Saturday, August 29, 2015
Heidelberg Catechism 94-95, James 1:17-37, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Last month, at the end of my sermon series on Life, I asked one of you what to preach on next. That one of you said, “Something about how we Christians address the world.” So I said, “Like how we walk in the world, like about the normal Christian life, like how we set our moral course from day to day.”
Then I got to work. During my study leave, I spread out all the lectionary inserts through this coming November to see how the lessons might speak to this, and if I could map out a series.
I saw problems. The Gospel readings are from the second half of Mark and are mostly about the Lord Jesus approaching the cross, but some of them do speak to this, like today’s, about the inner source of personal morality. The Second Readings come from the epistle of James and then from Hebrews. James is relevant, but Hebrews is all theological meditations on the comforts of Jesus’ high priestly sacrifice. The First Readings are from the poetical books of the Old Testament, and these don’t speak at all to the daily walk of the normal Christian life. So there was not much.
The Lectionary may be required in some denominations, but in the Reformed Church it is optional, and we are free to adjust it. So what we will do is replace the First Reading every week with one of the Ten Commandments.
For 3000 years now the Ten Commandments have been the most trusted guide for the moral life of the people of God. And think of it — in all the Bible, they are the one and only sustained public speech of the Lord God — that’s how important they are.
For Jews, they are the basis of their Halakhah, which means the “Walk.” They guide you how to walk with God. That’s true for Christians too. Christians are given less law and more freedom. You are called to what St. James calls “the law of liberty,” and so for you the Ten Commandments are a guide, a map, a compass, an inner gyroscope to keep you in balance as you address the world in freedom every day.
The Ten Commandments are taught by all the major Christian catechisms as the best map of morality to guide you in your daily Christian walk. That includes our own historic Catechism, which was written in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1563. The Heidelberg Catechism is used by the Reformed churches of Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, North America, and Indonesia, and it’s also used by the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ. It’s the most widespread and best-loved Protestant catechism of them all. And I’m supposed to preach on the main points of this catechism every, according to the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America. So what we’re going to do every week is substitute the relevant section of the catechism for our First Reading, as we did today. This series will have ten sermons in it, with three interruptions, and this will take us into November.
The Ten Commandments open thus: “And God spake all these words saying, ‘I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’” Notice the preposition: “before me.” Literally, “in front of me.” That is, between you and me.
So no other gods in between us, no other forces or powers or principles or great ideas in the way. Just you-all and me, with nothing between us. So, when you walk, it’s always just me in front of you. When you address the world, I’m always before you. And I want you to keep it that way, and to want to keep it that way.
This means both obligation and freedom. Obligation to God and freedom from anything else. We all put other things alongside God—if not right between us, then just off center. But this first commandments means there’s nothing else in the picture between God and you, no other a priori, no other universal, no other loyalty, no higher calling, no other ideal or ideology, no philosophical truth, no worldview, no natural law, no iron laws of economics, no logical necessity, no nationality, no flag, no ethnic or racial obligation, no claim of sexual identity, no birth order, no parent, no spouse, no citizenship, no leader, no other ultimacy, no competing claims, just God.
Well, who are you, God, that we should do this? A fair question. “I am the Lord, Yahweh, Jehovah (sic), the great 'I am'—I am that god who comes out of nowhere, from outside the boundary of the universe, the creator of the universe, the god from beyond the limits of light, the source of light, the Father of lights; I am the Lord your God—I have given myself to you, I entered my universe to invest myself in you, I am for you, I am that god who came out of nowhere to bring you Israelites out of Egypt, and who then came out of Israel to bring all sorts and conditions of humankind out of your various houses of bondage, and that includes you Brooklynites! I am the God who saves you and sets you free.
“That’s who I am, and though by rights you ought to serve me out of fear and dread, and if you must start there, fine, and if you need the correction that fear is the trigger for, fine, but what I want is for you to love me out of gratitude and thankfulness.”
You’ll notice that the first commandment is predicated on God first announcing God’s identity, an identity not given in terms of a philosophical idea, but an identity manifested in God’s free actions toward you in the world. This is the God whom you cannot capture because God is always before you, and is always before you to be always for you, and God wants you to have nothing other before you as if it could also be for you as God is for you. For none other loves you as God does.
None other, and this is less a command than an impossibility. It is not possible for you who are freed by the true God in order to love God, to also offer loyalty to other gods or powers or ideas. For that’s what it means to love God. It’s not an emotion but a commitment and desire. It’s a commitment to the highest good, for God is the highest good, and a desire for that highest good. You want to be always present to this highest good, so you can address the world in terms of good.
I’m talking about a being present to God who is always present to you. It’s not a matter of sight, of course, nor of any of your senses. It’s not a matter of your head. Nor is a matter of your gut and your emotions, as if you could feel God. It’s a matter of your heart, and your inner sense of what it means to be a human being.
You were made for this, you were made to live through your heart, and to have this relationship that goes from your heart to God’s heart. It’s love to love, God’s love to you, who makes you lovable as the first-fruits of God’s love. God is always present to you, even if you are not present to God, so that every generous act of giving that you do ultimately comes from God, your actions are the fruits of God’s love that God pours into your heart.
So then, the issue of idolatry is really the issue of your own heart. It’s not so much what the other gods are, as why you would want to put them up there. Why do you place such value and ultimacy and uncompromise on the projections of your own needs and desires?
Well, we do. So we need the constant reminder of this commandment. And then what this perfect law offers is very different, it’s your behavior in the world that is not determined by your own desires extended and projected.
This is a revolutionary change in ethics. The classical Greek and Roman sense of virtue was the advancement of your own best selves, and that was Humanism too. But Christian virtue is not an projection of your best self. That would be what St. James calls “looking into a mirror.” It’s rather that you address the world in terms of how you might love the next person that you meet, how you might love that next thing you encounter. St. James calls this “the law of liberty, the perfect law.”
To keep God before you is to keep love before you. And you can apply this love in various ways as you make your way in the world. You can address your work with love, which is not the same thing as loving your work. You can address your circumstances with love, which is not the same thing as loving your circumstances; you can address your neighbors with love, even if you don’t like them, you can address your enemies with love, even when your enemies are your neighbors.
You can do this. With all your heart. From the heart means you do it in freedom, and not by means of a checklist. (What the Lord Jesus is getting at in the Gospel reading.) With all your heart means no defenses, and you are humbly open to the forgiving love of God.
You can do this because you are a human being, and this is what human beings are specially designed for, to know this God and love this God. You can do this because you desire that which alone can give you security and rest, and that is none other than the love of God for you.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.
I'm starting a new sermon series this Sunday. It's on the Ten Commandments. It's called, You Can Do This. It uses the relevant sections of the Heidelberg Catechism as well as, when relevant, the Second and Gospel lessons from the Lectionary. My goal is to speak to the Normal Christian Life, or, The Christian Walk in the world, and how we address the world as Christians every day. Let's see how it goes! (Life is like a box of chocolates, after all.)