This is an adaptation of a sermon that I gave at New Eden Fellowship on February 10th. This is not a verbatim transcript necessarily as I don’t read from a manuscript when I give a sermon. I have, however, attempted to capture what I had to share. If you would like to hear what I actually said, you can listen to the sermon here.
Over the past while, we have been studying the first epistle of John in our sermon series at New Eden. The sermon prior to this one, Franklin taught us about living in the light and about “knowing” Jesus. When we live in the light, we are certainly going to look different. One of the best stories that Franklin likes to tell has the punchline that, if you’re hit by an 18-wheeler, you’re not going to walk away unaltered.
But one of the challenges we face is how we handle our relationships with people when it doesn’t seem, at least to us, that they are doing what they should be doing. We are going to run into all sorts of people in our lives that are going to be doing all sorts of things that we may see as sinful, corrupt, immoral, etc. What are we to do about it?
Now, we don’t like to talk about “us” vs “them”. It really is all “us” when it comes to people aiming for Jesus. But let’s just entertain two groups of “us”. There are those who actually want to aim towards Jesus and live the life in the light. And there are those who are still living in that state of rebellion, doing their own thing. Let’s start with that second group and what we are supposed to do about them.
Outside the Herd
When we live and walk in the light, we see very clearly what it is we are supposed to be doing. We can easily see the difference between what is right and wrong, good and evil. We know what is the better way to live because the truth is illuminated by our presence in the light. The path before us is clear. We know what stupid is and we know, certainly, not to be stupid in our lives. We’re not going to out and do things that are going to mess up our lives because we can see, because of the light, the better way to live.
Along with this, because we see and know this so clearly, we look around at the people stumbling about in the darkness and we cannot believe what we are seeing. Can’t they see what they are doing to themselves, to the people around them, to the world around them? Don’t they see how much they are messing up their lives? We have to do something about it. They need straightening out and so we go out and we start giving them these lists of rules of what they should do and should not do. We set it up, all nicely marked and clear, with all these laws and expect them to live that way and, when they don’t, we put them down as just not being up to the standard.
But we have to remember that they aren’t in the light. They are still the people walking in darkness. What we see so clearly because we are in the light, they cannot see. They aren’t in the light so they don’t see clearly what is right and wrong, what is good and evil. They can’t see clearly the better way to live because, for them, the truth is still hidden in the darkness.
It’s like a kid moving into a new school. When they get to that new school, they don’t know all the rules. They don’t know where their homeroom is. They don’t know what the late bell is. Where is the cafeteria? How does this lunch system work? How many hall passes do I get? Do I go down this hall or that hall to get to shop class? Everything is new and strange. To expect the new kid to know everything and be able to survive doesn’t make any sense.
When Paul was dealing with a situation of incest in the Corinthian church, he gave a very interesting perspective. There is something to be said about holding people accountable when they are living within the community and committed to the community. But if they are not in the community of the body of Christ:
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 1 Corinthians 5:12 NIV
Now, this is not to say that we should just let those outside of the committed community just rot in hell. It’s not like “They are out there and they just can do their own thing. We’ll take care of us inside”. I don’t believe Paul is saying to just ignore what’s going on in the world around us. But I do believe Paul recognized the difference between those inside the community and those outside. And, it’s pretty obvious that he agrees with 1 John. If you claim to live in the light and don’t look like it, then perhaps you really aren’t in the light and are more in line with what’s outside.
In any case, Paul recognizes that those outside of the community haven’t made the commitment to walk in the light. To expect them to act like they are in the light when they are not doesn’t make any sense – and it is ungracious. If they can’t see that what they are doing is wrong, how can we expect them to act differently? We should not be surprised when people who are not connected to Jesus act in ways that are not in character of those who are connected with Jesus. That not only doesn’t make sense, it is unfair and ungracious to them to expect it of them. Only if someone is in the light with us do we have any reason to speak about accountability because only then can we have the expectation that they will have the ability to see.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that there is nothing we can do for people who are in the dark. We are not supposed to just leave them there. Before I discuss that, however, let’s talk about the rest of us.
Inside the Herd
As Franklin mentioned in his sermon, to claim to be a Christian and not act like it – you’re a liar.
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. 1 John 2:3-6 NIV
There is a standard of living, based in Jesus, that we are called to live. There is a right and a wrong. There is good and evil. There is moral and immoral. There is most certainly a standard that distinguishes between what is sin and what is not. I do want to make sure that I’m clear with you, my readers, that I am not going the route where all is grace and there is no moral code. Please, let’s not go there.
But not everyone among us is on the same path in our journey towards Christ, or on the same place on the path. We who are in the light are all on a path where Jesus is the center and the goal and we are journeying along towards that goal. Some of us are closer than others. Some of us are taking a slightly more round-about path than others. There are those of us who grew up in the church that might have a shorter path. And there are those who are coming from the deep darkness and have a long road ahead of them. But we are all on that same journey of transformation. What do we do when this mix of people have to try to live together and get along?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul spends a bit of time talking about how this whole thing can work. He talks about how, in the community of the Kingdom, there are folks who are going to be “strong” and folks who are going to be “weak”. Now, Romans chapter 14 gives some discussion about what to do about the “weak” folks among you. Paul writes:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. Romans 14:1 NIV
Just for a bit of context, what was going on here in the Roman church wasn’t just something as simple as Vegan versus meat-eaters. It was much deeper than that. There were Jews and Gentiles both trying to worship and commune together. And part of that communal gathering was a common meal. In the market places in the ancient world, when you go to buy some meat to serve at a meal, it wasn’t just meat you had butchered and sold. Many times, it was meat that just moments before had been on the altar of sacrifice for Zeus, Apollo, or some other of the ancient Roman or Greek gods. If a Gentile is serving the meal, he might take a leg of lamb he got from the market and serve it up to his friends. But for Jews, this would be a problem because, for them, to eat that meat would be to participate in idol worship. For the Gentiles, it wasn’t a big deal because they realize that those sacrifices had no meaning because the god they were sacrificed to did not exist. So, the term, “disputable matters” was not necessarily something as whether or not you stand or sit to sing hymns.
For a 21st century context, it would be whether or not someone should listen to certain musical artists. Should they listen to U2 or Lady Gaga or Madonna? Or should they not support “that filth” with their money? Or what about alcohol? Should a person be able to drink a little bit of wine now and then? Or is alcohol “the great deceiver” and should be avoided at all costs? What about movies? Are rated-R movies allowed on occasion? Or should they be avoided as anathema? There are people who feel very strongly about these things, about needing to avoid certain things. And there are people who, for them, it’s not a big deal. They can separate themselves from what they are listening to or watching.
In other words, some people are “strong”. They don’t need the rules to keep them “pure” and can keep themselves under control. It’s not a problem. Other people are “weak”. They need the boundaries and fences and borders to help protect themselves from doing something that they will regret.
However, it is not our job to try to figure out who is strong and who is weak.
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. [emphasis mine] Romans 14:3-4 NIV
If we are all walking in the light, even if some of us seem weaker than others, we can trust that God is working in them and with them on those things that need worked on. If we don’t have a problem with, for example, drinking then we shouldn’t look down on the person who does as if we are somehow better than them. And if we see drinking as a problem, we shouldn’t judge and condemn the person who doesn’t as if we are better than them. God is the ultimate judge and, when it comes to these “disputable matters”, God will work in them. They are in the light after all and are being transformed and changed as they journey.
Here’s a key point. What’s important is not being right. What’s important is the journey together.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. Romans 14:19-21 NIV
The work of God is that mutual edification, that building up of people and of the Kingdom of God. It is the strengthening of each other, the growing together, the journeying together. This is much more important work to do than it is to make sure you are right all the time. We cannot forget that, at the root of everything is something so much more important.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:16 NIV
Just like Jesus laid down his life for us, we lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. What is part of our life? Our convictions, our strong feelings about things, our desire to be right and set things right. We give up our being right, not because we are not right, but because we set aside our strong position in order to help a brother or sister. Jesus gave up all the power that comes with being God to come down here, become a human being, live in the messed up world with a bunch of other messed up human beings, and show us that, yes, it is possible for a human do live a good, right, and just life. If Jesus was willing to take that gigantic step down from divinity to humanity, shouldn’t we be willing to take the much smaller step down from human to human to walk with a brother or sister? Rather than argue or fight over fringe issues, don’t do something that may offend your brother or sister or cause them to stumble or cause them to feel put upon or whatever. The body of Christ is too important to spend time fighting over such “disputable matters”. Yes, accountability is important. Again, don’t get me wrong in this. But there is something even more important than being right.
Buried in the middle of Romans 14 is the key verse to understanding what is going on.
If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Romans 14:15 NIV
Love needs to be the characteristic of what we are about. If we demand our way, if we demand that people see us as right and them as wrong, we aren’t acting loving. Jesus had every right to go around and tell people what they were doing wrong. He had the authority, the power, and the divinity to do so. But his first act was not to tell people they were wrong when they so obviously needed help. His first act was to step into their lives and love them.
Paul writes something similar, again, in 1 Corinthians 8.
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 NIV
Knowledge of being right puffs us up. It puts us up on a position where we can say, “I am right and you are wrong and I am better than you.” But, in truth, as I’ve said before, we are all on the same journey together. We all have struggles and issues and problems that we are wrestling with and struggling with. There’s not a single one of us that doesn’t have something in their life that they need to work on with God. Just because we may be “right” with one thing does not mean we are in a position to establish ourselves as better than someone else.
Our first order of business, as people of the light, is not to be right. It is to love. This is the greatest commandment. And the second greatest commandment even. Love God. Love your fellow man. Love them with an immense and amazing love. It is a love that sets aside ourselves, our own desire to be right, and give the grace for others to grow. It is a love that leaves room in the light for those people who haven’t figured it out yet. It leaves room beside you so that they can step into the light along with you and walk beside you. It is a love without an agenda, without expectations, without any preconditions. It is the kind of love that Jesus showed
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8 NIV
Jesus didn’t wait for us to get it right. Jesus didn’t wait for us to have it all in order. We were still messed up people when he gave up being God, came down here, and died for us. This is love. This is the love we are called to do. This is the kind of love we are supposed to show to the people inside our community and outside our community.
For those inside, this love comes out in recognizing everyone has weaknesses that need worked on and struggles and issues they have to deal with. We can help each other see more clearly in the light, but it should be a help that comes from a sacrificial “give it all up for them” kind of love, not of a position of being “right”
For those outside, the love is even more radical. The light we live in blinds them. If you’ve ever walked out of a dark room and into the bright sunshine of a winter morning with the sun shining off the snow, it is painful. It hurts our eyes. We close our eyes because the light is too bright. We are the light of the world. Can you imagine how people who are living in darkness feel when we, with our bright light of Jesus, step into their darkness? It hurts. It is painful to see that bright light. It is so bright that they even run from it, seeking the comfort of the darkness where there is no pain. The radical love of Christ breaks through that pain and fear and makes it possible for them to step into the light. We take their hand and walk into the light with them. It is a sacrificial, radical love.
Check out this video of Tony Campolo telling the story of a time when he threw a strange birthday party.
I want to be clear. There is right and wrong. But we are all on a journey and some of us are further along than others. Some of us are walking a slightly different path towards that to which Jesus is calling us. What is most important is to make it possible to walk that path together. God’s love, through us, opens the door for amazing transformation to happen. Think about Agnes, that prostitute, and the transforming power that came into her life because a weirdo sociologist threw a birthday party for her at 3 AM in a diner. Tony didn’t ask her to stop being a prostitute, didn’t ask her to change her life, didn’t ask her to be anything other than who and what she was. He just threw a party for her because she never had a birthday party before. That’s love, that while she was still a hooker, Tony threw her a party. This is what we are supposed to be about in the Kingdom of God, a lavish, amazing, and immense love that breaks through the darkness and shines a beautiful healing light.