One in Christ
This past week I came across the story of Ruth Graham, wife of the evangelist Billy Graham. It seems that, in the 1970s, Mrs. Graham made a trip to Germany. One day she had lunch with the wives of conservative German pastors. Mrs. Graham dressed nicely and respectably for this nice and respectable event. She was, I am sure, a model of decorum. The clergy wife seated across from her, however, became visibly upset. It seems that, in the theological opinion of these women’s community, it was considered reprehensible for a married Christian woman to wear makeup or to be clothed in anything influenced by contemporary tastes in fashion. Such things made women look too much like “the world.” Mrs. Graham clearly hadn’t even tried to obscure the fact that she was wearing mascara! The woman across from her became so upset that she literally cried bitter tears right into her glass of beer. Ruth Graham, all this while, had no idea what was so distressing to this woman, although she herself was truly bothered that any self-respecting pastor’s wife would be drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade.
We Christians have always had strong disagreements about what our faith should mean regarding questions of lifestyle, and we’ve been tempted to judge and condemn others for opinions that do not match our own. We see this in our text for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to one of the very first Christian communities ever. It has factions. There is the group whom Paul calls “strong.” They eat every type of food, they observe all days of the week as holy; they may also drink wine. The group he identifies as “weak” apparently do not eat meat (perhaps because pagan butchers had sacrificed it to their gods?). They keep one particular day as special (perhaps the Sabbath?). They do not drink wine. Today, those who live with the most obvious religious regulations on their lives often call themselves the “strong” Christians, while they judge those who have fewer such regulations – who drink wine for instance, or spend fewer hours per week at church – as “weak.” Paul considers the less regulated Christians to be strong because they don’t need as many structures and mandates in order to live as followers of Christ in the world. They can do it on the power of their faith alone. But Paul doesn’t hold one group in higher esteem than the other. He acknowledges their differences of practice, then gets to his point: neither side should judge the other but rather make respectful room for them. The gift of our redemption in Christ has created broad, broad space to accommodate us all. Uniformity of practice should not be our goal, but only faithfulness of spirit.
Paul tells the Christians in Rome that we are all equal and equally valued humble servants in the household of God. Has any house servant the right to judge another? No. He tells them that the freedom we have in Christ extends to all things we might do that honor God. He tells them that when we judge others we assume for ourselves a role that belongs only to God, and herein lies the truly great challenge to our faith – self-idolatry. We would never consciously say, “I idolize myself” – of course not – but to Paul that is exactly what we do when we rationalize our judging and condemning of others. In our passage from Genesis we read of Joseph, who, if anyone, might be said to have reason to condemn. His brothers had tried for years to destroy him! And Joseph will not condemn, but only forgive.
As with Ruth Graham’s trip to Germany and the schisms in the church in ancient Rome, theological beliefs regarding lifestyles are a source of tension in the church today. Some communities are at odds on the question of alcohol, or dancing, or card playing. An Amish community, that I once lived near, in Pennsylvania was divided on the issue of co-ed swimming. The most encompassing issue today is, of course, homosexuality. Some members of the Anglican communion are attempting to split off from that body over the issue. In at least one other denomination, I know that there is the tacit understanding that if its governing body should act in any way affirming of homosexuality a significant group will split off, and this has shut down real conversation. One of the leaders of the effort to split the Anglican communion is a Nigerian bishop who, at a global meeting of bishops in Lambeth several years ago was quite vocal about what he saw as the incompatibility of Christianity and homosexuality. He preached and he ranted about the abomination of same-sex relationships and then, in closing, he stormed out of the assembly . . . . followed by his two wives.
You heard me – two wives. Apparently in Nigeria polygyny is considered quite compatible with Christianity, to the extent that a denomination’s leader is quite public about his own practice of it. In American culture, of course, such a thing is broadly considered a moral abomination, unnatural. It is also illegal. Last weekend I returned from a trip to Tanzania with 15 Princeton students. We were learning about religion, human rights and social change in that country. I was interested to discover that polygyny – the having of multiple wives – is practiced in numerous communities there, regardless of the person’s religious affiliation. There are many Christian men who have more than one wife, basically because polygyny historically has been practicised in their community, but it is also now defended on Christian grounds. It is, in fact, biblical - the Bible tells us about many polygynous men in the societies that gave rise to Christianity. The Bible also testifies to the sexual use of female slaves – Thomas Jefferson, in his siring of children with Sally Hemings, didn’t do anything that Father Abraham didn’t do. Our group in Tanzania also heard practical defenses of polygyny, including the mention that pregnant wives were deficient in intimate relations and so having another wife simultaneously was a most reasonable solution. (I’ll spare you now my personal thoughts on that argument!) The Holy Bible, of course, lends support (to those who want to find it) to the institution of human chattel slavery, and slaveholders in this country waved the Bible high in defense of it straight into 1865. Like polygyny, the Bible also points to the accepted practice of summary mob executions in the street. Jesus, you will remember, stopped one. Not everything common to the societies in the Bible is holy.
Including, in my humble opinion, their prejudice and sometimes violent attitudes towards homosexuals. I think I would be a coward if I preached a sermon on this passage from Paul and its relevance today – about the depth of passion and conflict we have in our churches – while acting as if I were above, or immune from, the fray. To get the most out of Paul’s instruction for us today – instruction about remaining one in Christ as we live with deep theological divisions – I should tell you that I find no inconsistency with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the love that God does send to flourish between two people of the same sex. We will all be judged by God on the basis of how we have treated those we loved – were we honest, were we fair, did we cherish, support, and nurture. Did we abuse, disregard, use for our own selfish purposes? There is much more that I can say on the topic of homosexuality regarding biblical exegesis, history, theology, and culture, and why I think that inclusion and civil rights for gay people is an imperative for a justice-seeking church. I can tell you, though, that when the sentences I’ve just uttered go on the web on our Chapel sermon page, I may well get hate mail. And speaking of cowardice, it will likely be anonymous. This has been my experience. As in ancient Rome, passions run high.
We at the Princeton University Chapel are a theologically diverse community of seekers. We are not of one opinion on anything. Some of the folks who’ve been worshiping here the longest have very different beliefs than mine regarding homosexuality. But we do as Paul teaches us – we know that we are one in Christ, and so we come together again and again to worship and pray and talk and listen. We do not make our personal convictions the standard of our measure of the very validity of other people’s faith. “Judge not,” said Jesus. Paul tells the Romans the same, and so we try hard, sometimes against our most human instincts, to do it, too. We are a University Chapel, and so we do not fear but rather welcome new ideas. There are many Christian communities where this is not the case – where people of differing theological perspectives do not worship together, or talk or listen or pray. It’s also the case on this campus. There are Christian groups here that do not welcome a plurality of views, and where you will be made unwelcome if you espouse certain theological opinions. A number of you today are new students, or residents, in Princeton; if you do not share my own opinions, I hope you’ll come back here anyway. All are truly welcome and respected here really.
Because Christ taught (and Paul reminds us) that while we may disagree to the very depths of our being on questions of a lived faith, we remain one in Christ. We are always one in Christ, because the truth and power of Christ’s Lordship is infinite, and therefore never challenged by our disagreements, no matter how theologically important. This can be very hard, when we find ourselves squared off against people whose opinion’s seem to us to be anti-Christian. In this country denominations split on the question of slavery. Sometimes people walk off from one another, declaring that the other party has separated itself from Christ. It’s easy now to say that the pro-slavery folks were wrong, religiously and morally. Intense battle lines are drawn today regarding homosexuality, and some are ready to say that the opinion of others separates them from the community of Christ. I have strong beliefs on the matter, and I’m holding on to Christ and to his apostle Paul in hopes of the spiritual strength I need not to judge, not to condemn, but to live into all understanding, with religious integrity, professing Christ and his mercy as I go, and that my opponents will do the same. Mascara and beer, meat and wine, homosexuality and polygyny – our cultures and congregations teach us such different things. May we listen – together! - for the voice of Christ in it all.
WorkingPreacher.org, Sept. 14, 2008, Mark Reasoner, Romans 14: 1-12
Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation Series, Westminster John Knox Press.