So what is about the Ten Commandments?

So, I`m sat there having what at my age passes for a haircut and I`m asked, “So will you be working over Christmas then?” I thought the collar would have given the game away… so forgive me, I didn`t know quite where to start. I recall the comedian Jasper Carrot telling the story of the young woman who goes into a jewellers and asks for a cross and chain and disappointedly says to the counter assistant- “No, I want one with that little man on”. We smile benignly but these incidents illustrate the truth of what our former Bishop, Graham very perceptively said some years ago that `one of the issues facing our nation is that we`re living off the capital of our Christian heritage`.

In other words, much of what we are about has, for many become a distant memory; for example, it`s the reason behind daily catch phrases such as `touch wood` but there`s no longer any connection with the cross and the content of belief and so we`re left with a mix of ignorance, indifference and even antagonism towards the faith which has helped shape this land. But what concerns me the more, I think are the `half-truths` which float about and which pass for the real thing. The mistake assumptions people have about what the Christian life actually is. There`s nothing new in this I mean I`ve mentioned before how all our talk about the body and blood of Christ led people in the first century to accuse Christians of being cannibals.

But I recall many years ago when I was working as Chaplain at a College of Further Education I called on a particular member of staff who sat me down his office and rather pointedly said “so where do you fit in?” He I think, had noticed the collar and was somewhat unnerved by it because he knew that `Chaplaincy Services` as they were called fitted into `Student Support` and all the rest but he also knew that this was only half of the story; only part of my agenda.

And this is how it seems to be with a society such as ours that can`t think what to do with us anymore. In so far as we`re acknowledged at all for many it`s as if we`re filed us under the category labelled `morality`. It doesn`t like having us there but that will have to do. So, the half-truth that`s peddled is that our only real contribution is what we call the 10 Commandments. Our interest, they seem to think, is peoples `good behaviour`.

Now we read them this morning and clearly folk are a little unsure about the references to slaves, oxen and asses and all the rest and the emphasis placed on `Thou shalt not` gives them a stick to beat us with but as a caricature and a half-truth of what we`re about this seems to fit. Again, it all stems from some dimly remembered notion that the primary thing about the Christian faith is the keeping of rules. And let`s be honest those in authority have nurtured the Church for its willingness to collude in maintaining a certain social order and stability- just as nowadays (with gritted teeth) it relies on Christian people for food banks and effectively the bedrock of volunteering across the nation.

But of course, scratch beneath the surface and the half-truth is plain to see. What they really mean when they talk about Ten Commandments (if they`ve read them at all) actually boils down to about FOUR; the ones which relate to murder, adultery, false witness and stealing. Folk are far less keen on the one about coveting because if we`re honest, both capitalism and socialism in our day thrive on envy. But my point is that people focus on the second half of what`s called the `Decalogue` and I`m suggesting that this is not only a half-truth but consequently it`s completely miss-leading .

Forgive me going over old ground but let`s get things in order. Firstly, the Ten Commandments which Moses brought down the mountain were delivered to a people- the people of Israel. And the point of them is NOT “If you keep these rules you can be my people” On the contrary they mean “Since you ARE my people” (God had just delivered them from slavery in Egypt) “THIS is how to live. THIS is the shape your life will take now you are in relationship with me. In other words the Ten Commandments are a guide for how to live in RESPONSE to the God who has called us into a relationship with himself. They don`t make sense otherwise and to focus on the final four or five without reference to the others is to take them out of context.

Let`s get this clear, the Ten Commandments are not timeless humanitarian maxims from which you pick and choose the ones that are convenient to you. They belong as a whole and they all spring from the first one: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me”. It`s only when you hear this that you see the point of what comes next.

Now, earlier this week a group of us began to reflect on what we`re calling the “A, B, C, of Worship” and one of the things I hope we learned was that it`s terribly easy to fall into the half-truth of thinking that worship is just about what we do here on a Sunday. But on the contrary just as the old hymn reminds us, “Seven whole days not one in seven I will praise thee”, what happens here is actually just the prelude- a setting out of a stall- a declaration about the way I will offer my life to God over the next six days. As St. Ignatius put it- “I am called to praise, reverence and serve God”.

And we also noted that the word Worship is best translated “Worth-ship”. It asks us to consider what we`re devoted to; what we set our hearts on and what we give our lives for. Because it`s here and in these kinds of things that we see the real `drivers` of our behaviour don`t we? It`s like those old words about `Your religion is what you do with your solitude`…. (When no one else is looking) Worship is best considered as our complete response to God in ALL things; it`s about what really floats your boat or as Jesus put it “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”.

In the same way when the Ten Commandments are boiled down to four or perhaps five moral precepts we hardly do them justice. This is the half-truth which fails to appreciate that all Ten of them are a call to a whole new way of living. A life lived in response to God; a life shaped (and this is the point) by the desire to worship and please him. So here I think is the question to be asking in the events of the week ahead. “How is what I am doing now expressive of my devotion to him?” “Is what I am doing now pleasing to Christ?”. If not, why am I doing it anyway? St. Paul told the Corinthians “Make it your aim to please him”. And he told the Romans “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.

Part of the problem I think is that we allow the patterns and shape of our daily living – which is in so many ways formed by the mores of a liberal consumerist and secular democracy – to colour what we expect from and how we will shape our worship. Just as that culture tells me `I am entitled to this that or the other, my fulfilment, entertainment and all the rest” –as I`m always saying we judge our worship on the same basis “Did it `do it` for me?” Whereas, I say again what we`re aspiring to is Worship- which will then give shape to life.

Now, the good news is that anyone here who is retired should excel at this…… (That`s got you thinking hasn`t it?…. at least I hope so!) Please don`t misunderstand me, I`m not blind to the very different pressures one faces after leaving the world of full time work and all the rest. My Father-in-law was fond of saying he had so many things to do in retirement that he couldn`t think how he found time for work and gave himself fully (as many of you do) in the service of Christ.

But you`ll remember in times past when someone retired they used to give out gold watches or clocks and things. Time pieces were used in those days as quite a strong way of reinforcing the mantra, “My time`s my own now”…..And given the nature of much employment there is a tangible and wholly appropriate sense of relief about that; but it helps to realise, of course that this is just another half-truth. Because that `gift` of time is really just an opportunity to choose; and how many of us easily forget to ask “how can I use this gift of time to please Christ?”

You see it`s no accident that the Fourth Commandment is about keeping the Sabbath Day. That`s a big issue in itself but fundamentally it`s telling us that the ordering of time; the choices we make about our weekly, daily pattern is one of the ways we worship, praise, reverence and serve God. The problem is that we`re not always very good or rigorous enough about this. The Bishop of London was talking last week about how the shape of Christian living is simply not distinctive enough.

What he was getting at is that you couldn`t look at the average Christian and be quite clear from the choices they were making that they had a higher loyalty and obedience at heart. That`s the challenge. And this is the direction in which the Ten Commandments lead us. We need to dispense with the half-truth that they are just four or five blunt moral precepts which indicate which cracks in the pavement we are supposed to avoid. Instead we need to see them as Worship. Called into relationship with the saving God, as his people we are to make choices which let his Spirit shape the people we are becoming. Again, as Paul says: “Make it your aim to please him”. Well since there`s no retirement from being a Christian, those of us who have the relative freedom to choose are, I believe called to set the example.

 

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