Stuck in the middle with you
Let’s just put it out there. In the Christian Church some matters are disputable and some are not.
You can’t dispute the Ten Commandments. Or the Creed. Or God’s plan of salvation in and through Christ alone. Or that faith in Christ alone saves us, not our works, not faith in anything else.
Furthermore, you can’t dispute that we baptize people for the forgiveness of their sins, or give them the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Or that we pray. To our Triune God. Or that we gather around Word and Sacrament on a regular basis. Our list could go on.
In other words, there’s no debate about those things. God speaks, the cause is finished. Some things God declares. Some things God commands. Some things God forbids and all discussion comes to an end. And, in our hearts of hearts, we love that. Clean, clear, black and white rules make life easier. Despite all our whining and complaining about rules, we love them. They’re simple. We know where God stands and where we stand, even if we don’t like it or choose to follow it. At least we know.
But then Paul opens up Romans 14 saying, “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Disputable matters? “Oh, man,” we cry out, “that’s not easy, that’s not simple. Disputable means discussion, debate, arguments, disagreements. It means some of us come to one conclusion and some of us come to another. And we can both be right. Man, I hate that!”
But Paul barrels right on. “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
The painful conclusion? It is possible to give thanks to God in different ways and share the same faith. In fact, it’s possible to give thanks to God in totally opposite ways and share the same faith. Be clear in what that means. So many churches and theologians today bring this into the doctrinal sphere. “Can’t we all just get along?” they cry out. “Unity in diversity!” becomes the catch-all slogan. You can believe that it’s the body and blood of Christ and he can believe that it’s symbolic. You can believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven and I can believe that a good Muslim can get to heaven too. And so on and so forth. No. Paul, didn’t say, “One man considers it the body and blood of Christ; another man considers it a symbol.” Rather, Paul allows discussion about those things God allows discussion about.
There’s the rub. What’s divinely commanded and what’s not? Because I don’t always do a good job of sorting between the two. And worse, we tend to call people morons if they don’t do the things we do just the way we do them. Paul’s words give us pause. Throughout Romans 14 he warns us against improperly judging. He warns us against binding consciences that God has not bound. He warns us against allowing what God forbids and forbidding what God allows. He calls us to live in peace so far as we can with each other and forbids us from doing something that causes someone else to stumble and fall.
Yes, my friends, we find ourselves today in that terrible middle-ground called adiaphora. It’s a fun word to say, a hard word to live. Today we discuss those things God has left to our freedom and our conscience, to our faith. But he limits us severely as he reminds us that adiaphora isn’t just about you and what you can do or don’t have to do anymore. When God gives you freedom, he sticks you in the middle with all your brothers and sisters in Christ. You are, as Luther says, in Christ, “a perfectly free lord, subject to no one.” But at the same time you are “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Use Paul’s examples about days. Are some days better than another? All things being equal, no. Every day is alike. Just like food. Now that we live after the Mosaic Law, “All food is clean.” Thus, Paul tells the Colossians, “Do not let anyone judge you…with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”
And yet there’s something special about Sunday, isn’t there? Or about December 24 and December 25. Or whatever day in the calendar Good Friday and Easter fall. And October 31. These days, and others like them, are holy days. Not in and of themselves, not because God ever said, “Thou shalt have Christmas on December 25 and celebrate the Reformation on October 31 – with a potluck.” They’re holy because we set them aside, because we sanctify them by the Word of God and prayer. And that’s good. God says, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly.”
And yet what if we came across a church that didn’t celebrate Christmas on December 25? Or Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after the twenty-first day of March, and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, is the Sunday after? What if we came across someone who said they preferred going to church on Wednesday rather than Sunday? What about a church that has services every January 6 because that’s Epiphany? Or if a church celebrates Ascension on the Sunday following?
To despise preaching and the Word, that’s indisputable. God says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” But is it despising the Word to have Christmas on December 24 or 25, or the 26th? So many times the unity we strive for is the unity of the superficial and the visible. We get worked up if a church has pews or chairs, if the pastor wears a white or black gown, if they use this Lord’s Prayer or that one, if the order of service follows this historic precedent or that historic precedent, if they have midweek Lenten services or not (and soup suppers preceding). We argue about font placement and any number of other things. And, while I’m not saying church architecture and the vestment of our pastors isn’t important (I think they’re terribly important), such arguments lose sight of what the Kingdom of God is: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The kingdom of God is about doctrine. All else flows from that.
And yet, at the same time, we aren’t free to do whatever we want, are we? Paul opened the discussion that led to Romans 14 by saying, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” The freedom God gives you gives you no right to live like Israelites in the time of the Judges – every man doing whatever he saw fit. Because while Christ freed you from so much, you’re still bound to each other. And, even more importantly, Paul says, to God. “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Too often we make decisions that are all about us. What we like. What we want. What’s good for us. What’s comfortable for us. Paul says, “Stop that, because you belong to the Lord.” That’s why Christ came. “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” Underneath this Lord you live and breathe, you thank and praise, you serve and obey.
Arrange your faith-life under that. Why is a day set aside for church? Not because God decreed Sunday, but because we need a day to hear about Jesus, the Lord who paid our unpayable debt, the Lord who grants forgiveness to those who believe.
Why do we celebrate Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, the Reformation, and a whole host of other feasts and festivals? Not to bind consciences, not to offer ways for super-Christians to show off to those a little less faithful, but rather as days to be reminded that what Joseph did for his brothers, God did for us. He says, “Don’t be afraid…You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid, I will provide for you and your children.” Certainly every day of the year we receive that through Word and Sacrament, every day our faith clings to it. And so, on the one hand, we have no need of specially scheduled holy days.
And yet, on the other, we need them desperately. Because we don’t set aside the time on our own, we praise God that His Church does. He has this place where He preaches His Word, where He pours out His baptismal waters, where He prepares and passes out His forgiving body and blood. Which I need. Daily.
If I live, it’s to the Lord. If I die, it’s to the Lord. If I go to church on Sunday, it’s to the Lord. If I go to church on Wednesday, it’s to the Lord. If I go to work today, it’s to the Lord. If I spend the day relaxing, it’s to the Lord. If I spend the day repainting my living room, it’s to the Lord. It’s just that simple – everything we do we do to the glory of God, not ourselves. Because everything Christ did, He did for us. “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” Amen.