Last week we noted how the Apostle Paul shifted in his letter to the Church in Rome from theological discourse to an exhortation about the life of the Church by talking about spiritual gifts. This week we see that he has continued this discussion, teaching us how we should support each other. Within the Church in Rome, there was some discord surrounding the idea of our freedom in Christ. Some, thinking that in Christ, there was no longer any need to be concerned about whether or not meat had been sacrificed to idols (and so dedicated to a false god) did not concern themselves with making any distinction. Others who were more sensitive to the warfare of the spiritual world around them, sought to keep themselves pure by avoiding not only the spiritual and moral impurities, but also avoided such impurity in their daily lives, including in this case, the food they ate, avoiding food which was sacrificed to idols. Each group looked down upon the other as “weak” in their faith – one for not recognizing the overwhelming victory of Christ against the other “gods” and the other for not recognizing the all-encompassing nature of our spiritual warfare. The Apostle, refusing to take sides points out that in Christ nothing is sinful and unclean in and of itself – whether we “eat meat” or abstain are both acceptable – however it is sinful when we do either in such a way that we offend or judge our brethren. This then is an essential point of our Christian life – the things of this world: food, drink, clothing, etc. are not in and of themselves impure or unclean, however we can use any of these things in either a sinful or God-pleasing manner. It is how we act that is important, not the elements of the things of this world. Our salvation is about maintaining and developing the likeness of Christ within the heart, not what rules we do or do not keep.
There is a well-known story about a monk who was a “failure” in keeping the rules. He could not seem to abstain from food on fast days and so constantly broke the fast, and on other days he ate and drank too much. He was not good at getting to the services as he should and so was often absent. In short he sounds like many of us. But as he approached his death he was not at all anxious for his salvation. He was in fact quite calm and when some of the brothers approached him and asked about this, he explained that although he had been too weak to keep the fasts and to attend the services daily, he repented for his own sins and wept over his weaknesses knowing that he was indeed the greatest of sinners. And he remembered the words of the Gospel that we shall all be judged as we ourselves judge others. Therefore he never condemned any other man, and quickly forgave unconditionally all that offended him in any way. Placing his hope in the mercy of God, he lived his own life giving mercy to every other man, trusting that as he forgave others, so he would also be forgiven and as he showed mercy to others so God would show mercy to him. Here we begin to understand that it is not the outward keeping of rules that saves us, but the condition of the heart. If, like this weak monk, we confess our own weakness, repent of our sins, and forgive others without limit, then we develop a heart that is meek and humble and so can hope to receive from God great mercy.
The Apostle brings these words to a conclusion with the reading that we heard today: “Those who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, the reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me.” He does not indicate who is weak and who is strong for that would not be profitable. In fact, as we know from our own experiences, at times we are all weak and we are all strong, depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. Let us then disregard who is weak and who is strong and strive instead to follow the injunction of the apostle to bear the infirmities of those who are weak and strive to please our neighbor rather than ourselves.
Remembering this instruction now, to bear the burdens of those around you who are weak, look around at your neighbors. You will see some who appear to be much stronger than you, and you will see some who appear to be weak. There are those who seem to have no difficulty keeping the fasts, attending the services, reading spiritual works and discussing theology and Christian life. There are others who miss services, struggle with the fasts and who are more conversant in politics and pop culture. Then remember that all you observe is simply external – you do not see into the heart, you do not know the internal struggles, the hidden virtues or weaknesses of any other man. Every Christian is strong in some things and weak in others. Look again at those around you and see not who is strong and weak – but see how you can bear the infirmities of every other person that you see. How can you fulfill the injunction of the Apostle to “bear the infirmities of the weak”? What can you do for your neighbor to encourage them in their spiritual life?
Having looked at others, now turn your gaze on your own soul. See your own weaknesses and infirmities. See how far you remain from the likeness of Christ. What do you need, how can your neighbor help you? See yourself now as weak and your neighbor as strong and reach out to him asking for help. Ask him to pray with you, ask him for words of encouragement and wisdom from his own struggle. Ask him to help you. In this, you begin to admit, like the “bad monk” of the story that you are weak and unable even to begin to follow Christ. This is the beginning of humility; this is the beginning of meekness.
Our salvation is not bound up in the keeping of the rules, rather it is the condition of the soul that is important. The rules help us to bring us from spiritual death to spiritual health, they help us to conform ourselves into the likeness of Christ. But the rules are not the determining factor of our salvation – that is the likeness of Christ in us. The Pharisees followed the rules with great care, hoping that in doing so they would find favor in God’s sight. But the Pharisees were full of pride at how “righteous” they were and so keeping the rules did them no good – it only served to set up barriers between themselves and God. So let us work, with the help of the rules, to become like Christ – to be filled with humility, mercy, forgiveness, meekness and all the other virtues which emanate from His divine Love. Let us remember that we are not saved alone, but along with all our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ and so it is necessary to reach out and lift one another up, bearing the burdens of one another, helping one another in the faith so that together we might enter into the Kingdom of God. When one stumbles, let those around him lift him up; when one is strong, let him carry those that are weak; when we are weak, let us with humility reach out and take the hand of our strong neighbor so that we are not lost. Let us all work to stand together before God along with all the saints so that as one we might hear the words of our Lord, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of your Lord.”