Romans 14:1-12 – When we find ourselves unbalanced.
A reflection by Dan Spragg.
I might take offense at Paul here… I quite like vegetables! Who is the great apostle Paul to say that people who only eat vegetables are weak!? What does he know about the nutritional composition of a diet that excludes meat? Who does he think he is? I, from here on out, might not be inclined to pay any attention to anything he says because he’s obviously not able to make accurate statements. He’s wrong on this so how can I trust anything else he says to be true?
I could take offense, but actually if I stopped and thought for any more than a second it is fairly clear that there is clearly more going on here than an off hand comment about vegetarianism… but do I make my point? How easy is it to make a judgement call on something or someone! We could all agree it happens to the best of us quite easily.
There’s a few flow on things that go on of course from judging: I might find it a little harder to relate to that person in the future; there’s something about the self-righteous mind that closes itself off from others, a disruption in the community happens, and perhaps even a disruption in myself happens as well. It’s probably better if I don’t take offense at Paul, the implications would be rather immediate. For one the reflection today would be quite short! But, more seriously, in my judgement on another I close myself off to that person and therefore to the possibility of more, of something else, of a deeper insight, of new learning, of growth. Essentially I would have closed myself off to life, and in doing so I would have narrowed my path towards death… now that’s a rather large implication from such a small judgement, a judgement that most likely came very hastily. Paul today doesn’t of course bring us a message about eating or not eating, of about which day is to be reserved for the sabbath or not. Always in anything there is a thing, that is going on behind the thing. There is always a ‘why’ behind an action or a word. Well today I think there is actually a thing, behind the thing, behind the thing… Paul addresses judgement in the Christian community, and there is definitely a ‘why’ behind the judgement, and I believe there is still another ‘why’ behind that one.
The first thing: Judgement – the decision we make to treat another person differently because of what we decide is right or wrong. What’s the second thing? I have a hunch it might be what we know as the Ego. Our ego, and we all have one even if we don’t think we do… which is kind of ironic… is that part of ourselves that wishes to be important, central, seen, successful, independent. It is driven by wanting to be different, self-sufficient from others, wanting to win, to come out on top. The ego seems to think that in order to succeed it must eliminate all that is negative and weak, it must whatever the cost appear strong. It is that part of ourselves that is sometimes hesitant to open up to others, to show people who we truly are – which of course is not perfect, or all together, or all successful. It has gone by a few different names at various times. Carl Jung the influential psychologist called it ‘the persona’ – the mask or masks we put on to display something other than ourselves. We put on quite an act at times just to prove that we are ok or that we are right! All in an effort to reassure ourselves about ourselves. The ego will go to great lengths to put on a brave face. The idea of the ego as ‘the actor’ is one that Jesus made use of. It comes through in comments about pulling the log out of your own eye before commenting on the speck in someone else’s… ‘You hypocrite’ he says. (Matthew 7:5, see also Matthew 23) It seems that Jesus was far more interested in condemning those folk who thought they were without sin than those who openly owned their own stuff. He appeared to be far more interested in calling out the hypocrites than he was in going after every little sin that everyone else did. The word ‘hypocrite’ in Greek, translates as ‘the actor’. The ego, a pretender, the thing that tries to fool itself and others into thinking it is something that it isn’t… The ego is the thing behind judgement that tries to build a facade in the world to appear to be something it isn’t by seeking to clearly define what it thinks is right and what is wrong. And of course it is always right.
So we have the first thing: Judgement. And the second thing behind the first thing: the Ego. Here’s what I think is the third thing, the thing behind the thing behind the thing: Harmartia.
Harmartia, is a Greek word that is most often translated in the New Testament as ‘sin’. But it doesn’t mean that a rule had been broken, that an authority hadn’t been followed or that an illegal action had happened, or even that a moral transgression had occurred. It means to ‘miss the mark’ – like an archer, or a target shooter might miss the target. There is a sense in it of being out of balance, of being off course. Ross Hudson writes that “Hamartia is the way we lose balance and “self forget”—the way we fall away from the direct experience of Divine Grace…” It seems to me that the root of why our ego rises up and behaves the way it does is because, in our ‘missing the mark’, our being out of balance is that we know at some deep level that we aren’t aware of God’s presence with us in the way that we have the potential to be. Sin is not so much about what we do or do not do but rather about how we are. It is about being rather than doing. It is a description of where we are in relation to God. Why do we do what we do not want to do? as Paul says elsewhere; because of where we find ourselves: off balance, out of step, off course, or other metaphors such as being blind or asleep. We sense that things aren’t quite right, and so our ego tries to fix things by acting its way back to God, by doing all it thinks it should be doing or should not be doing to fix the problem. And so we make judgements, weighing up each side, clearly defining each, trying to restore balance by offsetting this against that, by weighing up whether this side or this other side is the right side. The side we are on of course must be the right one so we believe this will lead us back to God, or so we think. Can you see how this plays out? Deep down we know something isn’t quite right with our existence – we feel separated from God and so we set about trying to close the gap, we set about trying to regain our balance, to be in that place where our arrows will once again fly true and hit their mark. Our egos really are simply actors, trying to play a part that isn’t who we truly are. We judge because we feel the need to clarify our position on things, to do something to be closer to what we think is the right way, the way of course that will put us into God’s favour. And we feel we need to do this because we have fooled ourselves into thinking that God is far away from us. The ego has also been called ‘the fool’. In letting our egos lead us, we really do fool ourselves into thinking we are somewhere we are not. We convince ourselves that we are far from God, and so we must try and make our way back, but the real truth is God is always close, never far from us, the hard part is simply remembering that this is true.
Having a thing behind a thing behind a thing is all well and good but it’s nice if the things – I feel like I’m talking about a Dr Seuss book – it’s nice if the things (thing 1 and thing 2… and thing 3) are able to be grounded.
Here’s how I think we ground them today. Context is always so important – what looks like something in one context can look very different in another! Paul here, it seems quite clear, is addressing his letter to within the Christian Community in Rome. His concern, which actually comes across in many of his letters is about how the Christian community is to live with one another. How should you live the Christian life? Or, what does the Christian life call you in to? What is living the life of faith together? Paul’s big concern really is that the Christian faith must change how you live. Or, it is not real at all. There is a sense in Judaism, which is the tradition that Paul is coming from, that you don’t believe with your head, you believe with your heart, which feels like a much deeper, perhaps more mysterious way to believe. So because it is like this it becomes not so much about what you say but rather what you do… It’s not so much what you believe, but how you believe. Paul asks the question, ‘how can I see your faith as a real thing in your life?’ ‘Show me your faith!’ Paul’s concern is for the Christian life lived in real and concrete ways as Christians find themselves living together as the church. Paul’s point in this passage is that we aren’t held accountable necessarily for what we believe, but rather for how we show by our treatment of one another what we believe.
It is quite easy to make the jump to us from any of Paul’s letters and this passage isn’t any exception. Do we see judgement surfacing as we live together as Christian Community? Do we see the ego driving many a word and action seeking to clarify its position, seeking to establish itself as the most righteous party? I certainly think we see this played out in a few different settings. In our National church for example, the battle lines between the label of ‘liberal’ and the label of ‘evangelical’ have been around for quite a while now. Do I see this as an issue of self-righteous judgement? Absolutely! And there have been a few big egos push their way to the front in order to mark out the boundary lines, to highlight the speck in the other side’s eye, to point out the wrong behaviour – whichever side they’ve been on – both are guilty of it. Is it really the best way forwards? I wonder what Paul the apostle would say in a letter to the church in New Zealand? Do we see this closer to home, perhaps in our regional settings? Well certainly the same arguments of one side of the church vs the other has affected us in our regional circles too. And of course each side was right in their own eyes! We are of course never going to agree on everything, in fact, I don’t believe we should because how else would we learn and grow? Inherent in any sort of conversation is the components of listening and learning, and points of view that grow and change as we interact with one another. This doesn’t tend to happen though if we are too busy drawing the lines of judgement between us. How about at a more local level? Does this sort of thing happen in congregations? Not here at The Village of course… but in those other congregations… hang on… wait… that’s a little bit of judgement happening there isn’t it! It may be small things like which way round the cups get stacked or how the chairs get arranged. Or from time to time it may rear its head in larger things too, like when ‘they’ do things differently which of course must be wrong if it is different… It is incredibly hard to escape making judgements on one another. We all know don’t we as soon as new people come into the mix, or you marry two congregations together that we all make seemingly automatic judgements about how things should or shouldn’t be done, about the right way and the wrong way etc etc etc… it just seems to happen.
The point is that as we allow judgement to define how we see the other person, or the other group, we have lost sight of who they truly are. And in the process we’ve lost sight of who we truly are ourselves, and who we all are together – beloved children of God where Christ is the head, the one who rules over it all and us all. Judgement in the Christian community really only achieves disruption, division, the further unbalancing of ourselves and others; increased distance and separation, increased objectivity of others, and our field of vision is narrowed. Our egos set about trying to bring us back closer to our true selves as at one with God, but really all they achieve is placing further distance between us and leave us further off balance and out of step. Is there a better way? Paul’s question in verse 10 is very good: ‘Why do you pass judgement? Why do you despise one another?’ We are together, all of us, a community who lives by forgiveness and grace all found under the reign of Christ and we are accepted, completely, all of us, before we set out to do anything. There is nothing we can do to change our status in Christ, so why do we judge one another?!
As Paul says, we aren’t accountable to one another – we don’t have to patrol the boundaries of right and wrong. In Christ we all stand under the judgement of God – which is a whole other sermon – but the point is, and Paul is pretty clear, that God’s judgement seems to be more concerned with how we live with one another rather than to do with any sort of salvation issue – after all, Christ is Lord of the living and the dead…
We have a responsibility towards one another locally, regionally, nationally, globally, as we are all one in Christ. And we are to seek to respond to the forgiveness and grace of God that we have already received, with giving honour to the source of that expansive grace. Jesus said something about loving God and loving our neighbours didn’t he? He might have been onto something… Ultimately we are called to accept that we ourselves – all of ourselves – and all of everyone else is already accepted and live in faith that love and grace are all that is needed for all to live lives restored and being restored to complete balance and wholeness with one another and with God.
The way of judgement is a way in which our ego seeks to restore balance and wholeness as we become aware that we have forgotten our place with God. The only way to awake, to remember our true place, our true home as held in the hands of God is to accept the forgiveness and grace of Christ and to live in this way towards all others that we are called to live alongside. It is so easy to make a judgement but this is not the way of the Christian life that we are called to and ultimately it is a futile attempt to make ourselves feel better, for only Christ can truly restore us to true equilibrium.