(by Pastor Joe)
The Word for Today: Romans 14
I grew up in Kenmore, the fence capital of New York. There, the average lot width is a mere 30 or 35 feet, and just about everyone has a fence of some sort; so you learn to hop them at a young age. Whether you were playing hide & seek, or a game of catch, or just needed to take a shortcut to the store, fence hopping was daily requirement. And you soon became quite proficient at maneuvering over all sorts of varieties: chain linked, stockade, lattice style, picket, and even wrought iron .
But the granddaddy of them all, the bane of every fence climber, had to be the chain link variety with the spikes on the top (as shown above). In my day, it was the equivalent of barbed wire–something to be avoided, if not shunned all together. One slip, one false move, and you would be headed for a skewering and a trip to the emergency room. Heaven forbid if your tetanus shot was not up to date.
My friend had such a fence in his backyard, which was quite problematic. Any ball, frisbee, or other toy that found it’s way over required you to either forget about it, walk all the way around the block, or take your life into your hands. On one such occasion, a ball made its way over, and my friend liked that ball enough to attempt to climb the fence. He was halfway up, with one foot over the top, when he heard the frantic voice of his backyard neighbor.
She was a sweet little Italian lady who spoke with a high-pitched accent, and she was almost hysterically crying out to stop him through her back window. She wailed out these immortal words: “Don’t do it, Sonny! Don’t do it! You’ll rip your cannolies! Is it worth it!?! For a ball!?!”
Since that day, those words have been quoted and impersonated and repeated. They have not only been the source of endless laughter, but also make there way into my mind whenever I am faced with a troublesome decision. I find myself asking the same questions: “Is it worth it? For a …..?”
In life, and certainly within the Christian faith, there are battles worth fighting, and others that are not. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul is helping the Romans of his time, as well as all of us today, to figure out which is which. There is no doubting the fact that there are certain non-negotiables in our faith. Consider what Paul has already written in this epistle:
– the lostness of man (Ch. 1)
– the inability of any one of us to keep God’s law (ch. 2)
– justification by faith (ch. 3-4)
– peace with God through Jesus Christ (ch. 5)
– new life in Christ (ch. 6 & 7)
– life by the Holy Spirit (ch. 8)
I can go on, but all these must be defended, or else you lose the heart of the message. And many heroes, including Paul himself, have laid down their lives, having “fought the good fight(1).” We commend them for standing their ground and never compromising or watering down God’s Word. In these cases, it was worth it. A stand on and for the truth was very necessary.
But what about secondary or tertiary matters?
They seem to creep in much more that we recognize.
For the Romans, it was issues involving food and drink, or special holy days. These believers were certainly zealous, but not always about the things that mattered the most. Sounds like us. And so the Word speaks to all of us, asking the same question as my friend’s sweet neighbor, “Is it worth it?”
Here in verse 1 we are warned about “quarreling over disputable matters (NIV)” or “doubtful disputations (KJV)” or “opinions (ESV).” Call them what you will, just don’t put them on the level of the life, death, or resurrection of Jesus. We are certainly all entitled to our opinions, just remember that they are that, opinions. Each of us has a natural tendency to make theological mountains out of molehills. And even if we have ourselves in control, we live in a culture and even in a church context, where these opinions, or disputable matters, have become their own sacred cows. Just read your church history to see examples of this.
Think of all the time and resources we’ve collectively wasted on fighting any and everything. We can look back in time and laugh about all the energy spent on combating the length of guys hair, or card playing, or dancing, or going to the theater or movies, or fill in the blank. “Was it worth it?” I am afraid not. I am also almost positive that in 30 years from now we will laugh (or maybe even cry) about all the waste that came from waging war against Harry Potter or Pokemon or Rock n’ Roll or worship styles etc.
Even within the Body of Christ, there are diverse views about all sorts of important things: end times, theological systems, preferred Bible version, spiritual gifts, predestination vs. free will, the exact meaning and mode of baptism or communion. I can go on. But I think it wise to always go back to the old maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
So go ahead, and do the research. Make an informed decision on these matters, form an opinion. But take heed that your opinion on certain convictions does not lead to the ruin of another’s faith or yours. You are not, nor ever will be, infallible. So before you make your last stand, guns ablazin’, always make sure to ask yourself this question: “Is it worth it?”
(1) 2 Timothy 4:7