Aug. 18: “Jesus and Paul on the Commandments” (Third in series)

This week I consider how Christians can make sense and use the 10 Commandments by looking at two important New Testament responses. Next week I’ll look at the big picture. 

Matthew 5: 21-37 ; Romans 7:1-13

We’ve seen that the 10 C are given by God to Israel after God intervened and liberated the Israelites from slavery, reaffirming God’s election of Israel to be his holy people. They form the foundation of God’s covenant with Israel. Now, I usually encourage us to see our Christian faith to be in continuity with the faith of Israel; I preached about that two years ago. Christians should and do continue to honor the 10 C. But some things we hear as especially Protestant Christians make us wonder if they are still central to us. We’re saved by faith, not works, right? And aren’t the 10 C about works—what we do? Isn’t Christianity all about the Spirit, not the Law?

So for the next two weeks I’ll offer a way for Christians to understand and apply the 10 Commandments. Today we’ll look at what Jesus and Paul have to say about the commandments. Next week we’ll look at the whole picture and the relation between Christianity and the religion of our Old Testament.

The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5 through 7 in Matthew, is Jesus’ reinterpretation of the core of the Old Testament. That’s why he announces to the disciples and any others listening that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill it or perfect it. His first word in this new vision is to point to God’s actions—remember from last week: God’s action comes first, our response is always second. But Jesus does not point back to God’s act of liberation and election in the past. In his opening Beatitudes, which we read and sung for our call to worship, he points forward to the dawning Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven, as Matthew puts it, to avoid over-using the name “God”). God is bringing this kingdom, and it will look like a reversal of much of the injustice we’ve come to expect out of life. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted. Those who are least satisfied with the world as it is and least rewarded by it shall be first in the Kingdom of God. I’ll say more about this coming reversal of justice in God’s kingdom next week.

After he has announced the blessings of God’s kingdom, Jesus reinterprets the 10 Commandments to show his disciples how to respond to God. This is not the only place he touches on them. Remember that he enjoins the last 6 commandments on the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. The young man insists he has kept the commandments, and so Jesus pushes him beyond himself, telling him to sell all his goods and follow him. On another occasion, Jesus is asked which is the greatest of the commandments, and he offers a simplified version of just two love commandments: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. So in these cases Jesus affirms the 10 C but calls certain people into a higher and harder form of discipleship; and he simplifies the 10 C to, love God and neighbor.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus does something different. He takes a few of the commandments and makes them much more stringent and demanding. (Note that he is changing and reformulating commandments given by God, which quietly presumes a divine authority on his part.) “You have heard, ‘You shall not murder.’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister [that is, a fellow disciple], you will be liable to judgment….and if you say, ‘You fool!’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” So Jesus is saying that within this new circle of disciples, who are anticipating the Kingdom of God, the rules go well beyond not murdering. There is to be no anger and reviling among you, and you must seek reconciliation whenever there is something amiss. (Are we doing that?)

He then takes the commandment not to commit adultery and ratchets it way up, for everyone apparently, not just the disciples. Whoever looks at another in lust has already committed adultery. (Made famous by Jimmy Carter.) And Jesus also revises the Mosaic law and forbids divorce.

Next Jesus takes a different version of the commandment not to misuse God’s holy name, and again extends and tightens it: Do not swear an oath at all, whether by God or Jerusalem or even your own head. Now, I’m not sure what is eating Jesus here. It seems like he’s had it with people invoking God or stand-ins for “God” as a tool to back up their word or promise. That’s a subtle way that we make religion and the language of religion serve our own purposes, rather than serving God’s purposes. So Jesus says, just say yes or no. Speak for yourself, don’t drag God into your promises. And if you are an honest person, your promises will stand on their own.

He then takes other commandments about retaliation and loving neighbors and again makes them more stringent and broader in application. We are also to love outsiders and enemies, and give freely to those who ask. And he sums this all up with what might sound like an impossible commandment: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So what do we make of Jesus’ commentary on the 10 Commandments? Well, he is going beyond what Moses received from God. We saw the 10 Commandments are stringent when it comes to honoring God’s holiness. They set a very high bar for how we worship, invoke, and speak about God. But when it comes to how we treat others, they aim a little lower, giving us a minimum standard that we should never cross: not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness. They get a little more demanding by telling us not to covet, and to honor our elders. But mostly those last six commandments set minimal standards about what you are supposed to avoid. They don’t aim too high when it comes to going out of your way to do good.

But for Jesus’ disciples, even anger, lust, and any oath is forbidden; these lesser faults are just as serious as murder, adultery, and misusing God’s name were for Moses. I suppose Moses was appealing to the masses with rules that everyone in Israel could get on board with. But Jesus is calling a few disciples to live personal lives of total integrity and righteousness before God, together. Jesus is intensifying the holiness and justice demanded by the 10 C. A little later he counsels: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” So as his followers, are we also to go far beyond the minimum required by the 10 C?

‘But I thought Jesus was more easy going than Moses. I thought he was less “legalistic.” I thought Jesus was all about mercy and forgiveness!’ Well, take a look: in the whole sermon on the mount, he never mentions being forgiven once. (He says blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.) You won’t find him teaching about forgiveness of sins when he is commenting on the 10 C. So Jesus is not all about forgiveness; nor is forgiveness lacking in the Old Testament. There’s the Day of Atonement and other rituals for forgiveness set out in the Torah, though not in the 10 C proper. There’s plenty of forgiveness in the OT. Forgiveness was not invented by Jesus. But this intense demand for holiness is new to Jesus.

When it comes to both forgiveness and the law, so much of our Christian understanding comes from Paul. Paul has his own issues with “the law” or the Torah. Remember that before he encountered the living Christ in a vision, Paul was a pious, faithful Jew who was persecuting the church. Now, nothing Moses said in fact told him that he had to persecute the church. But Paul has to figure out how he could have been such a committed Jew and yet commit such a crime against God. So he’s making sense of his own life in this confusing passage; but as a very good pastor, he’s also using his own sinful past to connect to others who have made their own mistakes, and to show how God can still redeem and use those who are very broken vessels.

Now, when Paul talks about the Law, sometimes he means the Jewish ritual laws that keep Jews separate from Gentiles, like circumcision and dietary rules. But in our reading from Romans 7, Paul is talking about the 10 C. He specifically mentions, “Thou shall not covet.” He thinks that something about the commandments didn’t work and doesn’t work. And I think he believes that because he himself was so obedient and yet sinned so much against God by persecuting the church.

Now, my opinion is that Paul is trying to make his own personal experience apply to everybody, and that’s not always helpful. There’s another great theologian who loved Paul and also drew too much on his personal experience: Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation. Luther thought that the rigorous rules and practice of the church could only drive us into despair, because we can never feel good enough. We have to give up on any commandment, and rely solely on God’s grace to change us. The main purpose of the Law, which for Luther includes the Sermon on the Mount, is to make us admit we can’t do it on our own; only God can save us. A lot of Protestant attitudes toward the Law come from Luther, and I think they are distorted. Sometimes we can just follow commandments without being self-righteous. I won’t say more about Luther, who is a genius, but other Protestants didn’t completely agree with him about the Law.

Paul is even more difficult to figure out than Luther. Please don’t feel bad if you’re not sure what he means. Even scholars can’t agree about Paul. But a few things, and only a few, are clear in Romans 7. Paul can’t say that the Law is bad, because it came from God. “So the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good,” he says. The problem with the Law is that sin, like some invisible force, corrupts how we hear and use the commandments of God, and [quote] “works death in me.” Not sure exactly what he means, but he says that when I hear the commandment “do not covet” I can’t help wondering, “Hmm. What’s so bad about coveting? Maybe I should give it a go and find out!”

Now, I can imagine that happening. But surely not all sin arises because we are told not to do something, so we do it anyway. I don’t think all murders result from people being told, “Now don’t murder!” And so I doubt what Paul says, “Apart from the law, sin lies dead,” holds as a universal rule. (Just don’t give your kids any rules, and they’ll be fine!)

But Paul’s larger point is very true, and very Jewish: just because you have God’s name and God’s commandments does not mean you won’t sin. In fact, in some ways God’s gift of revelation makes sin all the more possible. That’s why Israel is so careful about using God’s name, remember? To have the name of God opens you up to more responsibility and the danger of misuse.

So let me focus on what makes more sense to me, starting in verse 5: “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” (And full disclosure, I’m going to ignore what he says in verses 22 and 23. But those aren’t in our reading anyway, so ha!) I’ve said before that the best way to translate what living “in the flesh” means for Paul is “in our egos,” in our ego-centric way of life, which doesn’t mean I love myself. It means everything is about me; I cannot get over myself. I might think that I am nothing but a screw-up and a failure; that’s just as ego-centric as thinking, I can do no wrong.

When we living in our egos hear God’s commandment, we don’t just say, “Sounds good,” and do it. We might say, “Hmm, if I obey those rules, I’ll show what a good person I am—so much more righteous than those sinners out there—and I’ll deserve some great reward.” I have a feeling that the same applies to a lot of our good, progressive lifestyle choices as well, dear to my own heart: reducing our carbon footprint; correctly naming oppressed peoples; being well informed about injustice around the globe. All of that is “holy and just and good;” but it can still be an occasion to show off what a good person I am. / Or, dwelling in our egos and full of resentment at others, we might balk at God’s commandments, saying “Why should I do good when other people haven’t been good to me? I’m looking out for myself first.”

There are many ways our egos can corrupt good law and religion when we make religion a matter of following rules and doing good works, rather than being about these questions: what is my life all about? Who am I anyway, when all is said and done? We have to put ourselves, our ego, in question; for that, death is our friend. Because the Christian answer to those questions points to the death of the ego. That is true freedom. As our ego dies, we can really be God’s, living for God and for Christ and no longer for ourselves. That is how we are “discharged from the law,” as Paul puts it, and become “dead to that which held us captive,” that is law, but also the ultimate penalty and power of the law, death and the fear of death.

Or take another of Paul’s obscure images. It’s like we’ve been in a bad marriage all our lives to our ego. Sometimes we try to please our spouse, other times we try to spite him. But everything we do is really just a reflection of this bad ball-and-chain marriage. But when our husband, the ego, dies with Christ, we are free to love and serve God and others just for their own sake, not so we can prove something to Mr. Big Shot.

Let’s be honest: Jesus’ and Paul’s takes on the 10 C are strange and confusing; they raise as many questions as they answer. I wish religion were this simple for us: just obey the 10 C. But everything wonderful, mysterious, and gloriously complicated about our Christian faith would be left out: grace and faith; our union with Christ in baptism and communion; the cross. Next Sunday we’ll step back and try to put it all together and find the right place for the 10 C amid all the glorious mysteries of our faith.

Here’s that great Op Ed piece I mentioned in the oral version

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August 11: “It’s All about the Name” (Third in series on 10 Commandments)

Exodus 3:1-17 ; Deuteronomy 5:6-21

Last week we looked at the more familiar moral commandments, the last six of the 10. They might seem obvious, but they still challenge our society and every society, since killing, stealing, not honoring parents and the rest still go on. And when we see what Jesus does with them next week, we’ll have to wonder whether anyone truly keeps these commandments.

But this week, let’s not be all pessimistic. For the most part we do keep these 6 moral commandments here in this church. So let’s give ourselves some credit; or more to the point, let’s give these commandments and the God who gave them to us, the credit and glory. If these commandments seem basic and obvious to us, it is because God has delivered us from moral confusion and inhumanity, and set us apart as a holy people already.

But is this really such a big deal? Most people keep these six commandments, mostly. And many religions also affirm them. Buddhism forbids killing living beings (not just humans), stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and (instead of coveting) intoxication. Can we really say that our 10 commandments are a special and unique revelation from God?

Well, to see that we have to look at the first four commandments. Or maybe I should say the first “four words.” The traditional name for the 10 commandments, in Greek following the original Hebrew, is the Decalogue, which means the 10 words. Now, there are in fact 10 or so commandments, so we can still call them that. But the very first word or sentence is no commandment at all, and I think it is the most important word in the whole package. In fact, it’s when we forget about this first word, which is not a commandment, that we get our whole faith wrong, and turn into a bunch of moralistic, sanctimonious holier-than-thou-ers.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s the first word. We can read it as a preface to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But we probably should read it as a preface to each and all of the commands: “I am the Lord your God; you shall not make for yourself an idol.” “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery. You shall not kill.” And so on.

There’s so much that needs to be said about this first word, so much that we don’t think about when we take the good ol’ 10 C for granted. I’ll keep it to three points (in classic “three point sermon” style).

First, God never makes demands before acting first, by grace. God always takes the initiative, because religion is about God, not us. If religion is a dance, then God leads us, and signals how we are to respond. When God meets and commissions Moses, it’s: Burning bush! Moses: what’s that? God: Hey Moses. Moses: Here I am. God: ‘Come no closer. Take off your shoes, let’s dance on holy ground.’ God draws us in with grace, but also creates the right distance to respect divine holiness. So God always makes the first move, like delivering us from slavery and instituting the covenant, and signals how we should respond, with the 10 C.

The second point about why “I am the Lord your God” precedes the commandments—and I could spend several weeks on this: Because the 10 C is all about the name of God. Whenever you see the word “Lord” in small caps, in Hebrew that’s the holy name of God, spelled with four letters: YHWH. Ancient Hebrew only wrote out consonants, not vowels, and since the Israelites eventually stopped pronouncing the name YHWH (because they didn’t want to violate the third commandment against misusing God’s name), we aren’t sure how to say it—probably something like Yahweh, and it probably means, “He is.” To avoid pronouncing it, the Israelites substituted the title “Lord” for YHWH, and so does our Bible.

This is the name Moses received from God in Exodus 3. Moses asks God for a name, because he wants to be able to speak with divine authority: “Listen up people, the Big Cheese sent me!” In response, he gets, well, a rambling mouthful back, which probably reflects multiple variations of the story, all compiled together here. First, God says, “I am who I am” (Now, was that a name? Or was it God saying, “mind your own business”?) Then God says, Tell them, “I Am has sent you.” (And good luck with that, Moses.) And finally, Tell them “The Lord (YHWH), the God of your ancestors…has sent me.” “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

When God prefaces the 10 C by saying, “I am the Lord your God,” I am YHWH, I am He Who Is, God is reminding them and us of the very essence of the covenant, from Abraham on: by this gift of God’s holy name, we have received divine direction and authority. We are no longer just ordinary people. We are people who live and act in unison with God. Everything about us is tied to those 4 letters that God gives to Moses. Every act of righteousness, justice, love, compassion, holiness, faithfulness we do, to each other and to those beyond these walls, reflects goodness and glory on the name of God. That’s what it means to be elected to bear this name of God. The divine name is what makes our worship and actions eternal and infinitely meaningful. Acting by God’s name is our highest honor and duty and privilege and reward (because notice, there are no other rewards connected with obeying the 10 C). It’s what lifts us out of the limited, finite, dead-end smallness of the world and connects us to God’s infinite eternal life, and to all those millions of people who over 1000s of years have called on God’s name. What more could you ask for? God doesn’t say, “Keep these commandments and I’ll give you a special treat!” We already got the treat. We’ve been elected as God’s people. We keep these commandments because it is the delight of the people who bear God’s name to bring honor to that name.

But if bearing God’s name is our blessed privilege, then it is also our weightiest responsibility. Here is where the 10 C are without precedent, completely unique to the religion of Israel: it’s the foremost seriousness that they ascribe to respecting God’s holiness. “Our God” is not ours; we are his. Israel gets this. We saw last week how they pictured God drawing near on Sinai as a terrifying and dangerous fire. God chooses Israel (and us) and dwells with us and shares God’s name and power and very being with us, but God also in these first three commandments warns us gravely about misusing that presence and power and name.

“You shall have no other god before me.” Now, all around Israel, nations worshipped multiple gods. We don’t have much polytheism anymore. Hit the Easy button, you might think. Not so fast. What’s the problem with polytheism? I’ve studied polytheistic religions, and often they tell compelling stories and contain much that is honorable and good. But think of it this way: there can only be one infinite, not many; there can only be one absolute, not several. If you are going to claim something ultimate to orient your life toward, there can only be one. It can’t be Yahweh and Baal, but neither can it be Yahweh and your country, God and your family, Christ Jesus and myself—there can’t be two ultimates. God gives us room for the created goods found in our family, our country, our career, and so on; but in this sanctuary and throughout our lives there can be only one ultimate—no other gods.

The second is “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” using forms from the heavens, or the earth, or the waters. Easy button again? After all, ‘I don’t worship a statue like those primitives.’ Well, I doubt anyone has ever thought a statue was in fact god. But on our terms, the problem with idolatry is making for ourselves a religion, or doing anything religious that serves our own desires. When we put religion under our control, we are worshipping an idol, remaking God in our own image, to a size and character that suit us. And we all do that.

The third commandment is “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord [spelled? YHWH] your God,” sometimes translated “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.” We’ve trivialized this commandment by telling our children that it means, “Don’t use swear words,” because we think it’s unseemly for kids to swear (even though we do it behind their backs). But aren’t we just making God’s commandment into mere manners, into a matter of polite and respectable behavior? What God is talking about is misusing the holy name of God that has been entrusted to Israel. Now, that can happen in swearing or an oath, “by God.” But the serious harm that God is concerned about is not letting a curse word slip out in anger, but deliberately invoking God’s authority in a harmful way. That’s not a sin that a child or a non-believer is likely to commit, but only a religious leader or someone claiming allegiance to God. That’s us. These three commandments all come down heavy on us religious people, because we alone can commit the sin of having other gods, idolatry, and using God’s name wrongly. Israel realized like no other religion that the name and presence of God brings ultimate responsibility.

Third (there were three, remember?): God prefaces the commandments with the reminder, I am the Lord your God who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God is addressing former slaves, people who were victims of bad injustice. Indeed, that has a lot to do with why God elected Israel, as God tells Moses by the fire of the burning bush: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…and I have come down to deliver them.” These commandments were not given as basic moral rules for everyone; they are a new way to live justly, designed to appeal to those who have been victims of injustice. With this covenant God has taken Israel’s side because mighty Egypt oppressed them (and God does take sides; God doesn’t regard everyone equally!). Israel, because they had known so much oppression, gladly said yes to these commandments, including the fourth: Observe the Sabbath day… The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—” not you or your family, your livestock, your slaves (and yes, go figure, they still had slaves), nor the resident aliens in your towns” (whom God cares deeply about, in contrast to our current cultural climate)./ God gives this motive for the sabbath: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there….” You knew injustice; and then I took your side and delivered you. So you know that everyone deserves a rest and time to cultivate their spiritual side. (Note that here God doesn’t command them to attend church or do anything specifically religious, only not to work.) This wonderful Sabbath commandment connects the first three about honoring the holiness of God’s name, to the commandments that follow to treat each other humanely.

So again the 10 C were intended for those who knew slavery and injustice. Can we still hear them the same way, those of us (like me) who have never known oppression? Who are closer to the top or the comfortable middle than to the bottom? And can we still appreciate what it means when God takes our side because the powerful have been against us? Maybe our Puritan ancestors knew something of oppression in England (due to their sometimes weird ideas), but all that changed when they became the town establishment here. I wonder, so far removed from oppression as most (but not all) of us are, whether we are therefore likely to take the 10 C as rules for polite society, rules that help everyone get along and maintain the status quo, rules that guide our children into respectable behavior, rules that help secure our peace and prosperity? I don’t think that’s how they were meant. And so I fear that whenever we read them that way, we are, without even realizing it, breaking those first three commandments about honoring God’s holy name. Lord have mercy on us, and teach us to read with the eyes of those who have been freed from slavery.

 

August 4, 2019: “Un-familiarizing Yourself with the 10 Commandments” (First in 10 Commandments series)

My apologies to regular readers! My blog has not been working in several weeks. I finally signed out and logged back in, and it seems to be working now. 

This opener in the series took some unexpected turns while I wrote it. At first, I planned to focus on how weird and surprising the 10 C are. But then I decided to begin with the familiar, or at least the only somewhat skewed familiar, because God is always both familiar and strange to us. 

Next week I’ll consider how extraordinary are the first four commandments about protecting God’s holiness. And the final two weeks look at how the New Testament deals with the commandments, and then what we should make of them as Christians, considering the whole relation of NT and OT. 

Exodus 19:3-6; 10-19; 24

Exodus 20:1-21

Americans mostly say they value the Bible highly, but don’t test very well on it. Only 45% of Americans were able to rightly name the four gospels. White mainliners like us scored slightly lower than the general population, 43%. I’m sure those of us gathered here have an above-average knowledge of the Bible; and we’re going to prove it with a quiz…

But when it comes to the “Ten Commandments,” however, the problem is over-familiarity. We all know the 10 C—maybe not the exact order or content, but hey, there are 10 of them, right? We certainly know about the 10 C. Maybe we grew up relying on them as a trusty guide to basic morality. Or maybe we’re sick of hearing how some people are always trying to stick the 10 C in courthouses and public places to claim turf for Christian America. (More on that another week.) One way or another, you might think you know all there is to know about the 10 C. That’s kid’s stuff, isn’t it? We adults are done with Sunday school.

We should be very wary when anything of God seems to us too familiar, too comfortable. That’s a sure sign that we’ve domesticated the wildness of God, something Exodus 19 portrays vividly. We seem much more prone than the Israelites to presume to be chummy with the God who descends in a terrifying way on quaking, burning Mt. Sinai. If we, unlike the Israelites, think we know all about God, then haven’t we failed to respect God’s holiness? Haven’t we trespassed on God’s holy space? And if so, surely we must die, as we read: “Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.” Not literally, of course. (Scared you, didn’t I?) But if we forget about the holiness of God, that burning, out-of-this world perfection, then no one needs to lay a hand on us; we punish ourselves—we cut ourselves off from God and are left holding a mere idol. (More on that next week.)

And yet what constitutes God’s own perfection is the way God is at once holy and loving; impossibly above and beyond us, and yet gently intimate with us. It is no small feat for God to be “present” with us, as we are so fond of affirming; nothing dramatizes that near impossibility like God descending on Mt. Sinai to be with the Israelites and almost blowing the mountain to bits. And yet God makes a way to be in our midst, to empower us to be God’s people, despite the danger to both God and us.

So we will need to un-familiarize ourselves with this favorite bit of Scripture, and see it afresh, and in the process confess that we don’t know God’s will as well as we thought. Because God is holy and untouchable and makes that clear at Mt. Sinai and in the first four commandments. And yet God is loving and gracious, and has received us forever as God’s own. So God lets us have our good ol’ familiar 10 C. Even though there is much for us yet to understand, we do know them, and we do follow them.

So it is fitting to start with the most familiar ones. When you think of the 10 commandments, what comes first to mind? Isn’t it 5 though 10 (depending on how you number them, and there are several ways)—that is, honor your mother and father, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or husband, or ox, or snowblower, or Mazarati, or any of that stuff. (That last one breaks the nice concise rhythm of the commandments, and proves a real challenge for those of us who live next to someone with a lot of fancy stuff!) All of that is familiar, even too familiar. Be a good boy or girl, we might summarize. Because, after all, this is kids’ stuff, isn’t it? It’s all pretty obvious.

And yet when we take an honest look around the world, or down the street, or into our own souls, we realize just how badly needed are these commandments, today as always. We see killings on the news every day, and I had to add, this morning is worse than most. Thou shall not kill is the commandment most outrageously violated on a regular basis. Now, the Hebrew word does not normally apply to sanctioned killings, like executions or killing in combat. Thus it makes sense to translate it, You shall not murder. We are all disturbed by the amount of murder in this place we like to call the greatest country in the world; and frankly, it’s at least a little outrageous how we’ve let ourselves become accustomed to it and seemingly incapable of combatting it. We are quick to add, of course, that we ourselves haven’t murdered anyone. Now, we could talk about how to apply these commandments. As far as our secular American law goes, I haven’t murdered anyone. But these commands come from God, not mortals or lawyers. And the Hebrew term for “kill” also includes actions that may lead to death—so it’s broader than our legal term for murder. Have my actions contributed to social conditions or environmental patterns that are daily killing people? Maybe I am too hard on myself, but I would have to answer yes. And do we not slowly kill ourselves, by our unhealthy habits, our penchant for anxiety and stress, and whatever is causing rising rates of drug use and suicide? But whether we judge ourselves innocent or guilty of breaking this commandment, we can’t deny that there is too much murder in the world.

And that goes for the other back-6 commandments. Honoring mother and father in its original context applied to how adults regarded and treated their elderly parents. (So once again, these commandments are not for kids, certainly not only for kids!) I see a lot of lonely and neglected elderly people out there; and I’m not one to talk, living six hours away from my parents. / Would anyone disagree that there’s more than enough stealing and adultery out there, even narrowly understood? “You shall not bear false witness against a neighbor” refers in particular to giving false testimony in court that would wrongly convict someone. Now, based on all the false convictions out there, especially against minorities, this commandment gets broken plenty today. Few of us, it is true, are called to testify in court; but how many of us go along with false claims being made by politicians against people we don’t care for? Politicians worldwide are doing that against immigrants, for instance. And coveting—our whole economy depends on the constant stimulation to covet through advertisements, making our neighbors into rivals instead of those whose good we seek. These commandments aren’t kids’ stuff, the basics that we need to learn before we grow up; they are an indictment of our society and the whole human race.

Let me make the point another way. These commandments are said to “you,” “thou,” that is, you singular rather than plural. And yet their point is not to guilt or shame us. The 10 C do not accuse or call for repentance or prompt us to seek forgiveness. They command you personally, but not so that you’ll get obsessed with your own unworthiness and sin. Nor are they intended to promote pride in what good people we are. That’s why Jesus, in the sermon on the Mount, ratchets up the commandments, making it impossible for us to claim self-righteousness for ourselves: “Oh I’ve never killed or committed adultery. I’m not like those sinners who do such things.” God didn’t give the commandments so we could arrogantly distinguish ourselves from others.

But the 10 C have often been misused or misunderstood. They are said to each of us personally—thou shalt, you singular—but they are about being a people of God. God is telling us all that in a good, healthy, holy, righteous people, individuals don’t do these things. Notice the reason given after “Honor your father and mother”—not because they’ve done so much of you, and what kind of ingrate are you, anyway; or ‘because if you don’t, you’ll get 40 lashes.’ The motive is life-affirming: “So that your days may be long in the land” God is giving you. Life is a gift to be treasured, enjoyed, and shared, and God is giving us the minimal guidelines for preserving a healthy society where that can happen. Or do you want to live in a society where parents are disregarded, where people kill, are unfaithful, steal, corrupt justice, and regard each other with envious desire? No. From deep within our created being, we say, no. A good society does not have such things. A society that enjoys life the way God intended for creation is a place where all are protected and all flourish. God isn’t demanding a perfect society; but it should be free from these very obvious violations. And yet where is such a society? (Don’t tell me it existed back in the good old days.) These commandments are not kids’ stuff; they are not tediously obvious, although in a way they are. They are a very reasonable set of guidelines laid down by a God who desires a good life for all God’s creatures, but these reasonable guidelines are nevertheless a radical indictment of our and every society, because these basic, minimal rules have continuously been violated and are still being violated. These 6 commandments, at least, are as powerful and relevant today as they ever were, not for making me feel like a sinner, but for reminding us that God so much desires a holy people to make the most of creation.

We are supposed to be a holy people where these commandments are not violated. God doesn’t give these commandments to Adam, or to Noah, even though the final six might seem universal and are widely recognized by other religions. God doesn’t say, now post these in the secular courts and try to make people outside the faith follow them. But reading Exodus 19 first reminds us that the 10 C, and as we’ll see next week, especially the first four, are a holy and awesome summons to those God has liberated and chosen. We are summoned to be a set-apart enclave where human decency is honored and practiced, in a minimal way but with absolute seriousness, so that the goodness of creation not be completely obscured by sin. The six social commandments are a mirror for us to hold up to ourselves only. If we are not keeping these basic rules, then we need to do some collective prayerful repentance, and to submit ourselves one and all to God to set us right.

And the sad truth is that Israel didn’t keep the commandments, despite their promise to do so. Indeed, we find that it’s often religious people who most seriously break these commandments. This week’s worst killings were by Boko Haram, falsely invoking God. But with yesterday’s shooting in Texas, white supremacy, often blasphemously claiming the mantle of European Christendom, added 20 more people to its victims. I’m not sure that religious people on the whole do more harm than non-religious people, but the fact remains that people wielding the holy name of God do plenty of harm. They thereby prove an important point made by the first four commandments, the ones we have yet to consider: the more we invoke the name of God, the greater the responsibility we take upon ourselves. Next week, we’ll see something quite unfamiliar about these commandments: they are not best described as good, common sense rules for all; they are a terse reminder that those of us who have accepted God’s election as God’s people, and we alone, are playing with fire.

5th in Easter: “Weird Dreams of Conquering Power”

Acts 11:1-18 ; John 13: 31-35

So Peter has this weird, trippy dream about killing and eating the animals forbidden as food for the Jews. And he concludes that the Spirit is telling him something the church hadn’t agreed upon: that Christ has overcome the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, that is, non-Jews. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘Peter, I think you misinterpreted your own dream. It was about food.’ Well, yeah; but this is the Spirit working. The Spirit is not as direct as the Risen Christ confronting Paul in his vision. The God-is-still speaking Spirit doesn’t always make outward sense. But while the way Peter arrives at his conclusion is hard to follow, the conclusion is nonetheless correct and surely inspired and true to the meaning of Christ.

Now, believe it or not, this weird dream is also about our theme of power, and Christ defeating power. Here’s where the weird dream gets interesting. Notice that Peter dreams that God tells him to kill and eat all these forbidden animals—as pictured on your bulletin cover—that he has never dreamed of eating before. And his response is very visceral: yuk! Let me bring this closer to home. We know that we need to eat less meat, for the good of our environment, our health, and the treatment of animals themselves. So people are devising schemes to replace traditional meat with alternatives. One is grasshopper protein. Imagine a grasshopper burger. Yuk!—right? Now, that reaction we’re having is not completely natural. Some cultures eat grasshoppers; Jessica has seen fried tarantulas for sale in Cambodia. So where is that yuk that we’re feeling, and Peter was feeling, come from?

It’s from the most subtle side of what I’m calling power, the same power that Christ has conquered. Power is anything that constrains us. So we’ll think first of our parents, or the police, or our minister threatening us with hellfire. But the power of yuk is much more subtle that the violent threats of authorities, because it works within us, through the emotionally charged categories we rely on, the mental boxes we use to sort things into good and bad, tasty and yukky. This is the soft power of culture, the power of language and custom. It’s an invisible power, but no less potent than the police, because it works on our insides, viscerally. It’s the power of yuk.

And it’s important to say that this soft power is not always evil; it is a good creation of God, given to enable order in society. Some today see all social categories and any constraint as inherently oppressive, even violent. That’s going too far, I think, because every society needs categories. The rejection of all social power leaves one and only one thing in control: ego; me. Many of our songs and popular stories are about the ego being liberated from all social constraints to be whatever it wants to be: I’ve gotta be me! We eat that stuff up (yum!). Now self-expression is also a good creation, but at the heart of our faith is not an unconstrained ego but a self-giving love that is obedient to God. Both ego and power are fallen, sinful—so our Christian tradition tells us, and both have been conquered by Christ. So power, constraint is necessary and may be used for the good, but it is never innocent. We should always look hard at our system of mental boxes to see if something nefarious isn’t lurking in our yuks.

Now, the most basic category that power uses to order society is the distinction between friend and enemy, native and stranger, citizen and foreigner, Jew and Gentile. These typical categories seem to be in the ascendancy right now, across the globe. And of course, what parent is not going to warn her children about strangers! The Torah sanctified this distinction between Jew and Gentile in order to establish a people set apart for God’s purposes. That’s the main reason for the dietary restrictions that make Peter go yuk; they keep Jews distinct. But notice that the Torah also contains striking injunctions to care for the foreigner, the alien, and the immigrant, and promises that God will one day unite Jew and Gentile.

That day came with Christ Jesus. When the time was right, God overcame this distinction in Christ. At the core of the church’s identity is an overcoming of this fundamental category that is essential to all other societies: insider/outside, member, non-member; citizen/ foreigner. That’s why the church holds fellowship across all borders, across all races, across all lines of what’s considered “normal” sexuality and gender identity. It’s why we say “All are welcome;” it’s why we are Open and Affirming. We are freed by Christ from this pervasive distinction of between inside and outside—not freed so we can do whatever we want; not so we can sing, “I’ve gotta be free”; not freed to be unconstrained egos. We are freed to welcome and love and serve all. That starts here, in this place where we welcome all and we practice loving one another, as Jesus in our reading from John commanded his disciples to do. We need to prove to ourselves and to the world that a community can be grounded in love that transcends distinctions. And that will involve a struggle, against our own yuks and those of people out there. But Easter is the season to be thankful that in Christ, we are already delivered.

4th in Easter: “Egoless Heaven”

Revelation 7:9-17 ; John 10:22-30

Last week, we witnessed how Paul, who personified the power of the establishment that was set against the young church, was conquered by the Risen Christ. He did this not by deadly power, but by gently taking away Paul’s ego, his identity as an enemy to God, and replacing it with a self that soulfully serves God and the church. And baptism, with the gentle touch of water, is how we practice this non-violent, non-coercive dying to ourselves and rebirth into new life in Christ. A dying to ego, and a rising into a new life of love for others. And this doesn’t happen at the time of baptism, of course, but takes our whole lives long.

Well, I’ve been teaching this class called “Listening to Doubt,” which means we are taking seriously why it is many people find Christianity hard to swallow. And one reason is that our profession of humility, that we have put off our egos, often comes across as hypocritical to non-Christians. (And they are in good company there, for there’s nothing Jesus couldn’t stand worse than a hypocrite.) N on-Christians notice that we say that our lives are lived in complete devotion to God (well, I don’t say that; nor do I think God expects that of me, but some do say that); Christians claim to be devoted to selflessness and love for others, and care not at all about themselves. But by the way, after I die, I’m going to have my every wish and desire fulfilled in heaven, while you non-christians will suffer eternal torment. Thus says the cheerful, selfless Christian. It sounds hypocritical, doesn’t it? Like giving away our cake, and having it too? It sounds like in the end we’re just finding a better and longer-lasting way to have what we really want. Friedrich Nietzsche was just one of the more clever skeptics who took Christians to task for this seeming hypocrisy.

I think I’m willing to concede the point. You won’t hear me make constant and lengthy references to the joys of the afterlife to come. I’m not keen to select “I’ll Fly Away” and such hymns. And the Bible is on my side on this one. You won’t see any references to a glorious afterlife through most of the Old Testament. That shows that our faith need not be centered on specific promises of an afterlife of thus and thus kind. Christian art has often indulged in this. And the Qur’an contains passages describing the specific pleasures of heaven. We find nothing like this in the NT. The closest it comes is our passage in Revelation, which is a weird book that has never been central to Christians, except the left Behind types, who seem to read little else.

So consider this rare New Testament depiction of the saints in heaven. I want you to notice three things. One, John depicts a huge number of saints in heaven, and tells us that all of them are martyrs, who died in persecutions, what John calls “the great ordeal.” (He seems to greatly exaggerate the number of martyrs, however.) John doesn’t bother depicting ordinary Christians, nor Christians like me who enjoy a rather comfortable life. Second, he gives them absolutely no distinguishing characteristics. They are all robed in white, all surrounding the throne, all doing the exact same thing—praising God and falling on their faces. Third, they are not depicted living in sumptuous pleasure, strolling down streets paved with gold and all that. They receive this: shelter from God, which means merely that they no longer suffer hunger or thirst, nor scorching heat.

So when the helpful skeptic accuses Christianity of being secretly ego-centric, this passage lends him almost no support. Rather, ego seems to be lost in heaven, overcome by the one true self who himself is not even identifiable, doesn’t look like the bearded Jesus of Sunday school room portraits, but as a slain lamb.

Now throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus promises eternal life to his sheep; and eternal life seems to be something we already receive here and now. But the eternal life we seek beyond the limits of mortal life, I believe, is not a perpetuation of the goods accrued in this life to our ego, or even our distinctive achievements. It is complete union with God, which is as much a liberation from ego as it is a preservation. It is complete union with God and those united with God. John’s vision is clearly a vision, an envisioning, and he makes that clear by making his vision weird and symbolic, like a dream. There is no prescribed vision of what heaven must be like in the Bible, and I’m not out to mess with yours. I’ve known plenty of Christians with specific hopes for the afterlife who all the same have given their egos up to Christ. But consider John’s vision, and you’ll see, and maybe convince the skeptic, that heaven is not where we have it all, but can be simply life finally free of ego.