Advent 2: 8 December Romans 15:4-13
Our passage begins midstream in a discussion which has run from the beginning of chapter 14 and was already in preparation mid way through chapter 13. Paul needed to address a problem of tension between two orientations among Christians and Rome. There were "the strong", who shared Paul's view, that observance of particular days and abstinence from particular foods depended on notions which are no longer valid (14:14). All days are sacred and no food is unclean. On the other side were "the weak" who believed in special days and in differences between clean and unclean foods (14:1-6). The latter would have drawn their inspiration not from Jewish scruples but from scripture itself which clearly set out what was to be eaten and what not and which prescribed particular days.
We might imagine that "the weak" were the Jewish Christians and "the strong", the Gentiles, but that can hardly be the case. Paul is, after all, a Jewish Christian. It is quite possible that some Gentiles were converted by the more conservative Jews and that they held strongly to biblical laws - as converts sometimes can - even more determinedly than others. So the groups were probably mixed. Perhaps this reflects different house churches. Perhaps it reflects the return to Rome of some more liberal Jewish thinkers who had been forced to leave Rome by Claudius in the late 40's. That might even suggest that those who remained were the conservative ones and they would have been predominantly Gentile.
Whatever the specific situation Paul is not happy with the thought that the differences not be addressed. In chapter 14 he asserts that for him, as for many others, such values no longer hold, even if they are biblical - just as he no longer upheld circumcision. But he was unhappy that the liberals' behaviour was offending the conservatives. So he develops the idea that in this context compromise was necessary. People should not give up their beliefs and should certainly not be asked to act contrary to them. Integrity is important. But "the strong" should consider foregoing their choice of food where this caused offence to "the weak" (14:13, 15). I'm not sure how "the weak" would take to being described in this way, but nevertheless Paul argues that there are more significant values in the gospel and for its sake maintaining unity and living together in agreed compromise is the way to go (14:17).
He is continuing this line of thought into Romans 15 when he reminds them that Christ did not simply please himself, but saw the bigger picture. To illustrate this he uses scripture, citing Psalm 69:9 in 15:3. Psalm 69, along with Psalm 22, had been a favourite Psalm for reflection on the suffering of Jesus. In our passage Paul goes on to cite a number of biblical passages to emphasise that Gentiles belong with God's people. This is all part of the argument about belonging and especially about Jews and Gentiles belonging together - and, by implication, the need to make compromises to enable that to happen.
Unity is the theme. Scriptures serve to encourage this hope (15:4). The hope is about reconciliation and sharing the same attitude of unity (15:5-6). It is about accepting rather than condemning one another (15:7; echoing 14:13). God's purpose in Christ's mission to his people was also to enable the Gentiles to become part of the people of God (15:8-9). In that process Christ became a servant or slave (15:8). Then follow the references to the inclusion of Gentiles (15:9-12) and 15:13 concludes with a wish for peace. This is still all about what is going on in Rome.
Paul is pleading for perspective. It is not worth the churches tearing themselves apart over food issues. Compromise if you need to, especially if foods don't matter much for you. It is better to compromise and not eat if that is going to cause offence. The gospel and the unity of the church for its sake is much more important than food! Notice how Paul's thinking is driven by concern for people, not by being right and not by being free to do as we like. For Paul we are free to love. Love matters most.
Of course, Paul would never want this advice to be universalised in his day and nor should it be for ours. He was not prepared to compromise on circumcision because it offended the conservative Jewish Christians and he certainly would not have applied the stand of compromise to issues where justice or sin was at stake. In Antioch he wasn't prepared to withdraw from eating with Gentiles because of the conservatives who came from James (Gal 2:11-14). So we must be careful how we apply this principle. Does it apply to the ordination of women, to women bishops, to ordination of homosexual people (active or not) as priests or consecration of as bishops on the same basis as heterosexuals, to blessing of gay relationships?
Even when our views may be very clearly in favour of all of these, there arises the question: to what extent should the unity of the church be preserved at the cost of compromising these stances. Are they more like the issues over food in Romans 15 or more like the issue of meals in Galatians 2? But even when we might see them as more like the latter, as I would, there still remains the complex sensitivities which make us want to proceed with great care and pastoral sensitivity. The more clearly we see such issues, if they can be seen clearly, the greater the challenge to create the educational opportunity for people to revisit their thinking and become more informed of the issues. Their and our ongoing learning and listening becomes a very high priority.
We are neither to be held to ransom by the application of the logic of Romans 14-15 nor are we to steamroll dissent. Paul's perspectives help us here never to lose sight of the fact that we are talking in all cases about people whom God loves, people all of whom matter and none of whom is to be written off. A solution lies ultimately in the application of such perspectives, but that will not be reached without our also seeking to try to live it in the way we handle difference.
This apparently innocent passage bristles with the tensions given it by its context. Paul is not making vague and pious statements about scripture but drawing attention to a particular orientation of scripture towards inclusivity and compassion which even enables one to say yes and no in scripture itself or to forego one's freedom for the sake of unity at some points.
Gospel: Advent 2 8 December Matthew 3:1-12
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