Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

November 1, 1998

Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 14:1-12

The story is told about Bob Knight dying and, if you can believe it, going to heaven. When he gets to the gates of heaven, St. Peter is waiting. "Welcome, Bob," says St. Peter. "It's good to see you. Come on in. We've been expecting you."

Bob is of course heartened by this warm greeting, and strides on in. St. Peter says to him, "Come on, let's go for a walk, I want to take you to your new home."

They start walking and pretty soon they come upon some simple huts. Bob begins to wonder. St. Peter says, "Not to worry. We have a very special place waiting for you." So they walk on together, and Bob notices that the farther they go, the more neighborhoods they pass through, the nicer the dwellings appear. Before long, they enter what looks like a very exclusive neighborhood. Finally, down the end of a street filled with gorgeous homes, they come upon this very large brick edifice with an I.U. flag flying out front, three car garage, swimming pool outside, immaculate landscaping. St. Peter says, "This is your new home, Bob. You ran a clean program, raised lots of money for the library, became a coaches' coach, and brought entertainment and joy to a lot of people. You deserve a place like this."

Bob rocks back on his heels, all smiles, until he looks up and sees this huge mansion up on the hill, with a five car garage, a helicopter pad out back as well as a much bigger swimming pool, several fireplaces, an enormous deck, several fountains all around, and this huge Purdue flag flying out front. "What?" says Bob in a state of shock. "How come Gene Keady gets a house like that?!"

"Oh," says St. Peter with a devilish grin. "That's not Keady's house. That's where God hangs out."

If the truth were known, I doubt that God cares much one way or the other, Keady or Knight, Purdue or I.U. And if God does have an opinion about such matters, we hardly know what it is. In Paul's letter to the Romans, he starts out by making a similar point to the Christian community at Rome. Apparently they are at odds about some things that he wants them to get over. They have been passing judgment on one another regarding certain matters that hardly matter, at least so far as we can know. The first thing he mentions is the disagreement over what to eat. "Some believe in eating anything," he says, while others "eat only vegetables." This is not about vegetarianism as we know it today. Those who eat only vegetables are probably avoiding meat because of their scruples about what may have happened to that meat. They want to avoid any meat that may have been slaughtered and sacrificed in pagan ceremonies. Paul says that neither those who eat nor those who abstain should despise or pass judgment upon the others.

The same thing goes for those who do and those who do not observe special days. Here Paul may have in mind the holy days of Jewish tradition, or perhaps some particular form of sabbath observance. In any event, Paul refuses to give God's blessing to one more than the other. Paul doesn't seem to think that it matters to God one way or another, and if it does, we don't know.

Now, there are two things that need to be said about Paul's argument in this chapter. The first is that he is not saying there are no important disagreements in the life of the church. Whether to eat meat or not, whether to observe special days or not, doesn't seem to matter. But there are things that do matter, of course. A few verses later he says, "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." And by reading the rest of Romans, and others of Paul's letters, we can get a pretty clear picture of what he thinks it takes to get to righteousness and peace and joy. What he is saying here, first of all, is that they should not be passing judgment upon one another regarding matters that are not crucial to their life together.

But there is something else he is also saying, and the examples about eating and observing special days give him the occasion to express what goes to the heart of the matter. He says, "Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God." In other words, the important thing is not to eat or avoid eating meat, not to observe or fail to observe special days. The important thing is to do whatever you do "in honor of the Lord."

Whenever we ordain and install new elders to serve on the session in this church, there is a statement I make that comes out of the Presbyterian Book of Order. After declaring those ordained and installed to be elders in the Church of Jesus Christ and for this congregation, I give this charge: "Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God our Maker through him." The thrust of this statement, I hope, is obvious. It does not mean that elders can do whatever they want, so long as they do it in Jesus' name. It does not mean that God is indifferent to how we all conduct our life together, so long as we are sincere in our convictions. It means that the ultimate test of what we do is whether it can be faithfully understood as action in the service of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. The bottom line for any action, so to speak, is whether it is fit to claim the name of Jesus Christ. There are different ways of honoring God. We do not all have to honor God in the same ways. But whatever we do should be related first and foremost to our intention and desire to be engaged in divine service.

So, right in the middle of this passage in Romans that has to do with not judging one another regarding matters that do not in themselves matter, Paul says these striking words: "We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." We might wonder whether these words apply to everyone, or just those inside the Christian community. We might ask if there is some ultimate sense in which everyone lies and dies to the Lord? In any case, Paul clearly asserts this to be so for the community of those who are Christians. Our lives are ultimately not our own. Whatever we do is "to the Lord."

The notes in my study Bible say this means "for the sake of the Lord." Surely, we ought to try to live our lives "for the sake of the Lord," but Paul may be saying more than that. At the end of our text he says, "each of us will be accountable to God." Remember Jesus' story of the last judgment, where the king says, "just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me" [Matt. 25:40]? Paul may be saying that everything we do is ultimately related to God. Inescapably, our living and our dying are "before God." Nothing escapes God's attention. The basic reality of our existence is that everything about us receives its final disposition at the hands of God.

The three verses of our text that speak of living and dying to the Lord are verses I frequently read at funerals and memorial services. A very superficial reading of these verses might conclude that however we live is OK by God. Whatever we do, if we think we do it in the service of Jesus Christ, puts us in the company of God. God takes it all in. A more serious and sober reading of these verses might conclude that nothing escapes the judgment of God in Jesus Christ. Whether we live or whether we die, sooner or later, the final accounting will have to be made.

I do believe, in fact, in some final divine judgment or accounting of our lives. But in this accounting I do not see God looking for reasons that might exclude us from the joys of heaven. Rather, I see God searching us to find whatever good or excellence or truth there is in us to be forever cherished, and letting the rest go. It probably isn't going to matter whether we rooted for I.U. or Purdue, anymore than it mattered whether the Romans ate meat or not, or observed special days or not. What is going to matter is whether we lived our lives in ways that honored God. What is going to matter is whether our lives were in some way open and transparent to the purposes of God in us. What is going to matter is whether we recognized our lives to be a gift, not a possession, and therefore not something to be lived "to ourselves" or "for the sake of ourselves" but rather as that which we can only render back to God.

One of the documents in our Book of Confession is the Heidelberg Catechism. It dates from the period of the Reformation, and it begins with the question, "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?" The answer given to this question is one that many have found worthy to be treasured: "That I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."

"In life and in death"--"whether we live or whether we die"--"we belong to Jesus Christ"--"we are the Lord's." This is surely one of the simplest, deepest, and most important things the Christian faith has to proclaim. A profoundly moral teaching embedded in this affirmation: Our task is not to lay claim to God, but to let God lay claim to us. We cannot rightly claim the name of Jesus Christ in order to elevate and legitimate our own preferences and desires. We cannot rightly claim this name in order to pass judgment upon others. We can rightly claim this name only in order to submit and conform our lives to the demands of righteousness and peace and joy. Again: Our task is not to lay claim to God, but to let God lay claim to us.

"In life and in death"--"whether we live or whether we die." A profoundly saving grace in also expressed in these words.. A few chapters earlier in Romans is another passage that I often read at funerals and memorials. It concludes with Paul's affirmation, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." This is the word of saving grace: Come what may, in all circumstances, under all conditions, regardless of time or place, and surely also whether we know it or not, whether we can feel it or not, whether there are any signs of it or not, God's love is steadfast toward us. There is no power that can turn God against us. There is no power that can bring God's wrath upon us. There is no power that can alienate God from us. In Jesus Christ has been revealed to us God's searching judgment, yes. But in that searching judgment we have also come to know God's everlasting love. There is no power that can alter the reality of that love. For in life and in death we belong to God. AMEN.