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A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland on Sunday September 17, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  Exegesis and commentary from Scott Hoezee and Matthew Laney appear in this sermon.

 

Christian Community

 

Text: Romans 14:1-12

 

Marshall Goldsmith is a consultant to Fortune 500 CEOs.  He refers to himself as a “leadership coach” for corporate executives.  It can be said that many CEOs have two particularly strong personality traits: ego inflation and an expectation to win.  Presumably this combination is how they reach the top of the corporate executive mountain.  And while this may produce (so-called) “successful” executives, it’s corrosive to personal and professional relationships. Which is what keeps Mr. Goldsmith busy and employed.

As an example, Goldsmith shares the following scenario:  It’s dinner time.  Mr. CEO suggests restaurant A.  Mr. CEO’s dinner date (spouse/friend/guest) prefers restaurant Z. After some … discussion, Mr. CEO gives in and off they go to restaurant Z.  Goldsmith observed that the subsequent dinner generally went one of two ways; the CEO either sulked & criticized the menu, meal, service, patrons, etc., or went with the flow and enjoyed the evening.

Many CEOs of course went with the flow and had an enjoyable evening.  Remarkably, Goldsmith reports that seventy-five percent of his CEO clients sulked, criticized and were awful dinner companions.  These are bright, successful, presumably sophisticated adults who willingly sabotage an entire evening because they didn’t “win”.

I find this fascinating. Here we have people (mostly men) who get paid tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars by multi-billion dollar corporations to make decisions and bring in their “winning” ways.  I can imagine this would be hard to turn off after hours.  Given this kind of conditioning, how could any human being avoid the perils of ego-inflation?

Similarly, one of the most challenging aspects of the spiritual life (and life in Christian community) is the elusive taming of one’s ego.  Perhaps you’ve heard the sports cliché “there’s no “I” in team” … I was thinking that perhaps a churchy corollary could be something like, “you can’t spell God E. G. O.”

I’ve discovered from my own marriage and parenting experiences, and from living in Christian community that sometimes when you win you actually lose; and sometimes when you lose you actually win.

From the very earliest days of the church, believers have struggled to accept this paradox. There’s no shortage of disagreements or differences within faith communities. In fact, this is the rule rather than the exception. But there seems to be an expectation within church communities that following Jesus is supposed to somehow (automatically) bring about the absence of conflict.  Like most expectations, this is not a reasonable or fair expectation.  It’s more like what’s called magical thinking.  But it persists.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus found it necessary to say,  “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17) In other words, when sinners congregate, smooth sailing is an unreasonable expectation.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.  Conflict erupted between converted Jews who believed that kosher food laws and observing the Jewish high holy days were still necessary, while others decided that such practices were no longer necessary now that they were Christians.  This conflict takes on a life of its own and like many conflicts over time this disagreement devolved into a matter of right vs. wrong and winning vs. losing.

In my opinion, whenever a dispute becomes an “either/or” proposition everybody loses.  My guess is that this was happening among the Christians in Rome.

Paul has his own opinion on the matter made rather plain by his use of the terms “weak” and “strong”. Fortunately he makes up for his prejudice by making it clear that the division this dispute is causing is unacceptable. Paul declares that the Lord accepts all of us so none of us has the right to pass judgement on anyone else!  Whenever we mess up, Paul points out, Jesus forgives us and bears with us, so the least we can do is to do the same for one another.

None of us would disagree with that and yet all of us are reluctant or unable to practice this on a consistent basis.  We can all get on board with the concept; it’s the reality that gives us fits! It’s difficult to accept and welcome those with whom we disagree or those we simply do not like.

So it isn’t enough to agree that Jesus is equally welcoming and merciful to everyone. It takes more than our assent to reconcile deeply divided communities.  What often happens when things get testy is that we judge a person’s faith and character based on where they stand on a particular issue.  Most of us bristle whenever we hear someone say “anyone who supports Position A rejects The Word of God” or somehow manipulates Holy Scripture.  Once the rhetoric goes there, rational discussion has ended and people are put on the defensive.

But too often this is precisely what happens when conflict erupts in Christian (or any faith) community. Once feelings get hurt, people feel betrayed, and congregations (and denominations) spiral into divorce–or schism if you prefer.  This may restore equilibrium, but complex, difficult issues go unresolved and will resurface again.  And again.  And again.

I’m not sure how it worked out for the sparring Christians in Rome.  Paul’s prescription is for everyone involved to submit to the Lordship of Jesus: “In these twelve verses,” Scott Hoezee observes, “Paul uses the word Lord ten times. He hammers home this idea of Jesus as our Lord, and in verse 9 Paul makes clear that this Lord Jesus is a living Lord.”  This is a notable departure for Paul–signaling his concern.  In his New Testament writings Paul typically uses the phrase “Jesus was raised from the dead.”  Only in Romans 14 does Paul say Jesus “returned to life.” Paul is emphatic that Jesus is alive and among them–which also means that Jesus is being rejected and judged by them.  “Jesus was not just raised up from a tomb and then whisked away out of sight,” Hoezee writes. “Jesus returned to life because life–your life, my life, our mutual life together–is what Jesus is most interested in right now and always.”

In our rush to be right and to “win” whenever disagreement erupts, we practice the same rush to judgement that Jesus opposed as counter to God’s way. Matt Laney says that “winning, or victory as the Bible puts it, is God’s domain–not ours.” Whenever we make it our domain, everyone involved loses. “True victory” Laney writes, “is divine love conquering evil and death, [which is] not God’s goal, it is God’s nature.” The art of the Christian life is not success or winning, but surrender. But most of us loathe surrender because our ego equates surrender with losing.  And so it is, in my experience, that following Jesus brings us face to face with the paradox that “sometimes when we win we lose; and sometimes when we lose we win …”

Just like the Christians in Rome, we struggle to heed Paul’s reminder that we are all accountable to the one and same Lord Jesus Christ. This is supposed to compel us to welcome and love one another as the Lord has us. But we are not so easily compelled.  The thing is , the only way I know to transcend our differences is to deal directly and repeatedly with the issues which divide us. The problem is that this is exhausting and nearly unbearable work.  Paul encourages Christians to persist–even if it leads to failure.  Persist.  Because there’s no other way I know for Christians to learn how to live with diversity.

We cannot do any of this difficult, nearly unbearable spiritual work without remembering out loud, in song, in prayer, in defiance, that our Lord returned from death to life in order to be our companion every burdened step of the way.  As we continue to strive for and struggle toward community, I believe that we learn the importance of always coming back together, letting the burden of this struggle bring us to our knees together, bowing our heads together, declaring together as the one people of God: “Jesus is Lord! Thy will, not mine be done …”

Then we will know the true blessing, the true burden, and the true miracle of Christian Community.