September 11, 2011

Each of Us Will Be Accountable to God

Passage: Romans 14:10-12

For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.  For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

It was a Tuesday morning that began typically for me; early to the office; efforts turned to planning for worship and sermon preparation.  As it turned out, the day was anything but typical; this was Tuesday, September 11, 2001—ten years ago.  The actuality of the news of the horrific terrorist attacks on the two towers of the world trade centre in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia began to sink in; no, this wasn’t an action movie on the television screen—the horrors were actually happening.  As the day unfolded it became clear that my sermon plan needed to be scrapped; I was hoping someone else would offer to preach (or at least write the sermon).

A recent USA Today article by Jennifer S. Altman recalled that “for millions of Americans, the immediate response was to drop to their knees in prayer.  Sanctuaries filled for memorial services. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York remembers crowds overflowing St. Patrick's Cathedral.”  I recall that following Sunday morning travelling across the 401 highway in Toronto on my way to church—usually the only time during the week when the highway is virtually empty—there were a lot more cars on the road than a typical Sunday.  Indeed the two churches I served were filled; many Christmas and Easter folks were there; some unknown to the church came as well.

They were looking for something, a word perhaps, which might help make sense of things; foundations of people’s lives had been badly shaken.  The challenge being that the enormity of the evil of such events cannot be dealt with is a single worship service.

The USA Today article went on to note; “A decade later, the soulful response seems fleeting. Statistically, the rush to the pews was a mere blip in a long-standing trend away from traditional religious practice, according to tracking studies by The Barna Group, a Christian research company.” Indeed it was not long and the attendance of people at worship of the churches I served returned to the patterns that existed prior to that of September 11(01).

When Paul writes—“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions”—and then goes on the talk about not being a stumbling block to the faith of another (14:13 ff) it seems far removed from the horrific events of 9/11.  I invite you to note the conviction that is the foundation for Paul’s admonition—that the church is vital for our faith; the church is where we are sustained and nurtured so such events can be faced.  We cannot be sustained in a “one off” sort of way.  Our faith is ever in need of nurture. Paul’s warning against arguing over opinions is so that believers are not dissuaded from worshipping together.

This USA Today article further noted that ‘statistics indicate most people were not so drastically reshaped and motivated by the Sept. 11 experience. A Pew Research poll in December 2001 found that those who said they prayed or worshiped more in the aftermath of the attacks were people who already were the most religious.”  Events like this usually reveal our faith; they do not typically make our faith.

Louis Brandeis, an associate US Supreme Court justice, wrote:  “I abhor averages. I like the individual case. A man may have six meals one day and none the next, making an average of three meals per day, but that is not a good way to live.”  I would say that his observation is also a parable for faith; faith needs ongoing sustenance in digestible portions.  Overeating at the buffet restaurant does not mean you can skip eating for the next five days.

As we reflect on this text from Romans keep in mind this underlying motivation; the church is crucial for our faith. This is why we serve the church in its various programmes; to lead children in Sunday school is to invest in what will prepare them for all the events—good or evil—that they will face.  The programs we put our efforts to engage in are to serve this mission-critical purpose for the church.

1.  Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, had a long tenure as a Washington socialite; on a sofa pillow she had embroidered her life’s motto: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here next to me.”  Do you know people who share her motto?

This tidbit about Alice Longworth was in article entitled Hating the Same Things; why shared dislikes make faster friends”. The article discussed a 2011 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by the University of South Florida’s Jennifer Bosson.  Her research purports to show that when people trash the same person it often helps people bond. “There’s something really powerful about the discovery of shared negative attitudes,” Bosson said.

Is this what binds Christians together; we hate the same things?  There is a sense in which this is true.  Paul said to live the gospel in the world we need to “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”  At the same time we are to ‘bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”.  The world to which we must not conform is the world God will not abandon and we are to serve in his name.  But is hating things in common the glue that binds us together?

Paul writes “each of us will be accountable to God”; this accountability is an implication drawn from the truth of who binds us together.  “It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall”, Paul continues, “And they will be upheld for the Lord is able to make them stand.”  Christians are bound together because we share a common Lord.  We are bound together by Jesus Christ to serve his purposes as his church, his body.  This is the reason Paul underscores the importance of Christian unity—“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.”

Jesus Christ is the glue who holds us together not hating the same things.  Having said that it is good note the things that made Jesus bristle.   We don’t find ourselves followers of Jesus because we discover—“O, look, he hates the same things I do”.   Rather, I find that that I am ever in need of the tuning of my heart to conform to his.   One of the things that made Jesus bristle was for someone to impede faith in a child or the young in faith.  “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees because “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

I think Paul has a similar insistence of the importance of nurturing faith in another when he calls Christians to —“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions”.  I fear that too often in my excitement for the debate of ideas I cross that line to quarrelling over opinions.  To give a reason for the hope we have in Christ is something we are called to do; as the same time I find that people are rarely argued into the kingdom of heaven.

What does Paul mean by “the weak in faith”; Jesus said to the disciples they had weak faith—“you of little faith”, one day Jesus observed.  These Apostles are the leaders of the faith; in one sense, then, all our faith is weak.  In the text of scripture Paul cites as examples of “quarrelling over opinions” disputes over dietary convictions and the importance of one day over another.

In the earlier chapters of Romans Paul has been exploring the glories of the gospel; in that discussion is the wonder of justification by faith.  Humans are made right with God by faith not by adherence to a code.  Many of these believers were Jews with deep convictions about dietary regulations; there were also Christians who had been converted from pagan religions that offered meats to idols that were later sold in the market to support the idol worship.  Abstaining from certain meats was born of concern to follow Jesus in these matters.  Those who felt free to eat anything because foods are not a matter of being right with God were not to trash the folks who were convinced otherwise and vice versa.

In a modern context there are some believers who abstain from alcoholic beverages because of the devastation of a family member’s alcoholism.  It is a faith conviction for them.  They have become convinced that in following Jesus they will not put what they consider a stumbling block in the path of a family member who struggles with addiction.  Those who feel free to consume such beverage must not pass judgement on the one who does not and vice versa.  It is before their own lord they stand or fall; we need to resist the urge to police one another in these matters.

This not to say anything goes or any conviction will do; we are talking about opinions, secondary matters.  There are matters primary to the faith one being the truth that Christians share a common Lord—our Saviour Jesus Christ.  The lordship of Jesus Christ is not of the category of opinion.  Many things are.  One group likes organ music another guitar, piano, horns and drum.    One group likes to receive communion served in the pew another in walking forward by intinction.  These are secondary matters and we ought not dissuade the faith of another quarrelling over them.

Much is made of diversity both in the church and in society.  We see it in society where it is championed under the banner of multiculturalism.  We see it in the church with leadership that champions ethnic diversity; we count the members of a congregation according to race believing that diversity should lead us to a congregation where the racial mix of the larger community is reflected in the congregation.

It makes me nervous whenever someone reduces the gospel to a single word or idea like “diversity” or “inclusiveness”.  I understand the good intention to expunge racism; to encourage us to love the one not like us.  But to reduce the gospel as if this is what the gospel means without remainder is to distort the gospel such that you no longer preach the faith once delivered to the saints.  Paul is not championing “diversity” for its own sake.  Jesus Christ is the gospel; the Lord who unites us can never be reduced to a single slogan.

Neither did Paul say that these secondary matters of Christian conviction were not worth much.  He said that each believe should take seriously their walk with Christ; “let all be fully convinced in their own minds”. He didn’t call for all to think alike; he did say that all are to live their lives in honour of the Lord.  It is our common servant hood to Jesus that we are to encourage in one another.

I grew up in a church where only those who believed like us were said to be true Christians; and not even all of us were going to make it.  I do love their passion for the gospel.  I came to serve in the United Church that champions its board-mindedness and has been caricatured as standing for nothing.  I do love the generosity of the United Church to the brokenness of the world.  I think that a church ought to be unwavering at the core; unbending on the gospel and the Lordship of Christ.  We should be flexible at the outer edges.

2. “Each of us will be accountable to God”; we have explored Paul’s application of this truth for how we act towards one another in the church.  Generally, when we hear “each of us will be accountable to God” a more ominous image emerges; we see a judge who is either going to give us the thumbs up or down.

In ancient Israel judges weren’t like the men and women who preside in our courtrooms.  They weren’t figures who said to one party, “You’re right” and to another party “You’re wrong.”  Judges in ancient Israel were also called elders.  These men and women who were called both judges and elders were also called saviours.  Ultimately, then, the judge is the saviour.  When the people of Israel were threatened by raiders they cried to the Lord, we are told, and the Lord “raised up judges who saved them.”

In our modern era we assume that the primary function of a judge is to make unbiased pronouncements.  Lurking deeper still in people’s minds, almost at an unconscious level, is the notion that the primary purpose of a judge is to condemn.  But in ancient Israel the primary function of a judge was to save.  Judges were elders were saviours.  In other words the judge, in those long ago days, was a leader in times of conflict and ruler in times of peace.  When the people were threatened, the judge mobilized them and encouraged them.  When the people were cocksure and spiritually indifferent, the judge sobered them.
Jesus often spoke of himself as judge.  Make no mistake: he is our judge.  As such he will not be trifled with or taken for granted or traded on.  You and I know better than to be presumptuous concerning him.  At the same time, because we’ve been to school in Israel we know that the judge who was given to humankind when it cried out to God; the judge who was given to humankind when it was threatened with condemnation on account of its sin; this judge is our elder brother and our saviour.  He will be our judge precisely because he is already our saviour.

Since you and I face a coming judgement yet can only be judged by him our saviour, we are unafraid.  We know that he is for us.  We know that his judgement upon us will be that final corrective we have long needed and are at last going to receive.  In a word, our saviour’s judgement is our blessing.  The believer’s verdict has already been announced at the cross; the verdict is acquittal.

For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.  11For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.