Today’s sermon at Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church was on the theme of liberty because it is the Fourth of July. In this sermon, I’ve purposely alluded to things like the right to the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence and the quote made popular by JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Nevertheless, what I’ve done with these allusions is on purpose for this sermon concerns the gospel of Jesus Christ. The words underlined are answers to the fill-in-the-blank outline distributed with the bulletin. The text of the Great Thanksgiving Prayer used in the communion liturgy is available here. And for SEO purposes let me say a few more times: liberty, liberty, liberty, liberty, liberty.
We Americans have many rights and liberties that we acknowledge come from God. So perhaps this message is especially appropriate on this our Independence Day. The Christians in Rome in Paul’s day lived in a very different culture and society. Most enjoyed great personal spiritual liberty in Jesus Christ, knowing, for example, that all foods are clean and therefore they could eat as they pleased. They considered themselves strong in faith and those who still felt uncomfortable with the idea of eating pork and shellfish they thought of as the weak in faith. But in Roman society the weak were routinely forced to submit to the strong. So the surprising lesson of Paul, in the words of Uncle Ben to Peter Parker, is “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or better yet, with apologies to Spiderman, Paul’s point is: ‘With great liberty comes great responsibility.’ The idea is that the one who has been given great power therefore has an obligation or duty for those who are weak. Or again that the one who has great liberty has an obligation or duty for those who don’t feel free. Our culture has been shaped by Christianity in such a way that this message sounds similar to superhero movies and political stump speeches. But for the Christians in Rome this was a very countercultural teaching. Yet it worked because of the example of Christ. After all, in Roman culture they felt that you have a duty to show gratitude for a gift and certainly they had received much—as have you. The Mighty Christ laid down His life for you and gave you the Spirit. Having received the gift, hear what the Spirit has to say to His church:
Your great responsibility is to bear the burdens of the weak and build him or her up.
Paul told the Christians in Rome that the strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak and then he calls on them all to build one another up. Roman culture associated strength with honor and weakness with shame, but Paul says that for Christians the strong help the weak. Paul and other strong Christians were not to avoid the weak, treat them as nobodies, or otherwise shun them as shameful. They were to help the weak and build them up. It is a positive duty that they have out of thanksgiving for their freedom in Christ. Some of those that they considered weak would not drink wine because it was associated with pagan idolatry. Some would not eat meat that had been slaughtered at pagan temples, which is where you might find the local butcher. Some would not eat pork and shellfish and the meat of other animals considered unclean in the laws in Leviticus. Some continued to follow all of the regulations for feast days like Passover. Most Gentile Christians could eat and drink as they pleased with a clear conscience. And Paul was not asking them to adopt the scruples of the weak or to take this to the extreme that they could only eat lettuce and drink water. He was calling upon them to sympathize with the weak, to refrain from criticizing and judging them, and simply to love them. If they are stronger then they can carry the burdens of those who are weaker. Rather than tearing them down with criticism, they could build one another up with encouragement. Rather than using their freedom selfishly, they could aim to please a neighbor for his or her good.
Likewise today your great responsibility is to bear the burdens of the weak and build him or her up. He might not feel comfortable using another translation than the King James Version in his private devotions. Just bringing up the issue tempts me to want to convince you that modern translations are better for lots of reasons but if someone feels this way that isn’t very helpful. After all, the passage says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (v.4). The purpose of the Scriptures is encouragement – the message is that we might have hope. Thus whatever your personal opinion might be, even if you are right and therefore strong and he is weak because he knows that other translations are helpful too but he just doesn’t feel comfortable using them, rather than offering criticism you can use the Scriptures to build him up. The same holds on other issues of personal belief – thus for those who having grown up in fundamentalist homes do not drink alcohol, participate in dances, play cards, or watch movies for religious reasons. The same would hold true for those who may have a different religious or cultural background whether Muslim or Jewish or whatever and become a Christian but want to continue to abstain from certain food and drink or other things. Rather than your default position being to prove you are right, you can encourage and build up such a Christian for his or her good. To have to follow such rules is indeed a burden and you can help lighten it for them by refraining from criticism and from trying to get them to break such rules. (So your obligation or great responsibility is to bear the burdens of the weak and build him up. Or to put the same point another way:)
Your great responsibility is to live in harmony by not pursuing your own happiness but by sacrificing for others.
Paul told the Christians in Rome that they had an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please themselves and then He pointed to the sacrificial example of Jesus. Jesus not only sacrificed everything for you in order to bring glory to God, but He set an example for you by His death. He did not please Himself but died for you. He did not pursue His own happiness—He did not seek instant gratification, He sacrificed Himself for you. The message of the Scriptures is one of hope because of the death of Jesus Christ. Thus out of gratitude for the good news of salvation in Christ we do not please ourselves but others. You follow His example because He is the One who set you free. He is the one who declared that all foods are now clean. He is the One to whom the ceremonies of the law pointed. In fact, the hope in view in this passage is not hope in general, nor is it the hope of eternal salvation, but it is the end-time hope of salvation in Christ going to both Jews and Gentiles – to Romans and those they considered barbarians. The death of Jesus Christ brings hope for all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions about these kinds of things, even for churches who have many differences with each other about things indifferent, to be united together in harmony so that together with one voice we may glorify God. (This was what Paul taught the Christians in Rome and it applies just as well to us.)
With great liberty comes great responsibility for others on any number of personal opinions. You may have an opinion about the best musical instruments for accompanying congregational singing or about the best style of music for worship, you may have many opinions about the programs that you do or don’t do as a church, you may have many opinions about anything and everything really. Where you worship may do things differently than those who gather in another place for worship. But consider this: you are free to think and feel how you want on a great many things and a duty to live in harmony by not pleasing yourself and seeking for everyone else to do what you want but rather sacrificing your wants for the sake of others. Ask not what others can do for you but what you can do for others. With great liberty we have a responsibility to bear the burdens of the weak and not to please ourselves. We are to live in such harmony with one another that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so that God gets all the glory.
Furthermore, rather than asking what others can do for you be thinking about what we together can do for a world that needs Jesus. There are people all around us who are enslaved and wearing the shackles of sin. There are people all around us who want to live life independent of God. Indeed, with our great liberty in Christ we have a great responsibility to share the good news with others. We have discovered that it’s only when we are dependent on God through Christ that we are truly free. We know that true freedom isn’t being able to sacrifice our children through abortion or to marry whomever we want. We know that true freedom isn’t to be able to sin in any way but true freedom is to be able to do what is right. Just imagine what could happen if Bible-believing churches came together to see that everyone had an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome to secure their help in taking the gospel to Spain—He wanted their help to take the gospel to those that Romans considered barbarians because of the way that they sound to the Romans when they speak. Thus it is especially appropriate for us to imagine what could happen if we reached out to those who don’t look like us or sound like us. With great liberty comes great responsibility—a great responsibility to bear the burdens of the weak and build him or her up and to sacrifice for others rather than to pursue our own happiness. And it is a responsibility that we can joyfully pursue because thanks be to God we are free. Amen.