Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14:1-23, John 8:47-59
One characteristic of an effective movement, whether religious or secular, is an ability to stay focused. Unfortunately, the older and larger a movement grows, the more likely it is to lose focus. We need look only as far as the church to see a primary example. Early Christians were focused around the idea that Jesus was the savior, and through him all sin was forgiven. They had de facto leaders but no real bureaucracy, and were more focused on freedom than restriction.
Is that what the church looks like today? Can we imagine Peter poring over investment policy revisions, or Paul reading the latest theories on why you should have one third more seats than you do members? These activities aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but if we’re not careful we may start thinking and behaving as if the point of church is to perpetuate church, rather than to serve God.
One of Paul’s purposes in writing to the Roman (and other) churches was to encourage them to stick to the basics of the faith. Like present-day churches, the simple ideas and practices that bound them as a community began to accumulate individual and cultural restrictions. Like barnacles on a ship – sometimes known as fouling organisms – these additions adversely impacted the performance and structure of the church. Paul told the Romans they needed to scrape off “fouling” ideas.
Today’s church can be just as prone to fouling ideas. Most of the time we can recognize them because they separate us from each other or the world around us. Any time we decide someone who professes dedication to Christ is not a “real” Christian because their denomination, practices, or identity don’t fit our mold, we are probably victims of fouled faith. Rifts have developed over everything from whether coffee is allowed in the sanctuary to politically correct language in hymns to the proper order of a liturgy. As Christians, we are called to find ways to rise above such trivialities and unite rather than divide.
Paul adds a wrinkle though: we can’t just write off people with sincerely held belief in more rules than we believe as silly or misguided. In Paul’s example, the “strong” who believed no food was unclean didn’t need to make a show of eating certain foods to the “weak” who clung to prior practices. Relationship with Christ and God is central to faith and community, so causing someone to feel they were undermining that relationship was not “walking in love;” if someone believed something was unclean, it was indeed unclean to them. Your stumbling blocks and someone else’s may differ.
Of course, if it’s our belief-barnacle we will struggle to recognize it as such, and the older and bigger it is, the more difficult it will be to scrape off. Then there’s the danger that in our zeal to tear off the non-essentials we carelessly go too far and scrape away part of the hull; we don’t want to damage or discard what is necessary and true. And there’s the balance of community: learning to respect each other’s sincerely held beliefs and practices without imposing them on each other – and over time stripping away all that is not part of Christ.
Faith is not always simple, but let’s resist the temptation to complicate it unnecessarily. If we focus on winning souls instead of winning arguments, the barnacles on our faith fall away much more easily.
Comfort: Christ is the lens that focuses our faith.
Challenge: What barnacles have you accumulated? Scrape them off.
Prayer: God of Abundance, I will keep my eye on Christ. Amen
Discussion: If you’re not a sailor, barnacles may not mean much to you. What are some other metaphors for religious or spiritual “clutter?”
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