Sunday, 27 April 2008
A sermon for Easter 6
Keep my commandments
One of my favourite cities is York, we have great friends there and Jo (my wife) even lived there for a while. So whenever I have the opportunity we go back there, and usually visit the place where Jo worked - a place called the Spurriergate centre – a church that has been converted into a coffee and bookshop, with various fair trade items on sale as well. It’s a Christian Centre which does meals and coffee as well as having the shop and offers befriending, prayer and counselling opportunities for those who drop in.
The last time I visited I noticed, for the first time, as I sat there drinking my fairly traded coffee that painted up on the wall by the entrance were the ten commandments – this piqued my interest so I looked at the details there on the wall next to the commandments, where a small card offered some explanation as to the meaning and purpose of those parts of the church that had been left in situ in this café. I discovered on reading about the building that at some time (I’m not good on dates) it was a requirement for all Churches to have the ten commandments painted on the wall – usually behind the Altar – for all to see. These commandments had been kept as an original feature of the building and I wondered what the shoppers and visitors must have thought to have these ten commandments looming over them as they munched their way through their baked potatoes, carrot cake or whatever.
It seems that the ten commandments have lost a lot of their impact on today’s world. We rarely use them in services as we used to, they are rarely taught about, and though there is a lingering memory of them amongst most people, and they are usually part of the school RE syllabus, the 10 commandments as traditionally known have very little influence on our world today.
Which brings me to Jesus saying at the start of today’s gospel reading. “If you love me, keep my commandments”. Which should lead us to the question – what commandments? The ten commandments? Another set of rules and regulations? All of the commandments in the Old Testament (there are over six hundred apparently).
As a Jew, Jesus would never have thought in terms of there being anything called ‘the ten commandments’. For him, as for any follower of the Hebrew faith, there was the law, the prophets, the histories and wisdom in the Scriptures. And the law was that which every good Jew sought to live by – not any one part of it, but all of it. It wasn’t for the sake of rules and regulations, though some lived by the letter of the law, but the law existed to offer a discipline and guidance in living a life acceptable to God. It was the springboard for a good life, not the whole of it.
That’s why Jesus never refers to the “10 commandments” or offers any teaching on what is known as ‘the decalogue’ specifically – though he refers to ‘the law’ frequently. Jesus didn’t want to offer rules and regulations, but guidance, principles to live by.
And if we search for rules and regulations in the teaching of Jesus we will be sadly disappointed. Most of his teaching is done in stories, and the times he does offer specific teaching he is often responding to a specific question for a particular reason – and even then Jesus doesn’t always give a straight answer… Jesus offers so much more than a list of things we must and must not do.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I wish the Bible were a rule book, sometimes I wish I could just open it up and find an exact text to answer each situation. Sometimes it would be an awful lot easier if it were just a long list of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ – with a nice index at the beginning to make looking up the crucial rule for each situation easier.
But the message of the Gospel, I believe, is that rules and regulations are not to be the way of those who follow Jesus. It’s harder work than that, we no longer have tablets of stone with rules engraved upon them, instead, through faith, we are called to allow God’s law to sink into our hearts, and to make decisions based not on commandments but on faith.
This is freedom, freedom from those things which constrain us – but at the same time it is a great responsibility. It means thinking, searching, questioning, praying our way through life. This must be firmly rooted in a life of faith and of reading our Bibles and seeking out the deeper truth therein. To some this approach might seem frightening, but actually it opens us to living as God would truly have us live, rather than in slavish obedience to a book of rules.
This principle isn’t something that is new, that I have made up this morning - St Paul himself says ‘all things are permissible, though not all things are helpful’ – and as we read through his letters we are given not laws to replace the law, but Paul’s own response to questions asked him, to particular difficulties faced by the Churches that wrote to him. Paul does not set down his own words as rules to be obeyed, but as his own interpretation of the principles laid down by Jesus. This is why St Paul is so concerned that we learn to discern for ourselves the will of God, to be open to God’s leading.
Rules and regulations are the province of the ‘religious’ rather than the ‘faithful’. In our reading from Acts we have St Paul addressing the Athenians, explaining that being religious isn’t enough, and pointing to the unknown God made know in Jesus Christ. It is because we have his example that we are called to copy Christ and to have a relationship with him, a relationship of faith, rather trying just to follow rules.
So when Jesus is talking about commandments, he is talking about the principles of faith, of serving God, of loving God and of obeying God’s higher laws – laws of love, of humility, of service, of giving. There are no rules and regulations for this, there is no list of commandments. We gain the principles from studying the Bible and seeing both what Jesus says and does.
And so, we work with the principal of ‘the Golden rule’ – of doing to others as we would have done to us. We work with that wonderful, all embracing summary of the law by which Jesus sets all the standards – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. We remember that Jesus says, just a few verses before today’s reading – a new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you.
But to really learn to live like this we must be open in our faith, open to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives, and willing to study the Bible and learn God’s ways. In some ways the rules and regulations are the easier route, but in the end, allowing God to write his laws in our hearts will open us up to the freedom that comes from knowing and doing God’s will. I pray that for all of us, every day we get a little bit closer to that goal, as we pray ‘Thy will be done’ in each one of our lives. Amen.