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Lent 3, Year B, St Mark's, 20.03.03
Exodus 20.1-17: Decalogue
Ps 19: The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart
1 Cor 1.18-25: human wisdom futile; Christ crucified - Wisdom & Power of God
John 2.13-22: Passover near; ravage temple; raise up new in three days. Collect: that we, walking in way of cross = may find it way of life and peace Post Communion: grant grace to withstand temptations & follow you with pure heart. (1602 words
Summary: We have been freed to love our neighbour, not as an onerous duty but as a glorious and joyous possibility.
I preached to you on this day three years ago, but I have no intention of preaching the same sermon, although I may recap a bit of it.
Our OT reading has been the Decalogue, literally, the Ten Words, or, as we more commonly say, the Ten Commandments. Three years ago I pointed out to you that the first commandment defines the Lord God, Yahweh Elohim, as the one who brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Yahweh is the one who has created them as a people in freedom, which enables them to respond. That is, God has acted, therefore we are enabled to respond. Thus all biblical ethics in general and Christian ethics in particular is what we may call “therefore” ethics: God has acted,. therefore, we are called and enabled to respond.
The second commandment about no graven images means that only the image of God, namely, our neighbour, is allowed to us. If we would serve God then we are to serve not a lifeless image but our neighbour, who is God’s image.
I went on to show how all the eight remaining commandments concern our relationship with our neighbour.
It is striking that almost all the ethics of the writings of the NT are Decalogue-based. In fact, in 1 Corinthians Paul bases more than two whole chapters on what we may call variations on the Decalogue, working from the tenth commandment to the first and then from the first to the tenth.
In the first century AD the Decalogue was part of the Sabbath liturgy in the synagogue, but it was dropped out in the second century because of what the Christians had done with it. They apparently argued that the followers of Jesus were only bound by the Decalogue, because it is the only part of the Torah, the five books of Moses, that was written by God himself, written by “the finger of God” on the tables of stone.
In Mark’s gospel a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all, and Jesus’ answer combines two verses of the Torah, Deut. 6.4 and Lev. 19.18, what we call the Summary of the Law. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.
When Matthew reworks this, he makes one significant change and one addition. He leaves out ‘your strength’ and substitutes “your mind”, which is just an alternative translation for the Hebrew levav, meaning ‘heart’. This is because he is emphasizing that neither Jesus nor we have any real power of our own. Matthew then goes on to add, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”, meaning that all that is valid in the Law and the Prophets can be derived from these two commandments.
Note that Jesus was asked for one commandment and apparently answered with two. This is because the love of the neighbour is the inevitable corollary of the first half of the summary of the law.
Part of our Lenten liturgy as Anglicans used to be that we read the ten commandments every Sunday in Lent. And many old parish churches had wooden panels in the sanctuary on which one could read them. Now, instead, we have a version of the summary of the law which is a combination of all of the elements of the Markan and Matthaean versions. And it holds up to us the calling to love God and our neighbour as the two sides of one coin.
Let me tell you three true stories.
In the 17th century Frederick the Great was the King of Prussia. He decided that he wanted to learn what language was spoken in heaven, and so he hatched a plan that he, as an absolute ruler, was able to put into effect. He was sure that it would give him the answer. So he commandeered a number of new-born babies and set them up with wet nurses who were given strict orders. On pain of death they were to feed, bathe and clothe the babies, but never to speak in their presence, not even to sing a lullaby. With no human input, it seemed obvious to Frederick that when they started to speak, it would have to be the language they had heard in heaven before being born. Unfortunately for Frederick and even more unfortunately for the babies, Frederick never got his answer, for they all died before the age of one.
My second story is a related one. The Community of St Mary, a religious order in the Episcopal Church of which Dorothy used to be an associate, used to run one or more orphanages. Eventually they closed them down and shifted their efforts instead to working as an adoption agency. This was simply because of the high mortality rate among the babies in their care. Why? Simply, because there was not enough love to go around.
Some forty years ago, not longer after we had come to England, I read in the newspaper a very sad story about a young mother who had bashed her baby to death. In deep anguish she said, “Nobody ever loved me. When the baby arrived, I thought it would love me, but it didn’t. So I killed it.”
In the 1940’s an American psychologist named Eric Frome, after a great deal of empirical investigation, reached the conclusion that we only learn how to love by being loved, a conclusion reached nearly 1900 years earlier by the author of the First Letter of John, when he stated that we are enabled to love because first God loved us.
And 1 John ends up with the summary of the law: Love God and love the neighbour, with the very last words of the letter being, “Little children, beware of idols” - for only one image is allowed us: our fellow human beings.
Let’s face it. There are times when we think it is a lot easier to love God than it is to love our neighbour.
We ourselves are a major obstacle to loving our neighbour as ourselves, for all too often we don’t really love ourselves very well. The things we most dislike and hate about ourselves are the very things we most readily detect in others and can’t stand. It is the old problem of the mote in the other person’s eye and the beam in our own, or in more modern words, the speck and the plank. There is only one way around this problem, and that is, so to speak, to have the hell loved out of us. When we know that we are held by the deep and unbreakable love of God in Christ, then, knowing we are the beloved, we can love ourselves and truly love our neighbour.
Thus it should not come as a surprise that when we read St Paul’s letters, we find much about God loving us, and much on our loving the neighbour, but only twice does he ever speak of our loving God. In fact, in writing to the Galatians he says, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal. 5.14). And he goes on to say, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6.2). But Paul does not see this as a demand placed on us from outside. In fact, he sees it as a possibility placed with in, as a new-found potential. For it is Paul’s experience, and that of all who live in Christ, that the promise found in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet of the 7th century BC, has come to pass. In Jer. 31.33 we find “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” This is what Paul is referring to when he writes in 2 Cor to those whom he has brought to the Lord: “You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3.3). And as Paul says of himself in his mission to the gentiles, he is not lawless before God but enlawed of Christ.
Most English translations say “under the law of Christ”, but that is not what Paul wrote or what he meant. He says ennomos Christou, which means enlawed of Christ, that is, it is an inner motivation, not an external commandment.
You and I, in Christ, have been freed and empowered truly to love our neighbour, not as an onerous duty but as a glorious and joyous possibility. Thanks be to God. Amen.