The 23nd Sunday After Pentecost November 8, 2009
363, 153, 453, 783 [TLH alt, 436]
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, Lord and Master to each of us:
A study of Isaiah reveals that chapter 53 is the climax—that chapter in which the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, becomes the “Suffering Servant.” He is the Servant who was rejected, not only by men, but even by God. He was alone for a time, men looked at Him and saw nothing about Him they could admire or wished to emulate. As Isaiah put it, “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
Yet, Jesus did this in order to gather His people. He is the Good Shepherd who understood that He was destined to gather a flock consisting of many more than the mere handful of disciples who followed Him on His journeys. “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring…and there will be one flock, and one Shepherd” (John 10.16). In fact, He who went to the cross alone is the Lord who “sets the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:6).
But families are not always the easiest places to be. We’ve seen families with no end of contention, rivalry, and manipulation, and sometimes even in the family that we call the Christian congregation we see some of these troubles occur. In all of his epistles, Paul goes to pains to resolve such problems. Here in Romans, he takes up a particular problem that can occur even among sound and high-minded Christians. He addresses it by bringing forth the thought that Jesus died alone, so that we should not have to. We’ll see if this has any value for us as we consider I. The myth of the stand-alone saint, and II. The truth of the come-together Christian.
It often comes as a surprise to observers of Christians and conservative Lutherans in particular—since we make quite an issue of being of one mind when it comes to our teaching and practice—that we’re also sort of independent and do not conform to a lot of people’s expectations. We may not push for “blue laws” that institute Sunday store closings, but we are quite vocal about making faithful use of God’s Word and Sacrament, regardless of what day it falls on. We are very alert to the spiritual and social danger that the Christian brings on through drug or alcohol abuse, but many of us are comfortable with a glass of dinner wine or a tumbler of sipping whiskey when the time is right. We know that when ignorance and pride creep into our doings, things can become very uncomfortable.
We don’t know if things were already uncomfortable among the Roman Christians, or if Paul was simply trying to head off trouble. But he starts off a discussion of issues like the holy-day dilemma and the dietary practices. The holy day dilemma was this: Jews were accustomed to observing the seventh day of the week as holy. No work was to be done, because “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). That seventh day was to be used for worship and rest.
But once Christ came and completed His work on the cross, atoning for sin and then rising from the dead on the first day of the week, things were different. The apostles did not require the same observance of the Sabbath Day because “the Sabbaths…are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16f). Very quickly, Christians began to gather on Sunday as a commemoration of Christ and His resurrection. But again, there was no dictum coming down from the Lord that this should be the new “holy day.” In fact, the coming of Christ’s Kingdom to the hearts of believers through the Gospel, bringing joy, peace, and righteousness to all sorts of people means that every day “is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24). Some people argued that no one day was holier than another.
Now Paul points out the issue: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike.” [v.5] Paul makes no attempt to rule in favor of one view or another, or demand uniformity in the way things were done. He sees godly and scriptural impulses at work in both parties. He, instead, compels all to be honest with themselves and their consciences about their motives.
In the same way, Christians of Paul’s day came from Jewish backgrounds with qualms about eating non-kosher foods, and at the same time, former pagans were uncomfortable with the idea of eating meats that were sacrificed to idols. Both kinds of Christians struggled with the notion of Christian liberty which operates from the truth that “what God has cleansed you must not call common (unclean)” (Acts 10:15).
Some people refused to eat meat, or at least certain meats, as an act of faith; others rejoiced in the fact that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1) and indulged in the good things this creation has to offer. As Paul put it: “He who eats, eats to the Lord, for He gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.” [v.6]
Left by itself, that almost sounds like some political doubletalk: is Paul a “have your cake and eat it too” spin-doctor? No, not at all. As he goes on, he puts this whole issue of behavior and practice in perspective. He shows the myth of the stand-alone saint—the self-willed, hard-nosed maverick who chooses his own path to let the chips fall where they may. “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself.” [v.7]
When conflict arises in the church because of one person’s disapproval over the way someone else does things, a stand-alone saint mentality is developing. People feel the need to judge others’ activities not by God’s Law, but by their own view of things. Paul answers that by pointing out that no Christian stands alone—we all serve a Master, the Lord. It is not the place of one servant to judge or despise another servant’s service to his master, even if both servants serve the same Master! The Master will see that things are done to His liking. We need only to concern ourselves with our own service to our Master.
Our activity as servants of the Lord includes the joyous and meaningful participation in the Kingdom of our Lord, preaching the Gospel, ministering to one another and worshiping Him in church and in the world. This is not a time to isolate ourselves and frown on those who would approach things in a different way. It is an opportunity to come together—each Christian bringing to the table the gifts and wisdom that the Lord Himself has seen fit to give. Paul thought that celibacy was a pretty good idea and it worked for him, but he knew that not every Christian shared his particular gift in that department and did not make it a requirement—to do so would have gone beyond God’s Word and would have been contrary to it.
Rather, we look at the truth of the come-together Christian, the one whose actions and faith are rooted in the love that our Savior had. We see how He went the lonely road of the cross, but only to bring forth a living and united people. He was the grain of wheat that fell into the ground and died, not so that it would not remain alone, but spring forth from the ground again to bear much grain. (cf. John 12:24)
Suddenly, Paul’s thoughts are not about day to day matters: whether to devote a day to worship, or savor a good pork loin. It is about the big picture: life and death: “…if we live, we live to the Lord; if we die we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” [v.8] Our whole life is redeemed and sanctified for the Lord’s glory. The vocation I choose, the family I raise, the offerings I bring, the life that I live, is lived on the basis of the fact that I, the lost sinner, was redeemed by the Lord of Glory. By His stripes I am healed. He willingly bore the chastisement necessary for my peace.
Armed with that peace—peace before God which rules my soul—I am free to be the Lord’s servant, answerable only to Him, but glorifying my Lord by my loving service toward others. In the previous chapter, Paul laid down a general rule among Christians, even in society: “Owe no one anything…except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
So we are come-together Christians, not self-willed glory hounds seeking to bludgeon our fellow Christians into compliance with our opinions, but ministers of Christ, committed to exalting His name in our midst. Let Christ’s Word—the inspired Word of God—be our sole authority and guide. Let His redemption—the lonely path He took—quicken our hearts and fill us with gentle courage. Let His love for us translate into a patient and self-less love for the fellowship.
It is good to remember that Paul who here writes about things in which Christians can differ without division, only two chapters later warns these same Christians to divide—to separate from those who teach anything other than the doctrine of God’s Word. The clear Word of God is what defines us and gives us our form as believers in Christ.
It is the atoning death of Christ that frees us from the curse of sin and the impulses of the Devil and our flesh to be His faithful witnesses in this world. That witness continues as long as we live and is crowned by our death. Jesus Christ is Lord both of the dead and the living. In many ways, our most precious testimony is the one we give with our death, sealing our living hope with the confidence that He who went before—alone—will one day raise us up—together—to enter into that eternal Sabbath rest and to feast at the table of all the saints.
Jesus died alone so that we should not! May the Holy Spirit keep the truth of the cross alive in our hearts so that we may be united in living to the Lord and ready at the side of those who die in the Lord. Amen.
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