A sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 5 July 2021, 16:30, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Jeremiah 20:1-11a and Romans 14:1-17
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“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” I’ve always thought that there’s a slightly random quality to that last sentence, which comes at the start of our New Testament reading this evening. Whatever it was that the Christians in Rome were arguing about, it seems strange that it should be about vegetables. That Paul should apparently be against Christians being vegetarians goes against our 21st century sensibilities. My mum has always been vegetarian, and when I was growing up, that was seen as relatively unusual. But now, being vegetarian is completely mainstream and normal. Apart from arguments about cruelty to animals, it’s now also widely recognised that eating less meat is better for the environment- although many of us probably still eat more meat than we think. Before lockdown, I thought I didn’t eat that much meat or drink much alcohol, due to the fact that I rarely did either at home- but over the last 18 months, I’ve come to realise that I must have consumed more of both outside of home than I thought- because I certainly do have both at home- probably in too large quantities- now!
But when Paul is talking about the Roman Christians who only eat vegetables, it almost certainly wasn’t anything to do with any of the reasons we don’t eat meat now. Hardly anyone in Paul’s world would have thought that it was cruel to slaughter animals for food, and obviously the threat to the environment was not a live concern at that time in the way that it is now. The reason that some people, including the ones he is talking about in this chapter, became vegetarian was that they couldn’t guarantee getting the right sort of meat. Would it be pure? Granted they were allowed to eat meat, were they allowed to eat this meat? Had it been slaughtered in the proper manner? Had it been cooked in the right way?
The “kosher” laws laid down in the Jewish faith meant that, for some Jewish Christians, not eating meat was easier than being able to guarantee getting meat that had been properly slaughtered according to the Jewish tradition. For Gentile Christians, though, these rules would not have applied- and for Paul, these are the “strong” Christians who know that they are saved not by such strict observance of the Law, including dietary laws, but by their faith in Jesus. This issue of whether to eat meat or not, like the parallel issue of when, and whether, to observe the Sabbath, could well have been things that divided Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians. And this is why Paul says that, even though- since God has created it- all meat is good in itself and therefore can in principle be eaten- even so, if someone else’s conscience is being hurt, those who eat meat should not pass judgement on those who don’t. Paul is trying to break down the walls which the early Christians so easily put up between people of different ethnic origin. Instead of looking at one another as Jewish or Gentile, he’s saying, they should see themselves as fellow servants of the same master, fellow disciples of the same Lord. They should be tolerant of each other’s practice. “Who are you to pass judgements on your brother or sister?” he writes. “We do not live to ourselves.”
Yesterday, our Bishop, Bishop Nick, retired as Bishop of Salisbury. The diocesan bishop is a focus of unity, and in his 10 years as Bishop, Bishop Nick has led the diocese in renewing our hope in God, and in sharing our common life. One of the things that has really mattered to him throughout his ministry has been inclusion, for example, his desire to include and recognise same sex couples in the life of the church, and welcome them, a cause for which he has been willing to speak out, even when it has cost him to do so. He has also been passionate, as lead Bishop for the Environment, to emphasise our unity not just with those we see as different from us, as Other, but with creation itself. In his final sermon, he reminded us yesterday of Pope Francis’ point that we should approach creation with an attitude of prayer- of reverence and contemplation. Seeing the environment as holy and precious, not as something to be consumed, would lead us to respect its integrity and work in harmony with it, rather than treating it with disdain.
“I am because you are.” Desmond Tutu’s words embrace the idea known in South Africa as Ubuntu- that humans cannot exist in isolation. We depend on connection, community and caring- simply, we cannot be without each other, even if we can’t always understand the things that make us different from one another. As we seek to address the environmental crisis and recover post-Covid, these are goals that will require global cooperation and sharing. This idea requires, as Paul does of the Roman Christians, a conscious shift in how we think about ourselves and others, especially in times when things could seem more divided than ever.
So then, Paul appeals to the Roman communities to forgo their divisions. Christian identity, he tells them, is defined by our shared allegiance to Christ. We pledge that allegiance at the moment we are baptised. Our belonging is life-long and life giving and extends beyond death. Paul explains, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord”. And that belonging was bought at great cost, Paul reminds us: “Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of the dead and the living”. That is why maintaining that unity is such costly business; and draws on all that we have, both our material and spiritual gifts.
“Who are you to pass judgement?” Paul challenges us. We do not live to ourselves, at every stage of our lives as Christians, “we are the Lord’s”. Our unity, our communion, is a precious gift from Christ. Let us pray now that we may be enabled to build and strengthen our communion through our gifts and generosity of spirit, that we may refrain from condemning one another and instead listen and learn from one another, to make better, Christ-like judgements, and that we may extend our communion in the way that we reach out to and include those who are different from ourselves.