Outsiders (Mark 7:24-37)

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One of the games we play on our youth ministry nights is to place some hula-hoops on the floor and play some music. When the music stops, the young people need to stand in one of the hoops. If a person can’t fit in a hoop, or if people fall out of the hoops, then they’re out of the game.

This game illustrates what we often do in our relationships with others. We can set up lines or boundaries that determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ like the hula hoop in the game. Those lines can be a lot of different things, such the way people look, how they dress, what they own, where they live, or even what football team they support. As I was growing up in the church, I saw some hard and fast lines being drawn based on the denomination of the church people attended, their theological perspective or the way they interpreted the Bible. I’ve even known people who have felt excluded from churches because their surname didn’t fit in with the church’s cultural origins.

People in Jesus’ day did exactly the same thing. In the time the New Testament was written, there were very hard and fast rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ based on their race and their observance of their religious laws. If people were descended from Abraham with a family history that proved that connection, and if they kept the rules and religious traditions, then they were considered to be in God’s chosen people. If not, then they were seen to be outside of God’s love and blessing.

The stories from Mark 7:24-37 are great examples of how Jesus crossed the lines the religious leaders of his time constructed to extend God’s grace and love to people who were considered ‘outsiders’. The first is a woman from the area of Syrian Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The second was a man from another non-Jewish area who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Both of these were considered outsiders for a whole range of reasons, but Jesus crossed the lines people had put up to give them freedom, healing and wholeness, and to include them in the Kingdom of God.

To what extent do we also construct lines or boundaries that distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? Our culture talks about valuing tolerance and inclusivity, but I still hear a lot of talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both the church and wider society. We can set up barriers that separate us from others based on our age, gender, cultural background or opinions about almost any topic. We still tend to construct lines that divide the insiders from the outsiders around issues in the church such as worship, ordination or even moral standards. We might be critical of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and we might like to think that we are inclusive and tolerant, but to one degree or another don’t we all set up boundaries between the insiders and outsiders?

Jesus deliberately crossed geographical, religious, socioeconomic and even moral boundaries in order to bring the life-giving and liberating grace and love of God to those who needed it the most. He met outsiders on their territory so they could find a sense of value and self-worth through their connection with him. When Jesus was crucified, he identified with everyone who has ever felt like or been judged as an outsider. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and left there to die, he became the ultimate outsider as he suffered a form of death reserved for the worst of the worst of Roman society. Jesus didn’t only meet outsiders during his ministry. Jesus became an outsider in order to bring all the outsiders of the world into a new relationship with God and make them insiders in the Kingdom of God.

This is so important for us because, according to the religious view of Jesus’ day, we are outsiders. I don’t know of anyone in our church who is Jewish by birth. None of us keep the religious law that the people of Jesus’ day were expected to keep. We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments the way we should. We like to think that we are good people, but when we construct lines that divide ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ in any way, we fail to love each other the way Jesus teaches us to. We were all outside of a relationship with God until Jesus met us as the ultimate outsider, gathered us into himself and carried us as members of his body into a new relationship with God as our loving heavenly Father, a new identity as God’s children, and a new place to belong in the Kingdom of God, (see Ephesians 2:11-18).

As people who have been on the out but have now been brought in to a new life through Jesus, we are his loving and grace-giving presence among those whom the world considers outsiders. Jesus calls us to break through the barriers that are constructed to separate the insiders from the outsiders, no matter what those barriers may be.

This week, think about the ways in which you might consider people to be either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. Is it age, gender, cultural background or morality? Do our views on worship, ordination, interpretation of the Bible or faith generally divide us? If so, then break through whatever barriers might come between those who are considered ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Worship at a different time or place next week. Talk to someone who is one or two generations younger or older than yourself. Make contact with someone who you might not have seen for a while because of their moral or lifestyle choices and ask how they’re doing. In one way or another, recognize the boundaries that we, our church or our society have constructed, and spend some time with a person who exists on the other side of those boundaries.

Because when we break through the boundaries and sit with the outsiders, we just might find Jesus is already there.

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Living with Differences (Romans 14:1-12)

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Things weren’t going great for the congregation of Christian believers in Rome. They were a diverse mix of people from different backgrounds across the spectrum of Roman society, from the very rich and influential to poor slaves. They all came with different points of view and different ways of understanding the world around them. By the power of his Holy Spirit, God had brought these vastly different people into the diverse, complicated, messy and beautiful thing that is Christian community through faith in Jesus.

In chapter 14, the Apostle Paul writes about two issues the early Roman church was facing. One was whether Christians could eat meat or whether they should be vegetarian. The second was whether certain days should be observed as holy days or not. Biblical scholars don’t know the exact circumstances of the disputes. They might have been between some people who wanted to keep Old Testament Jewish rules, or others who were living in the freedom the gospel brings, or others still who were either observing local customs or reacting against a self-indulgent Roman lifestyle.

The result of these disputes, however, was that some members of the Christian congregation thought they were better that others and looked down on them. Others were judging people in the congregation who were not doing what they thought was right. There was conflict and division in the community of believers because of these ‘disputable matters.’

One good thing about not knowing the exact circumstances of the disputes in Rome is that we can apply Paul’s words to our time and place. Two thousand years down the track and things in the Christian church don’t seem to have changed very much. We might not get too upset about dietary rules or holy days, but we still have our disputes. Some of the ‘disputable matters’ being discussed in our church at the present time include styles of worship, the ordination of women, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, or the upcoming postal vote on same sex marriage, for example. People on both sides of each issue might not like referring to these as ‘disputable matters’ because our minds might already be made up about what is right or wrong in each case. But just the fact that we have different ways of thinking about what is right and wrong in each matter and we are grappling with them as a church means that these are matters under dispute. So even what can be thought of as a ‘disputable matter’ can itself be a ‘disputable matter.’

Paul’s point in Romans 14, however, is that following in the way of Jesus means accepting others who see things differently. This is a radically different position from what our culture teaches us, and even from what comes to us naturally, where we stand our ground, argue our point, and try to prove that we are right and others are wrong. Instead, Paul teaches us that living as Jesus’ disciples means not trying to get our own way or making others agree with our point of view. Instead, following Jesus means accepting each other along with the different opinions we might have. This acceptance means much more than just tolerating, or putting up with others. To accept others as Paul uses the word means receiving others with open arms, welcoming and embracing others, no matter how differently we might see things.

Paul explains further what this acceptance looks like when he writes that we are to ‘aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up’ (v19 NLT). Imagine what this could look like: people of diverse backgrounds with a wide range of opinions on different matters living together in perfect harmony with each other for the benefit of the other. The love we show each other composes a beautiful melody of praise to God as we dedicate ourselves to helping each other grow up together into maturity of faith and love. This becomes part of the picture of Christian community into which God wants to be transforming us by the power of his Spirit through the gospel, as we heard a few weeks ago from Romans 12.

All of this is on the basis of the way God accepts each of us for Jesus’ sake. Paul writes in verse 3 that we can’t look down on others or condemn them because God has already accepted them. Again in Romans 15:7, Paul explicitly states, ‘accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given the glory’ (NLT). God has welcomed the people around us with open arms and embraced all of us as members of his family, not because we keep all the right rules or even hold the right theological opinions, but because Jesus has given his life for each of us on the cross and has made us right with the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. This has been Paul’s argument all the way through the letter to the Romans and really is the main message of the Bible. A clear example is chapter 3 verse 22 where Paul writes:

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. (NLT)

Because we are made right with God through faith in Jesus, a key part of living this faith out in our relationships and in community with each other is accepting, welcoming and embracing each other, no matter what our different points of view might be in matters that are in dispute. When we extend this grace to each other and show this love for each other, then Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:35). It is easy to love the people we like, who think the same way we do and who agree with our points of view. That’s why, for hundreds of years, and especially in our church culture today, it is too easy for individuals or groups to disconnect from church community to do their own thing. This is not the love that Jesus taught. The love of Christ, the love that Paul talks about in Romans 14 and throughout his letters, is a love that accepts people who have different points of view to us, a love that gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other no matter what our differences might be, and a love that works to build each other up in trusting God’s grace and in loving each other.

So how will we treat people who have different opinions to us? Will we look down on them because they don’t do things the way we do, or the way we think they should be done? Will we judge and condemn them because we think that what they are doing is wrong? Or will we accept each other, in the same way that God has accepted us for Jesus’ sake? In the Holy Spirit’s dynamic power, will we welcome and embrace each other in Christ-like love, living in harmony with each other, building each other up in trusting God and in serving each other?

How will we treat the people who think differently to us in the ‘disputable matters’ we face?

More to think about:

  • What do you usually do when you meet someone who has different opinions to yourself – do you try to persuade them to see things your way or do you accept their point of view? Can you give an example of when you did that?
  • What are some of the ‘disputable matters’ you have come across or are encountering in the church?
  • In your experience, have people been accepting of others with different opinions? Or do they argue the point to try to get people to agree with them? Why do you think that has happened?
  • If you are facing disagreements in the church, what might happen if you aimed for harmony in the church and tried to build others up (Romans 14:19)? What are some practical steps you could take towards that goal?
  • How important is it for you to feel accepted in your church community? How might you be able to give someone else that same sense of being accepted?