Romans 1-8 show that we are all justified and healed together, by God’s faithfulness in Christ and that this healing of our community is also the healing of our creation. Romans 9- 11 show the reason why God called the Jews for the gentiles and why the gentiles are equally called to love a restored Jewish people. All this is necessary to bring the believers to Romans 14, so they can dispel the cultural lies and sit down together in the grace of love. This sitting down to heal each other is more important than the finer points of the theology in Romans we have divided over, especially when we realise why that theology was penned.
Romans 14 is the chapter in which Paul gets into some of the nitty-gritty of how the believers in the church are to relate together as one people, ensuring they are not divided. The practical matters discussed here are the outcome of all the theology that has preceded in the letter so far. All Paul’s discussion is to bring the believers to this united place, so they could understand the basis of God’s dealings in each other’s lives and accept each other without prejudice.
Romans 15 summarises the main issues the letter is about. In case we didn’t know the main theme of the letter, Romans 15 makes that clear. It doesn’t say anything there about our personalised faith, but about the love of Christ being the basis upon which we receive love one another. This is the subject matter of all the theology in the letter.
Romans 16, in Paul’s closing comments, applies this theology to the issue of gender in the church and in ministry. There, Paul spells out that the issue is not gender, but agenda. The agenda of service. This is the agenda of the kingdom of God and the outcome of all Paul teaches and lives among the people. This is the example of Paul that we are called to follow.
THE PEAK – ROMANS 14
The significance of this chapter cannot be overstated. If we consider which chapter in Romans is the peak of the mountain top, we might think of Romans 8. There, the children of God bring the creation into deliverance from its curse, under which creation has laboured throughout our whole history. But if we consider how this deliverance takes place, then Romans 14 is the peak of Paul’s letter.
“One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables… One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own mastera that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:2- 5)
Today, we might think that simple advice on how people were to eat together is a minor thing, especially after all the heavier theological matters the letter discusses. But, as I have said before, the only reason Paul went into theology in his letters, was because of the table where we eat together. His theology was for the purpose of bringing us together at this table, and not allowing any person to disturb the unity of this table. Paul didn’t go into a theology of salvation to satisfy our personal need, but for the sake of the unity of the church.
Consider what a huge issue this table was in Paul’s day. You only have to see Jesus in the Gospels to notice its importance.
The Pharisees had very strict codes on who they could eat with. The kind of unified table Paul was speaking about was possibly the biggest seismic shift in the culture to ever hit them since Abraham and Moses. The way Paul described the table was simply unthinkable to most people of that day.
Paul’s table wasn’t just unthinkable for religious reasons, but also for economic or social reasons. The Roman Empire was very strictly controlled along class lines, just like some cultures today, which are controlled by gender or cast (social group) lines. People cannot behave in a socially equal way.
Today, in some places, we may take this freedom for granted, but in many other places today, what Paul was discussing in Romans 14 would still be completely unacceptable.
In many ways, the table is the very centre of Christian fellowship and worship. If the worship of God is our care for our neighbour – our worship together as one – then the table is central to that worship. In the early church they “broke bread from house to house.” This was their church. Mostly, they didn’t meet in large groups. And when they did meet, it was as one: no social, gender of racial lines of divisions between them.
Someone said, “If we are to bear one another’s burdens, then we can only do that sitting in a circle, not sitting in rows.” That is, the way churches are often organised today, we come along to “worship,” without spending time with each other, not serving one another. We may greet each other, but little more. That is not church, and it is not worship.
The point about the table in the early church, was that slaves, bankers, farmers, Jews, gentiles, Africans, Europeans, soldiers, and everyone else, all ate together. There were no borders, no visas needed in the church, no permission required, to eat as one people. And this is the point: it is only in this way that shema can be fulfilled. We can only love another as the law requires – as faith-fullness requires – if we eat as one people. It is at the table that we talk, learn and find out how each person is doing, and how we can help and serve one another. Without this kind of open table, where we are truly socially one, we could say there is no genuine church.
This is where the renewed creation comes from. Without this serving table, our communities cannot be repaired. We still get our segregations along racial and social lines. Today, we still have these segregations, even where “churches” exist. Our nations and suburbs are divided along racial and social lines, and even the “church” buys into this and lives accepting it.
The churches are not integrated and not serving each other across borders. The church was given by the Lord to heal the divisions, so genuine love can be shown, love that isn’t selfish along group lines, and this way we heal our communities and heal the creation. The church can only be the church if we are like those in Acts, where we worship around a completely common, open table.
This was the issue in Jerusalem in the generation of Paul, in which the people lived in division and exclusion from each other, building their bigger barns, rather than gathering in and healing the sick community. This filled the teachings of Jesus. It was the reason, in the end, why the city fell in its bitterness, hostility and self-destruction. The world continues doing this, unless the church becomes the genuine church and brings redemption through Christ’s life in us to the communities.
This meal was the communion of that time, in the early church, not the little biscuit and sip of juice we take today. As they ate together, the broken food spoke of their lives broken and laid down for each other. As they ate together, they heard each other’s stories, and learned how to serve each other in their need. Isolation was replaced with healing. Only this can shatter the bondage of the Roman world. The communion, the sacrament, wasn’t the bread and the wine, but their love for each other. This love is the sign of the kingdom of God which renews all things.
So, Romans 14 is the pinnacle of Paul’s letter. And for this table to exist, the ceremonial restrictions that hindered one table must be set aside. This is what Paul spends time discussing in the chapter. Whether it is the type of food or drink we take, or the holi-days we consider important, we should allow one another these freedoms, without judging their faith. The thing that is important, isn’t our own conscience on the matter, but the conscience of the other person. That is, at the table of the Lord, we don’t consider what is important to us, but what is important to the other person.
This is the other huge difference that Paul fought for in the cultures of the day: fellowshipping with people, thinking of what was good for their need, rather than what is good for ourselves. This is the central issue of the cross of Christ. On the cross, Christ did what mattered for others, not what mattered for himself. He could have saved himself from the cross, but that way none of us would have known his love.
None of us today would be serving each other based on the love of Christ. We would all still be living in Roman type cultures of abuse.
The idea of thinking of the other person ahead of yourself is the ultimate revelation that comes into our world through the cross of Christ and without the cross, the world would not have this renewal within our relationships, transforming our nations. This, not law, is what renews us. All laws can be broken, but genuine love that considers the other person cannot be broken.
We can come together with Christians from all denominations, not judging them because of their ceremonial ways. We are commanded to receive each other genuinely in love and service, not thinking either of us is superior to the other. And we can stop mocking those of other religions because of their own devotional practices. I am not speaking here of destructive practices, but people of genuine devotion that is still uniformed. We don’t often win someone to faith by destroying the weak faith they have. We share the gospel with respect. If we don’t share the gospel with love, we don’t have a gospel to share.
In Galatians 6:1-4, Paul discusses a similar matter. In Galatians, Paul was speaking about the same unity between Jews and gentiles at one table fellowship. And at the end of that discussion he said, “If anyone is taken over by a fault, you who is spiritual restore such a person, in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself as well.” We have often separated this section from Paul’s overall discussion in Galatians, as though it was just an add-on about general matters. But instead it’s better to see it as part of Paul’s issue in Galatians about bringing believers together as one, at one table.
So, we see here that “spirituality” is defending the unity of the body by seeking to restore, not opening rifts and factions because of the perceived faults in others. In building unity across our denominations, one might ask, “But what about the faults of others, or important issues concerning right and wrong?” These don’t go away. There are still important issues of right and wrong in our lives, but we seek to address these in a spirit of fellowship, in as much as possible, rather than seeing only other people’s faults and not our own faults as well.
In both passages, Romans 14 and Galatians 6, Paul was addressing the challenges that unity brings to us from diverse backgrounds, traditions and viewpoints. It isn’t that nothing else matters, but only unity. It isn’t the case that there is no other truth that is important to our lives. It is the spirit by which we approach these differences that matters. It is recognising that we can learn from others. We can learn from their perspectives, and we can also learn about ourselves, especially by how we handle those who we believe need correction.
Our practice has often been to divide. We may sometimes treasure division as a mark of spirituality. But the opposite is the truth. In all Paul’s letters, he built the main Christian challenge around how we are to reconcile, as the cross shows us the reconciling nature of God: how to lay down our lives, to call people together, where we can then care for and restore one another. “The sick need a doctor,” need restoration, and we can best do that for each other, together. (Mark 2:17) If we don’t learn how to restore each other in the church, how will we ever learn how to restore others, our enemies, and the world?
The Christian difference in a self-centred world is to put the spotlight on our own sins, not on the sins of others: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive
themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct.” (Galatians 6:1-5)
This is how Paul says we come to the table of the Lord, considering the wellbeing of the other person, not the “righteousness” of our own group. This way, true righteousness, which means faith-fullness in healing our neighbour, spreads and the genuine gospel is revealed to the creation. “Carry each other’s burdens,” trying to restore others, as Christ has restored us. Being mindful that it is our own conduct we are responsible for, a conduct of love that seeks to restore others, rather than priding ourselves on the fall of others. Romans 14 shows a new culture emerging in the Christian community within the Roman Empire. It was a culture where instead of refusing others because of tribal, ceremonial or social differences, we seek to include, understand and heal one another. Paul wasn’t saying this to nullify important aspects of our faith, but to show that condescending and humble service is the faith-fulness of Christ that we are to live out in fellowship with others. Sharing this faith across our communities brings healing to our world.