Welcome One Another In Love – September 17, 2017
Today is Great Welcome Sunday, so I’m glad to see that the first word from the selection of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome to us today is “welcome.” “Welcome,” he tells us, “those who are weak in faith” as well he implies as those who are strong in faith. The Apostle Paul is trying to maintain his neutrality in this first century conflict between those who ate meat and those who refrained from eating meat, but he clearly plays his hand by describing those who refuse to eat meat as “weak.”
We don’t have a crystal ball to know for certain what controversy Paul was addressing in this letter. My own belief is that it was about eating Kosher vs. not eating Kosher. Since most, if not all the meat available in the market place in Rome, would have come from animals sacrificed to idols and/or non-Jewish or Gentile butchers, those who kept Kosher would have remained vegetarian because there wasn’t any Kosher meat for them to eat. Since much of the first half of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome has him arguing that we are saved by grace alone and not by the law or any ritual practices we may do, it’s no wonder that Paul sides with those Christians whose conscience is “strong” for whom it doesn’t matter whether or not they eat meat.
What controversy or controversies might the Apostle Paul address if he were writing to implore us to welcome those with whom we disagree? I don’t think we have any deep or bitter controversy among us at St. John’s – at least I don’t know of any – but I can say with certainty that there are plenty of deep and dividing issues among us as a culture at large. For instance I could ask us to divide and self-select on one side of the aisle (the left side) those who voted for Hilary Clinton for president and (on the right side) those who voted for Donald Trump and then ask us to have a discussion about immigration. I wouldn’t be surprised if we would soon be throwing prayer books, hymnals and bibles across the aisle at one another.
There are plenty of things about which we will disagree and even disagree strongly with one another: politics, immigration, health care, what we think about our president, taxes, the environment, global warming, international trade and other controversial issues of our day that fill our airwaves, computer screens and newspapers. Among Episcopalians we may disagree with one another about the kind of music we prefer, whether hymns or praise songs. We might disagree about the liturgy. We might have differences about how we interpret scripture or who should be bishop what we should call our priest, etc.
Paul is not denying us having strong or passionate opinions on any of these issues. He’s telling us that the things that divide us are far less important than the essential thing that unites us. We find the essential thing that unites us as Christians in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew today. “The Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told us “may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves…” One slave owed him millions, far more than he could ever repay. The king ordered him sold along with his wife, children and possessions in order to pay off this great debt. But the slave begged his master to have mercy. The king forgave him his debt. When the slave then went and had a fellow slave who owed him a few bucks thrown into prison, the king rescinded his forgiveness of the slave who had owed him millions. The essential thing in the Kingdom of heaven is to realize that you and I – each of us – is that first slave who owes God far more than we would ever be able to repay. We are to welcome and forgive our fellow slaves who may owe us a small debt for the simple reason that we owe God a debt of immeasurable gratitude.
So, what does that welcome of those with whom we may disagree look like? Let’s go back to the subject of food, the Apostle Paul’s starting place. One of our members is passionate about not eating meat and not eating any animal byproducts such as eggs or cheese. She’s a knowledgeable and articulate champion of a vegan lifestyle. She’s painfully aware that the majority of St. John’s members don’t share her point of view. Those who eat meat can welcome vegans by making sure that we always have some healthy and delicious food items at coffee hour and potluck meals that have no animal products in them.
How can we welcome people who may disagree with us on any number of subjects? Like Paul advised on the subject of food, we can be gracious, not haughty or self-righteous. We can listen to others’ strong and passionately held opinions as well as share our own. Someone recently received a solicitation with this hook: “Ready to annoy the radical right?” He happens to support this organization but realized how far short the strategy of intentionally annoying a group of people falls short of Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. (Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, pg. 65-66, William Greeway in “Theological Perspective,”) The politics of our country seems to be veering into increasingly divided camps. At St. John’s we welcome and love people who are Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, those who agree with us and those who disagree. We don’t have separate blue churches and red churches. We have the one Church of Jesus Christ where all sinners are forgiven and loved.
The mission of St. John’s is to live the love of God with hearts open to all. We pride ourselves in being a diverse congregation where all hues of skin are well represented, where our native languages and accents often differ, where we come from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds and different ages. Today is Great Welcome Sunday when we welcome one another back from our summer hiatus, when we welcome back those who have been away and welcome those who are new. We don’t welcome one another because of our differences or for the sake of our diversity or pluralism. We welcome one another in love because God has loved us first. We forgive and tolerate others because God has tolerated and forgiven us. We can celebrate our diversity because in Jesus’ love we all share the same common humanity.
So today and in the weeks and months to come, let us be intentional in giving a great welcome to all who come through these doors. Let us get to know one another’s names. Let us listen to each other’s stories. Let us pray for one another and share one another’s burdens. Let us welcome our friends and also become acquainted with folks we don’t know. Let us be tolerant of our differences and peculiarities because God is tolerant of our own oddities, forgives our failings and loves us anyways. Let us make accommodations for our differences – differences of culture and diet and perspective. Because that’s what God’s great welcome looks like. As the Apostle Paul admonishes us today, let us “welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Let us remember that each of us are welcome in God’s love and make the effort and discipline to extend that love and welcome to all. Amen.