When in Romans: Welcoming the Weak

When in Romans: Welcoming the Weak First Baptist Richmond, September 17, 2023 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

This is the final sermon in a series called, “When in Romans.” Next week I will start a new series that looks at the Old Testament reading and the Gospel lesson side by side. It’s called, “Jesus taught what Jesus learned,” and I think you’re going to love it. I hope you’ve loved this series from Romans. I hope you’ve learned something from it. I know I have.

I skipped over last week’s reading from Romans 13 so I could focus on the unity and diversity of the Body of Christ, but some scholars insist that you can’t really understand Romans 14 without reading Romans 13.i So, maybe we should back up just a bit and have a look.

I have appreciated this chapter for years, mostly because it’s one of the few places where Paul sounds almost exactly like Jesus. In Matthew 22 Jesus says that the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind is the greatest and first commandment, and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus claims. While in Romans 13 Paul says, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up

in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

I remember appreciating Romans 13 even more after reading a book called Torn, by Justin Lee. Lee was the sweetest, most conservative Christian kid you would ever want to meet until he discovered, to his horror, that he was attracted to boys. He dated girls desperately, trying to see if he could feel something, but it didn’t work. There was no attraction. When he finally, tearfully told his parents about it they took him to a program that promised to make him straight, but it was based on the premise that he must have had a distant father, or an overbearing mother, or that he had been abused as a child. None of those things was true for Justin. He had wonderful parents, and had never been abused. He was simply attracted to boys, not girls, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. After years of trying to understand why he was the way he was he prayed, “Dear God, show me what you want for my life and help me do it, even if that means remaining celibate for the rest of my life.”

I listened to Justin Lee read his book while I was on a long road trip a few years ago. He’s got a funny way of pronouncing the word God. It sounds sort of like Gawd. But he pronounced it constantly through the book. He was always trying to do what Gawd wanted. At one point he decided to study all the passages in the Bible that refer to homosexuality, about five of them, but he was determined not to let his same-sex attraction influence the outcome. “I wanted to obey Gawd,” he said. So, he looked at those passages under a microscope. He got someone to help him with the Greek and Hebrew. When he got to the end of his investigation he could not deny the fact that some of those passages explicitly condemn homosexual behavior. But then he read Romans 13, where Paul says,

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Justin thought, “Really? Any other commandment? Even Leviticus 18:22, the one about a man not lying with a man as with a woman?”

I’ve tried to think about how Paul might answer that question. You may recall that he says some things in Romans 1 about men giving up natural intercourse with women and being consumed with passion for one another. It sounds like he’s against it. But I also know that he lived in a time and place where male prostitutes openly plied their trade in pagan temples, where the lusty young Emperor Caligula is said to have “worn out” his male partners, and where wealthy older men regularly forced themselves on the young boys they kept as household servants.ii All of that may have been winked at in the decadent Roman Empire, but it wasn’t okay even then, and it certainly wasn’t loving. As Paul might say, “It did wrong to a neighbor,” and therefore it was not the fulfilling of the law, it was the breaking of the law. “For this reason,” Paul writes, “[such men] received the due penalty for their error.”

But in our own time and place there are men (and women) living in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships that are unlike anything that existed in the Roman Empire of the first century, and certainly unlike anything Paul would have ever known. These people love each other. They do no wrong to their neighbors. And in that sense some Christians would argue that they are fulfilling the law. But there are other Christians who would argue that they are breaking the law, and they would point to verses like Leviticus 18:22 as evidence. So, what do you do with that? What do you do when committed Christians have

differing opinions on the same issue?

You turn to Romans 14.

In our reading for today Paul writes: “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” And what he’s talking about, at least initially, is those who are weak in the faith when it comes to eating meat that has been offered to idols. In those days and in that culture people would often set choice cuts of meat in front of idols in a pagan temple. Afterward the priests would come by to collect the offerings, and they would cook and eat whatever they wanted. But some of the meat might be sold back to the butcher, who might then sell it to an unsuspecting Christian who wanted to bring a nice rack of lamb to the monthly potluck luncheon at church. And that’s when the question would come up: “Has this meat been offered to idols?” The person who brought it may not have known or cared. “What difference does it make? Idols aren’t real. They’re just statues made of wood and stone. Setting a piece of meat in front of an idol is no different from setting it in front of a display case window at the butcher shop.”

That was Paul’s opinion, and apparently that’s what he thought it meant to be “strong in the faith.” But other people weren’t so strong. They believed that putting meat in front of an idol contaminated it in some way. They were disgusted by the very idea of eating “idol meat,” and so they wouldn’t eat meat at all. Here’s the way Paul puts it in verse 2: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” He doesn’t mean that vegetarians are weak; he only means that some people’s consciences would be troubled by eating a piece of meat that had been offered to idols. The example Paul uses may not be familiar to us, but the principle still applies. He writes: “Those who eat must not despise those who

abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”

I’m guessing that through the years that principle has been applied to any number of church conflicts, including some of the more recent ones (contemporary worship or traditional? Gluten-free communion wafers or glutinous?). Thanks to my brother Scott (who is both a Harvard-trained lawyer and, by his own admission, a conservative Christian), I have come to believe it can be applied to the conflict surrounding the issue of human sexuality, which has divided not only churches, but also entire denominations. With that in mind I wrote a paraphrase of Romans 14 that went something like this: “Welcome those who have differing opinions on human sexuality, but not for the purpose of quarreling. Some advocate for the church’s full inclusion of the LGBTQ community (meaning those people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer), while others hold to a more traditional view. Those who wish to include must not despise those who don’t, and those who don’t must not pass judgment on those who do; for God has welcomed them.” Hear that again: “Some advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Some hold to a more traditional view.”

And some change their minds.

I started my own journey on this issue when I was in fourth grade. On the first day of school a little girl walked into the room who made me think, “That. That’s what I want.” Even though I didn’t have the language for it at the time that’s when I discovered that I was heterosexual. If I had felt those same feelings for the little boy on the other side of the room I would have had a much different journey. But as the years went by I began to hear about some boys who liked

boys, and my response was probably just as homophobic as the rest of my West Virginia peers. We fear what we don’t understand. I remember the uncomfortable feeling I got in college when a close friend asked me what I thought about homosexuality. I think he was trying to find out if it was safe to share his secret with me.

But then in seminary I began to study human sexuality along with all the other classes I was taking, thinking that one day the question might be something more than academic. And then, a few years into my second pastorate, it was. I remember sitting in my study with a young man who had grown up in the church and since moved to New York City. He had come home to visit his parents but first he wanted to talk to me. He said, “I’m getting ready to tell my parents that I’m gay, and they’re not going to like it. They’ll need someone to talk to afterward and I’m wondering if you could be the one.” I said I could, and that’s how I ended up sitting on his parents’ couch that same afternoon. For some reason I ended up sitting between them, but I remember reaching out on both sides, taking their hands, and saying, “None of us has ever been through this before, but let’s go through it together.”

In the years that followed I went through it many more times, especially when I was a pastor in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC. I heard confessions from people who had been keeping secrets most of their lives, afraid that if they told the truth they would no longer be welcome in their own families, much less the church. I listened to their stories, I read the books, I watched the documentaries, I studied Scripture, I said my prayers. Little by little I came to believe that this was not something they were choosing, it was something they were discovering, just as I had discovered my own sexuality. And then, a few years

ago, in this church, a mother came to me and told me that her daughter had just “come out” to her. She said, “I need to know if my daughter will still be welcome here, because if she’s not, we will need to find another church.” I knew this girl. I loved this girl. I had done both her baby dedication and her baptism. I think it was in that moment that I became an advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community because I thought, “If this little girl is not welcome in this church, then I’m not welcome in this church.”

But this is not a sermon about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. This is a sermon about the full inclusion of people who have differing opinions. So, while I have strong feelings about making everybody welcome here there may be others (in fact, I’m fairly certain there are others) who feel that this is a matter of biblical integrity. They cannot disregard those passages that condemn homosexual behavior. Well, neither can I. But even more than that I cannot disregard those people who have different opinions than I do, and I certainly can’t “despise” them. Instead I want to say, “Come, let us reason together.iii You tell me your opinion and I’ll tell you mine. But let’s do it in a way that makes it clear we are Christian brothers and sisters, who love and respect each other, and that when we have these conversations we are not trying to win, but rather trying to learn.” Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. [Therefore] let all be fully convinced in their own minds, [because] each of us will be accountable to God.”

Could we think about it like that, whether the issue is eating meat that has been offered to idols or the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community? Could we realize that in the end it won’t be a debate between us and those people who have differing opinions? It will just be us—each of us—on our own, standing

before God. That’s why we need to be fully convinced in our own minds. That’s why we need to be able to say, “Lord, I did the very best I could. I read all the books, I had all the conversations, I worked my way through the entire Bible, I prayed for your divine guidance. I wanted to base my convictions not on what someone else had told me, but on what I, myself, had discovered. And I may have been wrong about all of it. It’s possible. But, Lord, my heart was in it. I was trying to do what you would want. Forgive me if I’ve failed you.” That’s the kind of humility that will keep you from thinking you are right and everyone else is wrong. That’s the kind of humility that will make it possible for us to be members of the same church, even if we have differing opinions.

So may it be,

And so may we pray.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

i John Piper, for one, according to my brother Scott. ii See Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: the Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), especially Chapter 3. iii Isaiah 1:18