Romans 14:14-23 CEB
I know and I’m convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself. But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person. If your brother or sister is upset by your food, you are no longer walking in love. Don’t let your food destroy someone for whom Christ died. And don’t let something you consider to be good be criticized as wrong. God’s kingdom isn’t about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ this way pleases God and gets human approval.
So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up. Don’t destroy what God has done because of food. All food is acceptable, but it’s a bad thing if it trips someone else. It’s a good thing not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that trips your brother or sister. Keep the belief that you have to yourself—it’s between you and God. People are blessed who don’t convict themselves by the things they approve. But those who have doubts are convicted if they go ahead and eat, because they aren’t acting on the basis of faith. Everything that isn’t based on faith is sin.
Okay, is anyone else hungry now with all this talk of food? On the other hand, maybe the scripture reading for this morning makes you a bit leery to eat at all! Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up on this odd upset over food, and in our second week of Lent, I believe this scripture is uniquely suited to help us unpack the practice of doing no harm. While last week, we sought to understand how our actions and inactions have the potential to cause harm, whether it was intended or not. Now, we seek to see how we may actively seek to avoid harm, and ultimately, promote another’s good. Paul gives us an unusual insight through the problem of food, that even seemingly small things like this can cause us or another to fall away from God. What is food or anything else on this side of eternity in comparison to the loss of a child of God’s relationship with their creator? We might think the cause is silly or we might think others are mistaken, but at the core, what matters is whether we fail to consider our neighbor’s harm and ultimate good. Concerning ourselves instead with whether we are separating them from the most important relationship any of us could have.
Here in our reading, Paul writes to the church in Rome, and he specifically addresses the problem of clean and unclean food. Now, he starts off by saying, “I know and I’m convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is wrong to eat in itself.” Making it clear that he agrees with what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark, “Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person” (Mark 7:15 NRSV). Largely this is addressing Jewish dietary laws that forbade the eating of things like pork, but certainly, this also addressed the dietary restrictions of the ancient Greeks and Romans. For instance, the Romans looked at eating excessive amounts of meat and drinking straight wine as barbaric and undesirable. Indeed, some early Christians also struggled with buying and consuming the meat of sacrifices offered to pagan gods.
Now what does this all have to do with avoiding harm? Well, that comes into play in the very next sentence Paul writes, “But if someone thinks something is wrong to eat, it becomes wrong for that person.” Paul goes on to elaborate that while the food going into them does not defile them it is still harmful in a real way because it causes them to act contrary to what they believe is right. It inflicts harm upon them because they believe it to be sinful to eat these foods. Paul could have written that it was the duty of the “stronger” Christians to convince them of how wrong they were. Instead, Paul says that these Christians are not to eat foods in such a way that it would lead these others to fall into sin. In fact, Paul tells them not to do anything “that trips your brother or sister.” Harm crops up here not only because harm comes in them believing they have sinned, but harm actually comes from Christians causing others to fall into sin by their own callous actions. In fact, this mishandling of food may cause Christians to stumble so hard as to completely fall away from Christian community!
Now, this may sound strange to our ears, but it shouldn’t as we have examples of something similar in our own church. Have you noticed that we do not serve wine with our bread during communion? It really does not make us sound like very biblical Christians since they had wine with their communion ceremonies, so why the change? Back in the 1800’s, people were getting concerned about the ongoing problems of alcoholism, and many were unhappy that we served alcoholic wine in our churches. Unfortunately, the lack of refrigeration made using unfermented wine, or grape juice, from being widely available, until a man called Thomas B. Welch came along. A former Methodist pastor and dentist, Welch desired to create an unfermented grape juice that could be used to replace wine, and by the 1870’s had developed and was producing a pasteurized grape juice that solved the refrigeration problem. In fact, many of you have probably had Welch's grape juice both in and out of church. Now, before too long, in just a couple of decades after grape juice’s introduction, in fact, the Methodist church had given up using wine all together.
Friends, when I stand behind the communion table, I announce that it is open to all, but what if we served wine, who would be harmed by this practice? Who would not be able to share in drinking the wine because of their own struggles with alcoholism? Suddenly, the church becomes something that some cannot be a part of because they cannot fully participate and would harm them if they participate. Similar concerns over gluten allergies and having an open table have caused many churches to provide gluten free alternatives at the communion table for similar reasons. Here is food and the potential for harm that it holds, standing between people and their God. We as the church moved to eliminate things that would have harmed our siblings in Christ and would have held them back from being in full relationship with God. These are just small examples but they continue to exist all around us.
There are many today who have left the church and many others who will never enter our doors because they see church as a place of harm. My friends, how do you think people learn about God today if not through Christians? Why would people pick up a Bible unless they have grown curious about this God through the strange extraordinary love of Christians? By the same measure, what do you think happens when Christians dismiss the things that cause others harm? What we do and say along with what we do not do and do not say teaches others about the God we worship and serve. By not avoiding harm, we trip our siblings and then we cause them to fall and finally they fall so far as to stray away from their relationship to God. This is the ultimate harm.
This harm is so severe, that Jesus actually says in one of the gospels, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:2 NRSV). Paul puts it another way in our reading today, “Don’t destroy what God has done because of food.” Friends, when we put anything in the scales against eternity, whether it be food or tradition or politics or personal preferences, what outweighs eternity? What outweighs the eternal reality that Bishop Reuben Job describes when he says, “When I commit myself to this way [of doing no harm], I must see each person as a child of God - a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved - just like myself” (Job 2007, 31). Another way to put it, is there anything outside God that is worth preserving at the cost of a child of God turning away from God entirely?
If we think we are Christians, what is our responsibility if not to care for our neighbor and join them in a renewed relationship with our God? Do you wish to avoid harm? Do you wish to do good? The harm that your neighbor feels is real because they feel it. For the Roman church, the minor inconvenience of not eating meat and not drinking wine was worth it if it kept people from being harmed to the point that they fell away from community and from God altogether. If there are two parties that seem to be being harmed, ask yourself, which harm, if it persists, will cause someone to trip and fall away? What should we do then? Paul puts it best when he says, “God’s kingdom isn’t about eating food and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” God’s kingdom is about treating each other as children of God, invaluable and loved beyond measure because of the everworking grace of our God. Let us lean into that grace today to work together as a community of Christ to prevent harm and show people who our God is and the work God is doing through us as we seek to follow these three simple rules of our Christian discipleship. Amen!
Pastor Paul Grossman