VIII. The Privilege of Minimizing: Final Thoughts on Romans

by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on September 18, 2020
A theme we return to again and again in our bible study is how Paul tries to generate unity amidst division in the Roman church.  The divisions are several: Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians most of all, but also slaves and freed persons, women and men, those with material resources and those without.  One of the ways Paul tries to help the Romans move towards unity in the Lord is by minimizing the extent to which their minor differences really matter.  This past Sunday’s passage (14:1-12), and our last lectionary week in Romans, was one such instance.
 
Two specific issues are food and calendar: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables,” Paul says, and “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (14:2 and 5).  The issue around food has to do with Torah observance, specifically maintaining a kosher diet which prohibited certain kinds of meat that were readily available in Rome.  (See this footnote for details if interested.[1])  The calendar issue is a little less clear, but may have a similar root in Jewish/Gentile cultures.  Some folks attributed extra importance to certain dates on the calendar, marking them with extra devotions, and others did not observe these rituals.
 
In both instances, Paul effectively says that these differences are minor.  Therefore, he is able to say, “Let everyone be fully convinced in their own minds,” and whatever you do, do so “in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God” (14:5b and 6b).  Paul accepts that vegetarianism may be a legitimate expression of one’s religious devotion, and forbids despising those who abstain from meat (14:3).  Likewise, those who abstain are to refrain from passing judgment on those who do eat meat (14:3).  He has similar instructions for calendar questions.  Don’t quarrel over matters of opinion, he says (14:1).  Observe special devotions on this day or not, eat meat or not, but whatever you do, do it in “honor of the Lord” (14:6).
 
All of this is essentially minor in Paul’s mind and, while the calendar and food issues can lead to real pastoral problems, and these in turn might require a change in behavior (14:15), in and of themselves the food and calendar debates are insubstantial for Paul’s context.  But these minor issues should not be confused with ones of substance. 
 
Romans, especially in later chapters, is packed with practical and ethical instructions of real weight: use your gifts for the whole community (12:4-8); show honor to everybody, especially the lowly (12:10 and 12:16); show hospitality to strangers and to traveling missionaries (12:13); bless those who persecute you (12:14); do not repay anyone evil for evil (12:17); live peaceably with all so long as it remains in your power to do so (12:18); do no wrong to your neighbor, for love fulfills the law (13:10).  These, it would seem, are not up for grabs. Refusing to honor the lowly, we might say, is mutually exclusive with honoring the Lord.  We don’t get to be convinced in our own mind one way or another.
 
Part of the Romans’ problem, then, is confusing minor things with major ones.  This is part of Christian discernment in our own day, too: discerning what is minor from what is substantial.  For me, this is part of what has made 2020 so hard: everything feels substantial.  The pandemic, race, riots, natural disasters, what to do for Thanksgiving.  Everything feels heavy.  Very little feels like the essentially minor food and calendar issues Paul describes.
 
One of my big takeaways from diving deep into Romans this year is how different my own context is from Paul’s.  One example is this distinction between minor issues and substantial ones.  For the Roman Church, a minor issue had unnecessarily grown to become a serious problem, even though they had more important things to worry about.  For our own context this summer, I think the reverse is frequently true.  We have so many substantial issues front and center right now that we begin to normalize them as a way of coping, which is to say we slowly begin to make them minor issues so they can fade into the background.  This is how we cope.  What else could we do?
 
But the fact remains that we are slowly getting accustomed to much that is urgent.  On the one hand, our ability to adapt and to carry on is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.  On the other hand, this is evidence that for many of us who might be reading this, issues like riots, race, changes to police budgets, and climate change simply do not touch us directly.  This is not true for all of us, and I hope we continue to remember that.  To put it another way: the pandemic is never real until it’s real for me.
 
I recently read something from a priest colleague elsewhere in the Church who was grieving all the divisions we have right now, in our country and in our different churches.  Political ideologies, wearing masks vs. not wearing masks, the examples abound.  At one point he tried to illustrate the madness of it all by recalling a story from years ago about a three-hour church meeting that was one big fight about what color to paint the walls of the parish hall.  He said the Lord moves us beyond all this, beyond “petty differences.”
 
I nodded appreciatively as I read, but as the day went on something wasn’t sitting right with me.  I realized that he—and I—had fallen into the trap of confusing what is minor with what is substantial: to liken the proliferation of violent political ideologies or disregard for precautions designed to safeguard public health with something like an argument over what color to paint a wall is absurd.  “Petty differences” are about eggshell or tope, but this—all of this—is not that.  That comparison can only be made from the top of an absolute mountain of privilege.  To make minor what is substantial is not something everyone can afford to do.  People’s lives and livelihoods are changing. 
 
Like you, I have struggled with how to carry all this heaviness without my usual supports. I’ve resorted to fits of denial, fits of work, fits of consuming too much news, fits of pathological commitment to Netflix, fits of being emotionally invested in the DuoLingo leaderboard. 
 
What has sustained me more than anything else, though, is a piece from Romans.  Romans 8:11-17, in particular.  In it Paul reminds us that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is among us, and that this Spirit adopts us as God’s children.  That raising-from-the-dead Spirit is ours now.  This Spirit cries to God, “Abba, Father” just as Jesus does (Mark14:36). 
 
But this is how that Romans passage ends:
 
It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
 
That short phrase if, in fact, we suffer with him changes so much.  I frankly hate that if.  I want to be adopted; I want to be an heir; I want to be glorified; I want the Spirit—but I don’t want the suffering, not for me or anyone else.  Not the way 2020 is offering it, anyway.  I don’t want the isolation. I don’t want the long uninterrupted silences or the claustrophobia.  I don’t want people I deeply care about to struggle as they are.  I don’t want the systemic trauma.  I don’t want the continued absence of regular Sunday mornings.  I don’t want your loved ones to go un-mourned and un-celebrated by proper funerals.  I don’t want your kids to have to glue themselves to a screen to see their friends and to hear about Jesus.  Or to hear about long division, for that matter.  We all have these litanies.
 
But here we are, taking risks with seemingly everything we do.  Will today be a day when it’s all just too much, or will today be a day when, well, it’s just not as bad as all that?  And which is the truth?
 
Abba, Father, let this cup pass from us, but thy will be done.  If, in fact, we suffer with him. 
 
If, in fact.
 
Maybe this is the road to glory after all.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Daniel+
 
[1] This would have meant refraining not only from pork, but from any meat that had been part of a sacrifice to an idol.  In a big, pagan city like Rome, this meant many kosher-observant folks simply became vegetarians.  It’s important that we keep that term “kosher-observant” as our designator, and not simply “Jews.”  It’s possible, and perhaps likely, that the kosher group of Christians in Rome were not only Jews.     While there was no formal process by which ancient Gentiles might convert to Judaism, there were Gentiles who, for whatever reason, had attached themselves to the religious life of Israel.  (See, for example, the Jewish-friendly centurion in Luke 7:1-10.)  These Gentiles were called “God-fearers,” and many of them may have kept a kosher diet as part of their religious piety.  Likewise, not all the meat-eaters in the Roman church would’ve been Gentiles.  It’s possible that some Jews—particularly if they were materially insecure—may have ceased being kosher after joining the Church and sought out the added nutrition of what meat was available.  We don’t know for sure.
 
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