“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before. It has been attributed to St. Francis. There’s a lot of good stuff in it. There is so much that is praiseworthy about it. And none of it is easily reflected in our lives. But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating. It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”
I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood. It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way. Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online. It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured. (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)
As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived. He knows that he still prefers to be understood. And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth. To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.
This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading. St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that. Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around. As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.
But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church. It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works. Some people can’t praise it enough. Its main theme is justification by faith. In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics. Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law. He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.
When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction. This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living. The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.
Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge. (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!) He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes! He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.
Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14. He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.” That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around. “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1). Why not? Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?
And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this. For example, there were arguments about food. Actually, those arguments never seem to end. I like what he says. “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2). My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.” I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.
(I should add: those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)
The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith. At least, that’s the presenting issue. There’s much more going on below the surface.
The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant. The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.
As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective. Don’t cause each other to stumble.
Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?) Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible). The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak. Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.
When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others. Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.” In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.
We are such fragile creatures. In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation? St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).
I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy. He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor. This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you! Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”
Sometimes I insert my name into it. Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!
Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier. He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first. He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood. He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3). He accepts insults; he accepts weakness. In a way, he gives us permission to be weak. He becomes weakness.
During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak. The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.
But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness. This passage is shot through with hope. Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope. They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by. They are brimming with life.
In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David). One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).
And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13). These aren’t empty words. They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint. Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.
Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Welcome one another. Practice hospitality. That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you. And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.
Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.” Really? Do they sincerely mean that? All are welcome, without any preconditions? If so, that’s great.
Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak. Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles. Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians! Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.
This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.
Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time. Five are usually cited. They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.
Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders. This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.
I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation. It’s a strange committee, I have to say. It’s like an ugly duckling. It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103). And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only. They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them. And it’s not hard to understand why. A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system. We have to check off boxes in various categories. What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.
In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done. We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak. In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for. Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough. We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit. Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.
Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant. Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, it’s not about us. It really isn’t “our” ministry. It is the Lord’s ministry through us.
It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders. It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit. The wind blows where it chooses. We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.
So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses. Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.
 “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”
[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]