September 15, 2002

Romans 14:1-12

The good Lord created a remarkably diverse world. Do you know that there are more than 10,000 types of bacteria? That is a wonderful thought, isn’t it? There are 100,000 types of fungi, more than 65,000 types of Protista (single or multi celled organisms including alge and mold), and approximately 500,000 types of plants. Have you ever wondered how many different flowers you would have made had you been entrusted with the task of creating the world? Five or six? Perhaps ten on a good day? God created more than you and I can count.

Or animals. There are more than 795,000 types of animals in our world today. Cats and rats. Whales and snails. Bears and hares. Hogs and frogs. Mooses and gooses. Eagles and beagles. There are more than 795,000 types of animals in the world today. And yet, I noticed something that, though perhaps obvious, struck me when I visited the Masai Mara game park in Kenya. Animals tend to associate only with their own kind. I was at Masa Mari during the migration season in early August several years ago, and this tendency was unmistakable. I saw hundreds and hundreds of zebras, marching in a straight line as they headed toward their destination. There wasn’t a single wildebeast or warthog among them. I saw Giraffes here and elephants there. Lions enjoying the breeze. Monkeys swinging from trees. Thousands and thousands of animals, all typically congregating with their own kind.

So it seems to be in a great number of churches today. A wide variety of people worshiping God in many places and contexts, but typically in like-minded and often enclosed groups. It is interesting as we read through the New Testament, however, to note that such homogeneity—such uniformity—is often not characteristic of the earliest churches. Here in Romans 14, for example, we readily observe that significant differences exist within the community that Paul addresses. The primary point of contention here centers on differences in religious practice. There are those who believe that eating certain foods is inappropriate for them as Christians, while others clearly disagree. Another group within the church in Rome attaches particular significance to a certain day of the week, a significance not recognized by everyone. One can hardly overlook the tension in these verses—people have very different views, and they are apparently fussing among themselves as to which view is the correct one.

When I was in Philippi, West Virginia, last year, I drove past a church situated on the southern end of the town. In addition to the name of the church, the following words appeared on the marquis out front: “Multi-Cup.” I wasn’t certain what the modifier “multi-cup” meant, but I assumed that it was important because, after all, that church chose it as the single characteristic to share with everyone who passed by. When I inquired of someone, I learned that a major division had arisen years before over whether or not one should take communion from a single cup or from multiple cups. As a result, two groups emerged: single cup churches and multi-cup churches. This church in Philippi, West Virginia, was of the multi-cup variety.
It is important, I think, to observe how Paul addresses these developing factions in Rome. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he asks. “We will all stand before God one day, and we are all accountable to him.” Nowhere does he advise these different groups to separate from each other and establish their own unique congregations—the vegetable-eating church or the Thursday-morning church. Nowhere does Paul attempt to solve the apparent problem of diversity by promoting homogeneity. Instead, he encourages the various believers to respect and care for each other. “Welcome those who are weak in the faith,” he writes, ‘but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Learn to live and worship together in civil and healthy ways.

If Paul attempts in Romans 14 to address primarily differences in religious practice, he goes much further in other passages. When he writes to the Colossians, for example, he refers specifically to a series of major barriers that often exist between people groups. “There is no longer Greek and Jew,” Paul asserts, demolishing the seemingly unbreakable racial barrier that characterized the day. “There is no longer circumcised and uncircumcised,” he continues, rejecting surface religious distinctions that are all too easy to make. “There is no longer barbarian and Scythian,” Paul next announces, abandoning cultural categories that often divide people. And finally, “There is no longer slave and free,” Paul concludes, dismissing socio-economic labels that peg people and at times create unfair and ungodly estimations of human worth. Elsewhere, Paul says precisely the same thing about both educational and gender barriers. “I am a debtor both to the wise and the foolish,” he informs his readers in Romans 1:14, and he further asserts to the Galatians that both males and females are on equal footing with respect to their relationship with God. “In Christ,” Paul declares, “all such distinctions are secondary and ultimately insignificant.”

Again, when we read these texts, we cannot help but sense the tension that exists as these early Christians gather together. There are real differences, some of which go as deep as any barriers that you and I might imagine today. I dare say that the distance between Jews and Greeks was often no less severe that current tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Paul is not simply engaging here in some intellectual or philosophical debate—he is addressing real life issues. He sees here something of enormous theological significance—the way we look at people who are different from us matters.

And that, among other things, is what is so astounding about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here are multiple groups of people—black and white, rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, men and women—who are now finally empowered to step out of their own “marching lines” and intermingle. What a wonderful, wonderful thing. That, by the way, is clearly why the biblical writers make no attempt to hide these differences or to conceal the diversity that existed among the earliest believers. It is the very presence of such diversity that makes the unity envisioned by Paul so miraculous. “Unity in spite of diversity,” in the words of Howard Snyder, “is one of the most amazing things about the early church.”

According to our new purpose statement, the Grantham Church seeks to be a diverse community. In a real sense, such a desire goes against a fair bit of contemporary church-growth theory. Among many so-called church growth experts, homogenous congregations are more effective. They grow more noticeably and more rapidly. People prefer being with others who are like them—people who look like them, think like them, worship like them, and enjoy the same things that they do. That is what some people say. And to be honest, some of our own traditions and ancient creeds at times only reinforce such a notion. Over and over again, Christians have repeated the words of the Nicene creed that affirm our commitment to “one holy Catholic Church.” Sometimes, in our quest for unity, we fail to appreciate diversity. And frankly, I must admit that building a homogenous church would make our task here a whole lot easier for all of us who remain (assuming that I would be included within the like-minded group!).

But we here have agreed that such a homogenous congregation is not what we believe God is calling us to be and become. We don’t want everyone here to be the same. That would not only be unbiblical, but boring. Parents, haven’t you ever looked at your children and wondered how, given their differences, all of them came from you? Yet isn’t it true that many of the most important lessons that you have learned and some of the most memorable experiences that you can remember came as a result of working through and eventually celebrating some of those differences? The tension that arises from differences often produces remarkable excitement and growth. The energy of a developing family is often heightened by the unique contributions that different family members make.

Or think of the human brain. The left and right sides of our brains make enormous but varied contributions to our overall outlook—analysis and linear reasoning, on the one hand, and art and images on the other. Must the two sides of our brains be in such dire conflict that we are forced to suppress one over the other? Can they not instead compliment each other and in the process lead us to a more balanced and healthy was of living our lives?

So it should be with the church. We don’t want the Grantham Church to be a static organization that simply perfects a ritual or preserves its history, as important as those things can be. We want the Grantham Church to be a dynamic community that celebrates, not division, but diversity. While recognizing that we simply cannot be all things to all people, we nevertheless want to cast an embracing net so that a wide variety of people can find within these walls a home. Different people—black and white, rich and poor, male and female, educated and uneducated, outgoing and reserved. That is the type of community that, with God’s help, we hope to be.

That scene from Masai Mara has never left me. I can still see that long line of zebras stretching from hill to hill—thousands of animals, but they were all zebras. The Gospel of Jesus Christ invites us—zebras and giraffes and elephants and monkeys and kangaroos and mules and ground hogs—to march in the same line. While many of our differences will and should remain—that is what makes us each so special—they will not divide us. Instead they will contribute to the beautiful and dynamic tapestry that the Lord longs for his church to be.