If you ever had any doubt that the Bible covers every eventuality, or wondered if the apostle Paul had an unpublished thought about anything, today’s reading from Romans should set your mind at ease since it takes care of the vexing question of relations between vegetarians and meat eaters in the church. So if you are a pescatarian, a strict vegan, or cover everything you eat with bacon, the Episcopal Church, in the name of Paul, welcomes you. Just please don’t judge each other, and whatever you eat, eat it to the glory of God.
The issue Paul was addressing, of course, didn’t have much to do with the merits of vegetarianism as such. He was most likely trying to deal with a “mixed body” in Rome, groups that made different choices about how to relate to the world around them: Jewish Christians, who wanted to follow Jesus and keep kosher, stuck with vegetables as the safest way to avoid improperly slaughtered or prepared animals, as a way of maintaining purity in a pagan world.
On the other side were the Gentile Christians, for whom keeping kosher wasn’t really all that important, and who didn’t feel the need to remain quite so separate from the world around them, at least not when it came to dinner.
Paul is at pains to remind them that, whatever choices they make, the unity of the body was of paramount importance, and any choice they makes should reflect first of all their devotion to Christ, reflected in their devotion to one another. Above all, they ought not judge or give offense to each other over the small issues of what one eats.
Or as my mother, channeling Paul, may have put it more simply to me and my brothers: Don’t pester each other. It’s OK if you are different, just remember that you are part of one family.
Whether to eat meat or not was hardly the last conflict to cause division in the body. Christian have often struggled with and disagreed about how best to relate to the world around them, and what it means to honor Christ in the world.
Could a Christian be a soldier or a Roman official, which required taking oaths to the emperor Should Christians marry non-believers? Could babies be baptized, or does a person have to show real commitment to the gospel?
Later in Christian history: Could Christians go to war against each other? Could they lend money at interest? Could Christians own slaves or participate in the slave trade?
Closer to our own time: Could Christians drink alcohol? Could a woman hold authority in church or at home? Could she be ordained? Should Christians support or oppose segregation or the Vietnam War? Should gay and lesbian people be welcomed into church? Should they be ordained? Should they be married in church?
I hope by now we are getting close to some of the disputes in our own contemporary churches, disputes that have been, and sometimes still are, every bit as divisive as the first argument about what Christians should eat. Some have actually torn churches apart, and others, thankfully, have since been resolved.
Perhaps we may be embarrassed or ashamed that some of those questions were ever raised at all. In hindsight the answers seem obvious to us.
How are we Christians called to live in a “mixed body,” whether here in church, or just as importantly, in our families, or workplaces or out in the world around us, where differences quickly become polarized chasms, especially around election time, or when dealing with something that scares or threatens us.
I was thinking about that question on Thursday morning as I rode my bike to church past several groups of firefighters and paramedics standing at attention, who were gathering, as they have these past 13 years, on September 11 morning to remember their fallen comrades. It was also the morning after the president announced more airstrikes as part of the war that started that day.
As I rode, I heard a question Ann Gannon had asked the previous Friday after our morning Eucharist: “What are we to do about what is going on in Syria and Iraq?”
I realized on that ride I have been struggling with how to relate as a Christian in this complicated and broken world, and that I don’t have a good answer for myself. But the question put me in mind of two saints of the church, every bit as different as those vegetarians and meat-eaters, who both struggled with a similar question, and came up with different answers.
One was Roman Catholic Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker, and was a strict pacifist on the question of war, who opposed even fighting in World War II, despite the obvious evil of the Nazis, though she did think the United States should be preparing doctors and nurses and medical supplies to bind up the wounds of that war.
When asked once in the 1960s what she would do if the Russians invaded New York City, where she lived, she answered, “I would try to make them feel as welcome as possible.” Mind you, she didn’t want the Russians to invade, she was just convinced that hospitality should be the guiding value for Christians, even and especially to enemies.
Perhaps Dorothy would remind us of today’s gospel with its command to forgive extravagantly, rather than seek retribution or revenge through violence, even in the cause of justice.
A contemporary of hers, Reinhold Niebuhr, was a Lutheran professor of theology and a well-known public leader of Protestant Christianity. He was also a fierce critic of Christian pacifists. As far has he was concerned, Christians were morally bound to get their hands dirty, including using violent force in war, given the sinfulness of humanity and the troubles of the world. Christians couldn’t avoid the mess of politics or war on principle.
Reading today’s first reading, he might have pointed out that, when the cause is just, even God sometimes goes to war. As far as he was concerned, Christians had no choice about World War II. The evil of Nazism was simply so great it that required going to war.
Two great Christians of astonishing commitment, and two completely different approaches to the same problem. Each, to use Paul’s words, was “fully convinced in their own minds” of the way to live as Christians in a troubled world. And both were deeply devoted to the body of Christ as whole: Dorothy spent her life offering hospitality to the poor; she also went to Mass every day, and by all accounts was a mystic.
Niebuhr was not only a theologian, but a man of faith so deep and so everyday, that it is said that he wrote a version of the Serenity Prayer, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
The two inhabited the one body of Christ because they believed as Paul did: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.”
How do we live in a “mixed body”? How do we hold together the differences without getting on each other’s nerves, without tearing the body apart?
I’d like to imagine that, in the spirit of Dorothy and Reinhold, we might show the world around us how it is possible to live together despite our differences. Our Christian faith requires that we struggle with the brokenness of the world, that we make a commitment to bringing about its healing, even if we sometimes disagree about how.
And it also requires that we stick together as we do so, submitting ourselves to community, the body of Christ, and our minds to the mind of Christ. Indeed, perhaps by living in one body, a mixed body, we can also discern together the solutions, probably the many solutions, to what ails us, and what ails our world.
Perhaps what is most important of all is that we hang together, trusting that the Spirit of Christ will lead us, together, to the fullness of gospel truth and gospel peace, that we hope for.