“We Belong to God” Colchester Federated Church, September 13, 2020, (Romans 14:1-12) Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As we continue exploring Paul’s letter to the Romans for another Sunday a specific disagreement comes up in our text this morning.  We had spoken about how Romans tends to be viewed as Paul’s theological last will and testament and is less situational than other letters. (Especially since he didn’t found the church in Rome and had never visited.)  However, Paul must have gotten wind of a conflict brewing in the community of believers because Paul admonishes people to welcome those who are “weak in faith” and quit judging one another.

He outlines disagreements that were happening among the faithful based on diets and sacred days, relating, “One person believes in eating everything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.  Those who eat must not look down on the ones who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them.”[1]  Paul further writes, “One person considers some days to be more sacred than others, while another person considers all days to be the same. Each person must have their own convictions.”[2]

If one happens to be a vegetarian, this may seem a bit offensive—to be called weak for eating only vegetables.  Though some New Testament scholars believe that Paul’s letter was prompted by tensions between groups of largely Gentile and largely Jewish believers in Rome who may have been part of different house churches.  Some Gentile believers had developed a sense of superiority toward Jewish believers.  This was even more complicated because Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled members of the Jewish community from Rome in 49 CE.  Tensions probably arose when Jews returned to the city and those who were followers of Jesus returned to some of the house churches in 54 CE.  Since not all Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah, some Gentile believers may have felt that God had given up on God’s chosen people.  While Jewish followers of Jesus may have wondered if God was just.  Had God rejected them, and what could they do about members of their own community who didn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah? 

The point is that this was a complex, multicultural landscape in these Roman house churches.  Issues were coming up not just about identity but about the practices of one’s faith.  How do we live out our Christian faith day in and day out?  It’s a question that we still ask and it’s a question that we will answer differently.  And Paul didn’t appreciate the judgment that was happening, particularly from the Gentiles who were judging their fellow believers for not eating meat and for observing the Sabbath in unique and particular ways that remain part of Judaism today.[3]

In the end, Paul says, “But why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you look down on your brother or sister? We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God” and “whether we live or die, we belong to God.”[4]  It ends up that judgment of our fellow believers isn’t something to be encouraged.  Paul believed that we will all stand in front of the judgment seat of God.  So if God gets to judge each one of us, then that means that we don’t get to judge one another.  It’s not our job, it’s part of God’s job.  We can keep in mind Paul wouldn’t have taken the time to write this all out so specifically if judging fellow believers wasn’t happening in these Roman house churches in the first place.  It’s just that these judgments were about eating vegetables versus eating meat and about practices during sacred days of the week—issues that we may not judge one another about much at all these days.

Though if we’re honest, judging one another continues in our own time.  Why are we so quick to judge one another?  Where does that impulse come from?  Some might say that it’s just human nature—the grass is always greener on the other side and all of that.  Maybe it’s easier to focus on what we don’t have than on what we do.  Maybe we get so wrapped up in our own egos and insecurities that judging another person takes the spotlight away from us for awhile and that’s the relief that we need.  Because maybe we tend to judge others harshly for those things that we don’t accept about ourselves. 

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the human impulse to judge one another comes from.  Though it’s definitely there.  People even have special terms for it these days like “mom shaming” (the criticism that some people have for mothers about parenting decisions that differ from the choices that the “shamer” would make.)  Interesting that we don’t hear about “dad shaming,” though that right there may show our judgments about the roles that we think mothers should have in families versus fathers on a societal level.

As families have had to make difficult decisions about school for their children this year, the judgments may have even been more intense than usual.  Families are attempting to make decisions that are best for their particular situation.  And we would do well to remember that these decisions are complicated and possibly even painful for people to make in these scary and anxiety producing pandemic days.

Social media has made it easier to stay connected and to judge one another because our lives may be out there on a different level for people to see and comment about what they see.  People may even be eager to share their opinions about our choices and our lives.  Though it’s also worth noting that social media is often an idealized presentation of peoples’ lives because people share what they choose to share.  An image is presented to the world that is an image that person on social media platforms wants to present.  Celebrities sometimes even have teams of people who manage their social media presence to present an image of themselves to their fans and the world.  Maybe people share when they wake up with a bad hair day.  Or more seriously, people may share when they are going through a health crisis or having trouble in their marriage (and other difficult personal situations) on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok.  Though if people share those harder moments in life openly, perhaps they will be judged for oversharing! 

No matter what we do (or don’t do), we will be judged and we often judge one another if we’re honest about it.  Perhaps that is what can give us peace of mind.  We will be judged.  We will judge one another.  Call it human nature or the way that sin plays out in our lives when we separate from one another and from being the person that God is calling us to be.  Though only God is the ultimate judge.  Paul reminded the early Church in Rome of that when he wrote, “But why do you judge your brother or sister?”  “We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God” and “whether we live or die, we belong to God.”

So we can let the inevitable criticisms roll off our backs.  We can even be a bit gentler with our judgment of one another when we catch ourselves doing so.  Maybe that’s where some freedom can be found.  It can give us peace of mind that the impulse to judge one another isn’t anything new.  Though at the end of the day let’s remember that we belong to God—all of us.  Every single person belongs to God.  And thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

[1] Romans 14:2-3, Common English Bible.
[2] Romans 14:5.
[3] “Romans Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, 275-276 NT.
[4] Romans 14:10 and 8.