Sunday 14 September 2008

Christian Tolerance

1. What a dramatic, blood-curdling story our 1st reading was (Exodus 14:19-31)!

Through the power of the LORD, Moses led the Israelites through the sea on dry ground, to escape from Egypt, but the pursuing Egyptian army were drowned, with all their chariots and all their horses. Christians traditionally see this story of the Exodus as a metaphor for how God will save his faithful people. But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the Egyptian soldiers, and for the horses!

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Instead I shall focus on the 2nd reading, Paul’s eloquent plea to the infant Roman church for tolerance of the differing opinions of fellow believers. I want to tease out his advice, and reflect on its implications for today.

2. First let’s look at Paul’s views on tolerance, as expressed in the reading (Romans 14:1-12)

St Paul picks out two areas of dispute in the Roman church of his day. That church would have been made up of a mixture of Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and gentiles who followed Christ.

The first dispute was between those who would eat anything, and others who would eat only vegetables. Why should this be an issue? Probably because in Rome animals were always ritually sacrificed to the pagan Gods, before being sold as meat in the markets. Some Christians felt it was wrong to eat such meat. Particularly no doubt the Jewish converts who did not like to eat meat that was not kosher. Others were more liberal, including no doubt many gentiles. After all Jesus taught that it was not what went into the mouth that made one unclean, but what came out of it.

The second dispute was between those who treated one day of the week as a holy day, and those who treated all days as the same. This may well also be a split between Jewish and gentile factions, with the Jews wanting to maintain their Saturday Sabbath customs. But perhaps too some were beginning to celebrate Sunday as the Lord’s Day, commemorating Jesus’s resurrection.

Paul calls those who are vegetarian ‘weak in faith’. It is clear that Paul himself was a liberal in these matters. That’s worth noting. Some people today criticise Paul as a prejudiced old curmudgeon because of his views on the status of women, and on homosexuality. But in his own day, Paul was a liberal churchman!

Nevertheless, Paul calls on both parties to be tolerant. Do not judge one another, he tells them. God has welcomed you all. Each of you is accountable to God, so leave the judgement to God.

Paul is telling us that we should tolerate the odd views of others even if we believe them to be mistaken. But then, surely, we too are entitled to expect others to tolerate us, when we act on our own odd views? Anything goes! Wrong, quite wrong, that is not what Paul advises at all!

3. After the passage we’ve already heard, Paul said this (Romans 14:13-17):
Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond tolerance, Paul tells the Romans – and us I think - that the right Christian response to fellow Christians with whom one disagrees is to avoid doing things which they find hurtful, which would be a stumbling-block or hindrance to their faith. It is a message of loving self-denial. To do anything else, would be not to ‘walk in love’. And it is our Christian duty to walk in love with one another: Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’.

4. So how might we apply Paul’s advice today?

Well, in our Anglican communion at present there are two big disagreements threatening to divide us: first, should women be ordained as priests and bishops, and second are same-sex relationships necessarily sinful. Paul’s advice is surely relevant to partisans on both these issues.

Now I am on the liberal side of both arguments. I think we have been blessed in the Church of Ireland with the ministry of women priests, and I look forward in due course to seeing women bishops. And I don’t believe that same-sex relationships are any more or less intrinsically sinful than heterosexual ones: what matters surely is the quality of the love in them. My heart bleeds for our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ who are so often treated as 2nd class Christians.

Yet reflecting on Paul’s words to the Romans, surely he is right to remind us that the Christian way is not just to be tolerant, but to walk the extra mile in love with those who disagree with us.

Perhaps this is what lies behind the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call at the end of the Lambeth Conference for both sides to refrain, for now, from taking actions which hurt the other. He has called for moratoriums both on the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of bishops who are in them. And he has also called for a moratorium on attempts by those who call themselves orthodox to prise whole parishes and dioceses from provinces they believe to be in error. Can both sides accept this, despite the pain they feel? Perhaps not, but surely by doing so they would be following both Paul’s advice and Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.

The Roman church overcame its disagreements. Paul’s views on eating meat were eventually accepted by all. All eventually agreed to keep the Lord’s Day holy, but dispensed with the Jewish Sabbath prohibitions.

Let us trust God and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide us all to a common understanding and unity in future, as it did the Roman church.