Last week, I had the pleasure of leading our final Men's Bible Breakfast before we adjourned for the summer. The guys decided that they wanted to have an "Ask the Pastor" session in which they could ask me anything they happened to have on their minds. They finally decided this format would be more appealing if it was billed as "Stump the Pastor." Thanks a lot, guys!
Although the fellas were gracious and spared me their hardest curve ball questions, otherwise they would have surely flummoxed me, there was one question from this final session that especially struck me: "Is cremation okay?"
My reflexive reaction to this question was to respond with another question: "Why do you ask?" Because the answer to this question has more to do with the intentions behind a person's desire to be cremated than with the act of cremation itself. For with the advent of the Enlightenment and its accompanying scientific ethos, there are some who, in an act of defiance, want to be cremated solely so that God can not raise their bodies from the dead on the Last Day, which, of course, in their minds is nothing but a superstitious and non-rational belief anyway. Others, however, are cremated simply because of financial or familial concerns. To those in the former group, I would say a decision to cremate would be sinful. Not because cremation itself is sinful, but because the intentions behind it are. On the other hand, to those in the latter group, I would straightforwardly sanction cremation. For those in this group have no ill intent lurking behind their decision.
According to Scriptural theology, our intentions matter just as much as our actions. Indeed, this is what we find in today's reading from Romans 14. Paul writes, "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him" (verses 1-3). Paul says, "Whatever your view on eating clean and unclean foods may be (cf. Leviticus 11), you should not pass judgment on each other. If some of you follow certain dietary restrictions, fine. If others of you do not, fine."
Now, contrast this posture toward clean and unclean foods with Paul's words to the Colossians: "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink... Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings" (Colossian 2:16, 20-22). Paul addresses this same issue of clean and unclean foods with the Colossians, but with a very different result. To the Romans he says, "Do whatever you feel is best. You are free to refrain from or to partake of so-called unclean foods." To the Colossians, however, he says, "Don't you dare distinguish between clean and unclean foods! If you do, you will desecrate the gospel and acquiesce to sinful human teaching." The question is: Why would Paul take two such widely disparate stances on the same issue? The answer has to do with human intention.
In the case of the Colossians, those who maintained a distinction between clean and unclean foods did so because they thought they could curry favor from God by their legalistic observances. Paul flatly condemns such bald self-righteousness. In the case of the Romans, however, the issue of clean and unclean foods appears to be more complicated. For there were some in this church, it seems, who refrained from eating unclean foods because they were unsure to what extent the Levitical ceremonial laws had been abrogated by Christ and to eat these foods would have left them with a heavy conscience. Among these Christians, to refrain from eating unclean foods was not an attempt to diminish or supplement Jesus' all-sufficient work on the cross, it was simply an effort to be faithful to Scripture as they best understood it. Toward such people, Paul encourages patience and love as they gain a better understanding of the radical freedom we enjoy in Christ.
One issue; two different sets of intentions. And it's the intentions that make all the difference. Those at Colossae had an intention of self-righteousness. Those at Rome intended simply to be true to their consciences. And in light of these widely differing intentions, Paul offers widely differing responses.
Intentions matter. So today, consider not only what you do, but why you do it. Do you give only in the hope of receiving, or out of selfless love for another person? Do you help only to receive a pat on the back, or because Christ came as a servant to us? Intentions matter just as much as actions. So don't only do right, think right as well.