Psalms 19:7-14Romans 14:1-19
For eight short days one year my wife, Jane, and I had the privilege of representing our church and our presbytery at a conference in Yugoslavia on “The Church and the Nuclear Arms Race.” I want to link the very city in the province of Croatia in which our conference was held to Paul’s theme in Romans 14.
That city was Dubrovnik, a seaport on the Adriatic Coast of Yugoslavia. It is an ancient city rebuilt in the 17th century, after an earthquake, in a style so harmonious, so mellow in its color and architecture, so wonderfully situated on high cliffs overlooking the sea, that it satisfies human longing at every turn. Because it is a city within medieval walls that have only three narrow gates, it is also a city without automobiles, and one has only to spend a few days there to realize what a difference that makes.
Just think of it — no road kills! Its people treat their very streets as open spaces, and they meet each other in those open spaces in cafes, around fountains, on chairs drawn up on the pavement, to live out new chapters in the unending story of life together.
In our brief time in Dubrovnik, we were taken into that ongoing drama of urban history, even though we did not then and do not now speak any Serbo-Croatian, and hardly knew how to order a slivovitz in order to facilitate the conversation. Even so, we encountered Yugoslavs in Dubrovnik, and they encountered us and included us in the drama of their lives. Sitting contentedly in a sidewalk cafe, and happy in the knowledge that the whole street was the sidewalk, we were delighted to see that the corso still goes on. We had read about the corso in Rebecca West’s lovely book about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. The corso is one of the reasons why the main street of Dubrovnik glows as if it were waxed. That street, paved in marble, has been polished by the soles of thousands and thousands of feet of the citizens making the corso.
To quote Rebecca West, “The corso is a procession of a good segment of the entire population which walks up and down the main street around sunset. At one moment there is nobody there, just a few people going about the shops or sitting about cafes; at the next the street is full of all the human beings in town that feel able to take part in the life of their time, each one holding up the head and bearing the body so that it may be seen, each one chattering and being a little brighter than in private” (pp. 232-233).
This openness of urban space invites people to come out and make the corso together. Openness of urban space hints at openness in the spirit of the place. It bespeaks a community that demands no single lifestyle or closed system of belief, but one that arouses people to hope that new things are possible and that they have a role in thinking and saying and doing them.
Now we are not going to wall up our city center and banish machines from the vicinity of this church. No, in our culture we are going to have to look elsewhere for places where people can get away from the rat race, get away from the superficiality of communication in our workaday world and get on with the work of growing wise and whole. That is where the church comes in; indeed, that is where the Scripture texts come in.
In the lesson from the epistle, Paul paints a picture of a Roman church that could be seen to one beholder sitting in a nearby cafe as a veritable picture of chaos. That beholder would not see a community sitting down to share its common life in the peace of the public square, but rather a community sitting in judgment on one another over feast days and religious practice, fasting and dietary scruples and heaven knows what else.
Imagine a church in which some are vegetarians on religious principle, while others (including Paul) on principle are not. Imagine a church in which some celebrate certain feast days and some scorn those days and do not celebrate them. Imagine a church in which some cry “Unclean!” over certain table delicacies, even as others eat them with gusto. The potential for conflict is, as our young people would say, awesome.
Paul, however, prefers to look at the same set of facts in another way. Paul prefers to see the Roman church as a place of rich diversity, a diversity which is to be affirmed because it holds the potential of allowing for new chapters in the Christian story to be written together there at Rome. Paul says, “Let us no more pass judgment on one another” (Psalms 19:13). “Let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” Romans 14:19). Paul reminds us that we shall all have to give an account of ourselves to God — and, he might have added, to no one else.
When I stand before the judgment seat of God, God won’t say, “What did you think of that slightly heretical sermon that that young pastor preached?” or “How could you stand by and let your friend get involved in controversial movements in the church?” No, God will say, “Towner, how did you honor me in what you said and in what you ate and in the way you loved your fellow human beings and the creatures of the earth?”
The psalmist prayed, “Clear thou me from hidden faults.” That puts the matter of rendering judgment where it belongs. That prepares the individual for life in a community in which judgment is not a theme!
One reason we Presbyterians have sat in judgment on one another is our feeling that some of us didn’t get things straight theologically and ethically. Now, as all of us who are bemoaning the loss of one-third of the membership of the Presbyterian Church over the last several decades years are saying, it is no doubt true that the church needs to know where it is coming from and needs to be able to identify and reaffirm its doctrinal roots. It is important that we get our theology straight. But it is not so important that people should be driven off because they said something that didn’t quite match our standards.
Paul and the psalmist alike know that sitting in judgment on one another does not build but destroys community. They also know that the source of our unity is bigger than the petty judgments we might render on each other, and will allow for diversity of points of view. That bigger something is a gift of God. The psalmist put it this way: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; … the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalms 19:7-9). If you get people who fear the Lord and love the Lord’s ordinances, even though they march to their own drum, you’ll be all right!
Paul, too, can point to a source of common loyalty which is bigger and better than any of the logical or theological squabbles that might divide us. That’s the whole gist of his argument. Says Paul, “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-9). Then quite logically he goes on to say, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” In other words, clear-cut loyalty to a transcendent God whose will is good and whose intimate presence restores the soul still leaves plenty of room for variation and diversity.
In fact, in endorsing diversity and competing notions of Christian belief and piety, Paul suggests that the church is more like an open square, a place where we all pull up chairs and sit down and get on with the real business of enlarging upon the faith once delivered to the saints.
Let us be glad when, within the rooms and the courtyards and the sanctuary of the church, new ideas and holy passions are aroused, for which no one — neither the pastors nor the elders nor anyone else — can foresee the completion. Let each one of us pray that in our inner life God will cleanse us from secret faults, so that our contribution to this growing faith will not be distorted by our hang-ups.
And then let us also embrace Paul’s notion that the church is a community in which we not only tolerate each other’s differences, but are glad for them, and therefore do not sit in judgment on each other. Perhaps, as we do these things, the church will grow ever more fully into the vocation which God gave it, to be a public square, fragrant with the Holy Spirit of God.