I’ve already talked a little bit about how when I was a teenager, I was as sure as I could be that I was going to be a pro-skateboarder. Though, even as I would say it, I would know that I was being delusional. I’m just medium coordinated and my skateboard tricks were pretty basic. But I loved dreaming that it could happen. I loved dreaming that I was Tony Hawk.
As you may have noticed, if you were around in the 1990s, being a skateboarder came with a uniform. If you skated in San Diego you wore VERY large jeans and graphic tee shirts and your shoes had the tell-tale sign of having holes on the outer edge of the toes from being sanded by the edge of your skateboard.
I have to remember all of this with a small sense of embarrassment and regret – the eight-sizes-too-large jeans that I wore when I was a teenager. But I also remember how irritating I thought it was that all these “old” people in my life, like my parents, or people I went to church with – they always liked to tell me how unacceptable, annoying, and ugly my clothes were.
I think we can all admit that, in retrospect, that it was a weird trend, but what these people didn’t realize was that, though I couldn’t quite explain it, I considered it my way of expressing my passion for skateboarding and art. The way I dressed was a sign that I was a part of a tribe that accepted me, that I had friends, and that I belonged. But these adults could do nothing but judge me.
So, while I kind of cringe looking at old pictures, the same pictures also remind me that our judgments are so, so often, just lies that we tell ourselves. We think we are right and that we have the right to tell others that they are wrong – and sometimes in the most miserable ways possible. Like, can you imagine going up to a young person who loves going to our church, now, and telling them that their clothes are ugly?
But, here’s the funny thing: As I get older, my tendencies are shifting. We’re Methodists, and we believe that as we grow in grace, we are becoming more Christ-like, becoming more holy. But, unfortunately, I think that as I grow older, I might be becoming more like, “Get off my lawn.” I used to be so open to new ideas and change and culture and art and what other young people were doing, but now it feels like I’m standing in front of my house, yelling at kids to keep off the grass. I don’t know what happened. I’m not actually yelling at kids, of course, but I am finding myself to be so much more likely to rush to judgment on things that are part of youth culture or other parts of society that I don’t understand.
So now, as I see new trends or other aspects of society that I just don’t get, I have to run it through a filter in my head that asks, “Do you hate this because there is something wrong with it or have you just become a crusty old man?” Is it wrong or do you just not like it?
Jesus taught, “Judge not,” but the Church has been stuck in a feedback loop of judgment and blame for centuries. We have looked out at what’s happening in the world and, instead of asking ourselves how the Church became so irrelevant and unimportant in culture, we have looked out and blamed them. Instead of loving our neighbor without judgment, and instead of considering what might be wrong inside of us, what might be wrong inside of the Church, we blame and criticize others.
It reminds me of a great episode of The Simpsons in which the principal of the school realizes that he has gotten older and is no longer cool. And he asks himself in a moment of clarity, “Am I out of touch?” After a moment’s pause, he replies to himself, “No, it’s the children who are wrong.”
This is the message Paul gives to the Roman churches: “Judge not.” His version goes like this:
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently (Romans 14:1, MSG).
That’s clear, right? “Judge not.” In the earliest days of the Church, the members of our faith were the most likely to be abused because of their beliefs. They were probably some of the most likely people to be judged and hated in their culture and, yet, something about the way that Paul writes, this section of scripture, so clearly points to the fact that, even though they must have been sick to death of being hated, these Roman churches were stuck in a cycle of finger-pointing and blame.
We’ve talked briefly about how these churches were full of people who were both Jews and Gentiles, Roman citizens and slaves, rich and poor, and those from Palestine and those from other places. But, the Christian faith originated with those who were genealogically and religiously Jewish.
Yet, Judaism in the first century was a lot more like the way we experience Christianity in America today than we usually like to admit. We read Judaism through the writers of the Bible and they were the most active, the loudest voices, in the faith. They’re more like constant church attendees than those who only show up on Christmas and Easter.
And, much like Christianity today, these people, these writers of the Bible, were deeply-invested leaders who led movements similar to what we would call denominations. We’re Methodist and so we are deeply invested in grace. I’m sure that many of you, if you had to give a one-word answer for what makes the United Methodist Church different from other churches, I think you would have to just say, “Grace,” and almost leave it there. There’s more to it than that one word because all denominations believe in grace – the definition of grace being that God gives us good things that we do not deserve and have not earned. All denominations agree on grace, but, even though everyone believes in grace, I think that is our focus. We baptize babies because we believe that God gives grace even when we don’t yet recognize it.
We have a wide-open communion table, at which we say every time, you don’t need to be a member to take it because God is going to give grace every time whether we understand it or not. That’s why the kids come back and take communion with us even though we’re pretty sure they don’t know what God is doing at the table. And, frankly, we would be the first to say that we completely understand either.
Grace. It’s our focus. And, at the same time that we recognize the grace we receive, we have so much trouble offering grace to others in return. “Judge not.”
So, in Paul’s world there were a lot of different kinds of people in the faith. But, just like now, there were those who were deeply invested, but most were casual followers of the faith. Just like today, a time in which about 75% of Americans would still say, if asked, that they are Christians. We look around and see that 75% of our friends and neighbors are not here, or in any church, now. And, similarly, 75% of our friends and neighbors are unable to say why they would even consider themselves to be Christian. Most would would say, something like, that they were baptized Roman Catholic or that they went to Baptist Sunday School or some other ‘cultural’ answer for why they would consider themselves to be Christian. It was the same for Paul in his time and place.
But, even to casual follower of Judaism, in the first-century world, there was one pretty significant, non-negotiable part of being Jewish: The Kosher Laws.
The Kosher laws were seriously important to everyone and focused around what you ate and drank. They were important in both a religious and a cultural sense. If you grew up Jewish, even if you didn’t take the faith seriously as an adult, you still didn’t eat pork. You still didn’t drink wine that was made by non-Jews. And you still didn’t trust any meat prepared by non-Jews. You just avoided it altogether. That meant that people who grew up genealogically Jewish, who sat and worshipped in these Roman churches, as they gathered around the table to eat, would only eat vegetables. That’s why we hear Paul say to them, “Some believe in eating anything, while [others] eat only vegetables” (Romans 14:2, NRSV). These Kosher folks would have felt compelled to continue keeping Kosher, even for strictly cultural reasons even though they followed Christ.
It’s easy to forget that this is the communion table he is talking about. Keep that in mind. They gathered together to eat and celebrated Christ at those mealtimes. It wasn’t the same as we do it, they didn’t just dip a bit bread and call it a meal. They had meals together and celebrated communion there.
Food would have been a divisive thing as a result. I am sure that some would have questioned why there were people who still felt the need to keep the Kosher Laws now that they followed Jesus Christ. And others would have asked how they could consider themselves followers of Christ if they didn’t also follow the Kosher Laws – wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Didn’t he keep Kosher?
Now, as a result, Paul really had a really big problem on his hands. But he comes up with a simple solution that I think has to be inspiring to all of us. He says, at verse 3, ‘If you’re gonna eat, then eat. If you’re not, then don’t.’ You don’t need to fight about it. Just let it be.’ They didn’t have to have a church council meeting to decide once and for all whether we going to be a Kosher Church. He just decided. We’re going to let each other be.
This isn’t something that Paul did without thought or for only practical reasons. Although, it was a deeply practical decision. And, maybe, without it, we wouldn’t have a Church today.
Paul had already experienced a similar decision by the Church, in regard to circumcision, at the Council of Jerusalem, which we find in Acts chapter 15. The inability to agree on what to do about circumcision had almost destroyed the Church, already, by the time the Church finally made a decision about it. Again, if you were Jewish, circumcision was how you knew others were Jewish. It was cultural. It was non-negotiable. But Paul testified before the council and they decided that if circumcision was important to the culture then they could be circumcised. But, if it was not important, if it was not their culture, then it was not going to be the rule. This was revolutionary. Because scripture said that all men who follow God must be circumcised. And here the Church changes its mind and makes it optional.
I would be willing to bet that this was scary to some. It must have been so scary for people seated in the churches of Rome to hear Paul say the same about the Kosher Laws. Their stomachs would have dropped and their internal dialogue would have said, “But the Torah says it!”
What Paul realized and taught was that all scripture points toward Christ Jesus. And, if it does not testify to the living Christ, then we are reading wrong. As a result, Paul winds down his thoughts by quoting the prophet Isaiah (ch. 49), saying, “As I live and breathe every knee will bow before me; every tongue will tell the honest truth that I and only I am God.”
Knowing the truth that God is the judge of all and is leading us all toward him, “Judge not.”
Paul closes by saying, ‘Tend your own business; “you’ve got your hands full taking care of your own life before God” (Romans 14:12, MSG).
Therefore, may we hear Paul and love our neighbors and friends as they are, treating them gently, knowing that Christ is drawing them closer. Nearer. Nearer to his ways. May we go out knowing that God is doing the same in us.