Majoring in the minors or neo-fundamentalism

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

 

Romans 14

 

1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If 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. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

 

            Last week was beautiful, weather wise.  Low humidity, sunny, temperatures in the low 70’s.  It was ideal for me to go outside and do some work on the exterior of our home.  I had the chance to do some painting and I worked on some outdoor lighting as well.

            We had this motion detector light located just underneath the spouting on our house.  The problem was that this motion detector…didn’t detect motion.  It would constantly flash on and off, making it more annoying than useful.

            So while I had a ladder we borrowed from Sonya’s coworker, I decided to install a new motion detector light.  And after I had everything wired up and sealed water tight, I put the new motion dector to the test.  And much like its predecessor, this motion detector would not detect motion.  It worked well as a floodlight, but no motion detection.

            I looked at the instructions included with the new light and I found out that the motion detector was “most effective” when mounted from 8-12 feet above ground.  I had it mounted around 18 feet high, and at that height it was totally ineffective.

            So I found a lower place to mount the motion detector.  I cut out a hole in the side of the back porch, I tapped into the nearest power supply and fished the wire through the new conduit and into the newly installed electrical box.  But when I went to put it all together, I was missing a part.  I was missing the mounting bracket that screws to the electrical box and then holds the light fixture to the box and to the wall.  It was kind of an important thing that I was missing.

            So I looked for it.  I looked in my bucket of tools.  I looked in my pockets.  I searched the porch, the basement, the back yard (I might have dropped it).  I looked for a half an hour.  Then I thought, Maybe I left it on the electrical box on at the top of the house where the previous light had been mounted and I had tried to mount the new light.  But I looked up from my safe place on the ground and I could see that I had removed the mounting bracket from the box.  I needed that bracket.  So what did I do?  I looked in all of those other places again.

            Then there came across my mind that there was a slight possibility that maybe, just maybe I had left that bracket in the spouting of the house.  I looked around a little more and I decided that I needed to set back up that long, awkward ladder and climb to the top of the house to check the spouting.  And sure enough, there it was.

            So why did I look so hard to find this one piece of metal?  It might be a little strong to say that it was irreplaceable, but it would have been difficult to find a comparable piece.  And I needed that piece, that mounting bracket.  Because without it, all of the other things that I had done, all of the small details, the wiring, the cutting, and so on would have been in vain.  It would have been worthless, even causing a bigger mess than we started with.  The bracket was fundamental in having a working motion detector light fixed to the side of the house.

            Today I want to look at our scripture from Romans 14 to see that there are a few fundamentals to Christianity that we cannot do without and maybe there are a few things that we think are fundamental that perhaps are not as important as we might think they are.  And while previous efforts to define Christian fundamentals have always turned out poorly, I hope to look to Jesus Christ and his definition of the fundamentals to see where we too must place our focus.

            Our scripture for today begins with Paul informing the Christians in Rome that they need to be welcoming of other Christians, regardless of how weak their faith is.  And the reason for inviting them is not so that they can quarrel over opinions, but for fellowship and giving praise to God.  It appears, and you’re going to have to picture this now because it is hard for us to imagine in our churches today, that not everyone in the church agreed on every last detail of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Some believed that a Christian could only eat vegetables, while others said it was okay to eat anything that the good Lord provided for them.

            I assume, and certain commentaries agree, that Paul is talking about disagreements between Gentiles and Jews.  Remember that the Gospel first came to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.  And the Jews had very strict dietary laws: no shellfish, no pork, no kids (goat kids, that is) boiled in their mother’s milk, and no meat sacrificed to other gods.  To eat these things would defile a Jew according to the Mosaic Law.

            So when this Jesus movement comes along, the Jews really started questioning some of these Jewish laws.  Which ones still applied and which ones were no longer applicable (were they predecessors to today’s biblical relativists)?  Well we know that Peter had a dream where animals of all kinds were being lowered from the heavens in a large sheet and Peter was instructed that it was okay to eat these animals.  But not all of the Jews had this information that it was okay to eat what they had not been permitted to eat previously.  So, even though they were following Jesus, they did not yet realize that God had permitted them to eat any meat.  And it sure is hard to give up a belief that has been chiseled into your mind your entire life.

            So that is the context for today’s scripture when Paul tells the Roman Christians that those that eat meat must not judge those who don’t eat meat, and vise versa.  But eating meat and not eating meat isn’t the point.  This is simply an example that Paul is using, and he moves on to another example.  He begins to talk about which day people keep the Sabbath. 

            And here Paul’s point really comes out.  If you are going to keep the Sabbath, observe it in honor of the Lord.  If you are going to eat meat or not eat meat, do so in a way that honors the Lord.  It is less important that you do certain things or don’t do others.  What really matters is why you do them or don’t do them.  Paul is saying that these things are less important to God then they often are to us human beings and as Paul points out in verse 20, we should not destroy the work of God for the sake of something as trivial as food.

            As I hinted at earlier, the church today is just as susceptible to divisions over small things as it was back in Paul’s day.  And in the early part of the 20th century a group of Christians came together and decided that it wasn’t worth it to destroy the work of God over the “small stuff” that was coming between Christians.  They decided that they would come together and name a few fundamental principles of Christianity.  They emerged with the five fundamentals of Christianity (as defined by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church): the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, the atoning death of Jesus on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historical reality of Christ’s miracles.  Those churches and individuals that rallied around these five fundamentals became known as “fundamentalists.”

            Over the last century the term fundamentalist has taken on a negative connotation (to put it lightly).  If someone calls you a fundamentalist it isn’t a complement.  Today when someone calls you a fundamentalist, they are usually calling someone a close-minded, homo-phobic, pro-Israel, pro-empire, dispensationalist.  Like I said, that isn’t a complement.  But I want to reclaim the term “fundamentalist” today.  Because like Paul tells us in our scripture, we cannot destroy the work of God over the small stuff.

            I find it interesting to think about the things that are really non issues in our church today that many of us may remember being a huge issue in the Mennonite church in the past.  For instance, the last church that I was a part of in Ohio is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, much like we celebrated our 50th earlier this spring.  But they did not come into being as a congregation through the work of church planting like our congregation.  They became a congregation because of a church split over what was at the time a huge issue: the plain coat.

            The more progressive members of the congregation didn’t think they needed to wear plain coats, the more conservative members thought it was necessary.  And there was such a strong disagreement that a large number of people left the mother church and started their own congregation.  Now I would invite you today, fifty years later, to walk into either of these congregations on a Sunday morning and count the number of men wearing plain coats.

            Now that church split worked out pretty good, spawning a new and healthy congregation.  But not all cases end up this way.  People get angry and never talk to one another again.  Families are divided, sibling verses sibling, father verses daughter.  It can be downright ugly.  And over what?  A plain coat?  Whether we eat meat or worship on a Sunday or Saturday?  Paul instructs us to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding, not to destroy God’s work over the small stuff.  And these things seem like small stuff to me.

            It is almost funny to think about the things that at one time were “essentials” of the faith that now we don’t even think twice about.  I mentioned the plain coat; what about going to the movies, or bowling, dancing, rock and roll, and television?  I don’t doubt for a second that there are movies we should avoid, or dancing that is perhaps inappropriate for us to participate in as Christians, but I don’t think most Christians today would say that to be a Christian means that you can’t watch a movie or go bowling.  But think of all of the quarrels that have occurred over such non-essentials to the Christian faith as these?  Yes the rule existed for a good reason, just as the law about not eating meat existed.  But we come to the point were we lose sight of the reason for the rule and just focus on the rule.  Can we even remember why Mennonites wore plain coats or did not have mustaches?  We must not lose sight of the forest for the trees.  We cannot undo the work of God over meat.

            But who gets to decide what is the small stuff and what is the big stuff?  Who gets to decide what is and is not important?

            Brian McLaren’s book, A Generous Orthodoxy has one of the longest subtitles I have ever seen before.  The entire title is, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian”.  McLaren, who most people would put at the far end of the theological spectrum from the fundamentalists, describes himself using that very adjective: fundamentalist.  But McLaren defines fundamentalist in a different way, naming a different set of fundamentals from the five that the group of Presbyterians adopted around 100 years ago.

            McLaren believes, like Paul states in our scripture, that we need to start with the fundamentals of Christianity, that we as Christians need to come together on these fundamentals and not allow certain things to destroy the work of God.  And McLaren states the same two fundamentals that Jesus did when he was asked what the most important Laws were: Love for God and Love for neighbor.

            In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus is approached by the Pharisees and they challenge him by asking him which commandment is the greatest.  Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind.”  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He gives them the second greatest commandment as well, to love your neighbor as yourself.

            If I was asked today what the fundamentals of Christianity are, I would have to agree that Christianity is about loving God and loving neighbors.  Those were Jesus’ fundamentals, and I see no reason why they are not just as applicable today as they were in Jesus’ day.

            And I want to point out to you today that the things that Jesus pointed out to be the fundamentals are not some abstract ideas, some theological doctrine or dogma.  Not that these things are not important.  But I think that our fundamentals need to have more to do with being like Jesus than believing the right things about Jesus.

            Again, I want to say that orthodoxy is important.  I am not saying that doctrines concerning the historical accuracy of Jesus’ miracles or the bodily resurrection are not important.  They are important.  But when compared to love for God and love for neighbor believing in these doctrines seem a lot less important.

            I come back to the motion detector light that I was installing.  I needed to take time to run the wires.  I needed to take time to cut a hole for the electrical box.  I needed conduit cut to the appropriate length.  Some of these things were fundamental to making the light work: it needed electric, it needed to be placed at the right height, and it needed to be mounted properly.  The conduit brought the light up to code, but it would have worked just as well without it.

            What might we need to look at again in our faith and ask, “Is this fundamental to our faith?”  And if it is not, we cannot let it divide us from other Christians.  That does mean that we necessarily chop it out of our beliefs, but we cannot allow something that is less than fundamental destroy the work of God.  Just because my conduit wasn’t fundamental to make the motion detector work doesn’t mean it isn’t important or that I leave it out.  But you can’t allow something non-essential to destroy the entire project.

            It is my desire that we can work together with other churches of other denominations, putting aside our differences while not abandoning our distinctiveness, to work for the kingdom of God.  In Seminary I studied with Methodists, Church of the Brethren, Baptists, and even some Mennonites.  And we didn’t agree on every last detail, but we were able to study together, worship together, love God together, and love our neighbors together.  Why would this have to end?  Why can we not continue to work side by side with people of other denominations, putting aside our differences while not abandoning our distinctiveness, to work for the kingdom of God?

We cannot destroy the work of God for the sake of meat.  We cannot allow theological differences divide us.  This doesn’t mean that we abandon our distinctiveness, but that we affirm our fundamentals.  Love for God and love for neighbors.  Let us work together to live as a part of God’s kingdom until his kingdom is fully realized on earth as it is in heaven, working together to love God and love our neighbors.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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One Response to Majoring in the minors or neo-fundamentalism

  1. mark_s says:

    Hi Kevin. Good sermon. I liked how you incorporated your work on the motion detector with your reflections on scripture. Blessings as you prepare for Sunday.

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