I’m sure some of you will remember the story about a couple who were visiting the Episcopal Church for the first time.
They came in a bit late—just as the congregation was saying the confession.
When the man heard the line “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done—and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”—he turned to his wife and said:
“You see, my dear, it’s just as I told you--this is the right place for us!”
How true it is!
The Episcopal Church is the right place for all of us—for we have all “left undone those things which we ought to have done—and done those things which we ought not to have done!”
As William Temple—the late Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The Church is a hospital for sinners—not a showcase for saints.”
But--how do we really know what things we ought to do—and what things we ought not to do?
That’s the question for today.
Of course—there are many possible answers.
Many would say “follow your heart—and you can’t go wrong.”
Others would say “listen to reason—think things through—and you will know what to do.”
Others would point to the teachings of various human philosophers.
Still others—a growing number today—are saying “do whatever you want—for there is no such thing as right or wrong.”
But for Christians—and for other Ethical Monotheists--none of these answers is adequate.
People disagree about what is reasonable.
Opinions vary about what is good.
And the human heart can certainly lead us astray.
There has to be a Higher Way.
There has to be a Higher Law.
For us—morality has to be rooted in the Will of a Righteous and Loving God.
And that’s where the Ten Commandments come in!
The Ten Commandments is another topic that is rarely mentioned—or (at least) rarely dwelt upon—in sermons.
Maybe that’s because today’s preachers are afraid of being called “Legalists”—which is considered a bad thing in the modern world.
But the Ten Commandments are fundamental for all Christians—and used to be posted next to the altar (along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed)—in every Episcopal parish.
So here are a few things all Christians should know about the Ten Commandments.
First of all—the Ten Commandments—also known as the Decalogue—are found in slightly different versions in two places in Scripture: Exodus, chapter 20—and Deuteronomy, chapter 5.
The version in Exodus 20 is considered to be the definitive one.
According to the familiar Biblical narrative, God gave the Commandments to Moses—during a face-to-face meeting on Mount Sinai.
Moses then came down the mountain with the commandments inscribed on tablets of stone.
(This is where the expression “written in stone” comes from—to describe a decree that cannot be changed.)
Before Moses could give the commandments to the Israelites—he discovered that they had already broken the first two—by making a graven image (“the Golden Calf”) and worshipping other gods.
In anger, Moses threw the stone tablets on the ground and smashed them—showing that God’s Law had already been broken—even before it was given.
That is the first thing we have to grasp about the Ten Commandments.
Like the Israelites--all human beings have broken God’s Law.
You and I have broken God’s Law—even before we were old enough to have any idea what God’s Law is.
This means that we cannot be saved by obeying the Law—because we have already broken it!
And—as Jesus himself pointed out—if we are guilty of breaking even one provision of the Law, we are guilty of it all.
The only way we can be saved is by God’s Grace—through Faith.
If we trust God—and accept what God’s Son has done for us on the Cross—we will be forgiven.
But back to the Commandments themselves.
The way the Commandments are arranged teaches us about priorities.
The first four Commandments—You shall have no other gods—you shall not worship any idols—you shall not take the Name of the LORD in vain—and remember the Sabbath Day--these first four teach us to put God first.
God is to be the first priority in our lives—and we must not let other things—no matter how important—take God’s place.
The other six Commandments—honor your father and mother—you shall not commit murder—you shall not commit adultery—you shall not steal—you shall not bear false witness—you shall not covet--these six teach us how to treat our fellow human beings.
So our first priority is God.
Our second priority is our neighbor.
It’s just as Jesus said in his Summary of the Law:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
“This is the first and great Commandment, and the second is like unto it.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love of God and Love of Neighbor—together they sum up God’s Law—and constitute God’s priorities for human behavior!
It’s also worth noting that some of the Commandments are stated as positives—“You Shall”—and some are stated as negatives—“You Shall Not.”
Thereby we are taught “those things which we ought to do”—as well as “those things which we ought not to do.”
And while the Ten Commandments were addressed specifically to the Hebrew people—they are actually universal in scope.
They are widely believed to apply to all people—in all times and all places.
Finally—there is “Good News,” and there is “Bad News.”
(Some of you may remember that I recently preached a sermon about “Good News” and “Bad News.”)
The “Good News” is that God has given us the Ten Commandments as divine guidance.
We aren’t left to determine what is right on the basis of our own fickle feelings.
We aren’t left to figure out what is reasonable on the basis of our own feeble intellect.
We aren’t left to depend on the teachings of fallible human philosophers.
God has clearly told us “what we ought to do”—and “what we ought not to do.”
There is a Higher Way—and a Higher Law.
The Ten Commandments offer us standards of human behavior—rooted in the Will of a righteous and loving God.
Striving to live by them can make the world a better place.
That’s the “Good News!”
The “Bad News” is that God’s standards are too high for fallen creatures like ourselves!
We have already missed the mark.
Each of us has already fallen short.
That’s why—whenever we recite the Ten Commandments in the Prayer Book service—each Commandment is followed by the response “Lord have mercy.”
The Ten Commandments teach us that we are sinners in God’s sight.
And we need to learn that lesson.
But they also remind us of the “Gospel”—the “Good News” of God’s Grace.
By showing us our imperfections—the Ten Commandments draw us to Jesus Christ—the one human being who perfectly obeyed the Commandments—and the one person who has the power to forgive sins.
By obeying the Commandments, Jesus fulfilled them on our behalf--as our representative and our surrogate—making it possible for us to be saved.
Therefore—“Whoever believes in Him shall not perish—but have Everlasting Life.”
That is the ultimate “Good News!”