Sent: Saturday, January 25, 2003 5:56 PM
To: John Warrener
Subject: Sermon text from 1-22-03
I also attended the Lifewatch worship service, and I must say that I do not know where this reporter is coming from (except that she heard everything through her own bias and prism). If I do this correctly, I am forwarding the email which Sondra sent me.
I thought her sermon was excellent. She said some things which would be hard for both sides of the issue to hear. I do not think she promotes or "excuses" abortion at all. Perhaps several "letters to the editor" are in order!
Together in Christ,
The Bond of Peace in a Church in Conflict
Luke 18: 10-14
Rom: 12: 1-5; 9-18; 21
Paul's letter to the church at Rome is universally acknowledged to be his theological masterpiece. It is the place in which the central lines of his thought are developed in most detail, and where they reach their most eloquent and influential expression. It is no accident that momentous shifts in the history of Christian thought have traced to the reading of this classic text of the faith. Here Augustine found the core of his newborn Catholic theology; here Luther found again the living heart of the gospel when it had been obscured by centuries of complication and corruption; here a thousand, thousand modern searchers have found both conviction and faith, moved by Paul's proclamation of universal indictment and universal pardon.
Having said all that, it is not exactly an easy read. The structure of the letter is complex, and the twists and turns of Paul's argument surprise the reader again and again. Part of the reason for the challenges of Romans is that Paul has not been to Rome, and he writes here to a community of strangers to explain and defend his preaching of the gospel. But the larger and deeper root of the difficulty arises because this is a document flung like a bridge across two chasms, two deep and painful divides that cleave the people of God and challenge the very intelligibility of God's self revelation to humankind. The first chasm is that between those who accept the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and those who reject it. This is found by Paul in its most painful form in the failure of so many Jews to believe in the Messiah who had come to them, a grief and a mystery with which this letter wrestles throughout. And the second chasm, while not so wide, is every bit as perilous, for this is the fracture within the community of those who do believe. It is the divide within the church between those who understand Christian faithfulness to be ordered by the fulfillment of Torah, and those who see their faith as the freedom to do away with all that: to set the law aside as finally beneath them.
In regard to the church, Paul has before him a double task; to forge a connection across the divide, and to tell both sides that they are wrong: wrong frequently in what they think, but wrong especially in how they understand the importance of what they think, and most of all in how they treat those with whom they disagree. And it is to Romans, therefore, that those of us who see ourselves as fighting for the truth of the gospel and the shape of Christian faithfulness may come to find out how to fight like a Christian.
The immediate questions at issue in the Roman church concern diet and the observance of special days. We at our distance of two millennia are tempted to conclude that this is a squabble about trivialities, nothing like our own deeply serious struggles over matters of life and death. But if we think so, we are wrong. The dietary dispute is about the acceptability of meat which has been offered in sacrifice to other gods. It is about the possibility that partaking of such food will involve these new believers in nothing short of idolatry, the violation of the first and greatest commandment. And what Paul calls 'the honoring of days' has to do with the keeping of the Jewish calendar of observances, including probably the Sabbath, also the subject of command and part of what marks Israel as the bearer of God's gifts and promises to His people. The issue in the church at Rome is about the God to whom we belong and how we bear faithful witness to that, about the inheritance we carry and how that memory is cherished and passed on. It is as near to the bone as any church fight in history.
Thus it is particularly surprising that Paul has so little to say about his actual position on the matters in contention. The question of the observance of days elicits no judgment from him at all, and the matter of diet gets one summary sentence near the end of the discussion (14:14). Instead, he focuses his attention on what is required of each side toward the other. Those who eat [whatever meat is offered] must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall. (14:3-4a) Instead of taking a stand and using his authority as an Apostle to pronounce judgment, Paul condemns the heedless self-righteousness on both sides, each willing to cleave the body of Christ in the certainty of being in the right. He recalls both sides to the undisputed center of Christian existence, the spiritual worship of God in which the believer is unreservedly placed at God's disposal (12:1). Then, he tells them, you may prove what is the will of God, good and acceptable and perfect (12:2) And immediately Paul tackles the pride which has infiltrated the divided community, begging all parties not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, but with sober judgment, bearing in mind that they are one body, and so members of one another (12:3-5)
Paul's concern is first and foremost to re-set the bitter disagreement within the church in its proper place; it is a fight about how to honor God, not about whether to do so. It is a fight about the shape of Christian faithfulness and how we know it, not an argument between those who revere Christ and those who do not. And so it must be conducted as a dispute between siblings, not as a holy war to be undertaken with any weapons we can lay hands on. It must be conducted in a fashion suitable to those who remember the grace in which they stand, who know that the gulf that divides them from the holiness of God utterly dwarfs any moral difference between them and their opponents on this issue. It must, in short, be conducted in humility and charity: without arrogance; without presumption; without even the cast-iron certainty that makes us sure that we have nothing to learn from the other side and nothing to correct on our own. So he advises: Let love be genuine...outdo one another in showing honor....never be conceited....repay no one evil for evil...if possible, insofar as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all (12:9-18) And over all stands the exhortation, Ado not be conformed to this world (12:2).
Standing here, I know how hard this is to apply to our own situation and own most painful debate, how difficult even to listen to the suggestion. But the fact remains that there are those who support our national policy of essentially unlimited resort to abortion, and believe that they must do so out of Christian conviction. However deeply convinced we may be that they are wrong, however tragic and disastrous we may find that conclusion to be, we go wrong more fatally still if we neglect the truth that we have brothers and sisters who are our opponents on this issue C and remain our brothers and sisters still.
It is no easier for us to learn from Paul's admonitions now than it was for the Roman church 2000 years ago. In fact, it may be more difficult yet, for we have other models for how to fight much nearer to hand than the one Romans offers. The world is only too happy to teach us its ways of fighting: how to use sound bites and partial truths to capture the public sympathy, how to score points on television or in the legislature, how to demean or demonize our opponents, how to cloak ourselves in a righteousness that Paul has already told us none of us possesses. But if we in the church resort to such means, we will have destroyed the body in the name of excising the cancer that threatened it. That will be true even if we can be sure that our cause is perfectly just and our motives perfectly pure. And the world that taught us so to fight will watch avidly the spectacle of the church tearing itself limb from limb. But Paul has warned us, Do not be conformed to this world.
And if we fail to heed him, Paul would not be surprised. For he knew all too well the human tendency to hate and despise those with whom we deeply disagree. He knew our tendency to take our own truth to be self-evident, so that all who will not see it must be either malicious or stupid. He had already experienced the remarkable readiness of passionate advocates of one or another position within the church to make their own issue the dividing line between the real and the false Christians, and to consign the others to outer darkness. Nor would he be surprised to find in the midst of all this moral passion a readiness to ignore our own complicity and hardheartedness, our share in the evils we deplore.
So what, then? Are we to hold our peace, to say nothing and do nothing when it seems the church we love has gone badly wrong? When it has yielded its testimony about the giftedness of life, forgotten the compassion on the needy and helpless to which God calls it, all to accommodate a world in which care must always yield to expediency? That is not what Paul says either. Rather, he tells us that we are to hate what is evil while holding fast to what is good; that we are all accountable to God, that all stand alike convicted or excused in the court of their own conscience; and that those are blessed who have no reason to condemn themselves for what they have approved. The alternative to fighting as the world would have us is not indifference or paralysis, nor is it agnosticism about moral questions or falsification of our own convictions. It is honest, prayerful, accountable discernment.
But fighting as Paul would have us do it does require us first to heal ourselves; first to address our own real readiness to be hospitable to life, especially when it presents itself in forms less innocent and appealing than infants. We would have to ask ourselves the difficult questions: whether we are not too busy to care for the children born to others, too concerned about our own financial welfare to support public spending to care for these children after they are born, too preoccupied to provide their half-grown parents the adult support and guidance and discipline they might have needed to avoid unprepared pregnancy in the first place. In terms of the public world we share, it means that we must think and speak and act with consistency, expressing our commitment to life not just in our rhetoric but in our actions. And that means putting our time and money where our mouths are, not only in donations to crisis pregnancy centers but also as we participate in forming social policies about child care and medical insurance, housing and job training, family leave and community care for single and abandoned mothers.
Fighting like Christians means taking seriously all that our opponents on this issue, especially those within the church, have to teach us about the heavy and unequal burdens that women bear, and about the sly duplicity of our judgments about men and women and sex. It means coming to grips with the deadly indifference that allows us to pass each other unseeing on the street, to ignore the rising number of homeless families, to remain ignorant about the realities of mothers struggling to raise children alone. Only as we are willing to hear and grapple with the truths that others tell us can we claim to practice the hospitality toward life to which we call our brothers and sisters, and only then that we can speak our own truths with clarity and credibility in a world grown weary of posturing on all sides. Only thus can we undertake to overcome evil with good.
Finally, to fight as Christians means that we hold on to a difficult, even a scandalous truth, one near to the heart of the gospel: that what unites us to those within the church who oppose us, our common standing as sinners saved by grace, is deeper and more fundamental than all that divides us, even on a matter as grave and important as this. So now at the end it is my privilege to invite you to this table, the table that we have not laid but that has been laid for us. Amid conflict and pain, in the midst of the struggle to see and speak and live according to the truth, it remains the sign of the oneness of all Christians, the testimony to what God in Christ has done for us all. We come to it, as all Christians come, Accounting not on our own goodness but only on God's great and manifold mercies. And we must come, in Paul's words, Always eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
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