There’s that great scene in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Toula is introducing her non-Greek boyfriend, Ian Miller, to her family for the first time. All of them, the aunts and uncles and cousins and what appears to be twenty-five different people named Nick or Nicki.
At one point they are invited over for dinner by one of the aunts, and Toula tells her it won’t work out since Ian is a vegetarian. There’s a blank stare. So Toula says, “Ian doesn’t eat meat.” “He don’t eat no meat?!” she says. “What do you mean, he don’t eat not meat!” And then she smiles, and says, “That’s okay, that’s okay. I make lamb.”
Vegetarianism comes front and center this morning in our text from Romans. There’s conflict in the early church—who knew there could ever be conflict in the church?—about what one eats or doesn’t eat. This is an ongoing issue that seems to appear and disappear in among these believers about what you can or cannot eat. You see some grew up Jewish and so they had a long history of keeping kosher, and so they probably just avoided the meat in general to make it easier to keep the dietary laws of their faith. Other believers probably came from more pagan homes and knew that nearly all the meat you would buy at the local market had previously been offered to one deity or another before coming there. So for them, the fact that this meat had been an offering to some false god made them want to forgo meat entirely.
And then there were the bacon lovers who claimed that it didn’t matter where it came from, meat was a gift from God and tasted fantastic and they intended to eat it. This was all fine and good until they got to a church potluck and someone brought in a scrumptious lamb dish with vegetables and rice and another person asked a little too loudly why anyone in their right mind would ruin a dish of rice and vegetables with the flesh of an animal. And conflict arose. Soon that community of believers might come to be known as the meat-haters and that meat-lovers weren’t quite as welcome there. And so it could go, at least that is until Paul intervened.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith,” Paul writes to this gathering of believers, “not in order to quarrel with them and prove you’re right and their wrong, but because God welcomes them just as they are.” Show hospitality simply because God is hospitable. And not just mildly hospitable; God is extravagantly welcoming.
While it’s slightly amusing to note that it’s the uptight ones, the ones who eschewed meat, who Paul claims are weak, if we focus on that, especially if we’re meat lovers, then we’re missing the boat too. It’s not about being weak or being strong in terms of perceived notions of doctrine (and let’s be clear, no one perceives themselves as the weak ones), but rather that we all belong to Christ. The vegetarians can continue as they have been, as well as the omnivores and carnivores (and presumably the locavores too). They all are to be welcomed into the community of faith with open arms because they are Christ’s.
I get asked sometimes when I’m out and about concerning the make-up of our congregation. Are you all conservative or liberal? Are you of one mind on issues of politics or theology? Would I consider you leaning more republican or more democrat? I often reply with the good Anglican middle way response when asked if St. Mark’s is this or that: “Yes,” I say. Usually the interlocutor cocks their head and then laughs and says, “No, really.” And I say, “Really. Yes. We’re both. We are not of one mind on issues at our congregation. I have folks who vote across the political spectrum if I were to base it on their bumper stickers and have understandings of theology that run the gamut too. But those things aren’t really that important.”
We live in a world that too often and too efficiently divides us into Red and Blue or Legal and Illegal or White and People of Color or a myriad of other ways. But Paul wants nothing of that, and frankly, neither do I. We are all Christ’s. My response to who we are is this: “Disciples of Jesus Christ. If people come to St. Mark’s, we welcome them warmly and invite them to join with us on the spiritual journey as we draw closer to Jesus. We don’t have a litmus test or ask to see membership cards at the door. If you want to follow Jesus as authentically and faithfully as you can, then you’re welcome here.”
The Message Bible puts Paul’s opening this way, “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” (Romans 14:1)
This weekend I had the privilege of attending a gathering with our presiding bishop, our new bishop and the clergy of our diocese on Friday. Kathryn, for whom we pray each week, spoke with us about conversation, about the need we have to engage with others. She said that conversation truly grows out of both creation accounts in Genesis. In that first account, the seven-day account, God ends each day by saying it is good, and then on that sixth day before God rests God looks on humanity and says it is very good. In the other account, with Adam and Eve and the snake, we see what happens when things go south and we cut off conversation and hide from God due to the impact of sin. She then said that if we begin at the second account, we may see each other as adversaries or, worse, as snakes. It can lead to confrontation. Yet if we begin at Genesis 1, we can see that all in humanity are very good, that we are beloved by God. If we view others in this way, we recognize that each of us bears God’s image.
Alan himself went on to express an image he heard just last week in a sermon. The priest shared how he loved eating at his grandparent’s house both by himself with them in intimate settings, and then at huge family gatherings. His grandparents would put in a number of leafs into the dining room table to accommodate the growing numbers. This expanding table became an image of the kingdom for him, that the table Jesus invites us to can continue to have more and more leafs added to it in order to keep welcoming more and more people.
Far too often we as Christians begin at Genesis 2 in looking for the sin or what’s wrong in others. The Romans seem to be doing that too in their obsession about what or what not to eat. Paul gently reminds them and us to go back to the previous chapter, to God calling us all good, to seeing the image of God in each other. And when we do that, when we see that they are bearers of God’s image, then we can welcome them at the ever growing table. No, we will not always agree—and Paul is even saying that on some things we shouldn’t sweat it—but that doesn’t preclude us from coming to the feast at Christ’s table together.
So I would say to you this morning to come to this table set before us. To see in the bread and the wine a recognition of the expansiveness of Christ’s body in the world. We come to this table as liberal and conservative, as male and female, as young and old simply because we are Christ’s and long to be fed by him and to be in communion with him. May we not view others—and especially the “other” in our lives—as opponents but as the beloved of God, warmly welcomed into the fellowship of the Almighty. Amen.