Sunday, September 17, 2017

Things indifferent

A Sermon preached on 17th September 2017, Pentecost XV 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 a new Greek word: adiaphora. I know it sounds like somebody's name, but in fact it is a word that theologians use to describe or distinguish between what is core to Christian faith and practice, and what can be considered to be a matter of indifference or spiritually neutral: something we can do but do not have to do.

Let me give you some easy examples. When I look around the church and watch you, I see lots of different practices. Some of you kneel and some stand for prayers. Some of you make the sign of the cross during the blessing, some don't. Some of you drink out of the cup at Communion and some of you intinct or dip your wafers into the wine. These are just some examples of adiaphora. Both practices are good and acceptable, and should never be a reason for division or conflict, although sadly in the history of Christianity they very often were.

This is what Paul is talking about in today’s extract from his letter to the church in Rome. In Rome, there seem to be two camps with very different attitudes about certain practices: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables,” (Romans 14:2) he writes. And “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” (14:5) What does he mean? The first issue is not just about being a vegetarian in the modern sense. The so-called “weak” – that appears to be the nickname given to them by those who consider themselves strong or stronger in faith – will not eat meat because they do not know where it comes from. Some will have been Jewish Christians, still keeping to their dietary laws, and worried whether the meat is kosher or not. Others may be concerned, as were some Christians in Corinth too, that the meat had previously been offered as a sacrifice to a pagan god. And so, to avoid contamination, they avoid eating meat completely. For Paul, this is just as acceptable as belonging to the other camp who are willing to eat meat, either because they believe that the dietary rules are not necessary to be a Christian or because they are sure that a non-existent deity can have no power.  What is not acceptable, Paul makes very clear, is for one group to pass judgement on the other or to look down on them. If both practices are OK, and a matter of personal taste and devotion, i.e. adiaphora, then both must be tolerated and neither judged by the other.

The same applies to the issue of special days. This could also be about whether Jewish festivals were still to be observed, or perhaps whether certain days of the week be reserved for fasting. It is not just a laughing matter, many centuries later, during the Commonwealth period in England when the Puritans where in power and, on the one hand, all the traditional festivals had been abolished, and on the other, special fasting days introduced, you could be brutally punished for celebrating the one, and not acknowledging the other! All wrong, Paul says. These are matters of personal piety. “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God.” (14:6) What matters is the motivation – is it to the glory of God? Or just to make yourself look good in front of your fellows? Is it an act of praise and thanksgiving or an excuse for excessive eating and drinking?

What matters most, Paul says, is what and who we put at the center of our lives. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.” I know that sounds a bit morbid, but all Paul is saying is that if not even death can separate us from Christ and from one another in Christ, then all the other little differences in practice, behavior, piety, and elements of faith certainly cannot and should not divide and separate us. What is important is not what we do, not our practices, but what Christ has already done for us: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (14:9) That makes us the same in the only way that matters: We are all God’s beloved, for whom Christ died so that we might be free to live for him, now and forever.

Of course, there are differences that matter. I am not saying that every variety of practice or belief is indifferent. Any longing for unity and harmony must be balanced by a desire for truth. How do we decide what is core and what is not essential?

One source is Scripture. For Anglicans, and I’m quoting from our short list of four fundamentals, “the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation.”[1] This is where we find our essentials. Please note however that we use the word contain ….  We do not say that everything in the Bible is necessary for salvation. And looking for the essentials is not just a matter of trying to find an appropriate individual proof text: what did Jesus say about this or what did Paul write. Sometimes they didn’t say or write anything at all. Or what we find is not clear, or was obviously written in the context of their time. Then we have to interpret, to look for messages that are often repeated, or identify the underlying narrative. In other words, we must use our God-given reason to find meaning.

Secondly, as Anglicans, we have the tradition of the historic creeds as “the sufficient statement of Christian faith.” We have no other binding summary of faith of our own, no Anglican Confession, just the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed that we share either with the Western Church or with most of the organized Christian denominations in East and West.

Today’s Gospel theme, forgiveness, for example is clearly a core element of salvation. The need to forgive and be forgiven, and the gift of forgiveness is scriptural. We have Jesus’ command as we just head to forgive not just seven times, but 77 times (which means without limit). We have the parable we heard today about forgiveness. It is really an extended illustration of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer “to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and a dramatic description of what happens if we do not forgive as we are forgiven. We condemn ourselves to live lives that are like hell.

Forgiveness is also creedal: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” is part of the Apostle’s Creed. In the Nicene Creed it is connected with Sacrament of Baptism, another essential of our faith and practice, along with the Eucharist by the way. Last and not least, being willing to forgive and accept forgiveness is key to unity and vital in overcoming whatever differences may have arisen around non-essentials.

The Cross, the unifying common symbol of Christianity stands for forgiveness. I have just come back from meeting of the ACK in Trier, which included an ecumenical celebration of Holy Cross Day. I was a bit skeptical about this as Holy Cross is not celebrated in every tradition, the German Lutherans do not have it in their calendar, and certainly not the Baptists and other Free Churches. But at our meeting we first listened to and discussed presentations from different traditions on the cross – its meaning and theology. And we found that beneath and behind the different – and as it turns out indifferent practices – we had lots in common. We may venerate the cross in different ways – with or without a physical cross, or even a relic of the true cross, as a symbol. We may worship standing, sitting, or kneeling. We may worship in the context of an elaborate liturgy, or just with Biblical texts. All these ways and means are equally acceptable and valid, as long as our motivation and intention is not to venerate a piece of wood, or a picture of a cross, or a text about the cross. 
Instead we venerate and worship the crucified one. In Paul’s words, we are the Lord’s.

How we worship is secondary or adiaphora, who we worship and what we allow that worship to do with us is primary. What is important, is the effect the cross and the crucified one have on us. Are we moved to love God as God loves us? Are we changed and transformed by the Lord? Are we inspired to change and transform the whole world? That is what we will be accountable to God for, not our particular traditions, rituals, and practices. 

[1] Lambeth Quadrilateral

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