How many mistakes in life come down to semantics?
If you don’t know, semantics is the meaning of words or phrases in a particular context. Semantics is the meaning of words or phrases in a particular context. Two people can say the same exact thing and have completely different meanings and when we don’t understand the context we completely misunderstand what’s being said. Probably the most easily misunderstood words are idioms or slang because they take on a particular meaning only for a certain group of people. One time I was talking with a group of teenagers and they were sharing about their attraction for somebody, and trying to be cool, I asked them, “Were you scamming on them?” To which they all vehemently shouted, “NO!” All I was asking was if they were ogling the other person. For the life of me I didn’t know what the big deal was. Until I found out that the word “scamming” today means something completely more intimate and more intense than the way it was used when I was their age. One time in my high school French class, we were just learning the French words for different animals, and kidding around, we were calling each other animal names. “You are a dog.” “You are a bird.” But when someone said, “You are a cow.” Ms. Stein stopped us right there and said, “You’d better make sure never to say that to a French person. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Indeed, we found out that it’s instead the equivalent of something much worse in the English language. All of that to say that when we miss understanding, we end up misunderstanding. When we miss understanding, we end up misunderstanding. Sometimes, we need to take the opportunity to get to know a person, know their context, know where they are coming from before jumping to conclusions so we can avoid doing or saying something that causes hard feelings later.
Believe it or not, the Bible talks about this, too.
If you have your Bible or a Bible app on your phone, we’re going to be reading today from Romans 14:5-23. Romans 14:5-23. Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome with this letter and in this particular passage, he is warning them against judging others harshly for acting differently. He’s encouraging them to accept one another, to accept one another’s perceived weaknesses, to be non-judgmental, and let God do the judging. In Paul’s words then comes this passage. Please rise for the reading of the Word of God as we share from the letter to the Romans, chapter 14, verses 5-23. Hear now the Word of God.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”[b]
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Judgment is reserved for the Lord.
That’s what Paul is trying to communicate to us here. He’s trying to tell us that a person’s intent is more important than their content. A person’s intent is more important than a person’s content. God is concerned with matters of the heart. He wants to know that what you do and how you live your life is meant to honor Him and not to please yourself. What matters most to God is the “why” behind what you do, and not necessarily what you are doing. That’s why Paul says, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” As long as your heart is focused on God, THAT is all that matters. If two people disagree about how something is being done, but both truly believe they are honoring God, then it’s not for us to judge. We have to let it go. In this letter, Paul is trying to address a problem he sees in the church. These people trying to live a Christian life are tearing each other down, making judgments on each other, casting doubt on each other’s faithfulness and its causing division in the body of Christ. Paul tells them they have to stop being stumbling blocks to each other, then he says something really important that we should highlight. Paul says, “I am fully convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself.” I am fully convinced that NOTHING is unclean in itself. For Paul, whatever it is the church in Rome is arguing over – whether it’s how they do communion, or what songs they sing in worship, or what kind of bread they use at the communion table, or whether they dip the bread into the cup or drink directly from it, or whether they use round tables or square table during fellowship, or ANY of those things – whatever they are arguing over isn’t wrong or right by itself. A thing being right or wrong is fully dependent on whether or not it honors God. But these are the things this church, and many churches today, are dividing over – things that are not themselves right or wrong, but only how we approach them.
We end up taking on an air of righteousness.
We convince ourselves that our way is the right way or the best way or the easiest way and we assume then that the other people are wrong. And that’s where we get in trouble. God needs for us to humble ourselves as Christ did for us. God needs us to swallow our righteousness and instead focus on what’s really going on. We need to make sure we don’t miss these opportunities for understanding, because as we said at the beginning, when we miss understanding, we end up misunderstanding. That’s why Paul wrote to the churches, “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.” When we see or notice someone becoming upset about something we did or plan to do, we need to reevaluate why we are doing it. Sometimes we need to pause to give people a chance to react before doing something. But most importantly, we have to have the humility to swallow our righteousness and really listen to others and address their needs as if they were our own.
We’ve been talking a lot about tradition.
As we plan to bring together our two churches, we have all agreed to honor each other’s traditions. And that seems grand on the surface, but I believe there are times when we don’t understand how loaded that word is. Things like Palm Church’s Ozoni Breakfast, the Mother’s Day Breakfast, the Oriental Dinner, the Easter Egg Hunt – all those are big things that are really obvious to everyone. Changing them would be like ripping out a chunk of the flesh of this particular Body of Christ. But each church has other traditions that maybe we don’t even think of as traditions. What kind of tables we sit at during fellowship. What kind of chairs we use to sit in. How we decorate our worship space. How we break down our finances. What we choose to prioritize the money that we take in. All of these things are potential mines on the road to unity. All of these things are potential mines on the road to unity. This is a lesson that is good for use in our everyday lives, too. We sometimes underestimate the value something has in our relationships. Maybe your child has a special attachment to something that you don’t understand. Maybe your spouse does something that drives you nuts, but he thinks is perfectly normal. Maybe your friend eats their hamburger in a way that seems strange or weird. Maybe there’s a reason they do these things. Instead of being judgmental or righteous, we need to take a step back and try to understand what’s really going on and honor those things.
Because what you see on the surface is usually only the tip of the iceberg.
That saying has a lot of meaning. If you think about it, we only ever see the tip of the iceberg above the surface of the water. Something like less than 10% of the total mass of an iceberg actually rests above sea level. Everything else is underneath. So when two icebergs collide, you don’t even see the visible damage because all the damage is being done beneath the surface of the ocean. The same is true with people. It’s not what’s evident on the surface that’s really the cause of a person’s pain or resistance or frustration. It’s what’s underneath. It’s the psychological attachment they have to something or the hidden meaning of something or a memory that they have of something that causes the friction. But you can’t see it. It isn’t until you go under the water and explore what’s really going on that we are in a position to understand and help out. People, generally, are not irrational beings. They can be moved to irrational behavior, but most of the time people have reasons for acting and believing in things that they do. In any relationship, whether it’s parent-child, or spouse-spouse, or church-church, we would do well to spend some time diving beneath the surface and exploring what makes the other one tick. Don’t miss out on opportunities to really understand another human being. Like we said before, when we miss an opportunity for understanding, we end up completely misunderstanding, and that can lead to tragic consequences. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.