Sunday, October 2, 2011

Top Ten

Top Ten

World Communion Sunday Meditation

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Exodus 20:1-20

I am the Lord your God,

who brought you out of the land of Egypt,

out of the house of slavery...

Over the years we’ve all heard perhaps more debates than we would have liked concerning proposed monuments to the Ten Commandments on public property, debates that often seem to generate more heat than light. Are the commandments simply common sense regulations, universally applicable across religions and cultures, which all people everywhere would do well to obey? On careful reading we have to say, the introductory statement suggests not. These were commands issued to a very particular group of people in a very particular time, which they then carried forward into their particular faith as a sort of standard of community behavior. What’s more, straightforward as they may seem, there is no consistent agreement on something so seemingly simple as the proper numbering. Even Christian groups argue about whether verses 3 and 4 comprise a single command or two. The final command in Exodus places coveting a neighbor’s house ahead of coveting his spouse, while the list in Deuteronomy has it the other way around.

From 1980 to 1985 I served the Presbyterian church in Port Arthur, Texas. During my tenure as pastor of that congregation we planned and built a new sanctuary. The name of the church had recently been changed to The Presbyterian Church of the Covenant because of its history. In 1979 two formerly separate Presbyterian churches in the city were united into a single congregation. They covenanted together to become one church family. Because the name of the church so purposefully included the word “covenant,” at the rear of the new sanctuary we commissioned stained-glass windows depicting the 6 biblical covenants.[1] Upon exiting the sanctuary, you could see on the far left the “rainbow covenant” window from the story of Noah, then the Abraham window, and, next to the door, the 10 commandments window, known formerly and very affectionately in that church, as the nine commandments window. You might wonder why nine commandments? The artist who designed the window – and it was a modern window for a modern sanctuary – said the Roman numeral “X” representing the 10th commandment was supposed to be there in your imagination, obscured behind a rough bunch of color that was supposed to depict the Sinai mountain. It didn’t matter, though, what it was supposed to represent. Most people who saw it said immediately, “Hey, how come only nine commandments?”

Before that window was altered by the stained glass company to include the Roman numeral for ten, lots of jokes were passed around local ministerial circles in the community to the effect that the Presbyterians were obedient to all commandments except one, and no one could agree on which one it was that we were free to ignore. My favorite explanation for the missing commandment came from the person who said it was missing because the 10th commandment was implied in the name of our church. Change a few letters and you get the Presbyterian Church of the “Covet-not.”

Lots of writers through the ages have had a lot to say about the commandments, however we number them.

H.L. Mencken, never a particularly religious man, once wrote, “Say what you like about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.”

Once, at a National Press Association meeting several years ago, Ted Turner declared, in his usual, shy, understated way, “... We’re living with outmoded rules ... and I bet nobody here even pays too much attention to ‘em because they are too old. When Moses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was no poverty. Today the Ten Commandments wouldn’t go over. Nobody around likes to be commanded. Commandments are out.”

Mark Twain once told of a conversation with a notoriously ruthless businessman, who said to him in passing, “Before I die I mean to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where I will climb Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top.” Mark Twain reportedly replied, “I have a better idea; you could stay home and keep them.”

While it’s true that we may sometimes possess an uncritical desire to be free of laws and limitations, some sort of law is absolutely essential to the creation of any sort of community. Some things you have to be able to count on. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter could be expected to speak for the importance of the letter of the law, and he once wrote, “If one man can be allowed to determine for himself what is law, every man can. That means first chaos, then tyranny. Legal process is an essential part of the democratic process.” On the other hand, speaking on behalf of the importance of the law’s spirit, former Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote “It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive.”

Of course, biblical law is not to be confused with civil law. A God-created covenantal community was and is something new. The new thing, which came into being at Sinai, was a covenanting community based on trust and forgiveness, because that was the way God had determined to deal with the community. Freed Egyptian slaves were to acknowledge God by granting each other freedom under the law.

The old oversimplification that the Old Testament represents oppressive legalism while the New Testament supersedes law just isn’t accurate. It is inaccurate because Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[2]

What this means as we approach the Ten Commandments in search for understanding is that the law is God’s gift to liberate the human community not to enslave it. To realize the necessity of law, we only need to turn the idea around and consider the chilling alternative: a community of people in which fathers and mothers need not be obeyed, killing is condoned, adultery is considered normal, thievery is not prohibited, lying is not unlawful. What sort of covenanting community of mutual trust would be possible under those circumstances?

The law provides boundaries for God’s people, while forming the very heart of Israel’s freedom. Oddly enough, it was failure to obey the very first commandment that most often seemed to be Israel’s undoing, that frequently led to failure in obeying the other commandments, that led to the re-enslavement of the people. “You shall have no other gods before me,” is the primary assertion in the law from which all the rest is derived, and the reason why placement of the 10 Commandments on public property rubs against the anti-establishment clause of the constitution in many people’s minds.

The 10 Commandments represent not only social faithfulness, as found in the last 6 commandments, but our very faithfulness to God. It is all of one piece. One cannot be faithful to God and faithless to neighbor. One cannot make an idol of bricks and sticks, or ministers, or church school curriculum, or a favorite set of hymns, or an accustomed seat in a pew, or flag, or country, or job, or even family, or school, or church, and expect to be declared an obedient servant, a free child of God.

True freedom under the law rests in obedience to the law in spirit as well as in letter. Jesus wanted to make this clear not just through his teaching, but in the offering of his life. In John’s gospel Jesus spoke of a new temple.[3] As the disciples reflected later he was referring to the temple of his very self in resurrected form. Those who try to live their lives by the 10 commandments, who know that Christ is our new sanctuary, also know what the church building is and is not. And they also know that the freedom of salvation in any age is not earned by obedience to the law, but by the saving, loving acts of God.

We gather today around the table in community with each other. The word for our celebration is based in community with its name “communion.” The very community we share is possible because of the loving provision of God’s law, and the perfect expression of it in Jesus Christ. So, of course, we gather on what we call “World Communion Sunday,” not only in community with each other here, but in community with our brothers and sisters gathered at communion tables down the block, across town, throughout the nation, and all across the world. The worldwide community of the faithful is possible because of the faithfulness of one man, Jesus Christ, whose perfection and self-sacrifice have saved us, and made justification through grace under the law possible for us all.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved