This week we begin to look at our neighbors in the Gathering. When we ask ourselves why the church and discipleship is important, the answer is always about how we help and enable people to gain a deeper and fuller understanding of who God is, this is evangelism. For the next couple of weeks as we look at specific groups in the community, I am going to be following Romans 14:1-15:13 which I like to think of as a primer for evangelism. This week we are going to specifically look at Romans 14:1-12.
This has been a theme that the traditional service has been working through the last few weeks, and it is central to any successful understanding of Christ, and that is how we accept and love our neighbor. Undergirding this whole pericope is that our role is to give people the tools to understand their faith but not to force or judge them. This is hard and obviously, since Paul is writing about the problem, something that the early church faced.
But it makes sense, as early Christians, the question of who was in and who was out was of extreme importance, as was the discernment of who to listen to and who not to listen to. This is all complicated by our own human tendency to gravitate and trust people who are most like us vs. those who are not. Yes, it is difficult to admit, but when they do the studies, even the most self-proclaimed unbiased person will almost always gravitate to the group that is the most familiar. This naturally occurs in high school lunchrooms every school day!
Thus, the model of community that Paul is advocating is not just counter-cultural, but it is also counter intuitive! Granted this is not new for the New Testament or even the Hebrew texts that warn of the problems that arise by not holding one’s human nature in check. The problem, as we see further in this pericope is that when we choose not to accept or welcome, we do not just exclude others, but we go so far as to deny God!
This is where things really get difficult, and where Christian history gets very muddled and bleak. When missionaries went out into the world, namely in the 1400’s and forward, giving them the benefit of the doubt, in well-meaning ways wanted to share and convert people to the faith. The problem was that many did this in ways that did not account for the people who were there. This means that instead of accepting people where they were at and allowing them to incorporate their cultural understandings, the churches dictated the way they were to live, work and commune. As we know, this caused a lot of problems! This is not what Paul wrote of when he wrote this passage.
Rather, the image that Paul gives is to meet and understand people where they are, recognizing that they are fully accepted and made right through God. This week we are going to start our journey of asking, “Who is my neighbor.” This is interesting because what we think is our neighbor and what actually is our neighbor are often two different things. It is also easy to see how quickly one thing can be shadowed by our preconceptions and desires. It also can be clouded by what we think we know. That is evident in the largest single demographic. This is a group that is called the metro-fusion, middle-aged single individuals. It does make sense when we think of the large LGBT community that is around the church, but we have to remember that this group is also a very diverse group and not exclusively LGBT. As the largest single demographic, it shows that while we are not considered “downtown,” many of those who are around us live a fairly urban lifestyle which impacts how we connect to them as a congregation.
This is a particularly hard group for the church to reach for many reasons, but churches that have an emphasis on spirituality, meditation, and things like that seem to be good draws for this group. In fact, much of what we do in the Gathering today would connect well with this group. See below for a complete description of this group and pray for them through the week. Come in Sunday and we will keep them in mind as we begin our discussion on “Who is my Neighbor?”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen