Romans 14:17-19, 15:1-7
We had a wonderful time of fellowship during our Memorial Day picnic. We were the hosts and we invited LBC WLA to join us. I trust that those who were there ate some really great food, as we promised. The ribs were out of this world. And our feast was followed by some games. We played water balloon toss, volleyball, wild turkey — and the champion was determined by a tug of war playoffs among the top 4 teams.
And I must say, one of my proudest moments of my rather short tenure as a pastor was the tug of war. Because I don’t want to brag because Christians shouldn’t brag. Nor do I want to exaggerate. So I want to speak as plainly and honestly as I can. And I can think of no other way of putting it except to say, it was pure and utter domination. LBC Pasadena won the tug of war and claimed the honor of being named the strongest church in the LA area, out of 2 churches.
I can’t say that I was surprised. It was rather expected. Because we have Brother John U who is a freak of nature. He never worked out in his life. We all joked that he could have been the first Asian American NFL running back because he moves like Barry Sanders. But in high school, he played badminton. Go figure. I think out of the womb, Brother John was born with Popeye-like forearms. I remember me and 2 of my buddies jumped Brother John when we were in college. All 3 of us were tired of hearing all the stories about the legend of John U, it was like folklore or some mystical being with supernatural strength. And so we wanted to take him down. My friends and I all worked out. We were all strong and close to 200 lbs a piece. And Brother John is like a buck fifty on a good day so we thought we could take him. And then we would be legends. So late at night when he wasn’t expecting it, we ambushed him and within seconds, he had one guy pinned down with one arm, another guy with another arm and I think I was held down by his foot. And all 3 of us were paralyzed.
That’s why when I saw Brother John behind me in the tug of war, I wasn’t sweating it. I knew our chances of winning were good. And if you haven’t noticed, some of our brothers are slightly on the heftier side so I think by sheer weight, we had them beaten. Sisters, too — just kidding.
Read title. This is the second installment in our two part series about unity in the church.
Let me do a short recap of the last sermon. Paul starts Romans 14 at the outset clearly defining the problem. The church that was called in Romans 12 to come together and form one body, where each member belongs to all the others and every person uses his or her gift to build up the church, this church of the gospel of Jesus Christ is now experiencing division.
The church as God ordained is supposed to be united in love, that’s what the Word of God says. Yet, the reality is that this church was fractured. Is the standard laid out by God in Scripture regarding the church too idealistic? Can there be true unity whenever you are dealing with sinners, people like me and you, who are all works in progress?
In the church at Rome, you had 2 factions. On one side, you had Gentile Christians who judged the Jewish Christians for being so legalistic in terms of dietary laws and Sabbath observance. On the other side, you had Jewish Christians who judged the Gentile Christians for being too loose and they questioned whether or not one can be truly free in Christ when dealing with matters of food and drink and sacredness of certain days over others.
And I asked the question in part 1 of this series, what does it mean practically to be a church that works through our differences and conflicts so that we can together emerge as a united, radiant bride of Christ?
To answer that, I ended last time with 3 practical suggestions.
First, we must resist the tendency to rely on our gut or our preference or our upbringing or our church tradition to determine moral absolutes. The only source for determining moral absolutes is the Bible. We must go to Scripture to guide us in setting the boundary between what the Bible clearly calls an indisputable matter, or a moral absolute, something that can clearly be labeled as a sin, versus a disputable matter, or gray area.
Second, we have to be careful not to take a moral stance which is in the disputable, gray area and elevate it to the level of an indisputable moral absolute. And I said we need to be wary of the things that we say and do because those things consciously or subconsciously form a church culture.
Third, on disputable matters, we have to go to our conscience to determine where we stand on a particular issue. But that is not the final determining factor. We also have to consider how our actions will affect our fellow brother and sister in this specific, local church context. The last thing we want to do is to stumble someone and thereby destroy their faith.
The key verse for the last sermon I gave was Rom 14:17 —
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit
At a high level, there are only 2 ways of doing church — either as a kingdom of eating and drinking OR as a kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy. Paul says it’s not the former, church is not where matters of eating and drinking takes the highest seat. Rather, it’s the latter, the church is where there is righteousness, peace and joy.
So in part 2 of this series, I have 2 points and a few applications.
1) I want to start by describing the Biblical picture of a church that functions like a little pocket, a foretaste, a harbinger of the coming kingdom of God, the new heaven on earth that will be inaugurated when Christ returns. And a church done right contains the following elements: righteousness, peace and joy.
2) Second, in contrast, I want to describe the kingdom of eating and drinking as a place that breeds a judgmental spirit, which leads to anger and gossip and these things make unity impossible.
If you understand the essence of the kingdom of God, then the strong in faith, the Gentile Christians, were right. Unlike their Jewish Christian counterparts, the Gentile Christians at Rome recognized the truth that we have freedom in Christ. The kingdom of God is NOT about eating and drinking. It is not about religion, it’s not about rules or regulations or labeling everything as right or wrong, black or white. It is not about moral conformity where every believer has to agree on every moral issue ranging from watching movies, to drinking, to smoking. For instance, should I go to a bar, what if the person I am reaching out to wants to go, should I go, what if I use that time to minister to him, what if I go and order a diet coke, then is it okay, what about wine over a nice meal, I heard it was good for digestion, or is any form of alcohol dangerous to the point that we ought to substitute wine with grape juice for the Lord’s Supper?
Are the waters of morality this muddy? On every issue, it seems that two people can be on opposing sides of a moral debate and find biblical support for their stance. So my conclusion on an issue may be the exact opposite conclusion from another God-fearing Christian. How can the Bible provide support for opposing moral positions? It seems illogical. In the case of eating and drinking, the Gentile Christians who are labeled as strong in faith in this chapter are actually right. We ARE free to eat meat and it is not a sin.
Things like eating meat DOES, however, become a sin when someone who is weaker in faith eats the meat against their conscience and then stumbles. And the act of eating that meat, while not sinful in itself, becomes a sin if this stumbling leads to his faith being destroyed. Not faith being slightly damaged, not just that our faith needs a tune up, but it warns that faith can be destroyed. Like you get into a car wreck and your car is totaled. That is the sentiment. Destroyed. So our actions can destroy the faith of another brother or sister permanently — this is serious business.
So if the kingdom of God is not a place where everything is clearly black or white, then what is the kingdom of God like? Rom 14:17 tells us — the kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace and joy. Let’s break down those 3 words for a moment.
The kingdom of God is a place of righteousness. Righteousness is not the same thing as self-righteousness. Self-righteous people say, follow this rule, don’t break that regulation, don’t you know that what you did was improper, keep your nose clean, maintain respectability and you can earn your righteousness on your own. That’s why we refer to these kinds of people as SELF-righteous, I can make myself righteous through good, moral living. This is not real righteousness. The Bible is clear in Romans — there is no one righteous, not even one. Did you know that Jesus’ harshest condemnation was reserved for religious people? Pharisees, teachers of the law, those who were steeped in Jewish Old Testament law and missed totally on the heart of a faith that is pleasing to God. I fear that many of us in the church fall into this category. Many in the church today, we are the modern day Pharisees.
We may look good on the outside, but on the inside, there is darkness. Dark thoughts, dark motives, there is nothing good in us. So we all fall short of the glory of God and we deserve eternal separation from God. Therefore, righteousness in the kingdom of God is a gift. Jesus’ righteousness, his perfection, is imputed, credited to us, given to us as a gift of grace for those who repent and place their faith in Jesus. This means that one component of being a kingdom citizen is regularly confessing one’s sins. Lord, I am a sinner, I am in need of your grace. And when you pray that prayer, the righteousness of Christ is given to us as an undeserving gift. We are washed and covered by the blood of Jesus. We are forgiven and made righteous in the eyes of a Holy God.
Next word — the kingdom of God is a place of peace. Peace in the Bible does not mean merely the absence of conflict. It’s easy to maintain peace if we all leave each other alone and we are ladies and gentlemen who chit chat with our right pinkies extended as we sip tea after service. That’s not peace in the Bible. The biblical definition of peace is shalom, or wholeness or completion. It connotes growth, a growing into something. This is where we get the idea of sanctification. You take 2 Christians and one was born again last week and another has been a Christian for several decades and faithfully serving others. Like Jerry Bridges, writer and Christian minister who has been a believer for 6 decades and been serving with the Navigators for 53 years. You compare those 2 people and I would hope that you could clearly see a difference. I think we would say that Jerry Bridges is more mature, more humble, more whole, there is more peace in his life. Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he gives us a peace that transcends understanding as we become more Christ-like.
Lastly, the kingdom of God is a place of joy. Are you joyful? To be in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ and to be a citizen in his kingdom is to know joy. I struggle with this because I know I am not as joyful as I ought to be. I’m Asian, so maybe I am too serious. There was not much laughter in our home growing up. Who needs laughter? All that matters is grades, my parents would say. I think from kindergarten to my senior year in high school, I missed like 1 day of school. I was in middle school or high school and I was playing football and I dove to recover a fumble and my friend’s knee rammed me in the back. And the next day, I couldn’t get out of bed so that’s the only day I missed school from K-12. All other sicknesses, I might be puking out my guts, but my parents would be like, take this pill because you are not missing school. Maybe that’s why I have difficulty letting loose and bogeying nowadays. I used to love to dance in my college days, but I find myself getting stiffer as I get older. Society teaches us that you have to grow up and that means to never miss school, to be serious all the time and responsible and dutiful, stop watching cartoons, put away your toys and start paying your bills on time. Okay, we have to be mature and responsible. But is there any room for joy?
Jesus is described in the Scripture as one who for the joy set before him endured the cross. Jesus knew joy. He knew that even the sin and separation he would endure on the cross was nothing compared to the joy of being reunited with God, His Father, and all of us, His children.
Do you know this kind of righteousness, peace and joy? Have you been there? Have you tasted this kind of kingdom of God?
How do you get there? Simple. Christianity is not complicated. It is not a religion, it is a relationship. You spend time with Jesus. He is the embodiment of righteousness, peace and joy. These are not abstract concepts. They are wrapped up in a person. Jesus is utterly righteous, He is sinless, He is perfect in the moral sense. He blends justice and fairness with grace and mercy in a divine way that only He can. He is the Prince of Peace. He was fully God but He was also fully man. He is completely whole, completely mature, exemplary in character and in humility. And Jesus was utterly joyful. He is not a stoic disciplinarian who wants us to be on our faces all day in penance. I am sure he and his disciples had plenty of laughter together over many meals, many fond memories together, some serious conversations and corrections to be sure. But overall, He is the Author of Life so he knew what life was all about. He knew how to live life to the full. And he models for us a life of joy, a life that does not shake just because our circumstances change, but a life of joy anchored in a deep confidence in God’s love for Him.
Righteousness, peace and joy. These are not abstract concepts. These are attributes of a person, the reigning King of the kingdom that awaits us. And the great news is that within the church where Jesus is the head, we get a sneak preview into this kingdom.
Don’t you want to spend time with a person like this?
Where 2 or 3 are gathered, Jesus promises to be there with us. There are many more than 3 gathered here. If we do church right, then anyone who walks through that door and steps into our church should get a taste for what the kingdom of God is like. That it’s a place of righteousness, peace and joy. The aroma of Christ will permeate this place because we have spent time in Christ’s presence. It’s like when you are growing up, our parents worry when we hang around bad friends. Because we are influenced by them and eventually we become like them and adopt their self-destructive habits. The same goes for Jesus — spend time with Jesus and it is impossible to walk away unchanged. He will influence you and you will become like Jesus the more you spend time with Him.
Okay, we’ve covered what the kingdom of God is like. It’s where Jesus is the king and his qualities define the primary characteristics of the kingdom. Following this model is one way to do church. Where we continually, constantly point to our king, Jesus Christ.