Today is the last installment in our series from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans goes on for one more chapter in which Paul gets down to the business of asking them for missionary money to go to Spain. And then there’s an appended letter of commendation for a woman named Phoebe who is carrying the letter to the Roman congregation along with a bunch of greetings to various people. Sufficient unto today is Romans chapter 12 and the matter of things that don’t really matter.
Things that don’t matter. The fancy Greek word for that is adiaphora, undifferentiated things, things neither commanded nor forbidden by God, things on which God really doesn’t seem to have an opinion or even a concern. Things that don’t matter to God. Curiously, they seem to matter to us much more than they matter to God. I would hazard to guess that you are more likely to get into an argument on Facebook or at a party or wherever it is you go to argue, if that’s your cup of tea, over things which God has left free. It is a characteristic of old Adam and old Eve to make commandments where God has not spoken and to add that little something extra to make the Word of God and the Christian religion that much more impressive.
In Paul’s day, the hot button adiaphora were foods and days, what you ate and what days you kept as feasts. Foods pertained both to the pagan culture as well as the Jews. Jews were forbidden certain foods in the Torah: things like pork, shellfish, and other forms of deliciousness that make you glad you are a Christian. Some Christian converts from Judaism continued to keep the old dietary laws of Moses. You will recall that Peter had to be kicked three times by God to go and eat in the house of the Gentile Cornelius, who might have served up some bacon wrapped pork sausage. People shed their primary theologies and religious customs with great resistance.
Others were Christian converts from the pagan religions, which also involved a food issue. Meat was routinely offered in the pagan temple before it was sold in the marketplace. And so instead of USDA Choice or Prime, you had “sacrificed to Zeus or Apollos or whomever.” Some sensitive believers couldn’t stomach that, and so they resolved to go vegetarian instead and forego meat altogether. Best play it safe. No meat sacrificed to idols in my house. That was the issue of foods.
The issue of days was similar. Old Testament Israel had a calendar of festival days and pilgrimages: Yom Kippur, Passover, Booths, and the weekly Sabbath. These were all fulfilled in Christ and had no bearing on the New Testament church, yet many believers of Jewish background continued to keep them. Again, old traditions and customs die hard, if at all.
Now you can see what happens when old Adam and Eve get a hold of this. Old Adam and Eve are very religious and prone to turn everything into a religion, including foods and days. If a little is good, then more is better. Or less, when it comes to fasting. The more rigorous, the more holy, the more pleasing to God is how old Adam and Eve think. And, to add a bonus to it all, it gives you a basis to boast of your own piety and judge your fellow believers. “I eat only vegetables.” “I eat bacon wrapped scallops with pork sausage.” “I’m a teetotaler.” “I drink a bottle of wine a day.” “I fast every Saturday and forty days during Lent and Advent.” And for all these reasons, and more, God should be impressed and pleased with us and we should be justified in judging the brother and sister for whom Christ died. That’s what old Adam and Eve do with adiaphora. They turn them into ways of measuring and judging others.
Remember what Eve said to the serpent when the devil asked, “Did God really say you must not eat of any of trees in the garden?” Remember? She said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” Neither shall you touch it. See? God didn’t say anything about touching, just not eating. This is the beginning and source of all “pietism.” Adding to God’s Word one’s own pious opinion. It happens all the time, even among good Christian Lutheran people. We take something that God has left free and we turn it into a rule to measure others.
This is not the way justified saints in Christ live. First of all, saints in Christ don’t care about their liberty except to exercise it in love for neighbor. So, even though all things may be permissible, not everything builds up the body of Christ and your fellow Christian. So if your brother or sister in Christ eats only vegetables, then be a vegetarian when you eat with him or her. What you eat at your own table is your own business. And if you want to keep Lent and Advent and whatever other season, knock yourself out. Fasting and other bodily preparations are indeed fine outward training. It’s good to say “no” to that growing belly god and put him in his place. But don’t judge another who celebrates a different day or no day at all.
You see this come into play around Christmas times where some churches have declared Christmas a focus on the family day and some don’t even have services that day. And then you see the Facebook and blog wars condemning churches that don’t have at least three divine services over Christmas including one at the miserable hour of midnight. And God doesn’t care one way or another. In fact, the church didn’t even celebrate Christmas for the first 300 years or so because no one celebrated birthdays. But we make a big deal out of it, and suddenly, the number of services at Christmas or whether one fasts in Lent or imposes ashes on Ash Wednesday or any number of other things where Scripture is painfully silent, become a source of judgment and division in the body of Christ. And the devil chuckles with delight.
CS Lewis in his clever Screwtape Letters, writing as a senior devil advising his junior devil nephew, speaks about how the devil tries to use adiaphora to create division where it could be a great opportunity for charity. Speaking in the voice of Uncle Screwtape, he writes:
The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker’s doctrine and Thomas Aquinas, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things – candles and clothes and what not – are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials – namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the “low” churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his “high” brother should be moved to irreverence, and the “high” one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his “low” brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labor. Without that, the variety of usage with the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.
Think about it. These things that don’t matter to God but matter oh so much to us. These could be opportunities, a positive hotbed of charity and humility, of the strong giving in to the weak, of people looking out for each other instead of themselves, of people not asserting their “rights” but using their liberty to build up another. Can you imagine it?
Of course you can! That is precisely the mind of Christ which you have. He was strong but became weak for your sake. He was rich but became poor for your sake. He was glorified as the Son but humbled Himself to become the Servant of all, obedient to death on a cross. He left the high and the mighty to join the least and the lowly. He didn’t come to judge but to be judged. He didn’t use His power as the Son of God to turn stones into bread to feed Himself but He multiplied bread in the wilderness to feed the five thousand. His “high road” of glory is the “low road” of service, of humility, of self-giving, of sacrifice.
We will all stand before the judgment seat of God to give an account of ourselves. And when we stand there, we will stand in solidarity with religious and the unreligious, with those who keep feasts and fasts and those who don’t, with those who watch what they eat and those who eat everything they see. We will stand before the judgment seat, not as wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus, nor as rich men offering out of our excess but as beggars. Empty handed beggars. Poor and miserable sinners. And then the things that do not matter won’t matter at all. And the only thing that matters on that Day is the blood shed for you on the cross, the water that claimed you in Baptism, the Body and Blood that fed and nourished and sustained you in faith to your life’s end.
None of us lives to himself. We are members of God’s household, priests in Christ’s priesthood, citizens of God’s city, members of the Body of Christ. None of us dies to himself. We have been crucified with Christ. Raised with Christ. Glorified with Christ. If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
And in the end, that’s all that matters to God.
In the Name of Jesus,