The Ten Commandments

Note: This sermon was given at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky on March 7th, 2021 on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B. The recording at the bottom of this post is the version for St. John’s. Photo by David Wirzba on Unsplash

Exodus 20:1-17
John 2:13-22
Psalm 19

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning we read the account of the Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus.

What do the Ten Commandments mean for us today?
What do the Ten Commandments mean for us today?

The Ten Commandments were not just a pair of stone tablets dropped out of the sky! Well, they sort of were. What I mean is that the Ten Commandments are not just a list of instructions, written in a book from two thousand years ago. The Ten Commandments came as part of a story; in fact, the story of the Ten Commandments makes up almost all the Book of Exodus. Our passage this morning is just a piece of the story.

The story of Exodus is a story about two things. It is the story of escape and freedom from slavery in Egypt, and it is the story of the covenant between God and God’s people.

God first made a covenant with Abraham; God set no rules or regulations, but made a promise — that he would be the father to many nations, even though he was of old age and could not bear a son. Abraham bore a son, Isaac, who bore Jacob. Jacob fathered twelve sons, who ended up in the land of Egypt. Once there on the bequest of Pharaoh, over the generations they multiplied as God promised, and the Egyptians enslaved them, and tried to limit their numbers by murdering their male children. God rescued the Israelites through Moses, and God brought them out of Egypt. Here, on the other side of that miraculous delivery, God has brought them to a Holy Place to renew his covenant, his promise, with them. But this time, God asks for something in return. God asks for loyalty; for trust, for the people to remember God. Also, God asks for them to trust each other; not to steal, murder, commit adultery, or even to covet, or think about stealing and murdering and committing adultery. The Israelites are to keep the covenant, to maintain their relationship to God, by doing these things; and the sign to others that they do those things will be Sabbath. They will keep then sabbath, and rest on the seventh day.

So, What do the Ten Commandments mean for us? What do they mean today? Are we still bound to follow them, just as the People of God pledged to follow them?

Jesus certainly raises the issue of law numerous times, but perhaps it is St. Paul who should have the first say. In the letter to the Romans, Paul argues repeatedly that God has not abandoned the Israelites; to the contrary of some who would believe that Christianity supersedes, or replaces, Israel. Paul says that Christians, specifically the non-Jewish believers in Christ, were grafted onto the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17). Our covenant, our relationship to God and God’s people, is through a new covenant, that of Jesus. Our covenant makes us a part of God’s chosen people; it does not replace them. Paul goes on to say that we should present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, and that we should let love be genuine, hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good (Romans 12:1, 9). St. Paul has in mind an idea of how we should act towards God, and towards our neighbor.

Perhaps this is best fleshed out in Jesus’ response to the question of “what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40). Jesus’ two great commandments reflect the two parts of the Ten Commandments: loving God, and loving our neighbor. And as Jesus says, the Ten Commandments, and all the Law, hang on these two statements: love God, and love your neighbor. Now that’s something that we know a bit about.

To be in relationship with God, the God who was in relationship with Abraham, with Jacob and his sons, with the people of Israel who brought us out of Egypt, and who finally sent his only son to save us, God asks that we follow the commandments. God asks that we love him back; not because of some dependence he has on us, but because of what happens to us when we twist and pervert our relationship to our creator.

We see every day what happens when people worship money over God, or power, or sex, or perhaps worst of all, themselves. We see how quickly their relationships become misshapen in pursuit of something that is not the almighty. Likewise, we see what happens to Christians who love God immensely, but do not extend that love to their neighbors. Perhaps in our tradition, we fall on the other side; we love our neighbors and care about social justice and social issues, but fail to give full acknowledgement to God, fail to follow the sabbath, and fail to order our lives around our covenant with him. Being in right relationship with God means loving those different from us; but loving those that are different from us does not itself cause us to be in relationship with God.

So, what do the Ten Commandments mean for us today? They are a part of our covenantal history with God, the relationship that we have been grafted into as God’s children. And just like in our households, there are rules that are designed to maintain that relationship. Sometimes those rules keep us safe; other times the rules help us make decisions on how to live together. Sometimes, we break the rules, and we have to ask for forgiveness. Fortunately, God knows our weakness. God sent Jesus to intercede, to bring us into right relationship with God. Through his death and resurrection, we are brought into covenant with God; we die to our old lives of self-worship and selfishness and are brought to new life here. In this community, this odd place that we call the church. This place, where we gather every Sunday, priest or no priest, to remember the story of God, to remember our relationship with the almighty, to remember the covenant. Yes, we too, can use the Ten Commandments to order our lives; but that ordering of our lives is meant to reflect the one relationship that defines life itself: Our relationship to God.

The Book of Common Prayer puts it more eloquently than I could in our Catechism (Book of Common Prayer, 847). Our Duty to God is (1) To love and obey God and to bring others to know him; (2)To put nothing in the place of God; (3) To show God respect in thought, word, and deed; (4) And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God’s ways. This is how we maintain our relationship to God. Amen.

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