Our passage today from Romans continues on the theme that I spoke to you about 2 weeks ago when we reviewed some of the lessons in community life that Paul outlined for the people.
At that time we were reminded of how important it is for us to truly and honestly show love for one another. We were reminded that the words alone are empty without the accompanying actions and communication in both words and expressions. In the passage last week from Romans, Paul reemphasized this by reminding the people that every one of the commandments known as the Ten Commandments that speaks directly of some action that could have a negative impact on another person in the community, can be kept by simply remembering to love your neighbour as yourself. Paul says that love cannot harm a neighbour if that love for neighbour is honest and caring. In other words, treat other people the way you wish to be treated – regardless of how they treat you and you will find yourself erring on the side of love, mercy and obedience to the word of God.
In our world today people still struggle to capture and live the truth of the life God has revealed through Jesus. We still can fall prey to the temptation to gossip, to tell tales on one another, to grumble, complain and be bitter in our assessment of others. So it is that Paul – knowing the weaknesses of the human frame – reminded the people in the Roman community to be on their guard against anything that might betray their new life in God through Christ and, as a result, leave them in a place where the mercy, love and forgiveness of God would become hidden. Christian communities are places where people will struggle to be the people God wants us to be but at the same time we are not to give in to the temptation and allow our communities to become places where people feel unloved, uncared for, and unforgiving. Whatever in us that struggles with coming fully to God and being God’s people, we are to name it and seek to overcome it. Paul particularly mentions quarrels and jealousies which still are two of the greatest challenges in community as we seek to find the balance between our different personalities, strengths and weaknesses.
In our passage for today, Paul’s first lesson in community life is to be accepting of anyone whose faith is weaker than your own. But not only accepting but not giving ourselves over to debate about their misgivings. One of the hardest things we can do is to hear someone speak about something they are struggling to understand or accept about the Christian faith and not engage them in a debate designed to convince them that they need to “see the light.” If we are to look for an example of how to respond to people who are struggling, we need only look to Jesus and Thomas. Thomas was a great believer in so many ways and was a faithful follower of Jesus but he could not bring himself to believe that Jesus was indeed alive – especially after all he had seen him endure. No one had ever survived such an ordeal. He was convinced the other disciples were fabricating the story out of a deep desire to see the prophecy of Jesus fulfilled. And yet we are told that Jesus did not chastise Thomas but rather took the opportunity to visit the disciples again when Thomas was present so that he too could face his doubts and know that indeed Jesus was alive. And yes, those who have followed and believed without seeing the physical Jesus are certainly blessed but the lesson reminds us that not all of us can accept all things of our faith at face value or on the testimony of another and that we need to be patient and understanding and allow each of us to deal with our doubts and our misgivings in our own time letting God lead. One day every one of our doubts or misgivings will be answered by God – not in a judgmental way or a critical way but with a caring heart and mind that will honour our doubts and yet clear our minds of all our concerns.
Another lesson that Paul brings out in this passage is the lesson about judging other people. I mentioned last week that early Christian communities could be wary of those who sought to join the community out of fear that they would be betrayed to the authorities. And while that is true, Paul also knows that beyond that concern there is often a sense in community that all people need to express their faith in the same way and hold the same outlook in all things. But that is not the way God has ever been with people throughout time. God accepts each of us the way we come and works with us over the course of our lives to enlighten us and help us to understand the things that we cannot yet accept. We can certainly ask questions of one another when it comes to our faith but to expect conformity in all things from one another is an unreasonable expectation in Paul’s mind. We were not created as cookie cutter people and so we cannot expect to live as cookie cutter people. Some of us will be strong in some areas and weak in others. Some of us will be more active in our community life and others less active. But each of us needs to know that we are part of the community and are free to participate as we are able. Sometimes frustration in community can lead to quarrels and jealousies and end in judgment of one another. Such things will lead to division and to dissolution. Paul encourages the community in Rome and all other communities who may read these words to not allow disputes to rule. Each one may see things from a different perspective and it is not for us to make everyone see things the same way but to seek for a way in which we can honour each other’s convictions and yet still find a way to follow and serve God in our individual and communal life.
The final lesson Paul gives today is tied to those that came before and really is emphasizing the behaviour he encourages. We are not to put one another down which is another way of saying that we are not to judge one another’s actions or thoughts, we are not to reject one another. We will all stand before God one day and each of us will have to give an answer to God for our lives. That is a sobering thought. May we never forget that no one of us is perfect enough or good enough to escape being judged by someone for something. So let us seek to not be judgmental of others and pray that others will not be judgmental of us.
As I close today, I would like to thank the community of Rome for their weaknesses and struggles. Without their human response to the message of God in Christ, Paul would not have left us with such poignant reminders of how we are to be with one another in our Christian communities today. So thanks be to Paul, to the faithful in Rome of the 1st century and especially thanks to God whose example in Jesus Christ continues to be the inspiration for our lives today!