the gospel and disputable matters

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Convergence, 1952. 
Oil on canvas. 93 1/2 x 155 in. (237.5 x 393.7 cm). 
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956. 
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Romans 14:1-12
For Sunday, September 11, 2011
Proper 19

We are now 10 years from the fateful day when Al Qaeda traumatized all of us by flying a plane into each of the Twin Towers in New York.  I was in Pasadena, California visiting friends.  I remember distinctly seeing the second plane hit the north tower on live TV.  That evening we went to my friend’s church where he was leading an impromptu prayer service.  A couple walked in and sat in one of the pews.  I approached them to introduce myself and asked, “Are you members?”  They responded, “Oh no, we’ve never been in a church before in our lives, but given the events of today, we just knew we had to come.”  What a blessing to hear this and be reminded that as an ambassador of the gospel (the good news that we’re not alone, that we’re loved and forgiven by God, and that we can live for him) I carry with me the thing that people need the most.   9/11 moved us from the secondary to the primary in a moment: What really matters?  

This passage asks the same question, though not through traumatizing terror, but rather through some clear-headed theological perspective.  Our perspective too often is limited to “disputable matters” (v. 1).  It’s understandable: these are the things right in front of us.  What is a Christian diet?  Is alchohol ever okay?  Must we observe the Sabbath?  Must we tithe?  

Yet, the Apostle Paul writes to us in Romans 14:1-12, these things are actually secondary to what is to be primary, which is that each of us will give an account of ourselves before the judgment seat of God (v. 10).  What God will ask us that day will not be for our thoughts on Bill’s drinking or Susie’s smoking.  What he will ask us is this: Did you live for me?  Did you die for me?  As Paul puts it: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord” (v. 7).  

Does this mean for believers that our salvation will be called into question?  No, that question was settled at Calvary through Christ’s death on the cross.  What will be in question on judgment day is not our salvation but our rewards.  Where did we actually live for Christ and where did we not?  The fact that each of us will give an accounting of ourselves is wonderful motivation to live each day to the glory of God.  The gospel is not about eating and drinking but about living and dying to the glory of God.  

This same gospel is the only thing that can bring hope to the traumatized cries of 9/11.  Where is there justice for the victims as well as for the perpetrators?  Where is there justice for America as well as for its conduct in the world?  Where is there justice for Arabs as well as for Jews?  These questions all point to where today’s passage also converges – at the judgment seat of God.  

What we will be asked then is the very same thing God is asking us today: “How would you justify yourself before me?”  The only way we will be able to answer is by saying, “By the forgiveness you offered in sacrificing your own Son on the cross.”  Yet will we say this, or will we have denied the offer because we have lived only by ourselves and for ourselves?   

Let us then stop judging one another on “disputable matters”: the call of the gospel is for us to bring glory to God – together.

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