A few months ago something strange happened on an airplane bound for Los Angeles. The actress Amy Adams was shooting a new film in Detroit and boarded the L.A.-bound plane—seated in first class, of course. When Adams noticed an American soldier being seated in coach, she decided to do something that she's always just thought about doing. Another first class passenger, who happened to be a reporter, noticed Adams quietly ask the airline crew permission to switch seats with the soldier, whom she didn't know. Adams slipped back to coach, and the surprised soldier, who had no idea who was behind it, moved up to first class. When the plane landed in L.A., the reporter immediately started tweeting about Adams' kind deed. When reporters asked Adams about it, she explained that her father was a serviceman and then she said, "I didn't do it for attention for myself. I did it for attention for the troops."
Isn't that just a nice, heartwarming story? Journalists call this a "man bites dog story." There are plenty of stories about dogs biting a man, but when a man bites a dog … now that's special. But hearing about Amy Adams' simple, kind gesture makes me wonder: Wouldn't it be great if this happened all the time? Wouldn't it be great if a whole community of people cared for each other in quiet but surprising ways like this? Wouldn't it be great if in that community the strong cared for the weak? Wouldn't it be great to belong to a community where people didn't rank you by status—whether by race, class, wealth, beauty, or education?
According to our reading from the book of Romans this morning, there is such a place—at least there's supposed to be such a place. It's called the church. It's the community of people who belong to Jesus Christ. Now maybe you're thinking, Wow, that's not my experience of the church! Maybe you have been wounded, disappointed, or disgusted with the church. I don't want to gloss over any of that, but this morning I want to step back for a few minutes and get a glimpse—or maybe a powerful vision—for what Jesus and the first Christians meant when they started this whole thing called the church.
Think of those two verses as two big bookends. There's one key word in those two bookends—"welcome." In other words, here's the key to creating a church community that you can really love—welcome people as Jesus has welcomed you. You could also call it the practice of gospel-centered acceptance.
The problem in Christian community
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not. Actually, there's a big problem that's being addressed in Romans 14 and 15: the church is imperfect. As a matter of fact, you'll often find disagreements, different perspectives, and conflict. Followers of Jesus in the same church disagree. They argue. For many people this can be really shocking and painful. It's like they have this dream or fantasy of a marvelous Christian community where it's all so cozy, nice, and cooperative.
Believe me, I want the fantasy. I'm the middle child of seven kids and I have all the middle-child stereotypes, like I want to please everyone and I want everyone to get along. I lived that way for about 30 years before I woke up and realized, You know, that just isn't going to happen—not even in the church.
Why don't Christians get along? The book of Romans gives two reasons. First, we're ungrateful, rebellious sinners against God's glory and grace. That was explored in chapters 1 through 3. But there's a second reason: Sometimes people just disagree. They disagree not on things that cut to the heart of the Christian faith. They disagree on non-biblical, secondary issues that stem from different perspectives on things like culture, politics, worship styles, how to help the poor, how to raise kids, or how America should get involved in the Middle East.
That problem—disagreeing on secondary issues—is the focus of this passage. There was a conflict brewing between two camps in the church in Rome, a conflict that broke down along ethnic, cultural lines between some followers of Jesus who had come from Jewish backgrounds and some who had come from non-Jewish background. Who were these two groups of people? The weak weren't physically weak as in the vulnerable or the poor. They were weak in their faith in Christ. They were Christians who grew up in a Jewish culture, at some point came to accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord, but then they still thought they could get a little more right with God by keeping all those Old Testament laws.
Paul gives two examples about how they disagreed about secondary issues. In 14:2-3 they were disagreeing about what to eat. One group said you can't have bacon with your eggs or put sausage on your deep dish pizza. In verses 5-6 they disagreed about issues of how to worship, in particular they disagreed about what days should be special holy days.
The problem was not that one way is right and one way is clearly wrong. The problem was that these weak Christians were missing the point of the good news that we have in Jesus. God the Father doesn't accept you because you have now become good enough, because you've kept the law enough. Every religion on the face of the earth more or less says, "Obey and you will be accepted" but the good news of Jesus says "You are accepted—fully, freely, finally—in and through Jesus Christ, so now obey." These Jewish followers of Jesus were saying, "Yes, I trust Jesus … kind of. I trust him to save me and forgive me, but now I better get my act together or God will cut off his grace. I will get my act together by only eating certain foods."
Think of it this way: in Northwest Montana there's a swinging bridge over the raging waters of the Kootenai River. The bridge is solid. It will hold you up as you cross the river. The weak Christians in this passage were like people who look at the raging river below, and then say, "I know Jesus is the bridge but it's up to me to get across the river." So they tiptoe or practically crawl across the bridge. The strong Christians in this passage go, "Wahoo, Jesus is an amazing bridge. I am free!" Then they run and dance and skip across the bridge without ever looking down.
So here's the big question addressed in this passage: How will these strong Christians treat these weak Christians? There are two basic approaches. The first is the way of welcome—remember the two bookends in this passage. The second approach is the way of contempt. The way of contempt shows up often in this passage. Notice these words: "pass judgment" and "despise." Verse 3—"Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains." Verse 10—"Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?"
The way of judgment and contempt is very powerful. We're always sizing people up, and with lightning speed forming judgments—usually harsh and final. Look at that guy dressed like a total hipster. Phony, pretentious. She's a Democrat (or a Republican)—how could any thinking, sensitive person (like me, for instance) take that stance? Or look at that young man with a hoodie; we all know what that means. Look at that woman over there always raising her hands in worship. Or look at him; he just sits in worship like a cold head of cabbage.
During the World Cup there was an article in the New York Times about how different countries have very different ideas about the "right way" to celebrate a goal. The Columbian soccer team had this coordinated crazy dance with about seven players. Ghana had a choreographed, stuttering dance step. Mexico's coach bounces up and down like he's on a pogo stick. Then the article noted, "All this naked passion can feel like a refreshing change of pace from the staid culture of sports in the United States"—where, for instance, in the N.F.L. you get a 15-yard penalty for what's called "excessive celebration." One way to celebrate a sports victory isn't necessarily better, but they are different.
The same thing happens all the time in the church—across culture but even across the row of seats too. The problem addressed in Romans 14-15 wasn't that Christians had different viewpoints. These issues didn't strike at the core of the Christian faith. That's why Paul says in 14:6 "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." The problem was the spirit of contempt and judgment that was acting like a termite colony, quietly but effectively chewing and gnawing the house of Christ's church to shreds.
The solution to the problem
So what's the solution? It's very clear: welcome people the way Christ has welcomed you. Here's the summary verse to the whole passage: Romans 15:7. It would be easy for the strong to stand aloof, to judge, and then to ignore or dismiss anyone they consider weak in faith. It would be easy to say, "It's not my problem. They need to grow up." After all, the strong are a little bit more right. They have a little better grasp of Jesus. But this passage says, "Never take the way of contempt. Don't use your rightness to club people over the head. Instead, bear with the weaknesses of those who are not strong." Back to our bridge image, don't just skip merrily across the bridge. Go back and help them. Encourage them. Walk with them. As one translation of this verse says, "We who have strong faith ought to shoulder the burden of the doubts and qualms of others, and not just to go our own sweet way."
In 15:3 we find Exhibit A of someone who didn't live to please himself—Jesus. "Christ did not please himself." That little phrase sums up Jesus entire life and ministry—as we say every week in our creed—"For us and for our salvation he became man …" how he suffered under Pontius Pilate, how he was crucified.
Paul isn't presenting Jesus as the solution just because it's the nice, religious thing to do. He's pointing us to Jesus because we need some strong stuff to counteract our tendency to pass judgment and despise people. It's like we've all been bitten by this snake and the poison of contempt is in our system. Now we need a really strong antidote to counteract the contempt that's in our blood. That medicine is the gospel, the Good News of Jesus.
So how did Christ welcome you? Here's the answer in a nutshell: We were not worthy of God's embrace. We were sinners and enemies of God. We were so weak that we couldn't even lift ourselves onto that bridge over the river. We couldn't get there. So Christ came to us. He sought us out and carried us onto the bridge. He welcomed us with open arms—as we often say in our prayer right before the Eucharist: "He stretched out his arms on the cross."
That is the gospel. Now apply the gospel in all your relationships with others. Back in chapter 14 verse 15 Paul told those "strong" Christians to walk in love and then he said, "Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." Wow! Did you catch that? Because of the gospel, because of what Christ has done for you, you will never look at another person the same way. From now on every single person you meet—even the most immature, annoying, anxious Christian—is the brother or the sister for whom Christ died.
You see, this passage addresses an issue that our culture is really struggling with—how do you love someone, accept someone, and yet challenge them to grow and change? This passage shows that you can radically welcome people and still not agree with them. You can embrace them but still challenge them.
The result of welcoming others
Where is all of this headed? What happens when we start welcoming people as Christ has welcomed us? Notice what Paul says in 15:5-6: "to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that [hina=in order that] together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Then in verses 8-12 Paul goes on to say that when we start welcoming each other the way Jesus has welcomed things get a little crazy. The way people start loving each other gets a little out of hand. Notice in verses 8-12 Paul quotes four Old Testament verses that were predicting the day when Gentiles and Jews would start worshipping together. Now that was an unlikely scenario because Jews and Gentiles basically hated each other. They never ate together and they certainly didn't worship together. But now in this crazy, Christ-welcoming thing called the church people from different cultures were starting to raise their hands and voices and hearts in one song of worship to the resurrected Christ.
We have to understand how radical this is. It's like Guatemalan immigrants who are on the verge of deportation worshipping with white upper-middle-class evangelicals. It's like African-Americans worshipping with Korean-Americans. It's like a group of Karen refugees from Burma worshipping with Nigerians. It's crazy, but Paul is saying that's what happens when we start to welcome people as Christ has welcomed us. Walls start coming down. People start building bridges across cultures.
We have a wonderful way to celebrate and to experience how Jesus has welcomed us—it's called the Lord's Supper. "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven" and "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." Jesus is really with us. He is really welcoming you home. You may feel unworthy. You may feel like you're trying to get your act together. You may feel like you'll never be good enough. Here's the good news: you aren't good enough. But Jesus has welcomed you home. So come let him welcome you.
How are you doing at welcoming others? You know, we're told so often that we need to change the world. We need to make a difference. We need to do something really cool and significant for God and for others. We're told that we shouldn't be ordinary. We should live radical lives.
Let me give you something truly revolutionary and significant: start welcoming people the way Christ welcomed you. Welcome people that you wouldn't ordinarily welcome. Welcome people who don't dress like you or worship like you or think like you or look like you. Welcome people from different cultural backgrounds. Welcome people who you think are under-educated or over-educated. Welcome people who just don't do church the way you think it should be done. Welcome people who you think are pretentious or stuck up or weak in their faith. Don't wait around for them to welcome you. If Jesus would have treated us that way we'd all be on our way straight to hell. No, you go up to them and say, "Hi, we haven't met and I just wanted to say hi and I'm glad you're here."
You say, "Oh, that's too scary. I can't do that. I can't leave my kind of people." But let me give you some advice: just try it. Sure, it's scary. Do you think the Christian life is all about avoiding scary stuff? So you want to do something that will really change the world? Look at everyone in the church and say—that's the one for whom Christ died. She's the one for whom Christ died. He's the one for whom Christ died. They are the ones for whom Christ died. Then treat them accordingly. They will never be the same. You will never be the same. And, friends, if we all do that, we will never be the same.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.