In the Feasting on the Word commentary, Gilberto Collazo tells a story of a stranger who came into a small town one day and stood in the center of the town square. He had on a very strange coat. It was black, and sewn onto it were patches of cloth of all sizes, shapes, and colors. As word spread of this strange visitor, the townspeople gathered around in curious silence. Finally, a brave soul dared to ask about the significance of the unique coat. The stranger immediately began to point to different patches and explained that they represented the sins of different people of the town. Embarrassed, some people left the square. Indignant, others shook their heads in denial of the accusations. After explaining every patch and denouncing every sin, the man turned around and headed out of town. On his back was a dark patch of cloth that covered almost the entire coat. The townspeople wondered out loud what, and whose, sin that patch represented. Suddenly a voice rang out loud and clear; “That represents his own sin, for he is willing to point out the shortcomings of others and yet fails to see his own.”
Collazo says that the Gospel of Matthew puts it this way: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3 NIV). Scripture warns us about being quick to judge others in light of our own opinions and closed off ways. As believers who follow an inclusive and accepting Christ, we are called to live in a diverse and welcoming community with a spirit of acceptance. Paul insisted in our text this morning that we receive into our community those who may be weak in the faith, and those who see things in different ways. All people are accepted at the table, and even more than that, maybe we need to get up from our own tables and go join and sit at tables of folks in the world who are unlike us and experience the world differently. The Spirit of Acceptance, according to Paul, doesn’t just work one way, he thinks that we, too, can be accepted into the lives of other people as well. That is the spirit of God’s law.
Well, we are at the end of a ten-week study on the book of Romans and Paul’s leading of new Christians in Rome. We’ve focused on the ways that we can live into God’s law, not by following impossibly strict rules and requirements, but by being open to the spirit of the law that welcomes us into love, acceptance, hospitality, unity, and mercy. Former persecutor of Christians, Paul, who was drastically changed, thought that following the letter of the Jewish law wasn’t as important as actually bringing all people, no matter who they were, into relationship with God and in communion with their neighbors.
And as we focus on our Scripture passage today, if we’re being honest, I’m not sure Paul had any room to ask the early Christians to cease passing judgment or to learn how to better accept their neighbors. Because, even in this passage, we see a problematic suggestion by Paul as he said there were those who were weak in the faith. Paul calling other people weak shows that it’s already incredibly difficult, for even apostles, to accept and love others. And even though Paul fell short, that is the spirit that he hoped the early Christians could possess.
And it seems as if this passage of scripture speaks into what we are experiencing today. Most of the time, we can’t help but judge those who are different than us. If they are not like us, then they are lesser than us, or as Paul said, weaker in the faith than us. We might feel as if the possessions we have are worth tearing other people down for. We might feel that if someone disagrees with our views, especially in the church, that they should not be welcomed or accepted. Paul’s words continue to speak to us in way that challenges us to have different and passionate views without excluding one another from relationships, friendship, and faith.
And Paul’s challenge is difficult because I feel that Paul was challenging not only early Christians, and us, but also himself. He had differences of opinion with Peter and with James, other followers of Jesus. So, could they all learn to live together in Christian community? Could they have radically different beliefs and find ways to accept each other and celebrate those differences?
I think for Paul, saying that someone was weaker in the faith, although pejorative, was a step in the right direction for him. Those Christians not among Paul’s influence were still Christ followers and needed to be seen as such. Because that’s where we lose the spirit of acceptance, isn’t it? We lose the spirit of acceptance when we stop seeing others as children of God. Dr. William Greenway of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary says it best. He said, “Once we stop seeing another person as a child of God and view him or her instead as the personification of sin, it becomes easy to enjoy the energy of disdain and self-righteous opposition.” Basically, what he is saying, is that when we demonize the other, we not only hurt them with our judgments, but we end up hurting ourselves. We have a lot of work to do to have a spirit of acceptance.
It seems that Paul knew the first century Christians had some work to do as well. Paul was encouraging that native Romans, those in places of power and strength, those who took part in the Empire, to tolerate and reluctantly include all people into their lives and into their faith. Paul asked them to bring in those considered “weak in the faith” by showing hospitality, love, and genuine acceptance. I’m sure the first century Christians were trying to figure out how to accept one another and live together in their divided time. It’s almost as if these first Christians were experiencing the same “us vs. them” struggles that we do today.
I wonder, if instead of considering that others are weak and we are strong, what would it be like if we considered what it means for the strong and the weak to simply live together. In many ways, you and I are weak and in other ways we are strong. I don’t know about you, but there are many days when I feel weak in the faith and need to know I am accepted and loved. At other times, I feel secure and strong, knowing that I need to take responsibility and make the circle wide for all to come in. You see, the weak and the strong live together in God’s creation, because our weak and the strong moments live within each and every one of us.
Because you see, this world will always be a place of diverse people, some of us with patches we can see clearly and others of us with patches sewn into places that are hidden from us. And that’s ok. We are all part of the same family of God and bound by the love of the Creator. And I wonder if that was Paul’s intention in asking these first Christians to have a Spirit of Acceptance. Rev. Jeanette A. Good, former Pastor of State Street Church in Portland, Maine that welcomes African immigrants as a significant part of their congregation, says, “In the midst of strong differences of opinion, Paul does not take sides. Paul attempts to mediate the situation. His concern is to prevent sides from becoming polarized that they no longer respect each other. He reminds them that whether or not they follow specific dietary rules, God welcomes them as children of God.”
And so, Paul considered how these early Christians could learn to accept one other even when someone believed one way and someone else believed another way. Paul argued for a third way, a faith way. Rev. Good again thinks that “Paul acknowledges that devout people can hold radically different convictions and still be good and faithful people. Paul is helping persons in the early Christian community to resist demonizing each other by teaching them to respectfully disagree.”
Yet, I know that feels complicated and probably not doable. But as we’ve focused on the law of the Spirit these past ten weeks, I hope we have seen that God’s law is one of love, unity, mercy, and acceptance. And that through it all Paul was focused on the functioning of this new Christian community in a polarized and divisive world. By helping these early Christians come together as a diverse people, accepting all into God’s love, Paul reminded them and reminds us today that “we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. And that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
We are all the Lord’s. Did you hear that? Everyone, every single one of us, is the Lord’s! Who we are as created beings in relation to one another and to the broader creation should go through one lens, one focus, that we are God’s. And it is in knowing this that we are asked by God to break down any boundaries and any division and any judgment that separate us from each other. And since we are the Lord’s, I wonder if we should act more like we are the Lord’s, like followers of Christ, and lean into the spirit of acceptance. For if we can be more accepting in all that we do, we might come to see our world change and the Christian community become more of what it should’ve been, all the way back to when Paul asked the Romans to not judge others and accept all people. We are beckoned by Paul to view every person as a child of God, “beyond actions and opinions, to be people who continually see in every other person a soul never beyond the reach of transforming grace.”
A soul is never beyond the reach of transforming grace. If there is anything we need to take from this sermon today is that a soul is never beyond the reach of transforming grace. Paul was a persecutor of the innocent and yet Jesus transformed his life through grace. And it can happen for us today. Being transformed by grace is for us, for you and for me, just as it was for Paul. And with a spirit of acceptance, we are transformed and made more into who we should be as followers of a loving Christ.
So, let us be transformed this week. Let us realize that each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or who we are, that we belong to an accepting God who asks us to be an accepting community that is called to embrace all people, and love all people, and hold all people, even if their coats and our coats are covered in patches.