A Sermon preached on Sunday 14th September (Pentecost XIV) at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
This morning I want to introduce you to adiaphora – does anyone know who or what that is? Someone’s name perhaps, or a place or a river? I suppose it could be any of those, but in fact it is what Paul is writing about in the extract from Romans we heard from this morning. The original Greek word literally means ‘indifferent things’ and for Christians stands for matters not regarded as essential to our faith, though still permitted.
Paul gives us two examples of such indifferent things and warns his readers, and us, against judging other Christians who take a different point of view about them than our own. First we have the question of what food to eat: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (14:2) he writes. Now this does not mean that vegetarians are weak or soft! On the contrary, my daughter is a vegetarian and when I see what lengths she sometimes has to go to get the food she wants, or how often her staple diet was Käsespätzle as the only veggie option on the menu, I have a lot of respect for her and her compatriots.
What Paul means by weak and strong is that the meat available was often ritually unclean. It might have previously been sacrificed to a deity before being sold on the market, that’s how the priests supplemented their income (as an aside: no I don’t sell the left over communion bread and wine after the service). And it would certainly not be kosher for those Jewish Christians still keeping to Jewish dietary laws. In other letters Paul has explained that neither is really a problem anymore. He told the Corinthians that, as the deities do not exist, it does not matter if the meat had previously been on one of their altars. While in Galatians he makes clear that the Jewish dietary laws are no longer compulsory, especially not for new, Gentile Christians. So ‘weak’ simply refers to those whose faith might be adversely impacted by eating unclean food because they still held to the importance of such restrictions. But both attitudes and practices are to be accepted by the other: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.” (14:3)
Paul’s second example, and one we might find easier to relate to, is about fast and holy days: “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” (14:5) Judaism had (and has) a lot of feasts and special fast days. We have taken some of them on, both Easter and Pentecost are in origin Jewish feasts and like the Jews we celebrate Harvest festivals – just at different times. And again Paul says that it doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we observe the days in honor of the Lord. This is one of many passages of Scripture that Christians have consistently ignored. During the time of the Commonwealth in 17th century England the Puritans abolished all festivals and feast days – especially Christmas – as being ungodly and unscriptural, though they also introduced a lot of compulsory fasting days: what a fun bunch of people they were! They missed the point, it’s the motivation that is important, not the celebration as such. Is it in honor of and dedicated to the Lord? Then it’s acceptable.
And what about today? Are particular ceremonies, vestments, hymns, prayer books essential? During the Night of the Churches 2 weeks ago I was called outside where a gentleman had written in chalk in front of our church the question: Is God Anglican? And by the way I have since spotted similar questions in front of other churches around town. Provocative as I am I answered yes. Of course God is Anglican, and I believe English too … before going on to say that God is also Catholic and Protestant and Jewish and none of them. God does not belong to a particular group or denomination. God is not Anglican – we are. It’s our particular way of worshiping and I love it, as I assume you do to. But it’s not essential and it’s not the only way to worship God.
What is essential and where do we find the essential or core elements of our faith? The Bible contains many essential commands, but not just. Some of them, both Old Testament commands such as the prohibition to wear clothes made of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19) and New Testament commands need to be seen in the context of the time and society in which they were written down. We need to weigh carefully, case by case, what is said and why it is said before we decide whether, for example the commands in Corinthians that woman are to be silent in church (1 Cor. 14:34) or to wear head covering (11:6) are essential or not.
Then we have what we call essential doctrines. Sola fides and sola scriptura – faith alone, for justification, and scripture alone, as a source of doctrine, are two essentials for many Reformation churches. The Anglicans have something called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, you will find this on page 878 of the BCP if you want to look it up, which lists four Anglican fundamentals: Holy Scripture as containing all things necessary for salvation, the Creeds as sufficient statements of Christian faith, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and the historic episcopate …… yes bishops are essential.
And both Paul in his letter to the Romans and Jesus in today’s parable have given us two essentials of Christian faith.
Paul has made clear that Christians are called to live in mutual respect and forbearance for one another. What people do is not essential, but what Christ did for them. Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus are welcomed equally because of Jesus’ own achievement in his death and resurrection. What is essential is belonging to Christ, and to Christ alone. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves,” (Romans 14:7) we are the Lord’s. And to make his point very clear Paul quotes what seems to be one of his favorite passages from Isaiah, he also uses it in Philippians (2:10): “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall give praise to God.” (Romans 14:11) So what is important is the one we serve, and if serving God in Jesus is the intention and motivation behind our practices then they are acceptable. What is core is accepting Christ’s sovereignty – over us and over life and death.
The second essential is forgiveness, as the rather drastic last line of Jesus’ parable makes clear: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35) We are called to imitate God and God’s mercy. God’s mercy is huge. The debt the king forgives in the parable - 10,000 talents - would be the equivalent of 10s of millions in today’s money. The debt the slave is being asked to forgive, a hundred denarii is miniscule in comparison, and yet he cannot find room in his heart for this small gesture, despite having received so much generosity from his king. Jesus is telling us that having a forgiving spirit is a core Christian duty, as our response to God’s forgiveness. It’s not a condition but part of a way of life in accordance with the new Covenant Jesus instituted at the Last Supper before his death on the Cross.
For both of the two essentials I just mentioned, Jesus’ sovereignty and forgiveness, can actually be described with that one word: Cross. Today would be the feast day of the Holy Cross – except that in our calendar Sunday takes precedence over what is considered just a Holy Day – there’s a non-essential practice for you! On September 14 335 AD a complex of buildings in Jerusalem that were to be place to venerate the Cross were dedicated. They were supposed to have contained a relic of the cross on which Christ was crucified that had been discovered during the excavations directed by Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. The Cross stands for Jesus’ sovereignty over life and death through his victory over death in the Resurrection. And the Cross also stands for our forgiveness and for the huge price God was willing to pay, not 10s of millions of Euros, but the painful death of God’s Son, our Lord and Savior. So I think a very good case can be made for the Cross being the essential core of our Christian faith. I’ll finish with the Collect for Holy Cross Day:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.