Law and the Gracious Covenant

A Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent

Text: Exodus 20:1-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who graciously fulfills the Law. Amen.

We call them the Ten Commandments – the ten rules God gave Moses on Mount Sinai after the Exodus. In so many ways, they are close to the heart of the Christian faith. While Jesus gave us the two greatest commandments – love God, love your neighbor – and a new commandment – love one another – it is the Ten Commandments, also called the Decalogue, that became part of the Church’s Catechism.

Show of hands: who memorized the Ten Commandments at some point as a child? And those of you who grew up in the Lutheran faith: how many of you had to memorize Luther’s explanations for each commandment in the Small Catechism as part of confirmation? I’ve heard from some who were confirmed in the Missouri Synod that on Confirmation Day, they would stand up in front of the entire parish as their friends and family drilled them, asking questions from the Catechism; the confirmands would have to give Luther’s answer out loud, verbatim, in front of the entire congregation. (I never found out what happened if a student gave a wrong answer, but I’m glad confirmation in the Methodist tradition wasn’t so legalistic.)

All of this is, in some small way, a hold over from the ancient practice of catechesis – teaching through echoing, a sort of call-and-response. The teacher would say, “The First Commandment: I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” And everyone else would repeat: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”

Lent has historically been the time when the Church prepares our newest members to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and fully join the Church. Part of this preparation includes learning the Catechism. Across the ages, from before the time of Saint Augustine through the Reformation when Luther wrote the expanded version we now call the Small Catechism, and across the world in our own era, new Christians and their sponsors are studying the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. These three “symbols” of the faith were and are the “beginner’s guide” to Christian life. How appropriate, then, that we receive this text today, calling us to reflect with our soon-to-be siblings on these ten divine commands?

The Ten Commandments are so important because they summarize the Law. Lutherdescribed the Law as a mirror, showing us our own sin, calling us to repentance. In some Christian traditions, the Ten Commandments are even read aloud to the congregation before Confession every Sunday as a reminder of our need for God’s grace, a sort of checklist to help believers catalog their sins so that they may fully repent. It makes sense, then, that during this penitential season we call Lent, as people prepare to be forgiven in the water of Baptism and as the entire Church takes this time to draw closer to God, that we would read these laws as one of our texts for a given week – because even our lections are calling us to a holy Lenten season.

This is how we typically think about the Law: as something convicting us of sin, the list of things that we never seem to get quite right, a benchmark we can never achieve. “Well, I didn’t murder anyone, but I coveted nine homes on my way to church this morning….” Even Christ’s command that we love God and neighbor are out of our reach, let alone loving our enemies.

Our relationship with the Law is complicated. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments are near the center of Christian life. But on the other hand, we think of the Law as little more than a source of conviction. One of the big things to come out of the Reformation, and a key Lutheran contribution to Christian theology drawn from Saint Paul’s writings in the Epistles, is the distinction between Law and Gospel. Unfortunately, this is often deeply misunderstood, as if to say that we need the Law, but only because it hangs over us as a threat. Some Christians try to divide up all of Scripture in to one of those two categories. “Here’s something God tells us to do: Law. Here’s forgiveness: must be Gospel.”

But the distinction is not always so sharp.

The Law certainly does convict us; but it is not a cudgel. Despite some of the rhetoric in Scripture, the Law extends beyond judgement. So maybe it’s not actually that our relationship with the Law is complicated; maybe it’s too simplistic.

The document we call the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue is part of a larger list, and it follows a specific style of ancient treaties. The Decalogue takes the form of a legal contract, a covenant, between an emperor and a less powerful kingdom: the emperor would make a claim to authority through history and hand down the law and punishments before the people.

By way of example, imagine if US laws had been written like this:

I am George Washington, General of the Continental Army, your President, who has liberated you from the oppression of the English King.

You shall have no other presidents before me.

You shall pay to me taxes before the 15th of every April.

You shall not drive above 70mph on Interstate 75 between McDonough and Macon.

The one who breaks these commands may face fines or jail time,

but they who obey shall be free indeed.

These treaties, these covenants, told people how they were to live as subjects of a new king. What does it mean to be an Egyptian subject, or part of the Assyrian Empire? Obeying this king and following these rules.

The Ten Commandments (and the rest of the Law) are more than just a list of “Thou shalls” and “Thou shall nots”. They’re a way of life. They’re a covenant. Rather than submitting to an earthly king or president, this is how God expects people to live: defined by God’s redemption of the people from slavery in Egypt and rooted in that promise made to Abraham.

The Law doesn’t start with the assumption of our ability; even Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the leaders of the Exodus, would repeatedly break the faith. Rather, it starts with God: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Michaelangelo’s Moses Saint Peter-in-Chains, Rome 

This Law is difficult to uphold. Even the baptized saints are, after all, still sinners like Abraham and Moses. So what do we make of this? Are the Ten Commandments merely a list of dos and don’ts threatening condemnation? Only if the Law goes unfulfilled. But Christ has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets! Christ has made the covenant complete.

What of the Law, then? It is not about earning our salvation but how we are to live after the Lord has saved us. The Lutheran reformers described this as a further use of the Law: not only does it convict us of our sin, but it shows us how to live as the redeemed people of God. Just as the Gospel tells of salvation after our failure to keep the Law, so to does the Law graciously show us how live out the Gospel. The Law and the Gospel are intimately linked.

The Law is neither an executioner’s sword nor a cudgel to beat us over the head, not some unobtainable standard dooming us to failure but a guide of how we are to live as God’s people.

This is how God has always intended us to live, God’s ideal for Adam and Eve, and the life to which our Lord called Noah and Abram and Sarai and Moses and Aaron and Miriam, the life we are called to through our Baptism!

What does it mean for us to live as people brought into the covenant? It means that in Christ, we are free to live into God’s perfect Law, to live as the people that God has, from the very beginning, called us to be.

For those who will be baptized at Easter, it’s not that they have earned their spot at the Font by following these rules. No, Baptism is necessary because we haven’t obeyed these laws. Instead, the Law is how we are to live as people brought into God’s covenant. And as we, the baptized sinner-saints, prepare to come to the Altar and receive the renewed covenant in Christ’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins, the Law reveals how we live as a people nourished by such divine grace.

Put another way, it’s not about what we do but who we are. We are a people who have no other gods, who do not bear false witness. We are a people defined by our love for God, neighbor, one another, and yes, even our enemies. We are the people of God, set free by the Gospel to live into the Lord’s Divine Law of Love.


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