Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are things which God commands, and there are things which God forbids. That’s fairly obvious. What are some things which God commands? God commands us to fear, love, and trust in him above all things and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Lk 10:27). He commands us to to preach his word, and proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name (Lk 24:45-47). He commands us to baptise and teach (Mt 28:18-20). He commands us to receive Christ’s Body and Blood with bread and wine (1 Co 11:23-29). The list goes on. What are some things which God forbids? We know that God forbids murder and theft (Ex. 20:13, 15). He forbids sexual immorality (1 Co 6:18). He forbids drunkenness, jealousy, and quarrelling (Gal 5:19-21). Of course there are more. What about that grey area? What about the things which God has neither commanded nor forbidden? People can use different liturgies in their worship. They can have different hymnals. Some sing old hymns and some sing new hymns. Pastors can wear different types of gowns in worship services. Some bow and some don’t. Some can’t drink alcohol; others do so without guilt. Some fast for Lent, and others don’t.
Things that don’t matter: that’s where Christians tend to fight each other. Curiously, the things that don’t matter seem to matter to us much more than they matter to God. It was things that didn’t matter that became a point of contention in the Church in Rome. The way St. Paul the Apostle addressed the situation in the first century can help us when we start fighting about things that don’t matter.
If God Welcomes, We Should Also
What was going on that Paul had to write our Epistle reading? In the Old Testament, God regulated Israel’s worship and life very closely. He told Israel on what days they were to worship, how to worship, what to eat and not to eat. These restrictions served the purpose of picturing the coming Messiah. But the Messiah had come, and still some Christians continued their commitment to Old Testament regulations about diet and days. They couldn’t let a Sabbath pass without observing it, and they refused to eat meat because they couldn’t be sure it was kosher. Some Christians simply had not thought through the consequences of believing in God as creator and Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. Other Christians, however, had worked this out, and they felt strong in their conviction that they didn’t have to keep Old Testament feasts nor keep kosher.
Christians in Rome became divided over the continuing relevance of Old Testament regulations regarding diet and days. Things had come heated. The issue became a test of fellowship. People had a tendency to look down on and despise those who behaved or thought differently than they did. Christians were judging and despising each other based on things that didn’t matter. At what point in our own church are we in danger of judging one another because of things that God would say don’t really matter? Where are we likely to erect walls of division over differences of opinion? There is clear command for us to welcome one another. We are to do so without fighting about things that don’t matter!
Why should we welcome a fellow Christian without fighting over their opinions? Why accept them, even if we think their faith should be stronger like ours? We should welcome them because God welcomes them. He welcomes the weak and he welcomes the strong, and he welcomes everyone and anyone. You don’t get to decide whether someone is a Christian or not simply because you don’t like them or disagree with their opinion. You don’t get to despise or judge your fellow Christian, especially over things that don’t matter. What we are dealing with here is the direct outcome of justification. Anyone who believe in Jesus is welcomed by God, equally, because of the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If God welcomes everyone, who are we to reject them? The reason both despising and condemning our fellow Christians is wrong is that God has welcomed them on account of Christ. Any who repent of their sin and trust in God’s promised mercy are welcomed into the Church. How dare we reject a person whom God has welcomed? The best way to determine what our attitude to other people should be is to determine what God’s attitude to them is.
If God Grants Freedom, We Can’t Withdraw It
Christians don’t always do everything the same way. What happens when two believers disagree over something that doesn’t matter? When each party is firmly convinced of their own opinion, what should they do? They should welcome each other without fighting about it because God has welcomed them. We must not take things about which Scripture says nothing, especially about customs and ceremonies, and make them tests for orthodoxy and conditions of fellowship. Human tradition should not confused with the word of God. Paul says, ‘Some of us do it this way, some of us do it that way.’ We need to know what things Scripture leaves open. God has given us the freedom. These are things that do not make a difference to your salvation. If God doesn’t forbid it, we’re free to do it, or not do it.
God does not want us to split the church. He doesn’t want it to be split by teaching false doctrine. He certainly doesn’t want it to be split by some argument over the way in which we use our Christian freedom. Obviously, we cannot challenge things which God has commanded and forbidden. In areas where the Word of God does not settle an issue, there is Christian freedom. God has given us freedom in some areas, and we must not withdraw that freedom from others. If our fellow Christian has thought about the issue and has reached a firm decision, then we must consider their conviction to be part of Christian freedom. Love will move us to work together rather than to create divisions in the church because we didn’t get our way. These are opportunities for us to display love and humility. Christians should be looking out for each other instead of themselves. We should not asserting our “rights” but using our freedom to build up another.
If God is Judge, We are Not
By nature we turn our pews into little judgment seats. Our natural instinct is to look down on the behaviour of others in the church. We may even thank God we are not like them. We need to remember there is only one Lord, and it’s not us. Jesus, the Messiah, has been appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead, and one day this judgment will search out and test the entire life of every man, woman and child. We should not judge others over things that don’t matter, because we are going to be judged. God is judge and we are not.
Final judgment matters because God is committed to setting the whole world right again. God will judge through Jesus the Messiah, calling each of us to account. It is important to remember that this is not just a warning to “be good, or else.” No, Judgment has already been dealt out to Jesus Christ. He has paid back your un-payable debt to God. He bore your sins, and was condemned in your place. He was the perfect and all-availing sacrifice for sin on the cross and he was raised to new life. We live between that event and the final judgment, and everything we do happens in that light. Judgment fell on Jesus, and mercy is offered to us. Since we are justified now and welcomed by God now, we know for sure that on Judgment Day we will be saved from his wrath. Anyone who believes in Jesus the Messiah, the risen Lord, is declared already in the present to be forgiven, to be in the right, and to belong to the one renewed people of God.
We all have opinions. Ultimately, it’s God’s opinion that matters. When God doesn’t give us an opinion we’re free to use common sense and personal convictions to decide. We must learn to welcome and respect one another when opinions differ, because God has welcomed people of all backgrounds and opinions to be members of his Church. The difficult task for us is putting this into practice in our life together. We will all stand before his throne, and we all must take responsibility for ourselves. We will stand before the judgment seat as empty handed beggars. Poor and miserable sinners. And then the things that do not matter won’t matter at all. And the only thing that matters on that Day is the blood shed for you on the cross, the water that claimed you in Baptism, the word which promised you mercy, the Body and Blood that fed and nourished and sustained you in faith to your life’s end.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hears and yours minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.