From Our Archive
Debie Thomas, "Unpacking Forgiveness" (2020); Dan Clendenin, "Never Judge, Always Forgive" (2017) and "Accept One Another: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant" (2014).
For Sunday September 17, 2023
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Exodus 14:19-31 or Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21 or Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
This Week's Essay
Years ago, I visited a splinter Anglican denomination in the California bay area. The liturgy was very similar to the church I was attending, and after the mass concluded, I found myself puzzled. Both parishes were fledgling, with at most 15–20 households each keeping them afloat, and they gathered only a few miles apart. Given their similarity in tradition and worship, it seemed absurd to me that the two communities would continue on separately rather than uniting to become a more robust fellowship. So, in my naive way, I simply asked them this very thing. This was their reply,
“We don’t worship with that other parish because they’re Anglo-Catholic, and we’re Reformed.”
St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome never felt more relevant. For in Romans 14, Paul rejects this very way of distinguishing Christian communities. “What gives anyone the right to judge the servant of another? It is before the one they serve that they will stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Great Spirit has the power to make them stand,” Paul writes (14.4, First Nations translation, here and following). We are not to use our confidence that we know the truth about God to dismiss those who are following Christ in a different manner. On the contrary, we who think ourselves stronger in the faith are to make ourselves servants of our weaker sisters and brothers in Christ. We are to fellowship with them, not separate ourselves off to maintain some vaunted theological purity.
Paul’s ethical admonitions in Romans 12–16 are all outgrowths of the theological roots he put down in the first eleven chapters. If being the Body of Christ means that we serve a God who countenances no distinction between us, and who has mercy on all without exception or preference, then neither can we maintain distinctions or exceptions. New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson observes, “Even where Paul is being most practical and pastoral, there he is most theological. His appeal is not to moral generalities like broadmindedness and tolerance, but to the very heart of what God has done and has given us in Jesus Christ. It is because his principles are so theological that his touch is so unerring. The church neglects theology at the risk of losing all cutting edge and being reduced to moralizing!” (Wrestling with Romans, p. 143).
Wait a moment — surely we don’t mean to say that being a Christian means we lose all right to our opinion! If I don’t approve of what God means to someone else or the worship songs they want to sing or how they feel about baptizing infants, well, that’s my right! Just as we can have whatever opinions we want, so we can go to church with whomever we want. It is nice to want those two parishes to have joined in fellowship, but it was surely their prerogative to not worship together if they don’t want to. Freedom of association!
Perhaps legally those of us in liberal democracies do have such rights, but when we undergo baptism into the Body of Christ, we give up all such entitlements. The first ethical admonition Paul gives in the letter to the Romans is to “let Creator change you from the inside out, in the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. He will do this by giving you a new way of thinking, seeing, and walking” (12.2). As we are transformed into this new way of being human, Jesus makes us all members of his Body, “and each member belongs to all the others” (v. 5).
We do not belong to ourselves; we belong to Christ and derivatively to each other. Therefore we are not free to treat each other however we want. We are not free to decide what we want to believe, or with whom we are going to be the Church.
This teaching is incredibly difficult to receive for those of us who live in societies that prize autonomy. In many of our societies, we demand freedom from control, to determine for ourselves when we are touched, when we become pregnant, whether we should wear face masks, or even whether to get vaccinated. I’ve no wish to weigh in on these contentious topics, only to say that the Christian renounces all such freedoms — not in regression to control by petty human leaders and institutions, but in service to Christ. For whether we live or die, our lives belong to Christ (Romans 14.8).
Paul writes, “So we who are strong in our spiritual ways should be willing to lend a shoulder to the ones who are weak and unable to walk this road with firm steps. For this road is not only for our own good, but also for the good of all who walk with us. When the Chosen One walked this earth, he came not only to please himself but to help others” (Romans 15.1–2). The focus is not on what turf or rights I can demand for myself, but on how I can lay down my life to care for my sisters and brothers. This is emphatically not to say that we should not have strong convictions. By all means! Rather, we must remember that in disagreement we are disagreeing because we all are strongly convinced of what God has called us to do. Yet it is God who is our judge, not each other. “For the time will come when … each of us must give an answer to the Great Spirit for how we have walked on this earth” (14.10, 12). We have no right to opinion because we will answer to God for our beliefs and decisions.
So we have no right to attend church only with people we agree with, because the Church belongs to Christ and he determines our fellowship. We have no right to our opinion because if our opinions cause our sisters and brothers in Christ to stumble, then we have not loved them nor borne their burdens. Not only in church but on social media, at our places of employment, even in our politics we are to practice and model the way of sacrificial love. We give up the priority of what we want in order to “walk the path of peace in a manner that lifts up and strengthens the heart of each person” (14.19).
I close with an application that weighs heavy on my heart. My church community, the global Anglican Communion, is being riven like so many Christian traditions today by disagreements over human sexuality. Not only have people on all sides engaged in cruel condemnations of each other, each fully convinced that they have the Gospel on their side, we have further devolved into painful separations, lawsuits over church property, and ever escalating accusations about the apostasy of each.
I fear all sides in these disputes have failed to practice the ethics Paul outlines in our epistle reading. If we really believe there is no distinction between us, that God has mercy on all without exception, that each of us is fully convinced in our own minds as to how God views human sexuality, knowing that we will each have to answer to the Lord for our opinions, “why then do you look down on and decide the guilt of a sacred family member?” (14.10). Should we not accept that some are fully convinced in their own minds that God blesses all covenant unions, while others are fully convinced in their own minds that God created marriage as a union of dipolar sexes, and that perhaps all are doing so “to honor and give thanks to the Great Spirit” (14.6)?
Instead, we cause each other to stumble, hurting our growth in Christ and our unity as the Church. We must stop condemning our fellow Christians for doing what they are convinced is part of living the Gospel. Paul makes clear that only those who act contrary to what they truly believe God requires of them are in error, for “whatever does not come from trusting in Creator comes from our broken ways” (14.23).
I am fully convinced that there are gay and lesbian couples married in the church who are living lives of utter faithfulness to Christ. I am equally convinced that there are those who would restrict marriage to a dipolar sexual union who are also living lives of utter faithfulness to Christ. It is my obedience to the God for whom there is no distinction that I deeply desire to be the Church with all.
Let us “decide to never do anything that would make a sacred family member stumble and fall as they walk this good road” (v. 13). Let us instead dedicate ourselves to bearing each other’s burdens, trusting that God will judge between us on these fraught human quarrels. What will matter in the end is not who was right, but who God has accepted. Paul is unambiguous: God has accepted us all (14.3) — especially those we most think are totally mistaken about their theology. “It is before the one they serve that they will stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Great Spirit has the power to make them stand” (14.4, emphasis added). We place our trust in God, not in our own righteousness. It is not our correct opinions that save us, but the gracious love of the one who has the power to make us all stand aright!
Frances Sargent Osgood (1811–1850)
Half earnest, half sportive, yet listening, she stood,
That queenly young creature, the child of the wood;
Her curving lips parted—her dark eyes downcast—
Her hands lock'd before her—her heart beating fast;
And around her the forest's majestic arcade,
With the pure sunset burning like fire through the shade:
He spake of the goodness, the glory of Him
Whose smile lit the heavens—whose frown made them dim.
And with one flashing glance of the eyes she upraised
Full of rapture impassion'd, her Maker she praised.
He spake of the Saviour, his sorrow, his truth,
His pity celestial, the wrong and the ruth;
And quick gushing tears dimm'd the gaze that she turn'd
To his face, while her soul on her sunny cheek burn'd.
Then he thought in his fond zeal to wile her within
The pale of the church; but as well might he win
Yon cloud that floats changefully on in the light,
A fawn of the forest, a star-ray of light,
As tame to his purpose, or lure from her race
That wild child of freedom, all impulse and grace.
She listens in sad, unbelieving surprise;
Then shakes back her dark, glossy locks from her eyes,
And with eloquent gesture points up to the skies.
At last, to awaken her fears he essays;
He threatens God's wrath if thus freely she strays.
Wild, sweet, and incredulous rang through the wood
The laugh of the maiden, as proudly she stood.
Soft, thrilling, and glad woke the echo around;
True nature's harmonious reply to that sound.
Then lowly and reverent answer'd the maid:—
'God speaketh afar in the forest,' she said,
'And he sayeth—'Behold in the woodland so wild,
With its heaven-arch'd aisle, the true church of my child.'
Frances Sargent Locke was born in Boston in 1811 to a prosperous mercantile family with a literary bent, including an older sister, Anna Maria Wells, who was also a published poet. The young Fanny Locke was discovered in her youth by writer and editor Lydia Maria Child, who published many of Fanny’s verses under the pen name of Florence. Frances met the widely traveled, and self-romanticizing, portrait artist Samuel Stillman Osgood in 1834, and he invited her to sit for her portrait. Married in 1834, the couple spent the next five years in England while Samuel pursued his career among the aristocracy there.
Osgood was a popular and versatile poet who wrote both in the high sentimental mode and in a mode of sheer mischief. A focus on children, flowers, and death earns her the designation of sentimental (and that in no reductive sense), but she was also a New York City sophisticate, welcome in the most exalted literary circles, and a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe. In Osgood’s published poetry she deals quite seriously with sentimental themes, issues of motherhood and of romantic love, writing about these central human concerns with both personal insight and poetic skill. On the other hand, in a group of “salon poems” composed for social occasions, she wittily destabilizes the underlying premises of the sentimental ethos. A contemporary reviewer claimed Osgood was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s equal as a poet but far superior in “grace and tenderness.” Dying of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine, Osgood did not have the opportunity to realize the full promise of that comparison. —Excerpted from the Heath Anthology of American Literature, 5th Ed.
Michael Fitzpatrick welcomes comments and questions via firstname.lastname@example.org