Living Together / Our Liberty in Christ

A keynote address by Dr. Blair at the 68th & 69th ConnECtions of Evangelicals Concerned, 2011

On the night before he sacrificed himself for sinners, consuming the cup of wrath with all its debris, decay, death and utter destruc­tion – the forewarned fallout of our fall into sin – Jesus prayed for his followers. He prayed, too, for us who, through their witness, would follow him, just as falteringly as they, but who also, by God’s grace in him, would be just as finally freed.

Father … I’ve revealed you to those you gave me out of the world. … I’ve given them your word and this world has hated them, for they are not of this world as I am not of this world. … Set them apart by your word, the truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For their sake, I consecrate myself to you, that they, also, may be consecrated to you [and] that they all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. … May they, together, be brought into maturity so that the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them even as you have loved me. … I’ve made you known to them. I will continue to make you known so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and so that I may be in them. (John 17)

In unfathomable love and irrefutable wisdom, God answers Jesus’ prayer sweated out in blood. And Jesus knew it would be answered with wise love, for he knew the One to Whom he prayed: “Not my will, but thine be done.”

To what answer did Jesus look forward? It was his Father’s love for him lived out, through him, in us. It was our maturing in love for one another. (John 13:35) All of this was “the joy set before him.” For us “he endured the curse of the cross,” for us, “he scorned its shame.” (Heb 12:2)

After twenty centuries of sophistry, slander and even slaughter of each other, Jesus’ prayer is still being answered because God is faithful in spite of our unfaithfulness. After all, it was to his Father he prayed; it wasn’t to his followers. And it’s from his Father that the answer comes in gifts of his abiding Holy Spirit and scripture. For our life together, for which Jesus so specifically prayed, the 14th and 15th chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans are especially helpful and we’ll be looking into that good guidance this morning.

Paul had concluded that, in view of the cross, we need a new worldview:

Therefore, offer yourselves as living sacrifices, in a life dedicated to God, for God’s pleasure. … Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world. Be transformed by God into changing the way you think so that you’ll discern what God wants, what’s good, what’s pleasing, what’s perfect. I urge you, by God’s grace given to me: Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought. Think of yourself with sober assessment, according to the measure of faith God gives to you. (Romans 12:1-3)

Paul warns against this world’s ways. What are this world’s ways? Jesus knew they’re ways of a world that doesn’t know God. This world’s ways are self-deceived obsessions with an insupport­able self-centeredness – “the very essence of sin” (D. M. Baillie), but mistaken as the very essence of salvation. Self-centeredness suffocates in me, myself and mine – myopic demands to get my way: I’m who counts, my tribe, my identity group, my agenda. This world’s ways are claims to holier-than-thou, hotter-than-thou, richer-than-thou, more celebrated-than-thou, more with-it-than thou, more tolerant-than thou, more moral-than-thou, more right-than-thou, more wronged than-thou. But, more than anyone knows or admits: More defensively out-of-touch!

This world’s self-delusions are suicidal. And none of the “spin” conceals the stench of death that hangs around us as a warning. Hell-bent propaganda spills the beans: This world’s broad ways are hell bound.

Yet, running counter to all of this world’s ways, a little-traveled way leads elsewhere. Jesus invites us to find this narrow way, with at least for now, comparatively few companions. He invites us to walk together with him along this way that is the Way of Life, himself. (Matt 7:13-14) The Way of Life, himself, is the way of the Suffering Servant who gave and gives his all for others, so of course, not surprisingly: It’s a very narrow way in this world. But, this narrow way is the journey Home. This narrow way winds up in “the wider place of freedom in God, [a place] so wide,” says Genie Price, “we’ll all forever be convinced that we are always just entering.”

What did he say on the narrow way? In view of your Father’s love for you: “Everything whatsoever you’d want in others’ dealings with you, deal that way with them.” (Matt 7:12) Everything what­soever – we’d want! In this summing up of scripture by Life, himself, it isn’t very hard to figure out how to deal with others.

But, after these words on regard for others, Jesus warned: Watch out for false teachers – ravenous wolves in woolly drag. Don’t be fooled by their fake muttonchops or fancy sheepskins. See through deceit by discerning their walk. Do they walk the narrow way or the ways of this world, dragging you down their dead-end roads to destruction? Watch out! Be “street smart”!

“Spirituality” shysters still stalk us. They may talk about “his” way, but do they walk along his way? His way is not the self-affirming way. It’s not the way of self-empowerment or self-compassion. It’s not the way of self-mustered “self-esteem,” self-serving “service” or self-seeking “surrender.” And it’s not the way of incoherently sentimental mishmash where any way is said to be as good as any other way – except, of course, his Way alone.

Going his Way, freed from our damned demands to “thrive” on our own, we’re freed to go with the one who identified as GOD himself, saying: “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life! Nobody gets to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Stopped dead in our tracks at the very gate of the narrow way, this one who is, in himself, the Way, the only one who can turn all wrong-turns right, turns us around from dead ends in self, to Truth, himself, to Life, himself – YAHWEH incarnate, yet identifying with us.

Getting turned around by God in Christ, we can get along with others who are getting turned around by God in Christ – no matter how odd they may seem to us. And we, in our turn, can turn with compassion to all who, as yet, don’t “get” what it is to get turned around by God in Christ.

Paul knows well we’ll be walking this way with folks of different degrees of faith. Some, more or less mature; some, more or less immature. Not all see eye-to-eye. And we’re not always so nice about that. Paul knows we’re “the scum of the earth” in the eyes of this world – but sometimes we do look a lot like scumbags. (I Cor 4:13) Even so, we quibblers are the “Communion of Saints.” We who can be such royal pains are “a royal priesthood.” We’re the “mystical body” but we can be such a miserable bunch. We’re the Bride of Christ – but she’s not yet ready for her close-ups. And F. F. Bruce notes: “There is no sin to which Christians are more prone than that of criticizing others.” Do you know people like that? You’ll find one in every mirror!

If that’s too close for comfort, pick on Lady Gaga, spouting self-worshiping slams in her see-through Catholic nun garb or Donald Trump crowing he’s richer than Romney. With all their fame and money, there’s still a gnawing sense they’re not enough. Now, the Lady does admit she feels “like a loser.” “The Donald” feels it, too, but can’t admit it. Can we?

Why all this self-doubt? Besides psychological diagnoses, the deeper, but unpopular, assessment is this: We all sense our failure to be what God intended us to be when He made us in His image. (Rom 3:23) We sense we’re not who we’re meant to be. As G. K. Chesterton put it: “I’m not myself.”

So, we tend to boast, bemoan, make excuses for self and find fault with others. But we can’t buy our concocted cover-ups for the failures we can’t fail to see. Why? Well, we’re “in” on our own con! So, desperate, we drive ourselves deeper into deceit and denial – or – we’re driven and drawn into the loving arms of the God of all grace and peace in Christ Jesus.

At Romans 14, Paul writes to both the stronger and the weaker in Christian faith. They’re all trying to impose their viewpoints on each other. As Leon Morris explains it: “The strong often have a tendency to look down on the weak and regard them as inferior Christians, while the weak, knowing that it would be wrong for them (thinking as they do) to do something that the strong do, all too easily hold that the strong are sinning and slip into condemning them. Not infrequently the weak is the greater tyrant.”

Though the weak give lip service to the gospel of God’s grace – there can cower in them, a reliance on “dead works” of religiosity and reluctance “to trust God completely and without qualification. … The weakness is trust in God plus [e.g., legalism, ritualism], trust in God which leans on the crutches of particular customs and not on God alone.” (James D. G. Dunn) And that, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones discerned, is “morality without any Gospel.”

To Paul, proclaiming the gospel of Christ – is crucial. He calls down a curse on anyone, including himself, who would preach a different gospel – one that’s no gospel at all. (Gal 1:8-9; I Cor 9:16) Yet, as Bruce notes: “Where the principles of the gospel were not at stake, he was the most conciliatory of men.” It’s sad that, today, both antigay and pro-gay Christians can be more con­cerned with where EC is on gay issues than where EC is on the gospel.

Had Christians taken Paul’s wisdom seriously, many conflicts and crises, much estrangement and heartbreak could have been averted. If we would take his wisdom seriously, we’d not be re­peating so many sins of the past.

These days, nothing so convulses Christians as combat over issues of ho-mo-sex-uality, as some combatants stumble over every shocking syllable, or, if you will, issues of LGBTQQQueer (and counting), as other combatants accessorize in ever more en­cumbering political correctness. And all this self-serving strain­ing out gnats while swallowing camels shatters Christian commu­nity and sabotages our credibility with non-Christians.

But, even when “Christian” reasons are used to stigmatize, there’s always more going on. C. S. Lewis saw “much hypocrisy” in all the hostility to homosexuality, asserting: “All the pother is neither Christian nor ethical.” After all, he asked rhetorically, “How many of those who fulminate on the matter are in fact Christians?” (He wrote this before the rise of the Religious Right – though maybe it’s still just as reasonably a rhetorical question.)

In AD 57, Paul was writing from Corinth, dealing with disputes of former pagans and Jewish Christians at Rome. At issue was Sabbath observance regarding the most detailed of the Ten Com­mandments, rooted in Genesis’ story of creation, and biblical laws on what’s “clean” and “unclean” where “physical, ritual and ethical usages overlap” (Charles Feinberg) and sometimes call for capital punishment. The eating and drinking of what was sacrificed to pagan gods and then sold for consumption was also a source of strife.

So, to disputants, these were not trivial matters. Yet, to Paul and in view of faith in Christ alone, they were non-essentials. Later Christians called them adiaphora, “indifferent” things. But Paul did not see the manner in which Christians related to each other to be a matter of indifference. Each Christian must be cherished in Christ, for we’re family for whom he died.

Details of the Romans’ gripes aside, that conflict was all about what it’s always been all about, and what it’s all about today: Life together in him with no litmus test on what’s beside the point of the gospel of Christ.

Thank God, this letter comes down to us for whom Jesus prayed and for whom he preserved it. We can see both “us” and “them” in this Romans Rorschach. We can learn how we, both weak and strong, can get along.

At Romans 14, Paul begins by addressing the stronger in faith. He says:

Welcome the weak in faith, but not to start an argument or settle disputes.

“Darn! Isn’t it more fun to fight!” Really? Fighting reinforces fears we might be wrong. Trying so feverishly to force others to our side can reveal we’re really not so sure about our side. What if they make a point we can’t refute? So we spin, pose, deny, lie, but seldom listen. Needing to be right and unsure we are, we look for safety in numbers. But, wait, if we – or they – were sure of being right, would any “amen” from a naysayer be necessary?

Can we differ and not get defensive, damning or disdaining each other? We can if we’re comfortable in what we believe. We can’t if we’re not. Secure in God, we don’t feel forced to force others to secure us. God’s love in Christ secures us. We’ll not need others to get out on that limb where we’ve most recently landed, and, when we leap to some other limb (as we will) we’ll not need them to leap to that one then.

Bruce affirms Paul’s hospitable approach: “A Christian’s ‘faith’ in many respects might be weak, immature and uninstructed; but he [or she] must be welcomed warmly as a Christian and not challenged forthwith to a debate about those areas of life in which he [or she] is still unemancipated.”

Paul begins with the strong since the strong should be able to carry the weak better than the weak can carry the strong. If two are to connect, the more mature must reach down to the less mature for the less mature may not be able to reach up that far. If anyone insists, “I’m mature!”, but refuses to “stoop to bigots who’re behind the times”– well now, how mature is that?

Fellowship between the weaker and the stronger will be only as workable as what the weaker can manage to bend over backwards to come up with in their weakness and only as workable as the stronger can manage to bend over – even farther backwards – to come up with in their strength.

Some have faith to eat everything; but the weak eat only herbs. One who eats everything must not look down on one who doesn’t, and, one who eats only herbs must not condemn one who eats everything, for God has welcomed each of them. … Someone holds one day as more important than others; someone else holds all days alike.

Foods? Days? Who cares! What’s this fuss got to do with us? But in those days, days, not gays, were on their radar. Nowadays, gays, not days, are on ours. But whether days, then, or gays, today, the concern’s the same: How to manage different opinions on minor matters without abusing each other?

Let each be fully convinced in his or her own mind. She who holds an opinion on days does so to the Lord, and she thanks God; he who eats does so to the Lord, and he thanks God.

Mature or immature, we all must mind our own conscience. We cannot live by the light of another’s conscience. We cannot live in light we don’t have. But we dare not live against the light we do have. And we must welcome each one who’s in Christ because God does.

Who are you to condemn the household servant of another? That servant stands or falls in relation to his master, not in relation to you. And he will stand, for his master is able to make him stand.

If meddling in any master’s dealings with a servant is out of line, meddling in The Master’s dealings with his servant is surely out of line. The master’s judgment is all that matters; meddlers’ judgments matter not at all. Besides, masters can see to it that their servants withstand anyone’s criticism. And so can our Master – the One who died for his servants and whom God raised up from death so his servants might survive beyond even The Final Judgment!

We don’t live or die independently. Whether we live or die, we do it in the Lord.

We’re all interdependent; none is autonomous. And we Chris­tians are one in the Lord. Whatever we think, say or do, we think, say or do in the Lord’s presence. Our living belongs to the Lord; our dying belongs to the Lord.

You, then, why do you judge your sister? And, you, why do you look down on your brother? We shall all stand before God’s judgment seat, as it’s written: ‘As I live, says the Lord, to me, every knee shall bow and every tongue give praise to God.’ Each of us will give account of herself or himself to God.

So, get off your phony thrones! God will judge; we won’t! On that day, we must all respond for ourselves and the only appro­priate response will be: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” (A. M. Toplady)

Therefore, let us stop condemning each other.

His “let us” includes himself. We, all, weak and strong, must do the same.

Stop putting stumbling blocks in the paths of sisters and brothers.

Damning and disdaining others over matters that are not at the heart of the gospel must stop at once. All must take care not to tempt anyone to stumble into sin by any means. Tripping others into self-righteousness, seducing them to violate conscience – these are very serious violations of Jesus’ all-embracing call to truly and tenderly care for each other’s Christian welfare.

When a strong Christian with a clear conscience does something that a weak Christian then imitates, the weak can stumble into sin. Or, weaker Christians impose such scrupulous standards on all that some get so exasperated by the unlivable restrictions that they throw out all scruples and sound Christian faith, as well. Mugged by mindless moral mandates, they want nothing more to do with orthodoxy. But, then, they sadly fall prey to every pretense of a more stylishly tolerant, though incoherent, alternative.

In debates over same-sex relationship – anachronistic in Paul’s day – those who think it right for them to be in same-sex part­nership should be careful not to endorse it for all with same-sex attraction. Weaker Christians can be pushed to go beyond where they can afford to go in good conscience.

This caution doesn’t mean that stronger Christians can’t live their freedom in Christ in same-sex partnership, but they must not do so in any way that fails to care for weaker souls. Let the strong pray this through, wisely, lovingly, and “with their mind,” as Paul urged. (I Cor 14:15)

The weak believe it’s wrong to be in same-sex partnership, but they must refrain from turning their restrictions into roadblocks that can wreck the lives of others. As less mature in faith, they can fail to read the fuller Word and fail to hear the more mature in faith. Meanwhile, those on whom they push their more restrictive scruples, after so long a fight against same-sex attraction and after finding “ex-gay” promises to be fraudulent, can find the lifelong blocking of a fitting intimacy to be devastating. Without a loving same-sex companion, they may turn to quick-fix fantasies of porn and promiscuity. Such superficial solutions are quick, but they no more fix the longing than did the “ex-gay” hoax. Then they waste their lives running from fantasies of ever-failing self-control to fantasies of mismatched marriage and surreptitious sex with stran­gers, ending up depressed, diseased, divorced, addicted or dead – intended or not. Let the weak pray this through, wisely, lovingly and “with their mind,” as Paul urged. (I Cor 14:15)

To violate conscience is spiritually and psychologically destruc­tive. But, conscience doesn’t speak ex cathedra. Conscience is conditioned. Both true and false notions condition conscience. So, Jesus confronted religionists who messed with the consciences of the people in his day: “Woe to you expounders of the Law! You load people down with unbearable demands that crush them, while you, yourselves, refuse to lift even a finger to help.” (Matt 23:4; Luke 11:46) It’s crucial that beliefs that inform conscience be iden­tified and challenged by serious study, wisdom and earnest prayer, so that – if need be – unfounded beliefs can be changed.

Paul’s pastoral plea harks back to something else Jesus said that, Bruce suggests, “has far-reaching implications,” and that’s that: “Sin, moral defilement, worldliness, and so forth, are located in people’s minds, not in material objects.” Contrary to time-honored interpretation, Jesus said:

Nothing outside anyone can make a person ‘unclean’ by going into the person. It’s what comes out of someone that makes that person ‘unclean.’ … It’s from within, out of one’s heart, that evil thoughts, sexual exploitation, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly come. All these evils come from inside and make a person ‘unclean.’ (Mark 7:14-16; 20-23)

Biblical laws had long decreed that sexual intercourse between a husband and wife polluted them for 24 hours. After a son’s birth, the mother was “unclean” for 40 days and after a daughter’s birth, “unclean” for 80 days. These days, Bubbaloo Bubble Gum and Chiclets are “clean” but Lifesavers and Altoids are “unclean.” The problem’s pork! Who knew?

But Jesus always went to the heart of matters. Reinterpreting customary readings, he homed in on the thoughts that prompt the abuse done to others – self-centered plots to exploit, slander, rape, rob or murder another. What’s unclean are evil intentions to turn people into things, refusing to see them as God’s image bearers.

Like today’s mainline churches, synagogues are losing members in droves while evangelical churches thrive. Most Jews today say they’re “just Jewish.” They mean they’re not religious. So, earlier this year, 300 rabbis met over martinis in Las Vegas to talk “re-branding” for a pushback against these losses. One rabbi suggested that the notion of kosher be shifted from food to the ethical treatment of food handlers. Okay. But, hey, didn’t another rabbi already do that kosher “re-branding” some 2,000 years ago?

And Paul followed that earlier rabbi:

I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is impure in itself.

Things were symbolically “clean” or not to remind Jews of God’s holiness, God’s wholly otherness. But we turn symbols into idols. Lewis recalls reading this line on sexual love: “It ceases to be a devil when it ceases to be a god.” He remarked: “Isn’t that well put? So many things – nay every real thing – is good if only it will be humble.” And isn’t that well put?

To the strong, Paul grants that everything is, indeed, permis­sible. But, he points out: Not everything is constructive nor contri­butes to the common good. (I Cor 10:23) Paul sees our full free­dom in Christ, “not as a right, but as renunciation of one’s right for the sake of another. [Paul] became as a Jew to the Jews, to those outside the Law as one outside the Law, and to the weak person, weak.” (Gunther Bornkamm) It’s in Christ that Paul is so free that he’s even free from his right to be free! Now, that is really free!

So, with this fullest liberation point of view, Paul agrees that the strong in faith are right, that, indeed, nothing is impure in itself. And then he adds:

But, to anyone who thinks that something’s impure, to that person, it is impure.”

In “yes/but” statements, agreement voiced in the first part always takes second place to the clarification in the second. The clarification is the point.

However wrong the weak may be in thinking something’s wrong, they’re dangerously wrong to do it. See, it’s not having fullest light that matters. What matters is living faithfully by what light we have – whatever the wattage. This is why it’s so wrong to prod people to stumble ahead of where they’ve gotten in their own journey of faith in Christ. We can try to teach them to grow into greater maturity in Christ, but we mustn’t tempt them to go where they don’t see their way clear to go with their present conscience.

Paul includes this sober reminder: Christ truly loves those who might be tempted to violate conscience. He died for them! So, Paul admonishes:

If your brother or sister is thrown off course on account of food, you’re no longer living in love toward that person. Don’t, for the sake of food, destroy someone for whom Christ died.

Here, Paul isn’t concerned about someone’s merely disagreeing with us. His concern is that what we do may destroy a weak person’s faith in Christ. He leaves it up to us to figure out just how, in wise love, we’ll avoid causing such terrible damage to another’s faith. But how difficult should that be to carry out? Didn’t Christ prioritize our life over his death? So, might we not, in remem­brance of him and in gratitude for his great sacrifice for us, priori­tize another’s deep good over our own passing gratification?

Don’t let what’s good be brought into contempt.

What’s good is liberty in Christ, but that’s not self-indulgence! What’s good is abiding by one’s own conscience, but that’s not relativism! What’s good is love’s not insisting on its own way, but that’s not abandoning Christ as the only Way!

What’s good is the good news of God’s free grace in Christ alone – the gospel that the many so narrow-mindedly mock as so narrow-minded. But Paul knows that religions rites and rules matter not at all while God’s reign in Christ is all that really matters. As did Jesus, in quoting Hosea (6:6) to the Pharisees nit­picking over some picking and nibbling of grain on the Sabbath: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 12:7), so Paul goes to the basics:

God’s reign is not about eating and drinking. God’s reign is about personal righteousness and justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. One who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and can withstand the scrutiny of all others.

Castigating Christians who sue other Christians in pagan courts, (I Cor 6), Paul warned that the unrighteous will not inherit the reign of God. He rattled off a list of such unrighteous ones. Bruce ex­plains that these are, “more particularly, those who ‘wrong’ others,” such as people who were oppressing others through law­suits, people who rob, swindle, slander and abuse others sexually and, in idol­atry, wrong God. Paul includes similar vice lists in his letters to Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians, too. The culprits in all these lists cruelly injure others, e.g., by hatred, lies, malice, envy, mani­pulative witchcraft, and so on. (Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-5; Col 3:5-9)

It’s in the Corinthian vice list that we find the enigmatic arsenokoitai and malakoi. Antigay teachers today infer that these were so-called “active” and “passive” stand-ins for today’s same-sex couples. By naïve assumption, the interpreters project their own modern stereotypes, removed from Paul’s culture by two millen­nia. Their reading simply cannot reflect whatever Paul may have had in mind. In his day, loving same-sex “unions” between peers were impossible even to contemplate. If, as the antigay claim, the reference involved penetration of one man by another, that act in that day would have been a power trip of degradation – as in the rape of prisoners of war or the attempted assaults on sojourners in Sodom and Gibeah. That’s not love.

Besides, penetration is not what most couples are about – same-sex or not. Couples are about profoundest psychosexual intimacy. The two are drawn to each other because they’re seen as beloved persons, not as body parts.

Whomever Paul meant by his incidental allusion in an appar­ently coined word and a word for “soft,” same-sex couples, caring for one another through all the ups and downs of life and abusing nobody, are surely miscast when they’re projected into an ancient vice list of those who, by definition, were raging troublemakers, adulterers, swindlers, slanderers, liars and such.

Of course, the vice lists include heterosexual abusers. But anti­gay clerics are right in not reading into this, that heterosexuality, as such, is then wrong – though married couples’ sex acts and child­birth were “unclean” in the Bible. So, even if prostitution, pederasty or rape is in a vice list, it’s in there because it’s abusive, not because the abuse is heterosexual or same-sexual.

Jesus rebuked the religionists of his day for speculating from worst-case scenarios on marriage beyond their own experience. (Matt 22:29) Making much ado about what’s nothing to worry about in God’s reign, they misread scripture and overlook God’s power. Their descendants do that these days.

So then, we pursue what makes for peace and for the building up of one another. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God!

Today, we might say: Do not, for the sake of the presence or the absence of a penis or vagina, destroy God’s work in those for whom Jesus paid it all.

And yet again, Paul calls for compassionate restraint from the strong.

Everything is clean, but it’s wrong for anyone who partakes while thinking it’s unclean. Therefore, it’s a good thing not to eat or drink or do anything by which your sisters and brothers can get themselves tripped up.

Instead of sacrificing the weak to meet desires of the strong, Paul strongly urges the strong to be a living sacrifice on behalf of the weak. But, it’s to be noted that the Greek tense here indicates that Paul’s focus is on a given situation, i.e., “it’s a good idea, not to eat meat, for once.” As scholars note, this is “not a question of continuous abstention” by the strong. (Nigel Turner)

That of which you partake in good faith, keep to yourself before God.

Paul grants that the strong may privately exercise their freedom in Christ while being sensibly sensitive to the needs of the weak, balancing an individual’s freedom with the fellowship’s freedom – as churches rarely do.

At Rome, the weak included many who could be tempted to imitate the strong in eating, drinking and dealing with days. But in same-sex disputes today, most of the weak, as heterosexual, couldn’t be tempted to “go gay.”

Still, strong Christians must be supportive of the weak that do try to refrain from sinning homosexually. So, of course, strong gay Christians shouldn’t flirt with those who are weak. And all Chris­tian couples need to be sensitive with weaker same-sex Christians. A too public display of amore that hides the challenges in even a good marriage can present what seems an unmixed bag of bliss and thus can become a stumbling block of fantasy in the path of lonely souls who must cope with what they see to be lifelong celibacy.

They who do not condemn themselves by what they approve are blessed.

Turning to the weak, and still in the hearing of the strong so that all are reminded of what’s at stake for the faith of all, Paul cautions yet again:

Those who do what they think is wrong are condemned if they do it, because it’s not what they, in faith, believe is right for them to do. All that’s not of faith is sin.

Both weak and strong must be faithful. Faithful to whom or to what? To Christ, of course. We began with faith in him; we’re to keep faith with him. Everything must be brought into captivity to Christ. We’re to bow before no competing concerns, no idols, no priorities above faith in Christ Jesus alone.

Paul turns to the strong, in the hearing of both, and repeats:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each should strengthen his neighbor, building him up for his good.

Bearing with the weak? That’s the least the strong can do. Not letting the weak rob them of liberty in Christ, they yet can help the weak to move ahead toward maturity. Said Luther: “We must strengthen the weak and build them up in order that they may grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Morris, too, is direct: “A genuine concern for the weak will mean an attempt to make them strong by leading them out of their irrational scruples so they, too will be strong.” And Bruce encourages “the emancipated Christian to help [a] ‘weaker’ brother [or sister] to have a more enlightened conscience. But,” he cautions, “This is a process which cannot be rushed.” Don’t we all know this from our experience? We took the time it took for us; we must give them time, too.

We can remind them of Paul’s warning against Gnostic ascetic demands: “Don’t taste! Don’t handle! Don’t even touch!” (Col 2) The rules were neither holy nor helpful; neither righteous nor realistic. Paul sees that rigid rules are useless to restrain indul­gence. They but fuel our foolish fantasies of all that we mistakenly think we’re missing.

In view of what he took to be Christ’s soon coming back, Paul thought it best not to assume the responsibilities of marriage. But, he advised marriage for any that, without it, would burn with unmet needs for intimacy. (I Cor 7) Lewis noted the Prayer Book’s wisdom: If you can’t be chaste (and most of you can’t), get married. He quipped: “This may be brutal sense, but to a man it is sense and that’s that.”

In 1960, Lewis wrote to petulant painter (and homosexual) Delmar Banner to say that he supported decriminalization of homosex­uality and (in pre-pc terms) he told Banner that he supported “the persecuted homo against snoopers and busybodies.” Thirty years before, Banner had married the sculptor, Josefina de Vasconcellos, a devout and cheerful Christian, who learned early on that it was to be a sexless marriage. It lasted 53 years. In 2005, 22 years after his death, she died at 100. But in all our circumstances, even in those we don’t complicate by unwise choices, God’s strengthening grace and wisdom is needed in dealings with others. So, Paul prays:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept each other, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Earlier, Paul recalled that we were sinners when Christ died for us. (5:8) He’d wished that he might be cursed so his kinsmen might be blessed. (9:3)

Well then, if the weak do see the strong as sinners, should they not imitate Christ instead of condemning? Should they not be up for sacrificing self, at least their condemnation, on behalf of their stronger kin? And, if the strong do see the weak as beneath them, in imitation of Christ, should they not be up for sacrificing self, at least their disdain, on behalf of their weaker kin? Can’t we all, at least, stop holding each other hostage to our consciences?

As one writer says: “Jesus didn’t die on the cross to make a point. He died on the cross to save people whom he loves.” (John Stackhouse) And we, his followers, are not called to make a point. We’re called to point to Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world! We’re called to walk his narrow way of loving all with the love with which Jesus died to love us. It doesn’t matter if someone’s not our cup of tea. It doesn’t matter if we’re not some­one’s cup of tea. What matters is that, in Christ Jesus, we’re all God’s cups of tea.

Lewis argued the case for “a standard of plain, central Chris­tianity (‘mere Christianity’ …) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.” Controversies of the moment come and go. In perspective, they’ve been seen as no more central to “mere Christianity” than are today’s disputes. Ours, too, will pass, but sadly, not before taking a toll on souls.

Jesus prayed to his Father for us all: “That the love with which you have loved me may be in them so I may be in them.” And he said it would be by our love for one another that we’d be known as his disciples. (John 13:35) It’s in the truth of our being reconciled to God in Christ that we can freely afford a reconciling love with one another, for the love by which we’re to love one another is the very love by which we’re loved by God in Christ.

One hundred years ago, Kate Hankey fell asleep in Jesus. She awaits the Resurrection. She wrote the song: I Love to Tell the Story of Jesus and His Love. Whether gay or straight, weaker or stronger in faith, the one and only wondrous story is “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” We’re called to walk and talk this story all along the narrow way. To walk it is, so to rest in God’s love that, in gratitude, we love God with all we are, all we have, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Matt 22:37-40) To talk it is, so to love God and others that, in gratitude, we share this old, old good news story that “makes those it justifies to tremble and consoles those it condemns.” (Blaise Pascal) This is the gospel: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting peoples’ sins against them.” (II Cor 5:19)

For so many, the story is not this good news of Jesus and his love. Whether nominally theist or pagan – moralist, legalist, relativist, secularist, atheist, polytheist or pantheist – the stories are egoistself-consumed, and so: self-consuming. So, sadly, folks are locked up all alone, lost inside their sin-sick selves – upset, sore, spent, cynical, showing off yet suspicious and scared. And some of our closest neighbors rationalize a sense of entitlement to entrapment in such self-obsession. They need to find the way out in the One who is, himself the Way, the Truth, himself and the One who is, himself, Life – “such a Way as gives us breath, such a Truth as ends all strife, such a Life as killeth death.” (George Herbert)

If, in Jesus’ answered prayer, his Father’s love for him is in us and he’s in us and we’re alive only in his Life, then what are we doing to help others know him? What are we doing that hinders their getting to know him? God wept over the lost of Nineveh, Jesus wept over the lost of Jerusalem and Paul, in tears, implores Christians through the ages to weep over the lost of their own gen­erations: “Wake up! Stop fooling around, for some don’t have a clue about God. I say this to your shame.” (I Cor 15:34)

Does this old, old story of Jesus and his love turn us from foolish fixation with things of indifference – identity politics and queer-fashioned religion and all the rest of our distraction with trivia – to love the self-entrapped toward him who loves us all to the uttermost? Will the old, old story of Jesus and his love, be our theme, here and now and in the glory of the New Earth and New Heavens forever, together with them?

By God’s grace in Christ, we go Home empty-handed. By God’s grace in Christ, we’ll go Home hand-in-hand.

©2011 Ralph Blair.  All rights reserved.

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