Is it OK to read The Sun and go to Ladbrokes?
Paul's letter to the Roman Christians is a great theological work and it was the foundation of The Reformation. But it is also very much a pastoral letter as we have seen in recent weeks. In chapter 14, Paul develops his pastoral style. You might think of Paul as very much a black v white person. But in fact he was much more subtle than that. He recognised that not everyone is given strong faith. He could see that not every new Christian was equally committed. Paul recognised the realities with which we live in parish Churches in our own time. So he begins 'Accept those whose faith is weak without passing judgement on disputable matters'. Not everyone has a Christian testimony – even if they have come to Church for years. Not everyone can give an account of the hope that is within them even if it is there. Lots of church goers don't live lives much different from non-church goers during the week – but – they turn up faithfully every Sunday making up a witnessing worshipping congregation.
Paul then dealt with a practical issue at the time. What Christians should and should not eat. Some Christians had no problem eating anything and everything. Other Christians probably kept to the Jewish rules for eating with its prohibited foods. For Paul, this was not a big issue. For him, it was morally neutral. It was just a matter of taste. Christians were not bound by Jewish dietary laws but if Christians wished to maintain them, there really was no problem. God, says Paul has already accepted people on the basis of the grace of Jesus Christ.
Some early Christians kept special days of prayer and fasting and special days for festivals. Others did not bother. The Roman Catholic Church observes all sorts of saints days throughout the year. We do not, excepting St Andrew's Day – not as a Christian Festival but as a National Day. Whatever – says Paul. A good Christian lives to the Lord whatever day it is. That teaching was adopted at The Reformation when Luther sanctified daily work as equally valuable in God's sight to prayers in a monastery. Some early Christians were vegetarians and others mostly were not. To Paul this also was of no great significance. It certainly was not worth falling out about. Live and let live on these matters was Paul's guidance. Above daily and mundane considerations Christians lived for someone – something – greater. 'If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord'. Paul was not being morbid. Death was a constant factor in the lives of these early Christians in the Roman Empire. That is what he meant.
Paul knew about some snobby people among the new Christians. They looked down their noses at others. That used to be a problem in this congregation but I am not sure that it is any more. We had some elders who would not even speak to other elders. We had some also who thought that they knew better than others and so should have their own way all the time. But no-one could describe this congregation as other than humble and welcoming to others who come into our midst. That is as it should be. Spiritual pride, says Paul, is self defeating. Everyone will stand before the Lord and give an account of his and her life. We will too. But central to that process says Paul is our confession of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. God is far too big to bother us about the small things of our life and living over the years and decades.
So does that mean that we can do anything and it does not matter? 'Maybes aye and maybes naw'. Is it OK to read The Sun and go to Ladbrokes? Strict Christian communities would say a definite No to both. You would not expect to find John McLaren from the Brethren in Ladbrokes putting on his daily bet. Brethren people in turn seeing Church of Scotland people going into Ladbrokes would feel sorry for them and conclude that they were not in fact saved Christians. Liberal Christians throughout the land would say that it is a harmless hobby, interest, diversion and pastime to bet on horses. Horse racing is a part of national life – the sport of kings. Paul might say as he did on other matters – everything is permissible but not everything is helpful. In other words Paul might say. 'You could do better as a Christian'.
There's another issue with this. Two weeks ago, the Gamblers Anonymous meeting took place on the usual Monday evening in our hall. At about 7 30pm the Manse door bell rang and I went to answer. Here was one of the leaders of the Gamblers Anonymous Group. He said to me, “There's so many people at our meeting – can we move into the big hall?” I said Yes – unless the fitness class come along because they have the booking”. It was a holiday week-end and the the fitness class did not appear. So Gamblers Anonymous were able to hold their meeting in the big hall. That shows the extent of the problem of gambling in our communities and society in general. One member of that group said to me some time ago 'Gambling addiction is worse than alcohol addiction'. Have you not been shocked by the explosion in TV gambling advertising. “Discover the joys of the inplay”. Do you know what that means? You can bet during a football match on anything that may happen; you can change your bet; you can call in your bet, even before the end of the match. You can bet on a particular footballer being given a yellow or a red card. You can bet on the number of free kicks or corners. And that is where we are as a society and nation. This advertising is all before the 9 00 pm watershed. Children are watching this stuff. Gambling companies offer people free bets to get them started on bingo and other gambling pursuits. Then there's the lottery industry with all of its hype. Is this good? Even if an interest is not addictive, betting can easily become so. Permissible but not helpful. Christians should show better examples to others and because gambling has become such a problem, Christians should seek to play their part in reducing and not adding to that problem by personal example.
What about The Sun or The Star newspapers? Does anyone think that Rupert Murdoch has made a morally uplifting contribution to British society over the decades of his ownership of The Sun? The Star is or was owned by a man who made his money in the porn industry. Is it OK to buy and read these newspapers? Some of our members buy The Sun. Some of our elders buy The Sun. Is it harmless entertainment? Or is it a corrupting influence? Children see the pictures and photographs. Is it doing them any good? Should Christian people not being doing better – showing a better example? Is this permissible but not helpful also? Does The Sun exploit young women or give them an opportunity for fame and money? Or both? Is this seemly? Is it good? Do you think Jesus would approve? I don't think so. The Sun and The Star and the like contribute to the decadence of our society. Our nation is far from righteous in the sight of God. Christian people need to set a better example to others especially to young people and to children.
Paul then took his ideas a stage further. Each Christian has a duty of care to fellow Christians. If our behaviour is hurtful to other Christians Paul asks us to take that into account. If our conduct harms our congregation, Paul asks us to take that on board. If we damage the reputation of our Christian worship by what we do during the week, then Paul asks us to consider that. What is our witness? What does it mean? We are to be the Light of Jesus Christ to others. We are to reflect Him and His example and teaching. As Paul says the kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit... Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual learning.
Are you really for Jesus Christ? With your whole heart and mind and strength? Are you? Will you be so? Are you playing a double game? Testing God's patience? No Christian needs to go about furtively and feeling guilty. There is a large forgiveness in Jesus Christ's redeeming love. And greater joy in serving Him with a full and unconditional commitment.
O Christ, in Thee my soul hath found,
And found in Thee alone,
The peace, the joy I sought so long,
The bliss till now unknown.
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
None other name for me;
There’s love and life and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, found in Thee.