Room at the Table
Thanksgiving Weekend is upon us.
Here once again is that time of year when families and friends gather around tables that are loaded down with delicious food, the bounty of this year’s harvest.
Spread out before us on our tables will be turkey with aromatic stuffing, savoury smelling hams, rivers of gravy, steaming bowls of vegetables.
And for the finale there will be desserts that most people are too full to enjoy.
So, they are left for later when our bulging tummies have had a chance to do their digestive magic, making room for more delicious goodness.
Yes, Thanksgiving, a blessed, a nostalgic and even a sentimental time of year.
Blessed in that we come together as families in God’s presence to celebrate God’s rich blessings in our lives over the past year.
Nostalgic, in that this is a time of year when we recall fond memories of celebrations gone by.
Sentimental, in that our selective memories often gloss over the frequent misunderstandings, numerous conflicts and reoccurring battles that erupted over past Thanksgiving tables.
But in spite of past hurts we gather again year after year.
Coming together as family and friends, more or less forgiving past hurts, more or less healed from past dinner wars; we come together once again making space for one another at the table of Thanksgiving.
In Romans, Paul was trying to encourage the church in Rome to do likewise; to come together in peace, to make space for one another at the Lord’s table.
Biblical scholars teach that Paul wrote the letter to the Romans to a church that had just undergone some serious changes; changes that unsurprisingly had resulted in conflict.
Well before Paul wrote this letter the rulers of Rome had banished all Jews, including Christian Jews, from the city.
Apparently due to their unruly behaviour.
Also prior to Paul’s writing this edict of exile had been lifted.
And the exiled ones had returned to their city.
The Jewish Christians, returned to their churches.
But the churches they returned to had changed in their absence.
Suddenly, their once mostly Jewish Christian churches were filled with Gentile Christians because the word of God had continued to bear fruit during their absence.
And true to form, during this time of change, conflict erupted in the church.
Some in the congregations, those who had been raised in the Jewish tradition, were saying that Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and dietary laws must be maintained if you wanted to be called a follower of Jesus, if you wanted to belong to their church, if you wanted a place at their table.
The newly converted Gentiles begged to differ.
These new comers saw no value in taking on the trappings of the Jewish religion and presumably they were not shy about saying so.
And so, the war was on.
It is to this church that Paul wrote.
At the time the church in Rome was the westernmost church in the Roman Empire.
And Paul had plans to change that.
Paul had his eye on evangelizing Spain, the western end of the known world.
And Paul needed the help of the Roman church to back him in his missionary plan.
So, Paul, when he wrote to the Romans, had a strong agenda for doing so.
And what did he do first to get the Roman church into a place where they could aid him in fulfilling his agenda?
Paul took 8 chapters in his letter to try to help the Roman Christians, Jews and Gentiles, sort out their differences.
To sort out their differences Paul talked to them at length about doctrine.
In the first eight chapters of Romans Paul laid the basis of the correct doctrine of salvation being justification before God, through faith alone, not through works or religious practices.
Paul argued that special foods, that religious recognition of special times of the year, like Thanksgiving, that bodily mutilation like circumcision, did not have anything to do with our place before God.
So first he sorted out their doctrine.
But he did not end the discussion there.
Paul, wise and caring pastor that he was, took the doctrine he had taught them and helped them to know how to apply it in the living of their lives.
Doing so for the peace of the church.
Our reading for today has a lot to say about how to live at peace in the church.
And what the Bible says is this, “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.”
Is Paul here equating opinions to faith?
He seems to be.
He seems to be saying after having established, over eight chapters that our faith is a gift of God, he is here saying that our faith it is a gift that we live into, that we stand or fall on, based on what our beliefs, based on what our consciences, based on what our opinions, tell us, about how God would have us live in this world.
And he is telling us that we should live at peace with our sisters and brothers.
We should live before God without fighting over the opinions that we hold about what we believe.
Paul tells us we must not despise those who hold a different view than we do of what is holy and isn’t holy.
Paul tells us that we must not judge or condemn our sisters or brothers for their opinion, for their belief on what is and is not permissible in God’s eyes.
“Those who eat,’ says Paul, ‘must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not judge those who eat.”
Paul teaches us how to hold our doctrinal beliefs in a none judgmental way.
He teaches us how to live at peace with one another in the church
Paul also teaches us our place in the scheme of things.
We are meant to make room for one another at God’s table because in the end it is the Lord who will judge each of us.
“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall.”
“Some judge,’ or hold the opinion, ‘one day to be better than another, while others judge,’ or believe, ‘all days to be alike.”
“Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
Let each one be firm in their faith.
And Paul goes on to remind us the point and purpose of that faith, our beliefs, our opinions.
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.”
Let each one of us live and die before the God who will judge us in the end.
Wise words from the apostle Paul; words to live by.
And remember I said earlier that Paul wrote to the church in Rome because he had an agenda, he had a plan that he wanted them to buy into?
And that plan was to take the gospel to the end of the known world, just like Jesus said we are to do.
Paul knew that the fussing and fighting which the Roman churches were indulging in would make it impossible for them to help him fulfill his plan, God’s plan, to carry the life-giving word of God to all those who had not yet heard it.
People, the same is true today.
When we allow our differences of opinion to cause us to fuss and fight amongst ourselves.
When we allow disputations around our doctrinal beliefs to exclude others from God’s table.
We limit our ability as the church of God, the Body of Christ, to come alongside our God in the missionary work that our God will never cease doing in this world, with or without us.
When sincere Christian people fight amongst themselves the only one who wins that war is the devil.
Please hang onto your faith.
By all means hang onto the doctrine you were first taught.
Please allow others to do likewise.
Please make room in your heart for everyone who wishes to join you at God’s table of Thanksgiving.