DIVERSE…YET TRULY ONE
A sermon on Romans 14: 1-12
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
September 13, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The title of this morning’s sermon may sound a little bit familiar to you. After all, it was taken from the hymn that we sung just a few moments ago, “We Are God’s People” by Bryan Jeffery Leech. I think that it is one of the finest concise statements about the nature of the church that was written in the 20th Century. (As far as I’m concerned, it ranks right up there with another great 20th Century hymn about the church, Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “God of Grace and God of Glory.”)
“We Are God’s People” is a hymn chock-full of biblical images that describe the church when it is at its best—images such as “chosen people,” “the Bride of Christ,” and the “Temple of the Holy Spirit.” He also uses some non-biblical imagery that is no less striking. For example, in the final lines of the hymn, Leech compares the church to logs in a fire. He writes, “We die alone, for on its own/ Each ember loses fire: / Yet joined in one, the flame burns on/ To give warmth and light, and to inspire.” It’s a great word-picture describing the nature of the church fellowship…
It is the third stanza that gives the sermon its title. The second half of it goes, “He wills us be a family, diverse yet truly one: / O let us give our gifts to God, / And so shall His work on earth be done.” I chose that phrase “diverse yet truly one” as the title because it seems to me that it conveys the idea that lies at the heart of Romans 14…1
Scholars have long debated just what problems the Apostle Paul may have been addressing in Romans 14. Perhaps the most likely scenario is this: On the one hand in the Roman congregation, there were some former Jews who, although they were now followers of Jesus, still believed that the Old Testament kosher food laws still applied. This would be especially true for those who continued the observance of Jewish high holy days. (Some have suggested that these Jewish Christians felt compelled to keep both the Sabbath on Saturday and then meeting with the church on Sunday, also known as “The Lord’s Day.”)
On the other hand, it seems that there were also some believers in the Roman church who had come out of a pagan background. For them, such Old Testament rituals and food practices that Jews used to obey were foolishness and had nothing to do with being a Christian. They did not see the point. And so they refused to take part in them.
1 Bryan Jeffery Leech, “We Are God’s People” in The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986), #283.
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It did not take long for each group to view the other with suspicion—and with a measure of condescension. It apparently got so bad that the congregation was in trouble and on the verge of splitting up over the issue. I dunno, but given our penchant for fussing over the faith, I would guess that there were probably some Baptists mixed in with those ex-Jews and ex-pagans…And just think of the troubles that would likely arise at the next church potluck dinner… (!) Most everyone would likely be offended for one reason or another by what was spread out on the tables…
You all know the name of Mark Twain. After all, he is one of America’s most celebrated writers. Twain died in 1910 and among his papers, he left a large collection of unfinished and unpublished manuscripts that did not see the light of day during his lifetime.
One of those unpublished works is an essay that has come to be known as “Cornpone Opinions.” Literary scholars believe that Twain had initially written the piece for publication in a literary magazine. But for reasons that are unclear, he does not seem to have ever submitted it anywhere.The essay was published for the first time in 1923, some thirteen years after his death. It has since become one of his better known short pieces.
In his own inimitable style, Twain tells a story of when he was a boy of fifteen growing up in Missouri along the banks of the Mississippi River. Among the more colorful characters he knew in his small town was a disreputable and unlettered man named Jerry. Now Jerry fancied himself to be a preacher and he could sometimes be found preaching in the town square. He was good at imitating the pulpit style of several of the clergymen of the village, and he did it with passion and energy. Twain remarks that he was fascinated by him.
Jerry worked at a sawmill, and would often practice his sermons while sawing wood. Twain wrote that he took great delight in listening to his sermons whenever he could through an open window of the mill. One particular text that he remembered Jerry preaching from was this one: “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions are.” In the essay, Twain points out the comical inconsistency between the definition of opinion as an individual’s conviction, with the fact that most people’s opinions are not their own, but are mostly derived from the people around them. Twain wrote in the essay,
Our table manners, and company manners, and street manners change from time to time, but the changes are not reasoned out; we merely notice and conform. We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule, we do not think, we only imitate. The outside influences are pouring in on us. We know that it is often a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination. I think that in the majority of cases, it is unconscious and not calculated.
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Mark Twain concludes his essay by writing, “We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. And out of it…[comes] Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the Voice of God.” 2
Dr. Molly Marshall is the recently retired president of Central Baptist Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. While I was a student at The Southern Baptist Seminary many years ago, she was on the faculty as one of the theology professors. In addition to her work at the school, she was also the part-time pastor of a small church out in the country for a number of years.
I heard her tell this story about her time there at this little country church. It seems that she happened upon a group of children playing together at the church one afternoon. As she watched, she saw that the children had decided to play “church.” The little chairs were all gathered into rows. One of the children would get up to lead “the singing,” waving his or her little arms around, and they would all sing. Next, another child would stand up in front of the group to “preach.” First one child, and then another, took their turns at being the preacher. Eventually one of the little boys in the group announced that it was his turn to be the preacher. Dr. Marshall said that she observed that one of the little girls told him in no uncertain terms, “Don’t be silly—boys can’t be preachers.”
And then it occurred to Dr. Marshall what she had been witnessing. She had been the pastor of this church for as long as these children had been attending it—probably for as long as they had been alive. Consequently she was the only preacher that they had ever seen in the pulpit. So it was natural for the children to assume that only women could be preachers and that men couldn’t. Why? Because it is what they had observed and had become accustomed to seeing…I daresay that acceptance of women in the pulpit is still a minority opinion in much of Baptist life…and frankly a lot of other denominations too…How much of that opinion is based on reason and study? And how much of it is based on merely custom and tradition and what people are used to seeing?…
At the beginning of Romans 14, the Apostle Paul discusses both weak and strong Christians within the fellowship. Ultimately, he says that each group should leave the other one in peace. He says that we are to accept one another as fellow believers in Christ. Why? It is because Christ has accepted them—and us. We need not march in lockstep on every little issue.
In verses 1 and 3, Paul uses the word “welcome” to describe the actions that he is counseling the believers—that we are to welcome one another in the Lord because God has welcomed them. The Greek word in each case is the same: pros-lä-bä’-nō. It is a word that does not merely mean to tolerate. Instead it means to show friendship to—to show hospitality to. And Paul says that we are to do that towards others—even with those with whom we disagree—because the Lord has done that for them…and for us. And if Jesus has done that for us, then surely we are to do that to others…
2 www.paulgraham.com/cornpone (Accessed September 8, 2020)
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In the Roman church, Paul tells both the strong and the weak to leave one another in peace. Both were guilty of judging one another and grading one another’s spirituality by their attitudes and actions. Like he was talking to a group of unruly children, Paul sternly tells them to “Knock it off!” It is God’s grace that enables us to be a part of his Kingdom. And that grace covers us ALL—even when we get are a bit too uptight or a bit too loose in the shaping of what we believe and how we express our faith.
A word of caution needs to be stated: It goes without saying that this kind of thinking applies only to issues that are rather peripheral to the faith. It does not apply to the central core of what we believe. We need to distinguish between that which is essential to our faith and things which can be considered as matters of opinion. And what is this central set of core beliefs to which we must cling? That Jesus is Lord…that Jesus taught the way of being reconciled to God…and that through his life, death and resurrection, we are made right with God and we are made participants in the kingdom that he is bringing. That is the essence of the gospel for which we contend. Those are the non-negotiables…
Everything else? Those things are opinions. Even when we think we may have sound biblical grounds for believing a particular opinion, it is still a nonessential. (I am sure that those who kept the kosher laws on Romans 14 thought they had a strong scriptural precedent for their beliefs as well…) What often makes for disagreements in church—and between different churches as well—is the attitude that, because we believe that we have sound biblical grounds for our position, that it must be the single and only correct understanding. Therefore, if someone disagrees with us, then they are obviously wrong because we have the backing of scripture.
Today, we are still struggling with this same issue found in Romans 14. But it is mostly NOT over food and days. Nowadays, conservative Christians look down their noses at those they consider to be more liberal, saying that they “just don’t believe the Bible.” Liberal Christians criticize conservative Christians, accusing them of ignoring the social implications of the Kingdom of God and the need to take care of the poor and defenseless. Churches that consider themselves to be more charismatic and “Spirit-filled” contrast themselves with those that are more liturgical in nature. Churches that embrace the contemporary worship music route with drums and guitars are at odds with those churches that worship in a more traditional style. And vice versa. The sad reality is that the one side is just as judgmental as the other…
The truth is this: Very few challenges in the Christian life can compare with the challenge of really loving one another in the Lord despite how different we all are within the church. If we were talking a good honest look at ourselves, then we would find that the task of building a loving community—both within the local church and between churches of different denominations—is a difficult task. We need to be accepting of Paul’s words that, since we are all under one Lord, we need to welcome and love one another even with the issues that make us different…even when we honestly disagree…even when our understanding of the faith differs…
Let us pray…This is a modern paraphrase of an ancient 9th Century prayer:
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Where charity and love prevail,
There God is ever found;
Brought here together by Christ’s love,
By love we are thus bound.
Forgive we now each other’s faults
As we our faults confess,
And let us love each other well
In Christian holiness.
Let strike among us be unknown,
Let all contention cease;
Be his the glory that we seek,
Be ours his holy peace.
Let us recall that in our midst
Dwells God’s begotten Son;
As members of his body joined,
We are in him made one.3
To God alone be the glory! Amen
DIVERSE…YET TRULY ONE