The Best Commandments

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow

 

Sermon: 16 February 2020

Let me ask you a question: What is your favorite commandment? Out of all the commandments in the Bible, all the instructions of Jesus, which one is your favorite?

Let me ask you a question: What is your favorite commandment? Out of all the commandments in the Bible, all the instructions of Jesus, which one is your favorite?

You all know the story of the lawyer who came to Jesus and tested him by asking “What is the most important commandment?”, right? — but that’s not my question. I’m asking what’s your favorite commandment? Which commandment seems to resonate most with what you think is actually, really, truly right? Which commandment seems to you to bring out the best of God’s will for us?

Because I think that really is the purpose of commandments: to bring out what is best.

So often, when we think about commandments, when we ponder laws and rules and regulations, what we think about is how they limit us. We think about commandments and laws and rules and regulations as telling us what not to do. As blocking off certain places where we should not go. As marking out certain behaviors we shouldn’t do. We think of commandments and laws and rules and regulations as negative provisions that keep us away from what is bad.

We certainly get that feeling from the Deuteronomy reading today, don’t we? There seems to be a very simple, straightforward proposition here: obey God’s commandments and live, disobey God’s commandments and die. Period. End of story.

But what if there’s more to commandments than that? What if the purpose of commandments is not just to prohibit what is bad? What if the purpose of commandments is to bring out what is best?

I think that’s the point Jesus is making in our Gospel reading today. Jesus here takes some traditional commandments and shows how they’re not just rules against being bad, but are invitations to be better.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” So murder is something bad, and the commandment exists to keep us away from it.

But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Jesus knows that violent acts are not the only way to take life. Being angry with someone — and I mean real anger, not just the kind of irritation or annoyance that we all feel sometimes, even for the ones we love best, but anger — deep, settled, intentional anger, the kind of anger that leads you to insult someone, the kind of anger that leads you to call someone hurtful names or demeaning labels — Jesus knows that kind of anger also takes life. That kind of anger diminishes the person you’re angry against — and it diminishes you, too — that kind of anger makes it impossible to be in truly life-giving right-relationship. And that means taking away from someone something of their life.

Jesus says “Don’t do that.” But Jesus doesn’t just leave us hanging there with a “Don’t.” Jesus also gives us something we can do. “If you know that your brother or sister has something against you,” Jesus says, “then leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Be reconciled, Jesus says. Don’t just leave a life-damaging relationship to rot, but go make a better, life-giving relationship. Do what you can to redress that bad relationship and bring forth from it something better.

So for Jesus, as Jesus teaches it, the commandment “You shall not murder” is more than just a rule or regulation to prohibit being bad. It is an invitation to be better. The real purpose of this commandment of God is to bring out from us what is best.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Breaking a vow, promising someone that you will be with them in the kind of relationship where intimacy will be a way of growing together in God, and then betraying that promise and breaking that relationship — that is bad. And the commandment exists to keep us away from doing that bad thing.

But Jesus knows that we can break faithful relationship in other ways, too. Looking at someone as if they are a mere object, thinking of someone as if they were just a screen where you can impose your own projections, as if they were just a tool for you to satisfy your own desires — that also is a kind of breaking of faith. That diminishes the other person, it makes them in your eyes something less than fully human, it is a failure to be faithful to the relationship work of letting the other person be for you who they really are.

Instead, Jesus says, we should look at others with a faithful heart. Instead of focusing our attention on those projections and assumptions and stereotypes that would cause us to sin, Jesus says, we can move those things aside, we can cut them off from the source of their energy, we can offer ourselves to be in trusting and trusted relationship with others as they really are and not just as we want them to be. That way all our relationships — intimate relationships, working relationships, friend relationships, compassionate relationships, political relationships, person-on-the-street relationships — all our relationships can be true in heart. That way all our relationships can be openings for us to practice Jesus’ way of love.

For Jesus, the commandment is more than just a rule or regulation to prohibit being bad. It is an invitation to be better. The real purpose of this commandment of God is to bring out from us what is best.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely.'” Lying under oath, promising you will tell the truth and then deliberately telling something other than the truth, is bad. It erodes trust and makes it impossible to have honest relationships. So the commandment exists to keep us away from doing that bad thing.

But Jesus knows that kind of truthfulness in speaking and honesty in relationship goes farther than just being under oath. Jesus says we can be the sort of people who don’t even need oaths. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’;” Jesus says: speak your words, and back up your words with actions, with the kind of integrity that lets people know you are genuine, and they can trust you, and that you will be trustworthy for them. Don’t just try to get away with making people think you’re not lying, Jesus says, but really actively be true.

Here again, the commandment is more than just a rule or regulation to prohibit being bad. It is an invitation to be better. The real purpose of this commandment of God is to bring out from us what is best.

So if that’s what Jesus means by keeping commandments, then let’s go back to our question: What is your favorite commandment? How do you think God in Jesus is calling you, not just not to be bad, but actually to be better? How do you think God in Jesus is calling you to bring out from you what is best?

I think right now you all at St Paul’s have a pretty important opportunity to explore that question together. As you go through this transition time, your Vestry and your leadership and each one of you is going to be doing hard work, asking hard questions, and being genuinely open to discerning God’s guidance for the future of St Paul’s.

What is God’s mission for you, as a community, here and now? — not just the mission you had ten or twenty-five or fifty years ago, or in 1880, but the mission God has for you going forward now? How can you connect with your neighborhood, how can you share with your neighbors, person-to-person, the good news of new life that you’ve found in Jesus, and in this community of Jesus gathered here in this parish? How can you apportion your resources to make the most of your mission, to embody here the purpose of God? What is your reason for being here, and how will you live that reason day by day?

Those are hard questions — but they are also hopeful questions, because asking and answering them honestly will, in fact, bring you closer to God. Asking and answering them honestly will open you up more fully to sharing the love of God. And sharing God’s love is precisely what makes things better. Sharing God’s love is what brings out from you what is best. Sharing God’s love is keeping the commandments.

In our Collect today we pray to God to “give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.” May God give us grace and courage and joy to keep God’s commandment of love in everything we do. Amen.

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