Lord of all or not at all - Romans 14:1-12
Let me begin by describing to you two scenes not all that uncommon for a leader of a church to encounter. The first involves two parents. They are Christian believers, both arriving at the Vicarage in floods of tears. What can we do about our son? they plead. We did our best to bring him up in the faith which is so dear to us. He went to Sunday school, and later the youth group, he even made a profession of faith in his teens. But since he has been to college he has thrown it all away. Just last night he told us he wants nothing more to do with God.' The second concerns a graduate, three years down the line. The letter arrives on the ministers doormat. He stoops to pick it up. Sitting at his desk he opens the envelope and carefully reads the contents. As he does so the same, sad, familiar story unfolds. It is from a former student who is simply bewildered about her best friend from university. She was so keen, so enthusiastic, a rising star in the Christian Union no less. But now? Now, she is nowhere spiritually. What was once considered to be a live faith lies as cold, dead embers in the hearth of her heart.
Why do young people abandon their faith? Well, a few years ago a team of social scientists decided to find out. They polled several hundred university students and published the results in The Review of Religious Research. The number one reason cited for the abandonment of faith was hypocrisy: 38% of the students saw the behaviour of church members as contradicting their professed beliefs. The second reason given by 36% of the students was that Christianity was not successful in solving the problems of life. Reason number three - at 30% - was learning things at school which contradicted what they were taught at church.
Now obviously, every individual is responsible before God for how they respond to him and no two cases will be exactly alike. What is more, there may well be all sorts of reasons, some deep and unfathamable why a young man or woman decides to throw in the towel as far as Christianity is concerned, for there are many genuine Christian parents who, to the best of their knowledge, have done everything they could for the spiritual well being of their childen and yet falling away still occurs. But if these findings are anything to go by, as well as years of my own personal ministerial experience, there would appear to be at root one common cause, and that is a failure somewhere along the line to understand what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. The understanding that his rule is meant to encompass every area of life.
So we have the problem of rank hypocrisy - saying one thing and then doing something else. Another survey in America revealed that only one out of three Christians believed that their faith should have any effect on the way they live. Little wonder that young people looking at the so called faith of their fellow church members decide to give it a miss, if thats the case. What is more, if the Christian student doesn't get to grips with the realisation that they are meant to think about their faith as rigerously, if not more so than they do with their studies, tracing through what Chrisianity means for their views on politics, relationships, art, science, ambitions - but instead vewing it as some sort of hobby - then it is only a matter of time when isolated from their Christian group on campus - they drift along with the rest of the world like deadwood floating down a polluted stream. There is no anchor to prevent them from doing otherwise - after all, people take up hobbies and just as quickly put them down again. But if the Christian faith is compartmentalised, and Jesus does not claim the whole of our lives, which means viewing the world as he did, namely through Gods own revelation given in Scripture, then we will not have the spiritual resilience to even begin to question what we are taught in our colleges or to critically discern what comes to us through the media. We will fall for the common myth that faith is private, that one view is as good as any other and the phrase Jesus is Lord will be reduced to an empty mantra of catchy choruses. I tell you plainly, a proper understanding of what it means to claim that Jesus is Lord is vital to our very salvation, let alone the spirtual health of the church. There used to be a popular chorus amongst children: Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, but with the refusal of some Christians to think, it might as well be, Jesus wants me for a zombie
So do turn with me to what Paul has to teach us about this in his letter to the Romans and chapter 14 where we discover three vital relationships which the Lordship of Christ affects.
First of all, our relationship to God: vv 7 - 9. You see, it is only when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord that our relationship with God becomes right. The only alternatives are set before us in vv7 - 8 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live of die, we belong to the Lord.' That is the alternative. And you cannot find a more vivid contrast between the Christian and the non - Christian than that; for all of us are either living for ourselves or for the Lord. But you say, Surely, non - Christians do good things? But that depends upon what you define as good.' Certainly many non - Christians do all sorts of kind things, helping other people, acts of self - sacrfice and so on. But as far as God is concerned if he is left out of the reckoning in what we do and why we do them, all these so called good things are tainted with self. If God himself and love for him and our neighbour which flows from his commands, does not figure in our thinking, then whatever we do is not particularly good at all, self infects even the noblest of our acts. The tragedy is that the non - Christian is doing the very thing that the Christian should never be doing in v7 Living and dying for themselves.' But it should be inconceivable that a Christian should live like that. No, he or she has someone else at the centre of their lives now, a person who shapes and motivates all that they do - the Lord. If Christ is Lord then nothing is outside his dominion. How? V9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be.... whatHow would we complete that verse if we were writing it? We would probably put Saviour wouldnt we? But that is not what Paul said. He said that he might be Lord. You cant have Christ as your saviour and then later on decide to have him as your Lord as if this is a two stage instalment plan. It is a package deal. He is Saviour precisely because he is Lord, the one who has all authority in heaven and earth. seated at his Fathers side, and so enabled to bestow salvation and the Holy Spirit on anyone who trusts in him.
The Christian writer, Don Carson, puts the challenge in these terms: To confess Jesus as Lord is to recognise who he is. But this can never be a mere credal formula. The essence of all sin in the Scripture is to think of myself as lord or to make something in the created universe lord... The heart of idolatry is the worship of that which is not God. All of the individual sins that horrify or titillate us - from genocide to secret lust, from drug pushing to greed, from murder to bitterness - are nothing more than facets of that fundamental rebellion. That is why merely religiouspeople can be the biggest sinners of all. They can make an idol of their own smug goodness, their own religion, their own rules, their self - righteousness and never really worship the God who has revealed himself supremely in Christ Jesus, never really confess that Jesus is Lord... What Christ achieved on the cross was nothing less than our pardon, our release, our cleansing, our freedom. But the entailment is a renewed life in which we are orientated towards God: we do confess him as Lord.'
It was the broadcaster Steve Chalk who rightly pointed out to a group of young people that you will never know that Jesus is really your Lord until he asks you to do something you dont want to do: such as not going out with a non-Christian, working hard at getting to grips with the Bible, sharing your faith with friends, getting regular at church and so on. Things which the Bible teaches, but which bite when we find it uncomfortable or unpopular - that is the test in experience as to whether Jesus is really our Lord or not. Anyone can sing it, God wants us to live it.
But notice what else Paul says of Jesus Lordship in v9. He is the Lord of the Christian dead. In heaven you know, there is no begrudging aquiescence to the Lordship of Christ, as there tends to be with us. There is only a joyful, wondering adoration that Jesus Christ is Lord, it is a pure delight. But he died and rose again not only to be the Lord of the dead but also the living. He means our Christian life on earth to approximate as far as possible the glorified life of believers in heaven. And that means the totality of self - surrender, not holding anything back, but worshipping him with all our minds, our hearts and our wills. That includes everything - our time, our studies, our friends, our money, our ambitions come under his rule, we cant pick and choose.
But in the second place when we acknolwedge Jesus Christ as Lord our relationship to one another is right which in fact is the main concern of the entire passage. In verse 1 Paul urges these Christians to accept those whose faith is weak, that is the Christian whose understanding isnt well developed and who has a rather over - sensitive conscience. As we see in verses 2 - 6 Christians differed on what were matters of secondary importance, which in this case related to whether it was right to eat certain meats and observe certain days for religious festivities. In all probability the background was that of some Christians being converted from paganism and the practise of first of all giving meatofferings to idols which were then sold at the local market. Those with sensitive consciences thought it best to make a clean break from their non - Christian past and have nothing at all to do with such idolatry and so they became vegetarian, just in case the meat had been unsed in a pagan festival - play safe. Others, like Paul himself, came to the conclusion that idols are just lumps of wood and to eat food formerly used in a temple but now on sale in the market is harmless, as he argues in 1 Cornithians 8. So his was a strong conscience. I guess a modern day equivalent would be someone who gets converted from a home were drink is a major problem and has been a problem for them, so they become teetotal. What is more they feel they cannot go anywhere near a pub. That is quite understandable. But what is quite unacceptable is the supercilious judgementalism that can go on by other Christians, the superior looking down the proverbial nose at those whom we feel don't see things in the same enlightened way we see things. So we think how sad to be teetotal, what fuddy duddy Christians they are.
That was the problem in the church in Rome. There is nothing wrong in having different opinions and practises. We have to be agreed on basic Christian truths and basic Christian behaviour, rank heresy and immorality had no rightful place in the early church and they should have no place in the contemporary church either. As we heard last week, God is a holy God and will not be mocked. But that is not the same as despising fellow Christians just because they dont happen to do things our way, sitting in judgement on them which is what vv2 and 3 are all about, and well summed up in v 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?
Now notice how Paul deals with this problem. He doesn't tell them to be nice to one another, he begins with doctrine, Christian truth about the Lordship of Christ, and so giving a good reason which this high handed behaviour is unacceptable - v 4 Who are you to judge someone elses servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.' On these sorts of questions it is a matter of conscience, between the Christian and his Lord (v5b - 6 - read).
Now here is the secret of our relations with each other in the church, especially when we have our differences - Jesus is Lord.' To despise or stand in judgement over a fellow Christian (and especially when we often dont have full access to all the facts) is not simply a breach of fellowship it is a denial of our belief that Jesus is Lord. Dont you think it is the height of presumption to take to myself what belongs to Christ alone, the right to judge a fellow believer? They are responsible to him and I have no right to interfere with that. You know, so much of our fellowship would be sweetened and tension lightened simply if were had the grace and humility to let other Christians go - stop trying to run their lives for them as if we were their Lord. Sure we have a responsibility to care, to encourage, and if occasion demands to rebuke with all gentleness, says the Bible, but on matters on which the Bible has nothing to say, and which are indifferent or questions of conscience God alone remains their judge. Now are you willing to let that be so?
But finally, if we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord then our relationship with the outside world is right as well; that is the secular, unbelieving world in which we live. Take a look at v11. It is a favourite from Is 45 that Paul quotes on several occasions(read). Now the context here is judgement. Each one of us is going to give an account of himself to Christ the Lord and Christ the Judge. So in the first instance it applies to Christians. But there is a secondary application as well. In its original context in Isaiah it is one of the great missionary verses of the Bible, which carries the conviction that it is not just Israel but the whole world which one day will bow the knee to Yahweh. In the NT this is transferred to Jesus, it is at the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. So at the very least if we really do believe Jesus is Lord we shall want others to know that truth too, which means getting on with witnessing - taking the opportunity of explaining to others the Gospel message so that they can know the Lord not simply as judge, which is the only alternative otherwise, but know the sweet release he brings as Saviour.
So let me ask you: is Jesus Christ your Lord? Or are you denying his lordship in some way? To reject his teaching, to disobey his moral cammands, to complain against his providential will or all to deny his lordship. To boss other Christians around or to despise them because they arer not like us is to deny his lordship.
Can I ask whether you are willing tonight to surrender to him whatever it is that you have been witholding for years, whatever it be? To deny his lordship, which we can be so good at doing, is to skulk around in the darkness of fantasy. But to acknowledge Jesus is lord is to come out into the sunshine of reality - will you do that as we pray?
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