Something good is on the horizon. After nearly four months apart, we are finally going to be able to get back together for live, in-person worship services starting July 5. Having been gone so long, though, and having been so profoundly changed by what we have experienced–even in ways we don’t fully understand–we need to get ready for what’s to come in some equally profound ways. This week and next we are having a conversation about what we need to know and what we will be doing to make our regathering both satisfying and sustainable. Thanks for tuning in here for part 1.
Differences of Opinion
I want you to imagine something with me this morning. This may stretch your imaginative capacities a bit, so do the best you can. I want you to imagine a church. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, imagine—and here’s where things may get tough—that this church is dealing with some internal conflict about something that from the outside looking in seems trivial to most passersby. Take a breather for a minute if you need it, I know that was pretty challenging.
I kid, of course. Conflict and churches tend to go together like peanut butter and jelly. You just about can’t have one without the other. The former gets all stuck in your mouth and nothing short of a glass of milk can wash it out. The other is just too sweet by itself. I’ll let you decide if the church is best represented by the peanut butter or the jelly. At least, that’s the perception we often carry, isn’t it? Churches get into conflicts about things almost as naturally as breathing.
There was a church once that was deep in a conflict. In fact, it wasn’t just one church fighting about this issue. Multiple different congregations spread over a pretty large geographic area were being torn asunder by this thing. The stakes were actually pretty high. Control over churches was in the balance. Some were dominated by one side, others by the other. And, both sides felt like they had Scripture and the teachings of Jesus on their side. The issue itself may have worked itself out in practical ways, but both sides saw it in intensely theological terms. According to one side, if you didn’t decide in the direction they had decided was right, you didn’t love God very much your very relationship with Him was potentially at stake. After all, God wasn’t very big on folks who weren’t willing to live in obedience to His commands. It was nothing less than the purity of the church and the eternal salvation of its members that was at stake here. As far as the other side was concerned, though, their ideological opposites were insanely restrictive in their understanding of what the Scriptures taught. They needed to loosen up and see that their pharisaical attitude was driving people away from the church. Salvation was at stake here! How is a church—any church—supposed to survive when it’s facing a challenge like this?
Well, we are just two weeks away from getting back together again for in person worship services. Are you excited? I know some of you are. Some of you may be anxious too. If you’ve limited your exposure to other people for the last four months like we have been instructed to do by pretty much every political leader and health expert, you’ve gotten out of practice at being around other people. Your comfort level just may take a while to get back to whatever normal was—do you even remember that anymore? It may take longer than you think it will sitting where you are now. But still, if you’ve been a part of the church for long, you’re ready for this. You’re ready to be back together. That’s how the church is supposed to be. We’re supposed to be able to gather for worship, not simply sit alone in rooms around the community and even around the world whether in Thailand, Japan, Norway, or any of the other various nations around the world from which folks have tuned in to these broadcasts over the past few months. As good a thing as this is, it’s not how things are supposed to be. To be a bit anachronistic, the writer of Hebrews didn’t command us to not neglect to tune in online together in order to digitally engage with one another. He commanded us to not neglect to gather together. And just so we’re clear, the only kind of gathering he had in mind was a physical one. Online church is good when you can’t have in person church for some reason, but let’s not begin fooling ourselves into thinking that it is anything even remotely resembling the best. It’s not.
If you have a sibling or two (or more), do you remember a time when you were separated from each other for a season for some reason? Maybe one of you went to camp and the other didn’t. Maybe you went to different camps. Maybe one of you went to spend time with your grandparents and the others had to wait their turn. Whatever the reason for it, you were apart. When you first got back together, you were genuinely glad to see each other again. You were able to catch up and swap stories about your time apart. You filled each other in on what life had brought over the previous days or weeks or months or even years. It was good. After a while, though, the newness began to wear off a bit. Then a bit more. And then it just fell apart like house of cards in a windstorm. And when it did, all the picking and sniping that you would normally do with each other began to rear their ugly heads again. In fact, it felt a bit like a dam had burst and everything you hadn’t been doing for weeks or longer came all back out in a rush. It wasn’t pretty. Things were back like they were before, and in this case that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Are you with me here? We’ve been mostly apart for almost four months now. Think about that. That’s a full quarter of the year that we’ve lost in terms of time together. I’ve said this before, but the whole world has been rocked by this thing. It has been utterly unlike anything the world has faced in 100 years. About the only thing that has kept COVID-19 from being as devastating as the Spanish Flu in terms of the sheer loss of life is the vastly improved medical technology and understanding of how to battle against viruses we have today. This virus is a fact and it doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings. It doesn’t care whether you are rich or poor. It doesn’t care what color your skin is. It is utterly impartial in who it infects. And, the way it is going to impact someone is a giant, scary unknown until she has it and we can watch and see what happens. Some people get kind of sick, some people don’t get sick at all, and some people die. And, it’s not over. We may be opening back up, but it’s not over. In fact, the news of the past couple of weeks—when we haven’t been talking about issues of race and injustice—has been focused on the rapid increase in the number of cases as things have started opening up. And yet, unless something happens between now and July 5 to derail our plans, we’re still going to open back up for services in the fellowship hall that morning.
Listen: We’ve all been changed by what we have experienced over the past four months. None of us are the same. Basic social courtesies like holding a hand out to be shaken as a standard greeting have become awkward pauses during which time neither of us really knows what to do or say. Social trust from one person to another is reaching all-time lows. And even as we are preparing to gather together once again, some states—including this one—are considering whether we need to shut everything back down again because the virus seems to be spreading again with a vengeance. If we’re going to get back together again, then—if we are really going to do this—then we need to be ready for it. And I don’t just mean the building needs to be clean (which, of course, it will be).
With that in mind, I want to spend this morning and next week with you talking about what we need to know in order to get back together and to do it in a way that will be both satisfying and sustainable. And let me explain what I mean when I use those words. I want for our time back together to be satisfying on multiple levels. I want it to be emotionally satisfying. We are all hungry for things to be back like they were. Some folks have gotten so hungry they are throwing wise caution to the wind and acting like there is no pandemic going on. We can’t do that. That’s not loving our neighbor. Denying reality or pretending it is other than it is simply won’t do. Being back together in our normal space for worship will feel good, though, and I want it to feel good. It should feel good. I want it to be satisfying relationally too. We’re lonely. Not being around people like we’re used to being around people is hard. This is going to help take some of the pressure off of that. I want it, thirdly—and most importantly—to be spiritually satisfying. We were made to worship together. Not digitally together, but together together. This will satisfy that longing.
I want it to be sustainable as well, though. That applies on multiple different levels too. There have been a few churches around the country who have started meeting again only to have to shut right back down because of an outbreak among the membership. I don’t know about you, but if we get started having in-person gatherings only to have to immediately stop again, it’s going to be worse than it was the first time. I want our gatherings to be sustainable in the sense that we don’t have to stop anymore. We’re going to go over and above to make sure we are being safe and wise in our gatherings. We’ll talk more about that next week. We need our gatherings to be sustainable relationally and spiritually as well though. And in order to hit that mark we need to take into account something that you have perhaps only thought about in the abstract so far. That thing is this: Different people have different comfort levels with being around other people right now. The other part of this fact—and we’ve touched on this before—is that people who are at one comfort level aren’t always terribly tolerant or understanding of folks who are at a different comfort level. Listen: Where that kind of disunity gets unleashed in the church—especially now when it’s so potent—it will sow the seeds of our destruction.
So…what do we do?
Well, this week and next what we’re going to do is to listen in on something the apostle Paul wrote to the church of ancient Rome. And this is going to be a two-part conversation. When we get to the end of our time today, we’re not going to be finished. You’ve got to come back next week for that. In any event, when I was describing a hypothetical church conflict a few minutes ago, I wasn’t thinking about something modern. I was thinking about the church in the first century. And the issue then was one that is so far off of our radar that it doesn’t even make sense that people were fighting over it. But, oh, was it a big one for them. It was a matter of spiritual life and death in the minds of both sides.
The issue itself was whether or not it was morally permissible to eat meat from an animal that had been slaughtered as part of a sacrificial offering to a pagan god (that is, an idol). Generally speaking, meat was fairly hard to come by for most people in the first century. Meat was expensive, most people were extremely poor, you do the math. The way most people in the Gentile world obtained meat was when some wealthy benefactor held a big feast to honor one god or another at a local temple. He would bring a whole bunch of animals to be slaughtered as a display of both his devotion to the deity and also his own wealth. This pleased the god, got him public acclaim, and the people were able to pick up the meat in the temple market for much cheaper than the other local markets could offer because the cost had been heavily underwritten by the benefactor. Everyone was happy.
But, for the conscientious Jewish-background follower of Jesus, this meat was an outright abomination because it had been obtained via idolatry and thus was a gross violation of the first two commandments. For these folks, eating this meat was a non-starter…and anyone in the church who ate it was tainted with the stench of idolatry as well. Gentile-background followers of Jesus, on the other hand, had grown up with this practice and it was just normal to them. There was nothing special about this meat because the gods weren’t real. Wasn’t that what Paul and the other apostles had taught them? Why be bothered by food offered to a god that wasn’t real in the first place? All their fussing about this issue was making it difficult for them to be able to invite their friends to church and for them to feel welcome when they came.
Now, again, their issue doesn’t resonate with us. Our meat today generally comes from the butcher or the meat packing plant. Some folks raise and process their own. We don’t get meat from the temple. But, can you see the parallels between their issue and ours? When we get back together, we are going to have folks in the room with opinions about how to stay safe in this pandemic that are all over the map. Some folks think this whole thing is really just an attempt by the government to take over a bigger piece of our economy and lives than it already has. Some folks think the virus doesn’t really pose any meaningful threat. They just don’t believe the news reports. They also generally don’t happen to know anyone who’s actually died from it. Just saying. Some folks think it is real, but are so tired of being cooped up and restricted in what they can do that they’re ready to get back to normal and if they get sick, they get sick. Some folks are scared of it still—and not without good reason. The number of cases in Stanly County recently went up by more than 50% in one week. They don’t want people touching them. They don’t want other people anywhere near them—or their kids—and especially not if they don’t have on a mask at the very least. Some folks just plain aren’t going to come back yet because they’re just not ready. As we’ve talked about before, all of these folks generally fit into three categories: pro-mask, anti-mask, and fence-sitters. And they’re all going to be here. Together.
Pro-mask folks think the anti-mask folks are dangerously unconcerned with the people around them. They are failing to love their neighbor by refusing to wear a mask and this really reflects a fundamental problem in their relationship with Jesus. Anti-mask folks think the pro-masks folks are being wildly over-cautious and after all, look around. Hardly anybody else around here are wearing masks. No one thinks this is as big a deal as you do. Loosen up and have some faith! The fence-sitters, on the other hand, are sick of the other two fighting with each other while both of them are looking back with disgust for their unwillingness to actually commit to one side or the other. Can you see the fight brewing? Relationships that were once warm and familiar stand poised to become cold and distant. Parents wanting to protect their kids will either keep them home or refuse to let them play with the kids whose parents are on the other side of the divide. The kids won’t understand fully, but they’ll take on the biases and prejudices of their parents as kids have always tended to do. Committees and ministry teams will have members who aren’t willing to work with one another anymore. Come on, folks, this is the kind of stuff that kills churches.
So, what do we do?
We pay attention to Paul. Listen at last to what he said here starting in Romans 14:1: “Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about disputed matters.” Wait, what do you mean “weak in faith”?!? My faith in Jesus is just fine! I just… See how quickly it can happen? Paul took sides in Rome. He agreed with the meat-eaters. Eating the idol meat didn’t violate any kind of law of Christ. The anti-meat folks were mistaken on that point. But here’s the thing: It didn’t matter. Whether or not someone ate meat didn’t have any bearing on her relationship with Jesus. It didn’t change the fact that Jesus rose from the grave and offered life to all who were willing to receive Him. Listen: whether or not someone wears a face mask or maintains strict physical distancing guidelines doesn’t have any bearing on their relationship with Jesus. It doesn’t change the fact that Jesus rose from the grave and offers life to all who are willing to receive Him. What Paul is getting at here is the fact that the meat and the masks aren’t really the issue. The issue is whether or not the church can maintain her focus on the bigger picture that unites us in spite of the smaller things that may divide us. Paul’s command is to not argue about the small things.
Let’s keep going in v. 2 now: “One person believes he may eat anything, while one who is weak eats only vegetables. One who eats must not look down on one who does not eat, and one who does not eat must not judge one who does, because God has accepted him. Who are you to judge another’s household servant? Before his own Lord he stands or falls. And he will stand, because the Lord is able to make him stand.” Are you with me? When it comes to issues that do not determine our salvation—and neither theirs nor our issue do—people in the church can take up different opinions and still be in the church together. The key to seeing that happen is to give up passing eternal judgment on another person simply because they feel differently than we do. Why? Paul gets to that next.
Verse 5: “One person judges one day to be more important than another day. Someone else judges every day to be the same. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for himself, and no one dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and returned to life for this: that he might be Lord over both the dead and the living.”
Have you ever had somebody parent your kids before? Let me change that just a bit: Have you ever had somebody parent your kids to whom you had not given even the implicit permission to do so? If you want to get a mom riled up faster than just about anything else, then just tell her kids what to do without her permission and in a way that contradicts something she had told them to do herself. You do that and you’ll likely encounter a Momma Bear faster than you can even begin to imagine. You don’t get to tell my kids what to do unless I’m okay with it. Not only can you not tell my kids what to do without my permission, but it’s not your job to evaluate their behavior either. That’s Lisa’s and my job. You don’t set the standard to which they need to adhere. Lisa and I do. My boys belong to me and you don’t have any authority over them in any meaningful sense beyond what I extend to you and then that authority only exists under the purview of my standards and expectations for them. Are you with me?
Think about it now: Does that person across the church who is sitting all alone with a mask and gloves and giving kind of dirty looks at the people who come to close somehow belong to you? Is it your job to pass any kind of judgment on her choice to stay physically distanced even when you don’t think it’s necessary anymore? Do you somehow get to be the arbiter of her relationship with God? No, right? So, why let her choices bother you? Love her as your sister in Christ if she’s a fellow believer. If she’s not a follower of Jesus, your doing anything other than receiving her warmly and on her terms could keep her from the kingdom of God.
Or this: Does that person walking into the room with no mask, talking loudly, and trying to shake hands with everyone around him somehow belong to you? Is it your job to pass any kind of judgment on his decision to throw caution to the wind and behave like things are back to normal? Do you somehow get to be the arbiter of his relationship with God? No, right? So, why let his choices bother you? Now, I can already hear your objections beginning to fire up. He’s making choices that could possibly affect more than just him! He’s putting me and my children at risk! I can’t risk my elderly parents or my grandbabies getting this mess. Rest assured for now that we’ll talk more next week about how we’re going to handle this particular challenge. If this man is a follower of Jesus, though, your job is not to judge him for this as if he were somehow less committed to Christ than you are. You are to love him as your brother in Christ. If he’s not a follower of Jesus, a lack of kindness and warmth on your part could be something that keeps him from the kingdom of God.
You make the choices you are going to make to the glory of God and don’t worry about what someone else has chosen. And again, I know there are some caveats we need to add here, and we will add those. We’re only in the first part of this conversation. My point here is simple: Jesus is the Lord of you and that other person, and you aren’t. “But you,”—verse 10 now—”why do you judge your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” If that other person is making decisions that dishonor God, He’ll deal with it in good time. You love him, you love her, and let God take care of the rest.
The bottom line here is this: We cannot let differences of opinion divide us. Listen: We don’t all agree on where the line between normal functioning and safe physical distancing is. We just don’t. And that’s okay. We don’t have to agree on that. We don’t have to agree on that in order to still be a church that brings glory to God together. That may be a thing that could potentially divide us, but we are united by something bigger and stronger than that. We cannot let differences of opinion divide us. Our faith doesn’t hang on whether or not someone is wearing a mask or won’t shake our hand. It hangs on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We belong to Him and He is our Lord. He has created and called us as a church to reflect His glory and to be a people with whom a searching world can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. If we are going to see that happen, we cannot let differences of opinion divide us. There’s just too much at stake.
And this all sounds good—and I hope it does indeed sound good to you—but how do we actually do that? And what is it going to actually look like here? The answer? Four simple words: Don’t miss next week.