From Faith Practices, Faith Lives

by Dr. Martha Stortz

Early Christians were like any other family — mealtimes were often the occasion for division and disagreement! Writing to Christians at Rome, the apostle Paul chided those who were quick to judge the table manners of their fellow Christians. The meat-eaters disparaged the vegetarians; the non-drinkers put down the drinkers.

To this community of disgruntled diners Paul directed sage advice: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you….” (Romans 15:7) His injunction carries the weight of “Befriend one another….” In the etiquette of the Ancient Near East, the people with whom a man dined were his friends, and his friends were the people with whom he dined. Paul’s counsel reminded the Christians at Rome of the fellowship they shared in Christ, who had made them not servants, but friends (John 15:15). He appealed to the office of friendship, which was characterized by benevolence; literally, wishing the other well. “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (Romans 15:1-2).

Luther captured theimportance of this practice of encouragement in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Characteristically, he turned a negative “thou shalt not” commandment into a positive “thou shalt” commandment. Not only should we refrain from betraying, slandering or defaming the neighbor, but we should “apologize for him, speak well of him, and interpret charitably all that he does.” Luther knew the corrosive effects of negative thinking and gossip on the fabric of community. He also knew that we can often inspire people to act better than they might otherwise act. He regarded the practice of encouragement as one way in which the Gospel itself offered counsel. Citing Matthew 18:20, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Luther commended the practice of “mutual conversation and consolation of brethren” (The Smalcald Articles, 3.4). He envisioned a community of friends, called together to listen to the Good News and challenged to be a mouthpiece of that Good News to one another in speech, comfort, and friendship.

Luther’s community of friends would also encourage each other in the lifelong task of Christian education. Christian education or catechesis (from the Greek katechein, “sounding back”) is teaching what God “wishes us to do or not do” (Decalogue), a “setting forth all that we must expect and receive from God” (the Creed), and a demonstration of “how we are to pray” (the Lord’s Prayer). Luther insisted that every baptized Christian must have a minimal theological understanding of what God has done, is doing, and is yet to do. The practice of encouragement involves striving together for some understanding of life with God. We teach the faith as a gift offered through Christ crucified that cannot be achieved on our own.


What part does invitation and evangelism play in your Christian life?

What might it mean for you?

What can it mean for your congregation?

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