at the end of his sermon entitled, “The Weight of Glory”. Lewis writes…

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.[1]

I believe the way to reach unity in the church is not necessarily to all start believing the same things. Rather, unity comes through action. When we welcome one another, let go of judging one another, and when we focus on building each other up—these are the things that will lead to unity.

Let us pray….

God of inclusion, help us expand the edges of our “us” to include those we think of as “them”. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, New York: Macmillan, 1980, pp. 18-19.


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