What Is That To You

    In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You know about life verses, yes?  If not, Google “life verse” and this is what you’ll find:

A life verse is a verse from the Bible that speaks to you in a very special way.  It seems as if it were put in God’s Word just for you!  There is usually a reason why it so resonates with your soul and spirit and you probably have a story connected with it.

How do you choose a life verse?  Well, if you’re a Calvinist, the life verse chooses you.  If you’re an Arminian, you choose the life verse.  If you’re an Anglican, you first have to decide if you want a 1662, 1928, or 2019 life verse.  I’ve even heard of a 1979 life verse, but no one admits to that in public.

I lived three-quarters of my allotted life expectancy without a life verse, so I don’t really think one is necessary:  nice, perhaps, if you have one but nothing to worry about if you don’t.

Well, you might imagine my surprise when, sometime last year, my life verse leapt off the pages of the Gospel according to St. John.  It is short and to the point:  six words in Greek, eight in English.  It is Jesus’ rebuke of Peter when Peter asks about John’s future.  Jesus says,

What is that to you?  You follow me.

I recognized it instantly, though I had read it countless times before:  that’s my life verse.  I’m a good Southern boy and that’s a good Southern verse, like a granny chiding an uppity kid:  “Child, mind your own business, and do what I tell you.”

Sure, there are reasons this has become my life verse, stories connected with it.  But, I’ll not be telling you; that’s between me and my spiritual director.  If you’re really curious, I refer you to the verse itself:  What is that to you?

I mention all this because it seems to me that my life verse is the perfect summary of Romans 14, our second reading for the morning.  There are some conflicts over personal piety in the Roman churches.  Some, the weaker in the faith, are essentially vegans.  This may be a hyperextension of kosher restrictions or an attempt to avoid eating meat offered to idols; Paul doesn’t say.  Others fill their plates with anything and everything.  Paul’s message to both is simple.  The omnivores must not disparage the vegans for their scruples, nor should the vegans judge the omnivores for their embrace of all foods.  Paul asks each a pointed question:  “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?”  Each of these belong to God and each will stand or fall before God.  Concerning the dietary habits of your brother —I might slightly alter my life verse:

What is that to you?  You follow Christ.

You may know that our Orthodox brothers and sisters take fasting very seriously.  They are on some kind of fast for nearly 200 days each year:  no cheese this week, no wine or oil the next, no meat after that.  It’s all pretty complicated and especially confusing for converts.  When she was a new convert to Orthodoxy, writer Frederica Mathewes-Green was confounded by the fasting rules.  One Sunday at the church “coffee hour” — during a fasting season — she noticed a difference between her plate and the plates of those around her, those seasoned in Orthodoxy.  Her plate was nearly empty: just a few carefully chosen morsels in keeping with fasting restrictions.  Their plates were weighed down with savory and sweet delicacies of all kinds.  In an honest attempt to understand, she pointed this out to her priest and asked, “What are the fasting rules?”  He thought for a moment and replied, “The first rule of fasting is to keep your eyes on your own plate.”

What is that to you?  You follow Christ.

Some in Rome observed special days — perhaps the Jewish Christians holding onto new moons and Sabbaths, the feasts and fasts of the fathers.  Others made no distinctions among days, esteeming them all alike.  Paul says, what matters is that your practice — whatever it is — honors the Lord.  This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.  And, if your brother honors the Lord in a different fashion:

What is that to you?  You follow Christ.

We must ourselves give an account to God for ourselves.  We must not demand an account from our brother.

Are there limits to this “I’m OK, You’re OK” attitude toward personal piety?  Of course.  The true limit is your brother’s welfare.  You may never use your personal freedom as license to wound the conscience of your brother.  Imagine a “coffee hour” or a love feast in one of the first century Roman house churches.  A Gentile Christian has his plate loaded with all kinds of food, including a beautiful slice of ham.  A Jewish Christian stands beside him with a few, carefully selected items on his plate, mainly vegetables.  He doesn’t know where the food came from and how it has been prepared, so he’s being careful.  Noticing the difference in plates, the two strike up a theological discussion on what is proper for the Christian to eat.  The Gentile is older in the faith and a more experienced debater.  He convinces — he pressures — his Jewish brother to try a bite of ham, knowing that this is really against his brother’s beliefs.  And, in the name of freedom, he wounds his brother.  He is actually the occasion of sin.  Paul is clear:

But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith.  For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom 14:23, ESV).

In these matters of personal piety, don’t judge others.  Don’t wound them either, by insisting upon your rights and freedom to their detriment.

For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15).

This is deep theology, but it’s also common sense, common Christian charity.  I am free to have a glass of wine with my meal, but I wouldn’t drink one if I’m sharing the meal with a recovering alcoholic.  What’s more important:  my enjoyment of a good Moscato D’Asti or the welfare of my brother for whom Christ died?

So, there are two fundamental principles at work here.  The first is this:  keep your eyes on your own plate.  When it comes to my brother, I should mind my own business and leave him to his.  It is my life verse:

What is that to you?  You follow me.

The second principle kicks in when my brother fails to follow the first one, when he does begin to look at my plate, when my legitimate behavior threatens to wound his conscience.  When it comes to my brother, I should put his legitimate spiritual welfare before my own personal freedom.  My freedom is not absolute; it is conditioned by my love for my brother.

That’s it; that’s Romans 14 in a nutshell.  But, I can’t leave well enough alone, so I have to meddle a bit with one application.  Paul starts his instruction with this:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions (Rom 14:1).  

We have become a quarrelsome society, a cancel culture.  And, to our shame, the church is not immune to this evil.  Civil, charitable discourse is drowned in a sea of invective.  We are suspicious of one another; we are dismissive of one another.  We take sides and divide up our forces over matters that are not the Gospel.  We wound with our words; we alienate with our actions.  And for what?  To be right?  To be self-righteous?  About what?  Mere opinions on nonessential, non-gospel matters?  Paul speaks to us:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions (Rom 14:1).

The church must take this seriously, because the world will not.  The church must model forbearance and charity, because the world will see it nowhere else.  For the sake of our brothers and sisters whose consciences we wound, we must heed Paul’s admonition.  So someone has a different understanding of something absolutely adiaphora, something absolutely nonessential.

“What is that to you?” Jesus asks.  “You follow me.”

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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