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Liberty and Responsibility

Romans 14:13-23

 

Their hearts may be on their sleeves, but their tattoos are under them. Pre Covid, back in 2019 the Rugby World Cup was hosted by Japan, and the Samoan national team was playing. There are some significant differences between those two cultures, among them their views of tattoos. On the pacific island of Samoa, they’re a revered part of their culture. In Japan, they’re usually associated with Japanese organized crime syndicates, basically the Japanese mob, knows as yakuza.

 

Out of respect for their Japanese hosts, the manager of Samoa’s national rugby team required his players to wear special sleeves to cover their tattoos. This rule complied with an advisory statement by World Rugby, issued as part of the sport’s cultural awareness program. Manager Va’elua Aloi Alesana said, “We have to respect the culture of the land we are in wherever we go. We have our own culture as well, but we are not in Samoa now.

 

There are some training venues that have allowed us to show our tattoos and some places where we can’t, and for those places, we’ve been given “skins,” sleeves to wear to cover our tattoos. The extra sleeves are only for when we go to the pools though. At the training we can wear our normal clothes.”

 

In the run up to the tournament, coach Steve Jackson consulted Japanese cultural experts to ensure players respect and appreciate the local culture. As a result, team captain Jack Lam was on board. Lam said, “It’s quite normal in our culture. But we are respectful and mindful to what the Japanese way is. We will be making sure that what we are showing will be OK.”[i]

 

In a world that celebrates freedom and individual expression, maybe above all else, that kind of consideration is rare. Limiting your freedom of expression. Placing limits on yourself for the sake of another. Not imposed by someone else. But willingly, freely done. I would call that more than just consideration. I’d call it love. It’s the kind of love that St. Paul describes as being an absolutely necessary ingredient in the body of Christ. Turn with me to Romans 14:13-23.

 

With freedom comes responsibility. We use that phrase often here in the United States, where both individual and corporate freedom are a core value and component of our society. We’re usually talking about our political freedoms and the responsibility that comes with them to participate in our democratic process by voting, serving in public office if that’s our thing, obeying the law, serving on a jury, things like that. Doing our part, so to speak. But the deeper truth that with freedom comes responsibility doesn’t end there. It’s a truth that grows from the very core of the Kingdom of God. With freedom comes responsibility.

 

In America, as in most western democracies, when we talk about freedom, we’re talking about an external thing. The freedom to chart our own course. To go where we want and do what we want. To live life our way, on our own terms. Once we reach a certain age, no one can tell us what to do. People aren’t supposed to limit our right to express ourselves. We have the freedom to worship in the way we want. And we value that deeply and seek to protect it. And of course we recognize that we’re human beings with a bent toward doing the wrong thing, and so we have the rule of law to help guide us as a society, to keep things running as smoothly and safely as is possible. And when we decide we need new laws, or need to change existing laws, there are procedures in place to do that through. We don’t have kings and queens, we have elected officials chosen by the people.

 

But there’s a deeper freedom that only followers of Christ know. It is our freedom in Christ, and it surpasses any form of political freedom we as human beings can produce. In fact, in can exist just as deeply in those who live in oppressive states as it does those who live in western democracies. It is a freedom that knows no political or geographic or racial boundaries. It is our freedom in Christ. In John 8:36, Jesus says “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In Christ, we are set free from the punishment for our sinful natures. Jesus took our sin upon himself on the cross, and died our death for us, and he offers us his life in return. That’s one heckuva deal. That’s grace.

 

And when we place our faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins the long and arduous process of transforming us. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

 

Now because this is a process, and because we still live in a fallen, broken world and are still broken human beings, we have guides. Every nation in the world, western democracies included, has laws that limit, in some ways, the freedoms of its people. If you head out of our parking lot, drive down to Munson Avenue and turn left, even though you are driving a vehicle perfectly capable of hitting speeds of 80 or 90 miles per hour or higher, you are not free to do that, are you? Why? Ultimately, because it’s dangerous. That action is dangerous to yourself, and to other drivers and the pedestrians around you. And because it’s dangerous, it’s against the law.

 

In the same way, the Kingdom of God has the law of Christ, the law of love, summed up in the dual directive to love God and love neighbor. Love and worship and honor God, and do what is in the eternal best interests of those around you. So there are some things on which Scripture is absolutely and unequivocally clear. Things where it says, in the body of Christ, do this, or don’t do this. And of course it always goes back to love. God just has to spell it out to us because our sense of love is usually kinda selfish and self-centered. And as we’re transformed, over time, by the Holy Spirit, it does get easier, more natural, to live by the law of Christ, to follow Christ. And we’ll never master it fully.

 

But there are lots of areas in which the Bible is pretty silent. Areas the Bible doesn’t really speak to. Areas in which there aren’t commands or prohibitions in Scripture. And in those areas, in Christ, we have a lot of freedom. But some people don’t like freedom all that much, or they don’t function well in it. They like lots of rules. Rules for what kinds of clothes we can wear and what kinds of clothes we can’t wear. Rules for places you can and can’t go. What kinds of foods we can and can’t eat. What kinds of things we can and can’t drink. What kinds of recreation we can enjoy. So is it ok for someone to enjoy a cigar and some whiskey over a poker game or not? Is it ok for a woman to wear a bikini or not? Can someone who smokes a pack a day be a pastor? Can a follower of Christ go to a bar and have a drink? Or listen to hard rock music? As a Christian, can I come home after work and have something to drink? And now that marijuana is legal for recreational use in our state, the same questions are starting to surface there. Survey the body of Christ at large, or even just the pastors or Christ-followers in this town, and you’ll get all kinds of answers to those questions. Some traditions, some churches, go so far as to restrict the consumption of caffeine. Meaning no coffee after church.

 

Some of us have a tendency to make rules to live by. And that’s fine. The problem comes when its an area ignored by Scripture, and we insist that everyone else live by our rules. It’s fine to not drink caffeine, or alcohol, or gamble, or smoke, but do we have the right to insist that other followers of Christ do the same?

 

And Paul’s answer, in areas to which the Bible doesn’t speak, is a resounding “NO!” Look at Vv. 14 and 16. In Matthew 15:11, Jesus says, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” It isn’t anything external that makes someone or something unclean. It is what comes out of that person. In other words, its what’s already in there.

 

The Jews had lived for millenia with strict rules about what they could and could not eat – the kosher diet. It set them apart among the nations of the world. It was something they did as a way of honoring God. It helped them maintain their identity in exile. And those rules for eating were given to them by God. So imagine how radical, how revolutionary it was for Jesus to come along and say, “What you eat can’t defile you.” That really wasn’t the point. In fact, in Mark 7:19, in a parallel passage to the one we just read from Matthew, Jesus adds, “since it (food) enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And then Mark adds the parenthetical comment, (Thus he declared all foods clean.), you know, in case anyone missed it. No wonder the religious leaders often got so mad at Jesus that they tore their own clothes and pulled out their beards. It sounded like he was reversing thousands of years of obedience to God’s law.

 

What we have to understand is that the law was given, 1) so that the people stood out among the nations of the earth, serving as an example of life in God’s kingdom, and 2) as a reminder to the people themselves that no matter how well they cleaned up the externals of a person, the heart was still filthy and sinful. All Jesus does is make that explicit. And in the process, he sets aside the food laws once and for all. You see, nothing external is good or bad by itself.

 

And the Kingdom of God isn’t focused on externals. Look at Vv. 17-19. This is the central focus of this passage. What matters is the heart of a person, not what they do or don’t put into their body. Sin is an internal condition, not an external one. It might evidence itself externally, in our words and actions, but it starts inside. To be righteous is to be in right standing before God, and that’s something that we receive as a gift of grace through faith in Jesus. It isn’t something we can earn. And that right standing before God is evident in our relationships with one another. Righteousness here is behavior that is pleasing to God, and behavior that is pleasing to God, in this passage, is being in right relationships with one another. That leads to peace among believers, and that peace leads to a community filled with joy. But that’s only possible as the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts. On the inside of each one of us, transforming us from the inside out. We have to understand that our words, our actions, our behavior impacts other people.

 

And Paul looks us square in the eye and says, “Don’t you dare, in exercising your freedom, cause another follower of Christ to stumble.” Look at V. 13. And then down at Vv. 20-21. Yes, in areas where Scripture neither commands nor prohibits something, you are free. Completely free. There are no longer lists of approved and forbidden foods and drinks. But there is something deeper, more valuable, more central than freedom, and that is love. And if the exercise of your legitimate freedom in Christ causes another follower of Christ to stumble, or fall away from Christ, because their conscience isn’t where yours is, then limit your freedom, of your own accord, out of love.

 

So what does this look like, practically speaking. Because that’s what we want to know, right. First, in areas in which Scripture is silent, we don’t impose our rules on someone else. Second, in those areas, if someone we are with struggles as a follower of Christ with that thing, we don’t tempt them or try to get them to do what we know is ok to do. If they’re ok with someone else doing it, just not them, then it’s ok, say, to have a drink while they don’t. But if they struggle with it in general, we defer to them. So lets say that you know that it’s just fine to enjoy an alcoholic beverage, but you know that a fellow follower of Christ just can’t bring themselves to do it. They aren’t an alcoholic. They just don’t feel free to have a beer or a glass of wine. Then when we are with them, we limit our freedom. We have a Coke. And we don’t tease them. Or make fun of them. Or try to get them to act like we do. We simply honor their conscience. Out of love. Love willingly limits freedom when necessary, for the good of the other. Liberty ALWAYS yields to love.

 

Why? Look at V. 23. If someone isn’t able to bring themselves to that level of freedom, if they haven’t gotten there yet, then for them to engage in the exact behavior you are, without sin, engaging in, is for them sin. They are ignoring their conscience. You mean to tell me that there are some things that might be sinful for one person but not another, based on how they were raised or what they think about a certain issue? Yes. That’s exactly what Paul says here. Is the consumption of alcohol, or a friendly game of poker among friends, inherently wrong? No. But if, for whatever reason, someone believes in their heart that for them it is, then for them it is, and we are not to force them, or cajole them, or pressure them, into going against their conscience.

 

We aren’t expected to come to agreement on everything, even in the body of Christ. Even within one church. We ARE expected to hold together in Christ, even though we don’t agree about everything, even within this church. In areas in which Scripture is clear, we stand, firmly, without compromise or apology. In areas in which there is freedom, we refuse to allow little things to become big things, even when we see things differently.

 

Those who just can’t embrace the same freedoms you do aren’t less important or less significant in the body of Christ. Every part of the body of Christ is equally important, and is a person Christ died for. And we are to do absolutely nothing to hinder or harm their walk with Christ. Freedom always yields to love. Freedom is always balanced by love and self-control.

 

On August 7, 1974, the people of New York noticed something really weird going on 110 stories above the streets. As the sun rose, they saw a man casually walking between the now-fallen  twin towers of the World Trade Center, balanced on a tightrope … a taught steel cable he had stretched between the two towers the night before. The man’s name was Pilippe Petit, and at the time, he was just 25 years old. The French tightrope artist walked on the steel cable, and hopped, and danced, and ran across the 140 foot span. In total he crossed the span 8 times. At one point he dropped to one knee for the traditional salute of the tightrope walker. He was out on the cable for a full 45 minutes before stepping off the wire and into the grasp of the waiting New York police officers, who weren’t about to go out there and get him.

 

Friends who were aware of his planned stunt warned him that winds could cause the towers to sway, as all tall buildings are designed to do, and that their swaying could snap his wire. Or toss him from the wire. But he insisted on doing the stunt without a safety harness. He told them he didn’t want anything to restrict his feeling of complete freedom or diminish what he called “the rapture of the heights.” The only thing he used up there was a 55 pound balancing pole. To Philippe Petit, the feeling of freedom was worth every risk.[ii] The only thing he needed to do was stay balanced. Love and self-control are the balances to our legitimate, authentic freedom in Christ.

 

 

 

 

[i] Hardik Vyas, “Rugby: Tattooed Samoans don skin suits to avoid offending Japanese hosts” Reuters (9-17-19)

[ii] Charles R. Swindoll, “Insights on Romans,” pg. 294.