In all things love

Mrs. Billy Graham she would have been properly addressed back in 1970s when Ruth Graham attended a ladies’ luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. She dressed up for the event as you would expect an American woman in the 1970s to dress. A nice suit, modest, but not Amish; something with a little color and a brooch on the lapel. Her simple shoes had short heels, and her hair  well, her hair was big. The pale pink lipstick she had chosen went well with her blue eyeshadow – she had stopped by the ladies’ room to make sure everything was just so, and she was pleased as she quickly glanced at herself in the mirror. She looked like a lady!

The German pastors’ wives didn’t believe women should wear makeup at all, or anything that made them look too worldly. One of them, sitting across from Mrs.  Graham, was so upset by the shameful attire of the famous evangelist’s wife, she started crying with tears rolling down her cheeks right into her beer.

Ruth Graham had no idea what upset the woman so. “What pastor’s wife,” was all she could think, “What self-respecting pastor’s wife drinks beer, at lunch, and when we’re here to plan a big-stadium event with Billy to bring people to Jesus?”

I don’t know if it’s a true story, but it’s a good one.[1]

The apostle Paul wrote to God’s beloved in Rome to introduce himself. He hadn’t founded the church there, but he was planning to visit soon, and he was hoping for  their support. He was on a mission to Jews and Gentiles, telling them the good news of Jesus Christ and calling them to faith, and he had plans to travel as far as Spain to proclaim his gospel. Would the Christians in Rome support his work? There were rumors that he preached lawlessness, that his gospel of grace undermined moral behavior. And those rumors weren’t just fake news cooked up by some kid in Macedonia. There was evidence to give some substance to the charge. In Corinth and Philippi in particular, some understood salvation by grace to mean that all things were lawful.[2]  Certain libertines appeared to anticipate Herod’s caricature of grace by W. H. Auden: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”[3] And there was the challenge of men and women from all kinds of religious, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds coming together to share the Lord’s supper Ruth Graham’s luncheon with the pastors’ wives was a walk in the park in comparison. So Paul wrote about an issue that had been particularly disruptive in Corinth and Antioch:[4] what to eat and who to eat with when Jesus is Lord.

“Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” They weren’t fussing over the health benefits of a vegetarian diet or the ecological impact of meat production. In the first-century Mediterranean world most animals were routinely offered to one god or another when they were killed. There were no stockyards or meat packing plants to supply the cities, there were temples. For some Christians, eating meat that was part of a pagan sacrifice was no problem; they knew there was only one God, creator of heaven and earth, and so they ate their meat with thanksgiving to God the giver. For others, this was unthinkable. For them, it amounted to participating in the worship of other gods, and so they reckoned it was best to steer clear of meat altogether.

Paul didn’t take sides in that debate, where some believers condemned others for watering down their commitment to Jesus by not separating themselves more rigorously from the pagan world and other believers looked down with contempt on their less enlightened brothers and sisters who didn’t grasp the true meaning of Christian freedom. Nor did he suggest that meat-eaters and vegetarians organize themselves into separate congregations so they would be able to worship with like-minded believers.

Eating or not eating isn’t the point at all, according to Paul. The one thing that really matters is that you don’t judge each other, but together submit to the lordship of Christ; that you look at each other as persons for whom Christ died; that you welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. “Owe no one anything,” he wrote, “except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[5] Don’t rise in judgment over each other, but submit to each other in the spirit of Christ. Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.[6]

We all agree that in essentials, there must be unity, and in non-essentials, liberty. We just can’t seem to agree on what those are. One believer’s non-essentials are another’s essentials. Meat, makeup, beer, dancing the list goes on and on. Paul knows that dilemma and reminds us that our unity lies in Christ, not in any pious practices. And because of Christ and his love for us, the final portion of the famous saying is the one we must focus on: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.[7]

The revolution of the cross is not about turning non-eaters into eaters or vice versa. The revolution of the cross is about our welcoming Christ in each other.

I’m closing with a story Scott Peck told, back in the 1980s , called The Rabbi’s Gift.[8]

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order … there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. …

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. … As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.

The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving it was something cryptic was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.

Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.

But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

[1] Based on Mark Reasoner’s version at

[2] 1 Cor 10:23

[3] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1958) 116. See Calvin J. Roetzel, “Sacrifice in Romans 12-15,” Word & World 6, no. 4 (September 1986), 413-414.

[4] See 1 Cor 8:13; 10:25 and Gal 2:11-14.

[5] Rom 13:8

[6] Rom 12:1

[7] For the history of this lovely statement see; it may not have been penned first by Rupertus Meldenius (aka Peter Meiderlin) in 1627, but by Marco Antonio De Dominis in 1617 (“In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas”).

[8] As told by M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community making and peace (New York: Simon&Schuster, 1987), Prologue. For this sermon, I shortened it minimally.

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