Sunday, March 11, 2012

And then there were ten

When we’re trying to make sense of the world, we sometimes try to simplify things. When the world seems complicated, we often dichotomize: we divide the world into two opposed, non-overlapping parts. Black and White. Secular and Spiritual. Law and Gospel. Old Testament and New Testament. Jews and Christians. Commandments and Cross.

In that light, it’s easy for our reading from Corinthians today to come off as self-congratulatory: the Jews and Greeks get it wrong, but we followers of The Way, as the nascent Christian community called itself, we have it right.

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Thinking in “either/or” mode, we might say that Jews cling to the “Old” Testament, the world of the Law, the world of the ten commandments. But we Christians, we’ve moved beyond that. We’ve got the right answer: the cross. The Law condemns us, but the cross redeems us.

But everything doesn’t always fall into such neat compartments. And just because the Old Testament is old, doesn’t mean it’s out of date. It doesn’t mean we should just throw it away.

So today, I want to look at our first two readings: the ten commandments, and Paul’s reflection about the Cross, and see what they tell us about each other.

Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah, the law, contains six hundred thirteen commandments. And yet there are ten that hold a particularly special place in our memory. The first lesson we heard today isn’t known as “ten of the commandments”; we call it “The Ten Commandments”. As if these ten were so special that beyond them, there are no others. What’s so special about these ten?

The Godly Play curriculum calls them the Ten Best Ways to live. There’s a long rabbinical tradition of trying to summarize The Law, and perhaps the ten commandments do that. They start by recalling God’s relationship with the people: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

And then continue:

  • You shall have no other gods before me.
  • You shall not make for yourself an idol.
  • You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
  • You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.
  • Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.

We sometimes divide the commandments, saying that those are about the relationship between God and humans, and the rest are about the relationship among humans: Honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.

But they aren’t in neat categories there. When we covet things that do not belong to us, we both hurt our fellowship with our neighbor and reject what our God has blessed us with. When we do not allow those who work for us to keep the Sabbath, we defile God’s holy day and we exploit our neighbor. And what more wrongful use of the name of the LORD is there than to invoke the name of God to oppress our neighbor? To use the holy name to gain power over others?

When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, continuing in that rabbinical tradition, Matthew 22 tells us that he said

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with 
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great 
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt 
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments 
hang all the Law and the Prophets.

I used the traditional language there because of the transition it uses between the two commandments: “The second is like unto it.” We’re not talking about two completely different things. Our relationship with God shapes our relationship with our fellow humans. Our relationship with our fellow humans is a necessary consequence of our relationship with God.

Love the Lord and love Humankind – these are two sides of the same coin. And this love was brought to its fulfillment in the cross. Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, he fulfills it. The Law, the 613 commandments, the ten commandments, the two commandments – the cross of Jesus demonstrates their most full expression. But the message about the Cross is indeed foolishness to those who are perishing.

The wisdom of the world says protect yourself. The wisdom of the world says be strong, to fight off your enemies. The wisdom of the world says hold back from helping others, and be sure you can take care of yourself first.

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who embrace worldly wisdom.

The commandment to love others as much as you love yourself resists seeking of power for self-preservation. The commandment to love others as self says the impulse to help oneself – to save oneself – is only to be embraced as a part of the helping and saving of all humankind. And there in the heart of the summary of the law is the message of the cross.

The Christian message about the cross is that the ultimate manifestation of power and strength is to totally empty oneself. To lay down one’s life in resistance to evil – not by fighting it, but by bearing witness to the power of God. Love God with every fiber of your being, and love yourself as a part of loving all humankind.

The Roman message about the cross is that power can bring order. The cross itself was a tool of Roman subjugation. Put down rebellions, quell dissent, keep calm throughout the known world.

The power of the cross, to the Romans, was in fear. People who dared to defy them were hung up on display, so everyone could see them very painfully die.

But the Christians embraced the cross as their own symbol. The cross became not something to fear or be ashamed of – look, your movement’s leader was tortured to death here – but rather a source of strength. When Jesus died on the cross, and yet rose from the dead, he showed that the ultimate symbol of violence, the ultimate symbol of peace through strength, the ultimate claim that “power over others makes you strong” was, in fact, powerless against him.

Without fully loving, hoping, believing in the power of God, Jesus could never have embraced the cross. The first of the great commandments makes the second one possible. We have the courage, and grace, and power to serve others only because we are first fed by our God. We go forth into the world to serve only in response to the abundant grace that God first gives us. We can engage in the crazy, foolish, subversive act of loving neighbor as self only when we are animated by the love of God.

Paul didn’t write about Jews and Greeks as “them”. They weren’t the other. Paul’s community was made up of Jews and Greeks. When Paul sets the cross against the expectations of Jews and Greeks, he shows us how our own expectations resist the message of the cross. We are the Jews. We are the Greeks. In each of us is a resistance to the radical, absurd love of God witnessed by Jesus’ passion. But, by the grace of God, we can receive the message about the cross. As we fear danger, we cling to wisdom and power, but the cross of Jesus offers another way: a way of fearless nonviolence, of powerful powerlessness, of foolish love.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Amen. Amen.