Slightly adapted from a sermon I preached this morning at my church in Swansea, on Romans 14, after announcing the URC’s decision enabling civil partnerships to be registered in its churches.
… To contemporary ears the dispute in Romans 14 between Gentile Christians in the ascedant and Jewish Christians on the defensive sounds like a quarrel between vegetarians and carnivores, but it went deeper than diet: fundametally, it was about the identity of Israel, the church, the people of God.
You will know that the Bible prohibits eating certain foods, and you will also be aware of the importance of kosher preparation and cooking. In addition, there was the matter of meat bought in the market. Had it been contaminated by its use in pagan sacrifices? How could one be sure? Just to be safe, some Jewish Christians had given up meat-eating altogether. These were the “vegetarians”. But you need to understand, further, that biblical food laws functioned within a wider social imagianry and symbolic world that defined the Jewish sense of self and community. And you must understand that the dos and don’ts about clean and unclean foods were understood to be divine commands, not human suggestions. In other words, what was at stake in the Roman church were not archaic and irrational food laws, a storm in a teacup about inessentials, now completely irrelevant. On the contrary, here was an issue of fundamental definition: Who are Christians? What is the church?
So you’ve got these two parties in the church — in contemporary terms,the liberals and the conservatives — each contending, each thinks, for its very soul. Paul identifies himself in a very value-laden way. “Some of you believe in eating anything,” he writes, “while the weak eat only vegetables” (Romans 14:2). The “weak”, is it? So the meat-eaters are evidently the “strong”. Weak or strong in what? In “faith”. “Weak” in the sense of making obedience dependent on the scrupulous observance of biblical food laws, “strong” in the sense of making obedience free of such observance. And which gang is Paul’s gang? The apostle comes right out with it: though Paul himself is Jewish, he is one of the “strong”. Of course the “weak” hardly regard themselves as weak. On the contrary, they regard themselves as strong, strong in the defence of Israel’s sacred traditions. Calling this party “weak” just goes to show who has the upper hand in this dispute — the Gentile Christians. And Paul, theologically, is with them. And Paul, we know, is one tough cookie. So surely we’re going to get an anti-Jewish Christian diatribe? And surely, following the trajectory, liberals will be able to co-opt Paul into their cause against conservatives?
We are not. They will not Though if we’ve been reading the rest of Romans attentively, this should comes as no surprise. Gentile Christians are, for Paul, simply honorary Jews, luck to have a piece of the action. Again and again Paul criticises Gentile Christian arrogance — he calls it “boasting” — over against their Jewish brothers and sisters. And all the more so given the background of what we would now call Roman anti-Semitism. To be sure, Paul has a go at the conservatives too — at their tendency to be exclusive, judgmental, condemnatory of what they take to be unsound Johnny-come-lately opinions. But it’s the liberals who are Paul’s main target here — their tendency to be sneering, contemptuous, impatient of what they take to be narrow-minded literalism…
There, you’ve guessed it, I admit it — I too am one of the “strong”. But, again, it is precisely to the “strong” that Paul speaks his sternest words. As the New Testament scholar James Dunn frames the issue: “If the more conservative should not beat others over the head with their scruples, neither should the more liberal push their liberal views and practice in front of the more conservaive. And, his “main emphasis, Paul exhorts the more liberal always to condition the expression of their liberty by love for the other, including particularly the more conservative other”, such that “the true test of the liberal’s liberty is whether he is willing to restrict it; only when it is liberty to deny onself and not just liberty to please onself can it be counted as Christian liberty.”
Of course there are always some people who see themsleves as posessors, not seekers, of the truth; who have never known “the joy of being wrong” (James Alison); who use tradition as a weapon of control rather than a tool of discovery; who make a meal of their of their zeal and engage in various kinds of ecclesiastical blackmail; who see as a threat rather than a challenge what Rowan Williams calls “this ‘making difficult’ quality of our faith”. But that is another sermon - perhaps on Galatians! If this sermon has a text, it’s Romans 14:19: “So, then, we must always aim at those things that bring peace and that help to strengthen one another.”
Liberals, are you listening?