The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      4th July 2021
Sermon for Evensong, Trinity 5
Handley Stevens

SERMON FOR EVENSONG

HAMPSTEAD PARISH CHURCH

Trinity 5, 4 July 2021

Psalm

OT Reading: Jeremiah 20.1-11a

NT Reading: Romans 14.1-17                                               

 

Text: The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14.17)

 

Listening to our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, one might well ask: what on earth was this all about, and does it still matter?

 

The Christian community in Rome, or indeed in Corinth where Paul had to deal with similar sources of tension, was a mixed community, whose members would have been brought up in a variety of different faith traditions, including the worship of Greek and Roman gods as well as different traditions within Judaism.  Some members of the community would have been profoundly shocked to contemplate the eating of food which had been offered in sacrifice at a pagan temple.  Others might have taken the more relaxed view that since such gods did not really exist, it could do no harm to eat the meat which had been offered to them.  As in our own day, some people would have refused to eat any meat at all, albeit for different reasons – for example on account of beliefs about the spirit of life being in the blood.  The beliefs in which one is brought up have deep roots, which no amount of rational explanation can entirely expunge. 

 

Paul himself says he is persuaded in the Lord Jesus that ‘nothing is unclean in itself’ (v 14).  By ‘unclean’ of course he doesn’t mean physically dirty, or past its sell by date; he means spiritually contaminated; but he recognises that ‘it IS unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean’; and he goes on to assert that in the presence of people who hold firmly to such a view, and would be unsettled by a fellow Christian who behaved as if it didn’t matter, he would himself refrain from eating such meat, not just out of a kindly consideration for their sensibilities, but because he would refuse to put a stumbling block in the way of their faith.  Recognising that an insensitive flouting of their sensibilities would loom so large as an obstacle in their relationship, that it would get in the way of sharing with them in the celebration of their common faith in the Lord Jesus, he sets his own opinion to one side in a matter of practice which was not central to their common faith. 

 

We do not usually think of St Paul as being sensitive to the views of others.  We know that he is not shy about expressing his own views about all sorts of things rooted in his own cultural upbringing, such as the wearing of hats in church, or the role of women in the Christian community. Perhaps he sometimes had difficulty in exercising himself the restraint he advocates in his letters to Rome and Corinth.  But he is entitled to ask us to pardon his offences and take him at his word, since the practice he commends bears the generous stamp of the Lord whom he serves.

 

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, who died and rose to new life to give full expression to his Lordship over everyone and everything, alive or dead (vv 7-9).  One of my commentaries sums it up this way: We are to live before God with faith, and before others with consideration.  And of course these two statements are closely linked.   Not only do they reflect the old law: Love God and Love your neighbour.  They reflect the full and perfect expression of God’s love in the life and death of Jesus, in whom the expression of His Father’s love always trumped the exercise of divine judgment.  You have only to think of the generosity of his approach to even the most notorious of sinners – people like the woman at the well of Samaria, or Zacchaeus the corrupt tax collector, both of them despised and shunned by their own people - to whom Jesus extended the hand of friendship and understanding.

 

Paul commends this generous approach to Christian communities which were getting uptight about food laws and the strict observance of the Sabbath.  There are Christians to-day who might attach enormous importance to fasting before taking Holy Communion or not taking part in sport on a Sunday, and these convictions, sincerely held, might cause them to look down their noses at those whose attitude is more relaxed.  I have come across people – I’m sure you have too – who are so attached to their evangelical or catholic traditions of churchmanship that they become suspicious of those who come from a different tradition, which causes them to attach the highest priority to practices which to us seem relatively unimportant.

 

Paul is not saying: Anything goes.  Do what you like.  Not at all.  What he does say is: Follow your own convictions about what is right for you in these matters.   But don’t insist that everyone else must follow the same rules as you do.  Allow them to make up their minds and follow their seriously held onvictions just as you do.   And those of us who don’t feel strongly about various aspects of church order and discipline need to be particularly sensitive and considerate towards those who do.  I am happy to belong to a church community which is openly and avowedly liberal in many of its social and ecclesiastical positions, but there are others, whom I love and respect, who worry about being nudged or dragged closer to this position or that which they consider wrong. 

 

Paul recognises these issues, and takes them seriously.  He advises us both to follow our own convictions in such matters, and to respect the convictions of others, recognising that they may not be the same as our own.  But he goes on to say.  Now, put all that to one side, and remember that the kingdom of God is not food and drink.  Nor is it either a well thumbed Bible and prayer book, or a liturgically beautiful collection of ‘silver bells and cockle shells’ as the old nursery rhyme has it.  It isn’t even the Hampstead blend of well-ordered liturgy and thoughtful preaching enhanced by fine music, much as I love and value all those things.  What bears the fruit of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (vv 8 and 17) is none of the above.  Rather it is our total commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ in life and in death.  Our life in the Lord may find expression in a variety of different ways, and each one of us should cultivate and treasure whatever it is that most helps us to dwell in Him, and to open our hearts to his dwelling in us.  But the means of grace are the instruments which help us on our way, and we should not confuse them with the Lord Himself.  It is He who is for each one of us, in all our rich diversity, the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

 

The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  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.  Whatever may help us to get there, that is what really matters.  Amen

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