Do you like to be right? Of course you do. Who doesn’t? I don’t think there’s a person on this planet who, at least once in a while, doesn’t like to be the one with the right answer to a question or the solution to a problem. It makes us feel important. It makes us feel useful. It makes us feel like our lives have a purpose, like maybe we can make a positive difference in this world. It’s a good feeling.
But have you ever noticed that there are times when being right can go oh-so-wrong? Being right might feel good but, like anything that causes good feelings, it can also be addictive. Have you ever met someone who is chronically addicted to being right? Have you ever been in an argument with someone who was right, who had a valid argument, but you didn’t want to concede the point because he or she was just being so mean about the whole thing? I won’t ask for names, although I’m sure we all could list at least a few. And if we’re really, really honest, I think we can all admit that there have been times (moments, in the very least) when each and every one of us has “chased that feeling” of being right a little too hard and run the risk of sacrificing something or someone that, in the long run, is far, far more important than our need to look good and be right.
Now, I should mention here that there are indeed times in life when conscience calls upon us to make certain sacrifices for the sake of what’s right in the face of great injustice. Where would we be without those men and women who pledged “[their] lives, [their] fortunes, and [their] sacred honor” to the causes of justice and the common good? It’s important to acknowledge that call. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about that unhealthy, selfish, and compulsive need to be right (or at least appear to be right) at all times that only serves the cause of one’s own ego. This is what I’m talking about. This is the kind of addiction, like any addiction, that can cost people jobs, relationships, family, trust, goodwill, and (perhaps most ironic of all) credibility.
It may require a great deal of self-awareness to be able to do this, but I think we need to ask ourselves in those moments of heated debate, “Am I standing up for what’s right or for my need to be right?” We need to ask ourselves this question because there is so much more to winning an argument than just being right. How we argue and why we’re doing it is just as important as what we’re arguing about.
I’d like to turn your attention toward our Epistle lesson this morning, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul was writing to these Roman Christians to give them some pastoral advice about an issue that was very near and dear to his heart. There was a conflict going on in that church and one party in that conflict was clearly in the right, as far as Paul was concerned. The issue at hand was the inclusion of Gentiles (i.e. non-Jewish people) in the life and ministry of the Christian church.
This issue was the single greatest hot-button issue for first century Christians, just as the abolition of slavery, racial integration, the ordination of women, and marriage equality would also become hot-button issues for future generations. There were those in the church who argued, citing the Bible and theological tradition as precedent, that Christianity itself was Jewish and therefore church membership should be limited to Jews alone. “Jesus was Jewish,” they said, “all of his apostles were Jewish, therefore anyone seeking to follow Jesus should also agree to follow the commandments of the Jewish Torah (e.g. be circumcised, follow certain dietary restrictions, and celebrate certain rituals and holidays).”
Paul, on the other hand, was of a different opinion. He believed that the Christian church was meant to be an international, multi-cultural community made up of people from “every tribe, language, people, and nation.” He believed that the whole human race was meant to live as one family where the walls of division, distinction, and discrimination would be torn down and there would be “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”
This was Paul’s opinion and, as history would have it, he was right. Most scholars agree that it was this cosmopolitan character of the early church that allowed it to survive, spread so far and wide in the Roman Empire, and ultimately become one of the most important religious movements in the history of the human race. So yes, Paul was right and he argued for his position in churches across southern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Most of the time, he had to speak up for the full-inclusion of Gentiles, disparaging any notion of second-class citizenship for non-Jews in the church, but not in Rome. In Rome, he had the opposite problem.
You see, the Roman church agreed with Paul. They took his multi-cultural message of inclusion to heart. Jews and Gentiles worshiped together in the Roman church until the year 49 CE, when the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome. When they were allowed to return five years later, the Jewish Christians discovered that certain prejudicial, anti-Semitic attitudes had begun to spring up among their Gentile brothers and sisters.
In those years of Jewish absence, the Gentile Roman Christians got to thinking that maybe this was a sign that the Jews had been rejected as the chosen people, only to be replaced by Gentiles. “After all,” they thought, “It was the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem that conspired to have Jesus the Messiah wrongly executed; it was Jewish synagogues that instigated so much rivalry, tension, and conflict in those cities where synagogues and churches co-existed; and it was Jewish Christians who were opposing Paul’s teaching and trying to force their culture on Gentile Christians.” Maybe their number was up and their day was done? Who needs those weird old traditions and stories anyway? The Romans no doubt saw themselves as very enlightened and progressive for taking this stance.
This is where Paul comes in. He wasn’t used to dealing with this kind of problem. It was usually the Jewish people who were excluding the non-Jewish people, but in this case it was the other way around. These Roman Christians were basically right in their theology; they agreed with Paul, but they took it too far by excluding their Jewish brothers and sisters instead. Paul’s dream was for a church where everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, would be welcome as part of the family. This kind of reverse-discrimination simply wouldn’t do.
So Paul tries to put the brakes on the situation. He reminds the Romans that it’s not their place to judge others, just as Jewish Christians had no right to force their culture on Gentiles. Moreover, Paul contended that the conflict between Jews and Christians was not a sign that Jews had been rejected as chosen people. Paul highlighted the debt that Christianity owed to Judaism for its very existence. He urged the Romans not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, especially when it came to the Jewish scriptures. “Whatever was written in former days,” he said, “was written for our instruction.” In other words, he’s saying that the writings of the Torah aren’t just a bunch of kooky old superstitions that don’t apply to people today. Those writings are a chronicle of Israel’s ongoing spiritual development and the Christian church, according to Paul, stands in continuity with that movement. In fact, Paul goes on to quote a verse of the Torah for them from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with God’s people.” Paul is saying that there is place for them in this tradition and there is a place for this tradition in them. He’s not backpedaling on his stance of inclusion, but he’s sticking to his conviction that the church should be “a house of prayer for all nations,” Jews as well as Gentiles.
Paul goes on to tell them, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” And again, in this gloriously climactic verse that sums up his whole argument so beautifully, he says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I love how, in those two verses, Paul connects the bridging of gap between Jews and Gentiles with the life and ministry of Jesus. By crossing the divide between you, Paul says, you are living in a way that is consistent with what we believe about Jesus.
As you know, we are now in the season of Advent, when we prepare to celebrate what Christians have called the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. What this means to Christians is that, in the birth of Jesus, a gulf was crossed, a gap was bridged between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. And if Christ has crossed so great a divide to be near us, then who are we to refuse to cross those comparatively little divides that run between us and our fellow human beings? That’s why Paul tells the Romans, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”
The Roman Christians were in the wrong, even though they were on the right side of the issue. Christianity isn’t about being right, it’s about being in right relationship with God, with your neighbors, with yourself, and with the earth. It’s those relationships that matter most.
So, in this coming Christmas season, I want to invite you to work on those relationships. As you gather together with friends, neighbors, and family whose opinions about politics or religion might irk you for one reason or another; as you sit down to dinner next to someone with whom you have been feuding for years; as you listen to those political pundits and op-ed columnists who make you want to throw the newspaper in the trash or chuck your remote at the TV screen, remember that it’s not about being right; it’s about being in right relationship with one another. That’s the only thing that really matters and it’s the only present that Jesus wants from us this Christmas.