Exodus 20:1-17 + I Corinthians 1:18-25 Lent 3 March 8, 2015
the covenant and the cross
Roy W. Howard
For generations, the Reformed Christian tradition to which Presbyterians belong in the wide river of Christian history had the practice of standing to recite the 10 commandments during worship as a response to the declaration of God’s forgiveness of their sin. That may seem odd for a Christian community that puts so much emphasis on grace – the unmerited and undeserved favor of God bestowed upon sinners without regard for their goodness or lack thereof. John Calvin was emphatic that there is nothing in the human condition or anything in human behavior that earns the favor of God, as if the Christian life were the equivalent of scouts earning merit badges for virtuous behavior. For generations since, Presbyterians have said much same about sin and grace. In fact, it is common for Calvin and Presbyterians to receive severe criticism and mockery for our dour attitude toward human possibility and insistence upon the persistent reality of sin. Reinhold Niebuhr, commenting on our proclivity to mess things up, famously said the only Christian doctrine for which we have empirical evidence is sin. As Saint Paul put it: all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. And, in case you were wondering if you are the exception, Paul really means everyone; humanity has fallen short of the glory of God. Anne Lamott, who embodies the Presbyterian perspective with more humor than anyone I know, said: my mind is a dark alley, I try not to go into it alone.
It’s this strong insistence of the Biblical perspective on our woeful condition that leads us to put such a strong emphasis on the necessity of God’s grace freely given in Jesus Christ for salvation. There again is a word that has lost all meaning for most of us: salvation. What is it and who needs it? Its root contains the word for healing; to-be-made-whole; to mend what is wounded.
There are many programs that proclaim salvation if you follow the plan of virtue laid out for you. Some of them are religious programs, some even go under the claim of Christian.
But lets be clear: the Christian vision of human flourishing – salvation – is not a program and there is nothing that you can do to mend your own wounds or provide your own wholeness. Nothing. Christianity is actually so radical in its prescription that most people, including most Christians, either refuse it or find a way to adjust it to fit our plan. Yet, anything that fits into our plan will be less that God’s infinitely wonderful plan (desire is a better word) to mend our wounds and make us whole. It’s called Grace – and there is nothing you or I can do to earn it or merit it: not by our virtue, not by innate goodness, not even by the depth of our depravity, failure and deception.
In the eternal desire of God, humanity receives favor – salvation – through the most astonishing act ever known: God being crucified for us in Christ, taking upon himself the darkest and most violent of human evil. This for the sole purpose of healing creation and mending the wound of our separation from the source of all love: God. And there is nothing we can do but receive the medicine of the cross and rejoice in God’s love for us. No payback, only gratitude. This is the heart of Christianity. It is more radical than any can imagine; and it is all the doing of God.
Saint Paul is bold enough to push us even further. He says it’s sheer foolishness; and not our foolishness: it’s the foolishness of God! How stunning is that? The way in which the world and all of us will be healed is through this act of God displayed in the cross of Jesus receiving all the sins of the world upon him. Is it any wonder that this is called foolish by one and scandalous by the other? Yet for those who believe; for those who have the eyes of faith to perceive the beauty of God in the cross – this is our salvation.
In the strange way of God, what appears wildly foolish is deeply wise; what appears as utter weakness is remarkably strong. Once we begin to perceive what this Gracious God is about, your freedom begins. Because after all what is more freeing than to know that you are loved eternally and that there is nothing you must do, nor anything you can do to earn such acceptance? The sheer foolishness of God will make your heart sing. That’s grace.
So why on earth would Presbyterians, believing this astonishing vision of God’s love and grace, recite the 10 commandments every Sunday as a response to the declaration of pardon?
Imagine for a moment you have received a gift. There is nothing you can do to repay it, without reducing the gift itself, nor is that the point. But there is something that wells up within you, in response to the smallest to the largest gift. You can see it on your face. We call it gratitude.
And John Calvin thought that gratitude is the expression that most fits the Christian life and that all our acts could be considered rendering gratitude to God for the gift of grace. For him and for Presbyterians that followed in his path, the law of God was a gift given to form a merciful community. The 10 commandments are not just restraints, a sort of moral fence, but rather a way to express gratitude and honor God in all our relations. Every community – from the family to the office to the church to the society – needs some form, some moral pattern of rules that will guide. Even Saint Paul knew that the radical freedom of grace has to be expressed in some positive social pattern. It wasn’t just for self-indulgence. He called it the law of love.
This is great spiritual balance of our lives: we who live freely by grace – undeserved and unmerited – express it in very concrete social ways. Refusing to violate our neighbors integrity or seeking his property, honoring our parents, shunning adultery, blessing the Sabbath, never stealing nor murdering another and having allegiance to God alone whose name is sacred and never to be used in vain. (Not even OMG)
Law and grace; they actually do live together. It’s the way of gratitude and praise. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.