Updated: Oct 11
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Sep. 17, 2023 • Year A, Proper 19 • Romans 14:1–12
I am an advocate of the low-carb diet. Meaning, I am sold on the science that says that beyond a minimal amount, dietary carbohydrate is not helpful to human beings. In some sense, this means that I’m the opposite of a vegetarian. When I read the epistle lesson this week, I felt vindicated. In verse 3, Paul says, “The weak eat only vegetables.” See? It’s right there in the Bible!
In all seriousness, this whole discussion of being a vegetarian vs. a meat eater seems to us like small potatoes (pun intended). But to the apostle Paul, it was a big deal. It was such a big deal that James and Peter had an ugly, public fight about it as recorded in Acts chapter 15. For reasons that are less than clear, some of the Christians in Rome refused to eat meat, and others carved away quite happily. Many in Rome saw confusion over this issue—the meat vs. the veggies—as a basis for division.
There are plenty of controversies in today’s church that have led to division. Whether it’s the ordination of women, or homosexuality, or the authority of Scripture, or the nature of what exactly happens at the Eucharist, or how many candles should be on the altar, or the musical style used at a particular service—whatever your side in any of these matters, if you see any controversy dividing the Church today as a basis for division, St. Paul is speaking to you.
We Anglo-Catholics have liturgical and theological positions that we hold dear that a lot of folks in the Episcopal Church don’t understand or are even openly hostile to. For example, on the last Sunday of the month, at the end of the High Mass, we sing the Angelus in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Another example is all of the chanting and genuflecting we do. And that we add a few phrases into the liturgy that aren’t in the prayer book. No matter how ancient and legitimate these practices may be, there’s no doubt that we Anglo Catholics are sometimes guilty of an elitism that results in us “passing judgment” on those who don’t follow the liturgical rules we hold so dear.
It's easy to think that strong Christians are those who are good at following the rules. But for Paul, the “strong” Christians are those who are outwardly less obviously fussy, and the “weak” Christians follow a longer list of rules. Better said, for Paul, the strong believer is the one who trusts in God’s grace, while the weak believer trusts in following the rules. If you trust in God’s grace, you are free to buy a pork roast, cook it, and eat it enthusiastically. What you are not free to do is lord it over your brothers and sisters in Christ whose practices are quite different from your own. What Paul doesn’t want is any friction or division between the weak and the strong. He tells the strong to “welcome those who are weak in faith…for God has welcomed them.”
Both the weak and the strong owe their allegiance to one Lord, and it is from that Lord and that Lord alone that the weak and the strong alike receive welcome. That welcome is especially seen in the most inclusive of all of the sacraments: Holy Baptism. It is through the waters of baptism that both the weak and the strong enter the household of God. This entry point into God’s household is not constrained by today’s denominational boundaries but is simply the new birth of water and the spirit in the name of the triune God. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the great leveler of human equality. In the waters of baptism, the rich man is born again, just as the poor man. The future fussy Anglo-Catholic’s sins are washed away, just as the future low churchman’s sins. He who has sinned greatly throughout an entire lifetime is welcomed into the family, just as the baby who doesn’t yet know right from wrong. In baptism, both the weak and the strong are welcomed unconditionally.
This is why, in The Episcopal Church, the only pre-requisite for receiving Holy Communion is baptism. It doesn’t matter what church you were baptized in. As long as it was done with water and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you are invited to receive communion. When we are welcomed into the household of God at baptism, we are welcomed to the fullness of family life which includes regularly receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. This isn’t to say that someone might not make a personal decision not to receive Communion because he or she is caught up in a perpetual situation of sin and chooses not to “eat or drink of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” as St. Paul says in 1st Corinthians 11. Individual Christians may make such personal decisions as they feel led to do. But it is simply baptism that is required. All those who are baptized – the rich and the poor, the American and the Middle Easterner, the young and the old, the vegetarian and the low-carb enthusiast, the strong and the weak.
There is nowhere that this truth is more apparent than at the altar rail. This truth hit home to me 12 years ago or so when kneeling down to receive communion at my home parish in Kansas. Kneeling next to me was an older gentleman by the name of Larry Bingham. Larry and I sang in choir together, and he was a long-time EfM mentor. Larry and I disagreed on a great many things…things we both felt strongly about and held dear to our hearts. You may have heard of Anglican theologians N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg—I find myself closer to Bishop Wright theologically, and Larry more identified with Marcus Borg’s way of seeing things. One day, we had a somewhat heated conversation about whether Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection or merely a spiritual one, and I found myself with anger in my heart questioning Larry’s faith. That next Sunday, he and I both went forward for communion, and kneeling next to him, I realized that my anger and frustration were misplaced, and that we were both literally bending the knee to Jesus and encountering the risen Christ, and that we were both eating and drinking that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.
As egalitarian as Paul is, he’s not suggesting that we should stop advocating for our own respective views, even if it results in disagreement. Far from it. Throughout his letters, Paul repeatedly engages in theological arguments and debates. We shouldn’t stop advocating for the importance of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Church, or that architectural and liturgical beauty are deeply meaningful and important in Christian worship, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. We should continue defending our Anglo-Catholic eccentricities, but we should do so in humble thanksgiving for the unmerited grace of God, acknowledging that those with whom we’re debating and arguing are fellow sojourners with us on this Christian journey, coming to God through the same waters of baptism, and destined for the same life of love and fellowship with the Lord Jesus and all the saints for all of eternity.
As baptized Christians—both strong and weak—let us approach this altar—this gate of heaven—with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace alongside our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ—even those with whom we disagree. Amen.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville, Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) 62.  Ibid 62.  Prayer of Humble Access, 1928 BCP.  Bartlett 62.