Here in the United States we talk about being a melting pot; that’s our national myth.
We come from all over the world, but as we become U.S. citizens we become culturally the same, or so the legend goes. In Canada they use a different image. We come from all over, they say, but we each retain our own particularities as we together form a country. We’re like a salad that is a whole but with distinctive and recognizable parts, each of which contributes its own flavor and taste. I think that is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, though it is the first of the epistles in our New Testament, is likely the last of the letters we have that were written (or dictated) by the Paul himself. Actually it is more a discourse than a letter. For Paul it seems to be a means of presenting himself and his understanding of the gospel to the believers in Rome. Some folks call it Paul’s masterpiece. It is written in the sophisticated (though to us rather convoluted) rhetorical style of the time.
It is deep.
One commentator said, “Anyone who claims to understand Romans fully is, almost by definition, mistaken.” I will not make such a claim.
What does seem clear is that as he writes to the believers in Rome, Paul is dealing with many of the same dynamics that have been and continue to be problematic in the house churches that have been established in many places: that is, the strained relationship between Jews and Greeks as they try to be church together. I cannot emphasize too strongly that this—Jews, as Jews, and Greeks, as Greeks, together in one group of believers—was a new thing. There was no template to follow.
The amazing, ground-breaking good news of Jesus Christ as Paul understands it is that Gentiles as well as Jews have been welcomed into the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ. The God of the Jews is no longer the God of just the Jews. This really upsets the fruit basket. It breaks down barriers that once kept people apart and things in order. Now a new, totally different order has to be established.
How do these diverse Jesus followers interact as fellow believers committed to being one body when before they had either no interaction at all or only on the most basic, disconnected levels? How do they live into something that’s not yet been experienced? The question for us might be: How do we in 2015 live into a Spirit-filled reality that continues to break down barriers and brings us face-to-face with our differences within the body of Christ?
Paul starts with a fact that for him is unassailable: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).
If you believe in Jesus as the Word and revelation of God and have committed yourself to standing before God as your judge in everything you do as you follow Jesus in life, you are at the right starting and ending point. This is the commitment each person must make; it is the most important part. Less important are the things we do or do not do as expressions of our faith or of our desire to live a faithful life.
We are steeped in a pervasive culture of individualism.
We assume we will each choose our own path. But Paul’s message is still relevant. No matter how much we think we are self-determined, we all come out of cultures and traditions that carry powerful assumptions. We tend to feel slighted when these assumptions are challenged or dismissed. That was certainly the case among the early Christians.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions,” Paul writes. “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. … Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (Romans 14:1-2, 5).
What you eat, who you eat it with, which days are kept sacred—these are not small or unimportant details. In fact, they are the kinds of things that provide definition to religious traditions. The folks who made up the first Christian communities brought with them strong expectations about what it means to be faithful God-worshippers. These expectations didn’t always match up.
I remember what it was like to have strong expectations of how to live, what to wear (or not wear) and how to worship growing up in a tight Old Mennonite community in Cheraw, Colo. There were lots of rules that had been put into place in order to protect and define our community. The purpose was to keep us focused on being disciples of Christ, to be able to withstand the corrupting influence of the world. That’s a good purpose.
However, not discounting the intent, these rules were just rules for that time, put in place by people of that time. They weren’t what God required of us or of others. They really didn’t have any effect on our salvation (though sometimes we were told they would). However, for many in the church these rules were important. They needed them and felt stronger because of them.
We are committed to building up the community in order to be a witness to the world.
Paul writes: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (Romans 15:1-2). I saw this lived out by my mother. When I was a girl, the women in our church all had long hair, which they put up in a bun, and they all wore coverings, small white-net caps that they pinned on their heads for worship. As I grew older, I questioned these things. At one point my mother said to me, “Betsy, I know it’s not important to God whether or not I have long hair or wear a covering. However, I love and trust the community of faith. So as long as the community thinks these things are important, I will continue to do them.”
This made a strong impression on me. It broadened my thinking and increased my acceptance of things I did not particularly believe or understand.
As a worshipping community—in our congregations, our conferences, our denomination, the Communion of Mennonite and Anabaptist churches around the world—we are people who come before God with many different understandings of what it means to be faithful. Because we are all fallible human beings, we tend to concentrate more on the last part of that phrase—with many different understandings—than on the first part—we come before God. Paul reminds the believers in Rome that as members of the body of Christ, they must trust each other to be faithful, each according to his or her own understanding.
“Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord,” he writes. “Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. … Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he continues. “Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God’ ” (Romans 14:6, 10-12).
This brings me back to the salad.
As Anabaptist Christians, we’re all in the same bowl. We aspire to be something tasty, appealing—a mix that brings out the best in each of us as well as the whole. But this won’t work if we’re all lettuce or all tomatoes or if all the lettuce and tomatoes get smushed together so that neither is recognizable and the result is unappetizing. In a salad, each element needs to maintain its own particularity.
Sometimes we know the ingredients well, but sometimes there are new and unexpected bits—strawberry slices, walnuts, pieces of bleu cheese, bacon crumbles, craisins.
These make us stop and recalculate: “Well, this is interesting.”
Not all the additions are tasty to everyone.
But there they are, part of the salad, bringing their own unique flavors, opening up unconsidered possibilities and challenging us all to expand our palates. The make-up of the salad itself is not actually the most important thing; it is to whom and for whom the salad is offered. “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). It is God and God only who will be the judge.
We who are Gentiles are greatly indebted to the Apostle Paul, for whom it was astounding good news that through Jesus Christ even those who were not Jews were now part of God’s chosen people. This message—Paul’s life-changing epiphany—is not limited to the Jews and Greeks of ancient church history. All of us here and now and across time in our own particularities are chosen and accepted by God. The words of Romans 15:7 sum up Paul’s message: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
May God be glorified among us.
Betsy Headrick McCrae is pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood, Colo. This article is adapted from a sermon she gave there.