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Handling Our Differences in a Pandemic
Rom 15:1–13 – May 17, 2020

Introduction

Opening announcements:

Marriage retreat. Craig Cabaniss. Pastor from Frisco, TX. One of the Trinity Fellowship Churches.

Matthew Hodges preaching next week on evangelism. Brother of Sam Hodges. Was pastor for community outreach FBD for 7 years. Now works with Corporate Chaplains of America.

Church name suggestions…

Sunday night service—6:30pm tonight in the backyard.

  • Time of singing, short devotional thought, microphone for people to come up and pray.
  • Tent in the backyard, scattered picnic tables throughout the lawn.
  • Much of the building closed, but bathrooms open.
  • Asking people to keep a safe distance, 6’.
  • Instead of high-fiving, think of it as “Galatians Fiving”—Gal 5:13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
  • Mask friendly space. I don’t know how many will be wearing masks, but feel free to do so.
  • We know not everyone is comfortable yet to gather like this. Feel free to stay home if you prefer.

Upcoming Sunday morning service.

  • You may have heard a judge stopped the part of the governor’s order about churches gathering.
  • Even though the restriction is lifted, we’ll need at least a couple weeks to get things in place to meet safely.
  • What can you do? We need additional adult ushers. For this next phase we won’t be using ushers under 18, which means we need more ushers.
  • Contact the office or WILL HENDERSON.
  • Basic plan is two services, 9am and 11am. Give us time to clean the facility between services.
  • Likely going to organize by home groups, so hgls let us know your time preferences.

Lord willing, as we take steps everyone stays healthy and step by step we get back to normal.

  • It’s the “Trust but verify” approach. We trust that we’re doing the right thing, but we’ll verify it along the way.
  • As the people of God we care for one another’s spiritual well-being but that also means caring for one another’s physical well-being. We’re trying to take steps to do both right now.

Making these adjustments to our normal ministry in the church is not our preference.

  • Navigating what the governor is or isn’t saying hasn’t been fun.
  • None of us are doctors and only a few of us are lawyers. Yet we’ve had to make decisions on a pandemic that’s bringing complicated executive orders from our governor.
  • When you take something involving the government and add a pandemic that shuts down the nation’s economy and throw in a group of Christians that take God’s word very seriously, you’re going to get differences of opinions.
  • Judging by blogs and sermons right now, it doesn’t seem like our church is alone in seeing our differences come out a bit.[1]

None of us thought we needed to be tested for COVID. But it looks like God wants each of us to have a COVID test.

Friday morning the elders decided to take a break from our Deuteronomy series and give a little time to discussing Christian unity.

For our passage, Romans 15:1–13.

Diving into the middle of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the Roman church you had Christians who were struggling with how to live out the Christian life especially in matters of the Law of Moses. That’s familiar ground. Saw that in Galatians.

The gospel itself is unchanged. You are saved through faith in Christ. But once you’re saved you have to decide how you’re going to live your life. Will you eat meat or adopt the OT dietary laws? Will you forget the Jewish calendar altogether or treat some days as special, maybe even the Sabbath?

In Rome it doesn’t seem that the issue was salvation. When the issue is salvation, Paul is fierce and uncompromising. See Galatians.

But when the issue is our behavior as a Christian, Paul is very broad-minded. He’s clear in his conscience: None of the ceremonial laws or dietary laws are binding on the Chrsitian. He is free to eat meat and ignore the commands to sacrifice.

But he also knows that people don’t change overnight. Sometimes it takes a while for our conscience to catch up to our gospel message. If we’ve lived our whole lives not eating a certain food because of the Old Testament, it might take a while to feel free in our conscience to eat it.

Paul divides people into the weak and the strong. The strong are those who feel free in their consciences to live as Christians and abandon a lot of the Jewish laws.

The weak are those who are true Christians and believe in Jesus—but they still feel guilty when they break with Jewish traditions and food laws and ceremonies.

Paul knows people. If you’re the strong one, you’re tempted to look down on the weak: “Get over it! Don’t be such a Pharisees!”

If you’re the weak, you’re tempted to judge the strong: “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care at all about holiness, do you?”

Jewett’s commentary:

The frown of the legalist is just as inappropriate for the realm of Christ as the disdainful smile of the liberated.
R. Jewett, Romans[2]

But our conscience isn’t something to trifle with. If your conscience is speaking to you, listen! Romans 14:22–23:

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom 14:22–23)

But with COVID, how does this fit?

  • Not a perfect fit. But there are some related issues.
  • How should a Christian respond to government orders? This can be a conscience issue. Wherever we land, other Christians will disagree.
  • Our response to COVID itself, the disease. Some think it’s right to wear masks, others don’t. Some think keeping a safe distance is right, others don’t.
  • There can be issues of conviction here. Again, wherever we land, other Christians will disagree.
  • This isn’t theoretical because it all connects within our little church here.
  • The elders and other leaders will make decisions. In many cases you can’t do two things, you have to pick. You can’t both wear and mask and not wear a mask.

Romans 15 speaks to how we handle differences within our Christian faith.

  • The issue here isn’t the deity of Christ. We don’t allow for differences as Christians on that point. We fight for God’s truth.
  • The issue here isn’t how a person is saved. We don’t allow for differences as Christians on that point. We fight for salvation by grace through faith in Christ.

Romans 15 speaks to issues within our Christian faith where faithful Christians land in different spots. It gives us helpful reminders about how to live them out.

Sermon: We’re going to use Rom 15:7 as the organizing idea: (1) “Welcome one another (2) as Christ has welcomed you, (3) for the glory of God.”

Prayer

I. Welcome One Another

Verse 7 says to “welcome one another.” Same verb used in 14:1, the beginning of this long section.

Different translations capture it with different words: “welcome” (ESV); “accept” (NASB, NIV); “receive” (NET).

Used in Acts 28 and Philemon: 

The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. (Acts 28:2)
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. (Phlm 1:17)

Douglas Moo, “‘Receive’ means more than ‘tolerate’ or ‘give official recognition to’; Paul wants the Roman Christians to accept one another as fellow members of a family, with all the love and concern that should typify brothers and sisters” (891).

You can see this “love and concern” throughout the passage:

  • V1 – When we encounter the “weaknesses of the weak,” we aren’t to despise them. We’re to “bear” them. Same verb as used in Gal 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
  • V2 – We aren’t to be stand-offish with people who are struggling somehow. We are to “please our neighbor for his good, to build him up.” We get involved in such a way that they are built up.
  • When you’re feeling tension with someone, tapping into differences between you, the temptation is not just to keep your “social distance”—you keep your “relational distance.”
  • But in the church God calls us to step toward one another, not away.
  • To do things that build others up.

Verses 5 – “live in harmony with one another.” “Live in such harmony” (V5) is a Greek phrase Paul uses several times in his writing. It means, “to think the same thing.” Sometimes translated “be of the same mind” or be “like-minded” (Phil 2:2; 4:2; Rom 12:16).

Can’t press this out to mean we have to have the same perspective on every issue. But it does mean we have found a way despite our differences to be at peace and accept one another as we are.

What about this season of COVID, how does this apply?

  • There are a ton of personal preferences being stepped on right now.
  • No matter where you land on issues like masks and wearing gloves and keeping a safe distance between people, you bump into people who feel differently…all the time.
  • But Rom 15 would say to hold your preferences lightly for the sake of your brothers and sisters in the church.
  • And remember, Paul was saying this when the issue had to do with a person’s Christian conscience. The issues weren’t pizza toppings—me, pepperoni and extra-chees; you, veggie supreme.
  • Issues were dietary laws and ceremonial days in the Jewish calendar.
  • Issues that impacted a person’s Christian conscience.
  • The strong one in Romans 14–15 is free in his conscience to do something that someone else isn’t. Paul tells the strong one to take care of the weak one. Bear their weaknesses well.
  • For the weak one, he tells them not to be judgmental:

Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. (Rom 14:3)

Issues unique with COVID where unity can be affected:

First, the disease isn’t fully understood.

  • More is understood than in March, certainly more than in January. I was reading quotes from major news outlets from January. Oops.
  • But we have a ways to go yet before we fully understand COVID.
  • It can be easy to blast doctors and politicians as if you know better. Or to pick your news sources according to your preferences and then proudly judge other news sources.
  • We all have our favorite voices.

As Christians we have a complicated relationship with the world.

  • We know that the best of us see in part and through a mirror dimly, as Paul says. God alone possesses omniscience.
  • And we know that every heart has sinful agendas that cloud our thinking. Only Jesus escaped this. Only he had perfect discernment rooted in a sinless perfection—and divine omniscience.
  • The rest of us are a mixed bag.
  • Christian or non-Christian, this is the case.
  • But Christians also understand what it means that all people are made in the image of God. No person’s sinful nature destroys the image of God totally.
  • And as Christians we understand common grace. Throughout the Bible people who aren’t redeemed, aren’t the people of God, play parts according to their gifting.
  • People gifted in art from outside the nation of Israel helped with Solomon’s temple (2 Chr 2:7). Governing officials throughout the Bible act on behalf of God’s people.
  • God’s common grace is on his people and those who aren’t his people, that’s why it’s called “common grace.”
  • God’s people haven’t done well when they isolated themselves from the best thinkers of the day.
  • There is a kind of “Fundamentalism” that is also an “Isolationism.” We don’t want that.
  • We want the kind of “Fundamentalism” of a Greshem Machen, who stood for the true fundamentals of Christianity. But not in a way that isolated him from the wisdom to be gained by those even outside the church. He never forfeited his Christian discernment. But he also didn’t isolate himself from the world around him.

So, Christians have a complicated relationship with the world.

  • That was proven last week when Christian lawyers worked to get a restraining order placed on the governor’s restrictions on churches.
  • The judge sided with the Christian lawyers. The likely outcome now is that whatever executive orders come our way in NC, churches will have freedom to meet—even indoors.
  • We praise God for that development.
  • It’s a good picture of the strange dance we do as those “in the world” but not “of the world.”

Back to our lack of knowledge: Our knowledge isn’t 100%. As elders we might need to adjust our plans as things develop and we learn more. Maybe that means loosening things up more. Maybe it means tightening more. We don’t know.

  • But it does seem that if Paul could freely eat meat or not eat meat based on those around him, freely honor a Jewish sacred day or not honor it depending on those around him, or freely receive payment for his ministry or not receive payment and work as a tentmaker, we can adjust our behaviors for this season according to those around us.

Martin Luther captured the spirit of this well in one of his famous essays. He opened with this as the basic thesis:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian”

The issues we’re discusing here have to do with adjusting our behaviors as we gather. No one is binding your conscience. In your conscience, it’s between you and the Lord. In that case you are “a perfectly free lord of all, subject to one”—except God himself, of course.

But as we gather, we’ll adjust our behaviors freely for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. For the sake of our witness to the world. For the sake of winning people to Christ. I do that because I’m also “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

Now, if these issues only had to do with you and me, life lived at a horizontal level, this would be tough medicine.

Paul doesn’t stay at the purely human level. He elevates this whole idea. Why do we accept one another as we are and even adjust our behavior for the sake of others?

Because of Christ!

II. As Christ Has Welcomed You

The example Paul returns to is Jesus himself.

Why please our neighbors for his good? Because that’s what Christ did. He is the ultimate example of not living for yourself. Not living to please himself.

Paul quotes Ps 69:9 to summarize all that Christ suffered for others.

For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Rom 15:3)

He suffered and died at the hands of God’s enemies. Those “reproaches” fell hard on him.

It was words spoken against him. Beatings. Crucifixion. Rejection. Betrayal. Friends forsaking him. Those who hated God hated him. Those who pretended to love God hated him. Those who loved God but were weak turned on him.

That’s the example Paul sets before us as we step out to serve others and prefer others.

And then Christ is held up as our example for “welcoming” others.”

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom 15:7)

“Christ has welcomed you.” He accepted us, received us, embraced us. Isn’t that amazing? The one who had most reason to turn us away “welcomed us.”

But all of this is placed in a larger context. A larger purpose. What is God doing by taking this ragtag band of gypsies that is the church and bringing them together in Jesus Christ? He’s creating the ultimate worship service!

III. For the Glory of God

Why is it that we should welcome others as Christ has welcomed us? For the glory of God. The result is to be praise, worship, glory given to the one who deserves it!

This bleeds through the whole passage:

Verse 6 – “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Verse 7 ­– “for the glory of God”

Verses 9–12 – he pulls from the three main parts of his OT to point out that this was God’s plan all along.

Verse 9 from the Writings/Histories – Quoting Ps 18:49/2 Sam 22:50

Verse 10 from the Law – quoting Deut 32:43

Verse 11 from the Writings/Wisdom – Ps 117:1

Verse 12 from the Prophets – Isa 11:10

All is moving toward a glorious time of gathered worship. And he gives us a comprehensive picture of praise.

Verse 9 “glorify God for his mercy”

Verse 9 “praise” is a Greek word that has to do with “confessing or declaring God’s greatness.” And then “sing”—has to do with singing!

Verse 10 “Rejoice”

Verse 11 “praise”

More than just our voices, but our voices are involved.

More than just our hearts, but our hearts are filled with joy in declaring his praise.

More than just songs, but there will be songs and instruments and music.

And the glory is not just in WHAT we’re doing, but in who we’re doing it with.

  • We’re doing it together!
  • This misfit band of wayward orphans and prodigal sons and daughters gathers together to declare the mercy of God!

Conclusion

To accomplish this takes nothing short of a miracle, but Paul in this passage points us to the source of this miracle in two powerful texts.

Verse 5 – May the God of endurance…grant you to live in harmony

Verse 13 – May the God of hope fill you with all joy…by the power of the Holy Spirit…

God is holding out to us the treasures of perseverance, encouragement, unity, hope, joy, peace.

But he must be the one to provide these “by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Holy Spirit come! Bring to this church this treasure!

Be glorified, O God:

  • Jesus, who bore reproaches and welcomed us
  • Spirit who is the power of God and the bringer of hope
  • Glorious Father who is working all things for good, so that all your people are gathered in Christ to declare your praises

[1] Excellent blogs on this: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-dont-let-coronavirus-divide/; https://jspoulton.wordpress.com/2020/05/12/three-thoughts-on-navigating-potential-conflict-in-reopening-church/.

[2]Romans, Hermeneia (Fortress, 2007), 840.