For the past month or so, we've been looking at a series called Church: Family at Its Best. We've been looking at God's design for what he wants Richview to be. For the next few weeks, we're going to look at some of the unique challenges that we face as a church to try to discover what God has to say. We're going to ask God to speak to where we are right now as a church. Today we're going to look at an issue that is our greatest strength, but also our greatest challenge: how to handle the diversity that God has given us as a church.
Leonard Sweet is pastor, a professor, and one of my favorite authors. He writes of a time that he was in an airport and wanted a soft pretzel, no butter. "Sorry, sir, we don't serve pretzels without butter," the attendant announced as she removed from the oven steaming, hot pretzels which she proceeded to dip into the butter.
"You don't understand," he explained hurriedly, as his plane was boarding its final passengers from the Continental Gate at Newark's C Terminal. "Just hand me the pretzel from the oven. Don't dip it into the butter."
"Sorry, sir, we don't serve pretzels without butter."
Leonard Sweet could tell that this was heading somewhere. He went for broke. "I've had no-butter pretzels at airports all over this country. But let's not argue. I'll give you two for one. Here's the money for two pretzels. You give me that one pretzel there without butter. Deal?"
"No, sir. I can't imagine a soft pretzel without butter. I certainly wouldn't serve you one."
"Let me get this right," he carried on. "You are refusing to sell me one pretzel for the price of two because I want you to leave off the butter?"
"That's right sir. Our pretzels have butter on them."
For years, Christians have been living by the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says, "Do for others what you would like them to do for you" (Matthew 7:12). For most of our lives, we've believed that if we give to others what we ourselves would like, we're doing enough. But Leonard Sweet says, "Golden Rule Christianity is killing our communities, our churches, our businesses, our faith. The Golden Rule kept me from getting fed. The Golden Rule is based on putting who first? 'Do unto others as YOU would have them do unto you.'"
Sweet concludes his story by concluding that Jesus gave us a new rule that trumps the Golden Rule. It's called the Platinum Rule, and Jesus gave it to us in John 13:34: "Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other." How did Jesus love us? Jesus loved us so much that he didn't treat us the way that he wanted to be treated. Jesus loved us so much that he was willing to lay something down for us - his security, his reputation, his relatives, his life. "The Platinum Rule asks this question: What are we willing to lay down for others that they might find life and health and truth and peace?" (Leonard Sweet)
We as a church are very diverse. We have people here who like buttered pretzels. We have people here who like pretzels without butter. We have people here who don't even like pretzels.
One of our greatest strengths as a church is our diversity. I love being part of a multigenerational church with very different ideas and preferences. It's our greatest strength - but it's also one of our greatest challenges. It gives me the opportunity to treat others not the way that I want to be treated, but the way that they want to be treated. It gives me the opportunity to lay something down for others.
Have you seen the Ikea commercial? Two seniors are stopped at a light in their old jalopy. A car pulls into the lane beside them, with loud music blasting out the open windows. The senior man looks over and gives the teenagers in the other car. It looks like he's giving them the evil eye, but you see his face dissolve into a smile. Both cars have Ikea furniture strapped on the roof. They may be separated by age, they may be separated by musical preferences, but they're united by Ikea.
What would happen if Richview became a multigenerational church in which we were separated by how we looked and what we liked, but united by Jesus? What would happen if we didn't meet our divergent tastes by putting all the generations into a blender and coming up with something that pleases nobody? What if we recognized instead that we have somehow meet and adapt to the various cultures that we have as a church - not just ethnic cultures but generational cultures - by creating environments in which each group is served, so they can serve others and lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ?
If you have Bibles with you, I'd like to look at Romans 14 together. I'd like to look at a church that was very diverse. That church was located in Rome, the capital of the civilized world at that time. I think you could probably relate to this church. There were groups of people in this church who not only liked different things, but they also believed the other group was wrong. It wasn't just a case of, "I like this and you like that." It was a case of denying the other group's right to think and behave differently. They had turned their preferences into moral issues.
I love Romans 14 because it doesn't define the issue. It gives some examples of differing beliefs, but instead of dealing with a particular issue, it gives principles on how to deal with differences of opinion in the church over what's right and what's wrong. He calls the one group that's having problems with the other weak. The New Living Translation calls them those with "a sensitive conscience" (Romans 14:2). Although Paul calls them weak, we need to realize that we all fit into that category some of the time. There are going to be times that all of us look at what others in the church are doing, and say, "I disagree with that. They shouldn't be doing that." So the lessons for the weaker group and the other group apply to us all.
What's the example that Paul gives? Romans 14:1-2 says, "Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and don't argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it is all right to eat anything. But another believer who has a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables." The issue can be summarized in two words: differing opinions. One group was probably the Jewish part of the church, people who had been used to avoidance of certain foods and behaviors. The other group was probably those who had always enjoyed freedom in these areas. They believed that they weren't disobeying God at all by eating certain foods or engaging in certain behaviors. The issue wasn't a moral one - although some wanted to make it that. The issue was an honest difference in opinion, much like we can face in the church today.
Today, across the world, churches are filled with vastly different opinions and preferences. For the first time in history, we are living in a world in which seven generations are living side by side. We're also in the middle of a huge societal shift. We're caught in the transition between what's called the modern world - the world of science, reason, and empirical knowledge - to a postmodern world. Ed's going to be talking about what it means to live in a postmodern world next week. It's a whole new world out there. This has created vastly different opinions and preferences in the church.
The other week, I was driving in the car with my older brother. He attended a church that's a bit more contemporary. He doesn't like the songs. He doesn't like a lot of the things they're doing as a church. One Sunday, he got up in the middle of the service and left for the Presbyterian Church down the road. He loved it! He said it was like going back to the way churches used to be twenty or thirty years ago. It hit me that all around us, we have vastly different opinions of what we like and what we prefer. That's not wrong. It's just our reality.
What did Paul say to these groups with vastly differe nt opinions? Did he tell them to go ahead and start different churches? The solution Paul gives isn't to split from others who have different opinions and preferences. Instead, Paul speaks to each of the groups. We're going to look at what he says.
What did Paul say to these groups? The message to both groups is this: DON'T JUDGE. Read with me what Romans 14:3-4 says:
Those who think it is all right to eat anything must not look down on those who won't. And those who won't eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn God's servants? They are responsible to the Lord, so let him tell them whether they are right or wrong. The Lord's power will help them do as they should.
Paul's point could be summarized in two words: don't judge. You may have your beliefs and opinions. They may even be strongly held opinions. To you, they may even seem that anybody who disagrees is morally wrong. But Paul says, "Don't judge." Even though Paul isn't neutral, and seems to have put himself in one group that allowed more freedom, he said to both groups, "Don't judge each other."
There are many issues that are areas of controversy. The Bible doesn't address many of these issues, but people have very strong opinions. The problem is not when we have these opinions, but when we begin to judge others in the church because they don't hold our opinions and behave as we do - when we condemn others who don't like what we do like. That's when we start to serve pretzels only one way: the way that we like them. We expect others to fit into what we like, and if they don't like it, we condemn them.
The problem Paul addresses is that sometimes we forget that others answer to God and not to us. In those days, it was very inappropriate to interfere in an issue between a servant and his master. It was considered nobody else's business. Paul says, in verse 4, to be careful when condemning somebody else who's serving God, because it's not your issue. In matters of opinion, they answer to God, and you have no right to interfere. We have no right to judge each other, because that's God's job. And he'll do a lot better job of it than you and I will. Romans 14:10 says, "Why do you condemn another Christian? Why do you look down on another Christian? Remember, each of us will stand personally before the judgment seat of God."
I heard Howard Hendricks speak a couple of years ago. Howard is now in his eighties. He looked at us as a group and told us that we had to determine what we were willing to go to the mat for. And then he shared with us his personal rule for deciding what he would go to the mat for. He said, "When the Scriptures speak, I speak. Where the Scriptures don't speak, I don't." Don't ever go to the mat over an opinion or a preference. Refuse to go to the mat.
I'm excited by the opportunity we have as a church not to go to the mat over issues of preference. That doesn't mean we ignore the preferences - I'll come to that in a minute. It does mean that we refuse to judge each other based on these preferences and opinions.
A pastor in Alberta writes about his discomfort with the way churches are changing. He's sick of clapping in services, because clapping is for concerts and hockey games, and not for church. He's tired of worship leaders in T-shirts banging on drums or swallowing a microphone. He likes choruses around a campfire, but he hates them at church. He misses some of the traditional elements of the service that he's used to. He misses the midweek meeting, even though he doesn't really mind the home groups that have taken their place.
But then this pastor begins to reflect how easily he was able to accept the way things are done in West Africa. In West Africa, he attended a church with dogs and chickens in the congregation. They didn't sing a song that he knew. He didn't mind the drummers beating the kerosene tins to death as they led the singing. And then this pastor says, "A hideous thought has struck me. While priding myself on not being racist in Africa, have I become a Christian snob in Canada unawares?" He says:
Perhaps - hideous thought I'm not willing to pay the price of worshipping with people of other ages and other cultures. My age, race and upbringing encourage me to concentrate on the negative aspects of the new worship service, a knee-jerk reaction, in fact. But is not the Holy Spirit Lord also of my reflexes? Maybe I should suspend judgment and spend some time looking at both sides of the question. (Hugh Maclure)
What would happen if we suspended judgment on our knee-jerk reactions, our opinions and preferences? What if we accepted one another, despite our differences? No matter which group you're in - whether you like one thing or another - don't judge. Suspend your judgment. Learn to accept one another, because we all ultimately will answer to God.
Paul gives another principle, given that we still have to live with these differences. Since we're not going to split, and we're still going to have to grapple with our differences, how should we act in terms of our differences? Paul gives us another principle: MAKE ALLOWANCES. Paul especially addresses the group of people who are strong, the group that is being criticized by those who have issues, and says, "You may be okay with what you're doing. You may even be more correct than those who are criticizing you. I'll call them weak. I'm on your side on this issue, but I'll tell you this: make allowances for those who object."
Paul says in Romans 14:14, "I know and am perfectly sure on the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat." Substitute music or styles or whatever it is that's an issue for others. Paul would say, "Your music, your style, whatever it is, isn't wrong." Its morality isn't at issue.
However, Paul continues in verse 14-15: "But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong. And if another Christian is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don't let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died."
Let's be clear about what Paul is saying. Paul isn't saying that we should conduct our lives according to the strictest standards of the weakest believer. What he's talking about is to cause another believer to violate their conscience. Even if the issue isn't a moral one, never entice another believer to do what they consider to be sinful. Even if it's not sinful, if their conscience won't allow them to do it, don't entice them to do it. Why? Because there's something even more important and valuable than freedom, and that is love. There's a lot more at stake than "what we eat or drink" - the externals that we think are the real issue. The real issue is "living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
What happens if we do this? What happens if we make allowances for others? Read verses 18-19: "If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God. And other people will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up." Romans 15:5-6 says:
May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other-each with the attitude of Christ Jesus toward the other. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let me try to summarize so far. If you have issues and objections to what other Christians are doing, and it's just a matter of opinion - even strong opinion - then you need to stop judging. It's not your place to judge. You're being disobedient if you do judge. Don't condemn them for what they're doing. Change your attitude, change your mind about them.
If you're being criticized, and you may even be in the right in what you're doing, then "be considerate of the doubts and fears of t hose who think that these things are wrong" (Romans 15:1). The opposite of love is self-interest. You've got a simple choice: to stick up for your rights, or to sacrifice and to love others. We're not talking about making people happy here. We're talking about sacrificing for the sake of others by putting them first, even if we're within our rights.
What does this mean for us at Richview? We're committed to being a multigenerational church. That means that we are choosing to wrestle though these issues, and to try to live by the platinum rule. We're committing to lay our preferences and opinions down for others that they might find life and health and truth and peace.
My dream for Richview has always been that we would be a community in which the younger people are always asking, "Are we doing enough for the older people?" and in which the seniors are asking, "Are we doing enough for the younger?" I dream of being a community that's more concerned with one another than our own preferences and dislikes. That's going to be one of our greatest challenges - and also one of our greatest strengths.
We don't want to serve only one type of pretzel. We don't even want to serve pretzels that have been half-dipped in butter. We want to follow the Platinum Rule.
What I'd like you to do today is this. If you're here and you're not yet hooked up with this church, or you're checking us out or even what Christianity is all about, you need to know that a lot of what sets Christianity apart is this: it's not about you. It's not about me. What we're wrestling through is a great antidote to our society, because in our society it's possible to have everything our way, and still not be happy. I live in a family, and one of the things I like about my family is that I don't always get my way. I complain once in a while, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
The other week, my family was out somewhere. That night, I got to do everything the way that I wanted. I ate the food I liked. I watched the TV shows that I had chosen. I had it my way. But my heart still leapt when I looked out the window and saw my family return. Having everything your way is overrated. There's something much better, and that's community.
If you're not sure about this church thing, or even where you stand with God, I invite you to get to know us better. I invite you to get to know the person who knew that you were a sinner, but chose to put your needs ahead of his when he died for you. He paid for you to be forgiven, and he offers you forgiveness and eternal life when you come to him and choose to live for him. Paradoxically, Jesus said, you only find life when you're finally okay with losing it. In invite you to find out that living for Jesus - that living for others - is a way better lifestyle than simply living for yourself.
If you're part of Richview, I need to ask you to do what only God can give you the power to do: to begin living the Platinum Rule. I'm going to ask you to treat others in this church not the way that you want to be treated, but the way that they want to be treated. I'm going to ask you to pay the price of worshipping with people of other ages and other cultures - to even overcome your knee-jerk reactions because you want to love those with whom you may disagree. This is humanly impossible, but I'm going to ask you, because the God who has commanded us to do this is the God who has also promised to give us the power. If you'd commit, I'd invite you to pray with me.
Father, I'm naturally selfish. I'm also naturally judgmental. I want things done my way, and I'm quick to complain when they aren't.
Your word commands us to live for others, and to accept those who differ from us. We ask today for your power in following the example of our Savior, knowing that when we "accept each other just as Christ has accepted you, then God will be glorified" (Romans 15:7). We pray this to bring him glory. In Jesus' name and through his power we pray. Amen.