Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Last Sunday I began a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Last week I said that your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. I said that your character is not static but dynamic, you develop your character by the choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. I said your choices have momentum and trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude. I said your choices have a residue, and the combination of residue and attitude is your character.
My method in this series is to ask each new set of Sunday lessons what they might say about character. This week is easy. The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are the handy guide to character development for Jews and Christians. That’s why they’re up on the reredos in our sanctuary, because they were read out every week in the old Dutch Reformed liturgy. That’s how I learned them by heart as a child, by hearing my father read them out every Sunday morning.
Only two of the ten are stated in the positive. For special emphasis, because of how distinct they make the culture of the Israelites. The distinction of the Sabbath Day is obvious, and it has many social and economic implications, especially that laborers get a day off every week, which was unheard of and unwelcome, and had specially to be ordered by God.
But what’s distinct about honoring your parents? Well, in Egypt and all the other nations it was the nobility that you had to honor. The ordinary life of most people was regulated by social class and economic class, and you had to show honor to people of privilege: “Your majesty, my lord, your highness, your honor,” no matter how they treated you.
But God’s people are a society of radical equality and a single social class, without nobility, except— you are never the equals of your parents, and they are your nobility whom you must honor. This too has many implications, but not for today.
Eight of the ten commandments are in the negative, and that’s because they presume our freedom and initiative. You tell a slave what he must do, because he has no freedom, but your daughter has freedom and initiative, so you instruct her differently: you set limits for her, and tell her where she may not go and what she may not do. These negative commandments are like the fences of your yard. The rabbis described them as a fence, which metaphor Jesus uses in his parable, in the first verse. The fence around the vineyard is the Torah, the Law of God.
One of the most important gifts we give our children is a sense of boundaries. It’s as necessary to tell them what they may not do as what they may do. Many parents seem afraid of this, and maybe they fear the reputation of the negative. We see them give their children too much choice, too much freedom, more than they can handle, and children don’t know where to stop, and they end up with characters combining selfishness with insecurity. Maybe many parents don’t have good boundaries for themselves, and they transfer onto their kids the unchecked combination of their own fears and their own desires driving them. Adults need boundaries too, and God gives you boundaries precisely because God has also given you the gift of freedom.
Boundaries provide resistance to your freedom, and it’s resistance that helps you build your character. As with physical exercise, you only build your muscle strength with resistant exercises, so the boundaries of God’s law give resistance to your freedom for the building of your character. The judgments of God are the opposition to your ego for the cultivation of your character. But according to St. Paul, the law of God is not enough. There has to be a further energy and motivation. For him it is a passion and desire which he identifies in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” That’s my own personal verse, by the way, my core directive, the verse I want the preacher to preach on at my funeral.
What does it mean to “know Christ”, especially in terms of cultivating character? Well, of course, there’s emulation: he’s an example and a model for you in your choices. And there’s devotion: he is your Lord, as you repeat in the Apostles Creed: “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Devotion to a Lord means service and obedience, which also guide your choices.
But St. Paul means more than that, something spiritual and transcendent. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” We know him on this side of his resurrection, between his resurrection and his return again, we know him not as a close friend here with us, but as the ascended Lord, into whose person is packed the new creation of the world, the new world that is coming, which he embodies in himself. The new world is ahead of us, it’s already established and waiting for us to get there, when we ourselves will somehow attain the resurrection from the dead.
That new world is not just a dream for the future, it’s a reality already in the future, on the other side of the boundary of death, a reality made by God, with a life and a power invested backwards, sort of, from the future into the presence of Christ. You share in that power which he exercises in the world by your knowing him. By knowing him, especially in worship and in prayer, you open your life to the power of his Spirit which gives the energy and motivation to the choices which you keep making in your life.
St. Paul also says a negative. “I want to know the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” Why the negative? Well, remember that I referred last week to an article from the New York Times magazine, and the title of that article is this: “What If The Secret to Success Is Failure?” Just as failing and then getting through your failure is essential for cultivating your character, so sharing the suffering of Christ and then conforming to his death gives you the resistance and the boundary you need. This sharing and conforming provide the inner opposition of which I spoke last week, the repentance and humility, the ordeal that you work through each week freely, the often painful self-awareness which leads to greater empathy and love. It’s a kind of training.
St. Paul ends with an athletic metaphor. So let’s say the commandments are the fences and foul lines and the strike zone and the bases, and let’s say that knowing Christ is the actual playing of the game. It’s only by playing that you develop your skills, the skills of character, and you can improve your skills even when you lose a game. You can risk, you can try, you can gamble and experiment, because it has already been won for us by Christ, the victory is not just a dream, it’s a reality that has power for us now, and you can make free choices with courage. You know, courage does not mean no fear, courage means going through your fear to do the right thing anyway, even if the right thing means sharing his suffering. And the point of being configured to his death is not that you be crucified, but that your natural fear of death and your natural fear of loss do not control your choices, not even the loss of honor or reputation or esteem, all of which he lost on the cross.
The implication is that the greatest freedom of all comes when you are free from yourself, you are free from your credentials and your gains, free from your achievements and success, free from everything you think you know, free from what you’re trying to prove to other people, free from what you think you know about yourself, and that’s because what you want to know is Christ. It is so liberating to not belong to yourself, and paradoxically empowering. You are free to choose the only thing you are not free of, the only thing really demanded of you, which is to love, to love your neighbor as yourself, and to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. You make your choices in order to cultivate a character of love, because you want to know God.