St Bride's: Sermons

Summing up the commandments

It used to be the law that when a new church was built the ten commandments had to be displayed prominently near the holy table. But if you built a church today it would probably be considered perverse if you suggested displaying the commandments anywhere, let alone in a prominent place.In the same way, the commandments, once as it were mandatory in the Church's liturgy, have almost vanished.

Now there are those who say that the disappearance of the ten commandments is at the root of society's troubles. Though I don't in any sense subscribe to that view, I am certain that society as a whole has moved away from command systems. In a sense the Church has followed. It no longer in practice promotes a system of hard and fast rules, the breach of which produces severe sanctions.

We are scandalised at the suggestion that thieves should have their hands amputated, that adulterers should be buried alive, blasphemers stoned to death, traitors beheaded. In the same way we would be upset if anyone suggested that women should be treated as property.

Yes, the Church has changed too. It no longer operates on the basis of fear: I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.

When we take decisions as to whether to do such and such a thing we don't look at the rule book and see what the consequences will be if we get it wrong.We operate from the standpoint of consent, not coercion, and moral decisions are pragmatic rather than based on obedience to a code.

The ten commandments in that context are but examples of how a basic principle can be applied to particular cases. For us, and we have had to clear a lot of deck to arrive at this point, there is only one command that is universal and covers every situation.

It's odd that at our point in history this can seem revolutionary or even subversive. It's odd because Paul said it a long time ago:

The commandments are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for the former system, and also a quite dangerous desire on the part of some to cast God in the mould of an irascible tyrant bent on vengeance. But by and large people have become gentler in their approach to behaviour. But of course life has become more difficult as a result. It is no longer good enough to say 'Don't do that because God says it's wrong'.

Decisions about how to act are in consequence much greyer than they were, and individual choice is brought to bear far more. Added to that, society is far more pluralistic than it ever has been, and there is a lack of cohesion, caused, I imagine by the decline of community.

Civic values, and actions carried out at public expense for the common good, are in disrepute, and the consequence is fragmentation at all sorts of levels, as if there are no standards to apply except those that take account of individuals. What I want is the whole of morality.

But look at that passage from Romans again:

The commandments are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

That's not rampant individualism. It is a collectivised morality that recognises us as communal creatures, responsible for one another. But for Christians this is not simply a universal law imposed externally, or even one thought up so as to benefit as many people as possible. It is not only the command of Christ himself, but the consequence of his presence with us.We are impelled to love one another because Christ so much loves us. Not just me, you, but every person who has ever lived is loved by God and embraced by Jesus, God-made-man.

Love your neighbour as yourself because God in Jesus first loved you. You, with all your faults, all your dysfunctional behaviour, are a child of God and loved by God. Therefore build community, love one another so that God's abiding love may be seen in the world.So that it may be manifest everywhere, but especially, signally, in the Church.

Modern Christians have a hard task. We live with a legacy of hard rules which are widely regarded as irrelevant to the modern world. And we have this law of love, which for us makes decisions about what to do in given situations very difficult.

Of course we have no problem agreeing that it is wrong to kill people: most of the rest of the world agrees with that. And for most of us the problem is how to get along in the Church, and outside it with a lot of people we don't like, but from whom we can't escape. But the importance of the communal life of the Church cannot be over-stressed.

It does create problems, and our failure to get along, our failure to treat these people for whom Christ died all gets noticed. We are his body. Closer than our relatives to these people from all possible origins, with whom we share one baptism. These people who drink from the same cup.

But it works!

The Church is good news.

It breaks down barriers.

It brings people together, values them, liberates them, affirms them.

Through the grace of God, through the Eucharistic celebration, strangers are claimed by the power of his love.

The knack for us is to recognise when it is happening.

To look around us and see what barriers are irrelevant in this assembly.

It is all because God first loved us.

And it is only when we ourselves are conscious of being enfolded in love that we can begin to obey the command.

Only when we know what it means to love ourselves because God loves us.

Growing consciousness of the presence of Jesus here among us, alongside us, in us, will make for true community, where all are offered profound respect.

None of this means that we should or can live without sanctions, without discipline, as today's Gospel reading makes clear.

What it does mean is that the basis of our morality is more in line with tradition.

The commandments are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Yes, and that is motivated by the steadfast love of God for us in Christ Jesus, who even now, when two or three are gathered in his name, is there among us.

 

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