To disassemble the gospel is to disarm it. To remove the human Jesus from our faith and from our life together in Christ is to sterilize the gospel of the very purpose and power for which the gospel exists.
A new word: docetism – disbelief in the full humanity of Jesus, though people of this mind, or whatever variation of it, likely don't define themselves or their faith in the negative. Docetism is Christology, a belief in Christ, in which Jesus is only divine. Different from us, different from this life of ours. And it is not necessary to label oneself docetic to act out a docetic faith, a faith removed from the flesh-and-blood-and-bone Jesus of the gospel narrative. Long before it had a name, docetism showed up in 1st John, chapter 4, verses 2-3.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.
Three spirits in two verses:
Test the spirits, he says. The right answer: Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. No nuance. Either Jesus was or he wasn't human. And the spirit among you testifies to the truth. You believe it or you don't. Believing it (or not) you are (or are not) from God. You agree with us, or you don't. Agree, you are right. Don't, you are wrong.
It's the most stressful part of the text for me. Smells like fundamentalism: “either”/ “or." And usually I hate that, because things are rarely either/or. Often two opposing thoughts/ feelings/realities can both be true. But if some things are either/or, is this? i.e., how we think/behave/believe regarding the full humanity of Jesus Christ?
John calls this one either/or, and I agree. He, along with Paul the Apostle, convinces me. Because, again, it comes to the purpose and the power of the gospel itself – the gospel for which we, the church, exist. No gospel, no church. It doesn't mean we can't gather, have a budget and a program to tell a story that we all agree is true. It's just that that doesn't make us church. No gospel, No church.
What John here calls the spirit of the anti-Christ – any guesses where else the word anti-Christ appears in the Bible? In other parts of 1st John and 2nd John. But weirdly, not in Revelation, except in our minds, because of the preachers who drilled into us what John “meant to say” when he was writing about all the beasts coming to torment the world. And now, the word anti-Christ has a life all its own. If you truly have nothing else to read, google it sometime. You cannot imagine the internet rabbit holes into which you might fall.
When the kids were young they watched a stupid television show about a dinosaur family, in which the baby dinosaur always referred to the daddy dinosaur as not-the- mommy, not-the-mommy. My kids thought this was positively hilarious, so for weeks they would yell for Carl by saying, “Not-the-mommy! Not-the-mommy!" But being not-the-mommy is not at all the same as being anti-mommy, right? They don't mean the same thing. Not-the-Christ is actually a better translation, meaning-wise, of anti-Christ. But it translates terribly; it is way too awkward. Sometimes, translators choose a fluent passage over an accurate word.
Raymond Brown, the scholar who knows more about the writings of John than anyone, regards the better translation of verse 3 as, “every spirit that annuls Jesus is not from God.” “Does not confess” is significantly more passive than “annuls." Annul is to cancel, abolish, invalidate, obliterate, to reduce to nothing, to make what is as if it never was. John speaks in either/or: either you confess Jesus Christ in the flesh or you don’t, and the spirit among you testifies to it. But the rest of chapter 4 makes clear which spirit he finds in and among them.
We, University Baptist Church, have a spirit among us. Usually newcomers have a better sense of it than people who've been on the inside for a while. You know how other people's houses have a certain smell, but your own house doesn't? Yeah, it does; you just can't smell it anymore. Sometimes this house smells, but it always has its own spirit. And John's test for that spirit, as we will see more clearly next week, isn't theological – what we say we believe about God – but rather, how we behave toward one another and our neighbors.
That behavior, regardless of what I preach or what we say about ourselves on our website or in our literature, testifies to our faith in the fullness – human AND divine – of Jesus Christ and, likewise, our possession – or dispossession – of the gospel, our power and purpose for being.
So, knowing you'd be nearly asleep by now, because I am boring myself so far, I thought we'd have a little Q and A. I'm Q. You're A.
Q: If Jesus wasn't human, what can be taken off our To-Do List of Faith?
Q: If Jesus wasn't human, what stays on the list?
Q: Finally, if Jesus wasn't human, what gets added to the list?
A: Well, we'd need a new mechanism for salvation, because without full humanity, there could be no death; and with no death, no resurrection; no resurrection equals a reason to be afraid. Because without his walking, talking, living, breathing Self, we don't get to hear Jesus say "Don't be afraid" on every page of the scripture. We don't get to see his eating, drinking, sleeping, scratching, party-loving Self turn water into so much wine; and we don't get to watch his grown-man-size Self stand silent before a tyrant, and be sentenced to death without passing out from fear. Because the words don't be afraid don't mean a thing, if we don't get to watch him walk through the terror of this world, in bodies, families, communities and Empires just like now.
Never human means never dying. Death proves his humanity, his flesh and bone humus-ness. If there was no death, there was no resurrection. “No death” plus “no resurrection” annuls the gospel, does it not? I John preaches the necessity, the necessity, of a gospel fully armed with both Jesus the human and Christ the risen, omniscient, divine, living Holy Spirit.
To disassemble the gospel is to disarm it. To remove the human Jesus from our faith and our life together in Christ is to sterilize the gospel of the very purpose and power for which the gospel exists. And the test, John says, isn't doctrine. It isn't theology. Oh, no. The test is kindness. Walking, talking, breathing, sweating, scratching, ever-graceful Kindness. Between us, and towards our neighbors. Where we will begin again next week.
Would you pray with me?
Years ago my friend Cathy needed help with her knitting. So she took herself to her favorite yarn shop where the master knitter there watched her knit for a few minutes, then said, "Good Lord, child, who taught you to knit?" To which Cathy replied, "My friend, Annette. She's left-handed like me." And Margie, the professional, said, "Well, I've never seen anything like it. And I suggest the two of you do the rest of us a favor, and never, ever teach anyone else to knit! Not ever!" Apparently, my knitting style has certain identifiable trademarks that the knitting community prefer NOT be passed down.
Whether or not 1 John was written by the actual hand of John the Apostle is still debated. But the fact that whoever wrote it learned the faith from him is not. It has John’s theological, his spiritual, and even his literary DNA all over it. Beginning with, but hardly confined to, the twice-stated premise: God is light. On the very first page of the Bible, Genesis 1, we read that before anything else was, God was. Nothing was, except God. Then, at some time before time existed, God stirred the Nothing, and then there was light. And now that light was, Darkness also was. By virtue of the light, there was dark.
Nothing. Then light. And, naturally, dark. John cannot leave this image-story-language about God as light alone, any more than he can leave alone the image-story-language of God in Christ as The Word. Both are there in the opening of his gospel – and here, in the opening of 1st John.
In the larger story of the epistle, John is calling out this baby church for believing it possible to be faithful to Christ without imitating Christ in their daily lives. This imitation I described through the Ten Commandments series as the habits of fidelity, holiness, and justice. This baby church, it seems, had found a way to worship Jesus minus the notions of Jesus as brother, friend or teacher, sacrifice or savior.
For all those ways of Jesus – brother, friend or teacher, sacrifice and savior – require incarnation. Incorporating the ways of the incarnate Christ into our faith inevitably changes our conduct, our everyday life, what we do with the time and the stuff within our reach. This baby church, it seems, had found a Christology of comfort both spiritually and morally – a way of thinking about and talking about Jesus for their lives and their life together that eliminated those demands, the demands of a walking, talking, teaching, dying Jesus, but retained the spiritual comfort of a divine Christ.
Five hundred years ago the Church had Thomas á Kempis; eighty years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; today, Father Richard Rohr – pastors teaching us to pray. By virtue of books we have them all. Writing to correct and encourage the liberal church for their (our) neglect of the omniscient Christ, (he is particularly talking about our neglect of contemplative prayer), Father Richard Rohr reminds us that when the divinity and humanity of Jesus are not held solidly together, if one is let slip away from our practice of this faith, we inevitably end up with half the gospel, having chosen to know just half the truth. In which case, we can never be more than half-faithful. For we only have one Jesus, only one Christ who came and lived and died and rose, who ascended and is present with us now. There are no more two Jesuses than there are two suns in our solar system.
In Seoul, Korea, it's 12 AM by the clock and tomorrow by the calendar; but it is still the same moment in time. We could call my best friend and he would answer – not thirteen hours from now, but now. It is both light and dark right now; because the light is over here, it's dark there. But that's changing as I talk about it. Because there is only one sun, and it is moving as we speak. The light is ever changing, but never, ever gone. The darkness is merely one phase of the light. It is ALL light.
 If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and Jesus cleanses us from all sin. Verse 7 is important in two ways I want to talk about: sin first and fellowship second.
We think we know lots about sin. We know to hate sin and love the sinner. But we are terrible at that, so we ending up hating ourselves. Hating ourselves for being imperfect and hating other people for being imperfect, because they remind us that we are also imperfect, which we hate even more – which leaves us in a world full of hate and in bodies full of sin. Each and every one of us. We know it. What we don't always get told often enough is that the sins we personally commit are only a fraction of all the sin in us. That is, we carry around a whole lot more sin than what we ourselves can take credit for.
Preachers love to talk about how Jesus bore our sins upon his body, how he took on the sins of the world. Friends, not just Jesus, but lots of people know all about that too – all about bearing the sins of others on their bodies, in their bodies. Little kids in Syria know about that. Black people in America know about that. Native American people know about that. Gay and lesbian and transgender and queer people – they know about that. Kids and women who are beaten by fathers and husbands and boyfriends – they know about that. Victims of sexual assault and harassment and crime and war and environmental abuse – they know about that. Lots of people bear the damage of the sins of other people – damage to their bodies, damage wired into their brains, into their nervous systems, into their culture.
And if they've heard that sin talked about at church at all, what they've heard is that they need to forgive. Which – most of the time, friends – is way too little way too late to count as mercy. Like offering a band-aid for a gunshot wound. Now it could be I just don’t have enough ministry experience yet, but not very many people have come to see me wanting to talk over their own really big sins – folks wanting to talk about the really destructive, violent, mean kinds of sin; the damage they have inflicted, the pain they’ve caused, their desire to make it right. In thirty years of ministry, fewer than five.
But I've sat with dozens and dozens and dozens of their victims. Relatives and neighbors and strangers who took the brunt of those sins; and generally, they don't realize the Bible is talking to them in 1 John 1:7, about the pain of abuse and trauma and oppression and evil. That's all sin, isn't it?
Why wouldn't John mean that sin to be included here? If it hurts us and burdens us and makes us feel like we are living in some kind of darkness – some kind of evil – then it is the sin we carry, regardless of its origin. The people who come see me to talk about the sin done to them are as embarrassed and ashamed of the sins AGAINST them as the sins they've committed, if not more. They know all about wanting to hide. Hide that pain, hide that shame, hide that sin – even if nobody ever called it sin before, never held it up to the light of the Bible like this before. They know all about hoping against hope – to keep it in the darkness, if you will.
But John brings a good word to us here, friends. Knowing Jesus means knowing what he said and what he did about how hurtful and destructive this everyday life can be to the human heart, to our very lives. He has cleansed us of ALL sin. No need to keep that junk in some hidey-hole, secret-shame closet of your mind and memory any more. No need to keep wondering, after you've confessed every bad thing you ever did, why you still feel so guilty all the time.
Sin stains everything it touches, and the Christ in us is the only thing that will clean it up for good. He said he would do this for us. Then he did. He broke down that terrible, terrible wall between life and grace, between punishment and freedom – that wall called death. And we are free. We are free to live free of the sin that would tell us we are broken beyond repair, that life cannot be better than it is now. You say you believe him. So don't go calling Jesus a liar by holding on to some ticking bomb inside you that he's already defused. And don’t go calling him a liar by hiding in some other version of Jesus where everything is sunshine and rainbows and faith becomes a game.
This idea of light and darkness as all one thing is hard for our western brains to take in. We automatically think either/or, when the truth is both/and. God is light. Darkness is part of the light. A funny thing about chickens: either they can't see in the dark, or they are so terrified of the dark, they choose not to. If I forget to put them in their coop before dark, they hide. They hide in the dumbest places, like on a log six inches off the ground. A fox can get them six inches off the ground. I find them with a flashlight and carry them to their coop.
I don’t know if we can’t see or if we are so afraid we choose not to, when we are lost inside the darkness inside ourselves. But what I do know is that it’s all light to the eyes of God. We are equally as safe in God whether our own eyes are closed or open. The darkness and the light are only different to us. Not to God. But the difference is profound. We live differently in the dark – fearfully and, most of all, alone.
God knows no less about what goes on in the dark than in the light. God knows us inside out, all the way in. Our memories and history; everything we ever did; everything that ever happened to us; everything we ever saw, and how we think and feel about it now. Memories imprinted on our very selves that we'd give anything to have not there; that we'll protect until we die, rather than that other people ever see it. God has seen it. God saw it happen. God sees it now. We aren’t alone in those memories. God is with us – which, truth be told, can still feel pretty lonely sometimes. Amen?
Remember the little kid who wanted to sleep with her mom? Her mom said, “Sweetie, God is with you here right now." The kid said, “Yeah, but I need a God with a face.”
God with a face – that’s fellowship. If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and Jesus cleanses us from all sin. Koinonia is the Greek word. It means together; life with others; family; fellowship. And this is its first appearance in the Bible. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another. We’ll never find each other so long as we are each lost in the fear of our respective darknesses.
To walk by faith in ALL of what we know of Jesus – as teacher, friend, brother, sacrifice and savior – is to walk in the full light, to choose to live by what Jesus said is true and real. The kind of darkness that lives inside us is so good at making us feel so all alone, isn't it? Not in Christ. Not unless you're saying Jesus is a liar, John says. Which seems like a not very nice thing to say about Jesus. But there it is, on page 1,057 of the Bible.
If we live in Christ – Walk by the light as he himself is the light – nothing happens in the darkness that he cannot see. Not even the darkness inside us. And he would not have us remain alone, cut off from those who would comfort us, nor from those who need our care. But that is another sermon for another day.
Would you pray with me?
First John may be the oldest book in the New Testament. With their first breath, the writer-composer-preacher of the book says, The God we worship is someone we have seen and heard and touched. He was a human being, as warm and real and full of life as the person sitting by you now. We heard and saw and touched him. Are you prepared to say we didn't? And thus the conflict of the text is established: was Jesus ever really human, or was he only always God? Was Jesus really flesh and blood and all that is meant therein?
Was Jesus a fussy baby? Did he ever get a stomachache? Or chicken pox? Was he ever constipated? Did he have feelings that got hurt? Was Jesus ever a moody teenager? Did his family drive him crazy? Did he ever have a crush on someone? Was he athletic? bookish (scrollish)? hilarious? Was he a good big brother? Did he have a favorite food? A favorite color? A favorite song? If Jesus was a human being, then he surely really was in all the ways that being human is.
The way being human is so flesh-and-blood and head-and-heart-and-spirit. The way being human is so grounded in time and to geography, and to all the other humans who share the same patch of time and space as us. And we might not think we think that Jesus wasn't human, but our believing has a way of slipping into acting like we do. We can slip into acting like we don't really think he lived through times just like we are living in now: ordinary days packed with work and bills and family troubles and crazy politics and scary news.
As if the human Jesus lived in some different, movie version of this world – where things weren't messy or embarrassing or difficult. Even though over in our not-thinking-about- Jesus brain – our Wednesday-afternoon brain – it has to be messy! Indoor plumbing wasn't invented yet. (Every time I flush a toilet in a high-rise hotel in a big city, I think, Where’s that ALL going?!)
Vaccines weren’t invented. Antibiotics weren’t invented. Grocery stores. Or Sunday School – where we got all these mental pictures of Jesus being so clean and calm all the time, just telling stories and passing out favors. What we know of him and what we know of life as human beings – they don't fit together. And yet faith is supposed to make these human lives of ours better. Sometimes we’re even tempted to say easier. But sometimes, it just doesn't.
Maybe sometimes, like the baby church to whom 1st John is written, we end up making faith fit our lives instead of the other way around, instead of subjecting life in this messy, crazy world to this faith we claim; instead of recognizing the human life of Jesus as our blueprint and our marching orders. Keeping Jesus up in heaven can be a deeply satisfying way of faith.
When life is good, Jesus is blessing. When life is hard, Jesus sometimes gives a miracle, sometimes a solution, sometimes strength to endure. And for all we simply don't understand – the mystery and trouble and the sorrow, that is; all the evil and the horror and the torture and the pain; all the injustice and the greed and the things that we can't fix and God is choosing not to – well, there is hope.
And I say none of that lightly: that is the Jesus I grew up on. Some days there are miracles. Some days there are answers. Some days there is comfort. And for all the rest there's hope. Because why? Because Jesus is risen. But, friends, risen from what? From the very same mess that's giving us so much trouble in the first place. See, if Jesus is risen – then Jesus surely died. In fact, he came to die – to show us how to die. Which really is how to live this side of heaven. Also called “being human” in this tiny slice of time and space. I do wonder if what keeps us from taking the humanity of Jesus seriously is the very thing he came to save us from: our fear of death.
My new best friend, Brother Thomas à Kempis wrote in Book Two of The Imitation of Christ (The Cost of Discipleship 500 years before Bonhoeffer wrote his version), “Jesus finds plenty of people to share his banquet but few to share his fast.” Why is that? Banquets are always more fun than fasts – or at least we imagine they would be, right?
Keeping Jesus in his halo allows us our own escape from the extra-human-y parts of this existence, the humus – and I don't mean chickpeas; I mean the animal matter of this existence, the earthiest, earthliest parts of being bone and blood and flesh. To believe that Jesus was as human as the person next to you, whose hand you could hold right now, whose heartbeat you could feel in their wrist (but only if you asked permission!) is to get very, very serious about his death. His intentional death. His death on our behalf.
And likewise, about our own – yours and mine. None of us will be here in 100 years. Most won't be here in 50. To take seriously that we will die some day is to live this day with fearless joy and boundless courage. In praise and worship, of course, and all the church things we do that bring us so much peace and comfort. But hardly that alone, because something is missing in that life of faith. What is it? Better yet, who is it? The baby congregation did not know either.
Our neighbor is the mission quotient. To believe that God chose to be a human person, bone and flesh, blood and tears, in time and space, means God loves this time and space. That God cares about what happens here. But not just what happens to you and me. Remember how amazed Jesus' disciples were when he told them they were not his only sheep? How he stunned his religious colleagues by calling a Samaritan their neighbor?
Neighbors – the people against whom our own lives brush up in this one tiny slice of time and space. That God chose to be human, to leave the things of heaven and take up the form of a slave, has everything to do with life among our neighbors. Isn’t this what the 1st John preacher preaches? The incarnation of Jesus is not just good news for us. It is good news for our neighbors too.
“Jesus finds plenty of people to share his banquet but few to share his fast.” The banquet of Jesus – that's his divinity. And it is already ours. A done deal, signed, sealed and delivered. Leaving not one thing in this whole world for us to be afraid of, for us to regret, for us to protect. That banquet – his resurrection and ours – makes us ready to turn and head, with him as our teacher and our leader, into the wilderness, into the wild adventure called being human.
And where he went, we also are sent: to our neighbors. To go with God is to go to our neighbors. That is the book of 1st John. I invite you back to think with me some more about it.
Would you pray with me?
Of the ten, commandments 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 are the easiest to remember and the hardest to keep. Leave it to Jesus to make them even harder. It's not enough just to not kill my neighbor (who hates my dogs and chickens); Jesus says I can't secretly hate her in my heart. And my brother! I risk hell just being angry with him! The law says no adultery. Jesus says no window shopping. Leave it to Jesus to know internet porn would someday be a thing.
Leave it to Jesus to ruin everything. Holding us accountable for what we say. Making the biblical law not just about what we do, but about what we think, about the secret conversations between me, myself and I, the internal talk by which I justify and sanctify every word and deed that flows out of this human package called Annette.
I may fool others. I may fool myself. But leave it to Jesus to remind me that there's no fooling the One who offers us a life of joy, freedom and contentment – in this language of covenant, language so economically packaged in these seventeen verses of Exodus, chapter 20.
God's proposal to the Hebrews in the desert: The world has offered you security for the (ridiculous) price of perpetual enslavement; slavery of you, your children, your grand- children, and their grandchildren. I offer you freedom. Freedom from fear mostly. Freedom from the anxiety life in this world will generate in you, in your children, your grandchildren. My price? Faith. And fidelity. This is an exclusive covenant. All of you and all of me – an offer God makes to every human.
And I've no firm numbers on this, but I'll guess, based on thirty years in this business, humans choose security over freedom 90% of the time. Resign ourselves to slavery, rather than persist in faith. Yet, God is ever on God’s knees, proposing.
There is a sequence to these ten words, this covenant, that is unbending. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery. That's first – the taproot upon which the whole law depends. (See sermon from June 3, “Ten Words for Free People.”) The first four commandments, sometimes called the first table, govern our relationship with God. We live by God's priorities and God's economy. (See last week’s sermon, “Why This Great Migration?”) God's priorities are holiness, justice and fidelity.
The four commandments of the first table: only God saved us, other beings aren't God – God is God; things aren't God – only God is God; God's name is only for God – don't put God's name on stuff that isn't God's; Sabbath is to be set aside – time, energy, resources all laid down for one day out of seven in remembrance that we do not keep ourselves, God keeps us.
Table Two contains five commandments: respect the elders; no murder; no adultery; no stealing; no lying. Table Two governs our relationships with others – good news for the whole neighborhood, as one preacher said. Not your best life now, but your neighbor's best life now! [The last of the ten commandments – don’t covet – is Table Three.]
Fidelity governs our relationship with God. When God is our God, we don't need our neighbors to be God to us. When God is God, we don't go around begging our neighbors for what only God provides. What does only God provide? Freedom from the fear of death; the providence to live in this world free of that fear; freedom to love and serve others as God loved and served us in Jesus Christ.
Sounds good. One hitch. God doles that freedom and providence out a day at a time. Remember the manna and quail? It drove those Hebrews crazy. They built golden calves and had wild parties. We are no better.
In place of freedom from the fear of death or confidence in the daily providence of God, we also settle for far lesser things – things like financial security and emotional safety and physical satisfaction. Thus, the rebellion, murder, adultery, theft and lying. All the things that kick up our dopamine and trick us into thinking that the satisfaction of this moment will somehow reconstitute as certainty for the future.
It doesn't, of course. But it's so affordable and so accessible, we know we can get more tomorrow. The momentary fear and shakiness become bearable – until 3 AM, gathered round the kitchen with me, myself and I, drowning our fear and doubt in Chubby Hubby ice cream.
The problem is obvious. People aren't God. People can't be God. They are destined to disappoint us. My daughter was two weeks old her first Easter, which was also her very first Sunday to go to church. I dressed her in the tiniest dress which my mom had gotten and put the tiniest clip in her black silky hair. I turned around for a minute and when I turned back, the clip was in her fist along with a wad of her own black hair. She had ripped it out and she didn't even cry.
And I learned that unless you're willing to beat them, you can't make your own child do anything they don't want to do, even if they only weigh eight pounds. And I realized for the first time, as a 28-year-old, that if I can't make an eight-pound person do something she doesn't want to do, I probably can't make anyone else do anything they don't want to do either.
I'm telling ya, it was a little disappointing. I had an entirely different vision of parenting, of being a competent, effective adult in this world. I did not enjoy realizing that living around other people is practically impossible. Being married is practically impossible. We need other people, and we can hardly stand them. We love them, and sometimes the way they chew can have us fantasizing murder.
They comfort us. They protect us. They shock us. They bore us. They amaze us, in the best and the worst of ways. They charm us. They encourage us. They use us. They betray us. They heal us. They harm us. They can be home to us or we can feel utterly alone in the same room with the ones who know us best.
But until we get all our relationships – every last one of them, from our spouse to the kid bagging our groceries – within the context of our relationship with God, we will always struggle more than necessary. Remember, shoes on the right feet won't make your day easy, but shoes on the wrong feet will make everything harder. Our relationship with God goes here; relationships with people go here. These five commandments cover different behaviors.
But they all – each and every one – come down to fidelity. Fidelity governs our relationship with God, which governs our relationships with others. Every relational transaction is an invitation from God for me to keep covenant.
Respect your mother and your father – the most easily abused commandment, with multiple sermons to be preached, depending on one’s stage of faith. I've traded the wording for “respect the elders” for people at the beginning of faith, simply because some parents are, in fact, imposters. They may have biological or legal right to the title “parent,” but they haven't assumed the moral, tactical, spiritual responsibility that goes with the title. Parents are people who protect, nurture and nourish children. If you don't do that, you aren't a parent. And your kids aren't bound by this commandment.
But all of us have been parented by someone. If we are alive, someone somewhere protected, nurtured and nourished us, and they are due the respect accordingly. They may be a stepdad, foster parent, residential director of a group home. My brother and sister-in-law raising grandkids. A coach. A neighbor. Elders is my chosen summary label for them all. Respect them. Regard them as your teachers of holiness, justice, and fidelity in this world.
No adultery – the easiest one to preach, if it weren't for Jesus and his commentary. Adultery is lying and theft, for sure. And murder, in some cases – the murder of trust, maybe a relationship, maybe a family of relationships. Which isn't to say that life doesn't come from death – of course it does; that grace isn't greater than all of our sin – because of course it is. But neither let us pretend that the top-shelf meaning of the word adultery is the only shape infidelity takes in our most committed relationships.
What about all the OTHER very unsexy promises you made to your spouse? Like help-mate. Remember help-mate? Other words or phrases for help-mate? *Trash guy. *Diaper guy. *Guy who goes on vacation with my sisters and pretends he's having a ball. *Woman who takes gross, wadded-up socks out of the laundry basket and pulls them apart for the five-thousandth time. *Woman who laughs like she hasn't heard that story forty-three times already. ALL CHEERFULLY – because that's fidelity too!
Always, always, always recognizing that's a human being – not just MY husband, MY baby daddy, MY roommate, MY financier. I love him and I respect him; but I must NOT NEED from him what only God can give. Therefore I don't have to be so forever clutch-y and grabby and controlling of his personhood. Which is all so easy to type on a computer and slightly harder to say up here. But still a hundred million times harder actually to do in real life, when he sings songs that aren't songs or looks at his phone when I want him to look at me. Adultery is big, no doubt. But who keeps the promises of every relationship they're in?
What does your word mean to the people around you? To your co-workers? To your kids? To your students? Leave it to Jesus to point out that all of us have covenant to keep in the relationships of our lives. And if we lean on our own strength – or even only on each other – there will inevitably be hell to pay.
No stealing and no lying – Don't take what isn't yours. If it were only candy in a candy store, wouldn't that be nice? I still have Janet’s keys. (I lied and said I’d given everything back.) It's that internal conversation convincing me that what isn't really mine actually sort of is. If I asked the deacons for it they'd probably say yes, so taking it myself is really no big deal. It's okay if I skip out early because this job barely pays me anyway. Or, like my nephews on vacation who filled their pockets with saltine crackers at the restaurant, “because they were free anyway,” they told their dads, who said, “not for you, you little freeloaders. You didn't pay for dinner!" The boys had the choice to take the crackers back or give their dads $1.
Because we aren't robbing liquor stores doesn't make us unacquainted with the impulse. All of us are looking for the greatest return on the least effort. Right? We don’t call it stealing; it's “efficiency.”
Again, Jesus is the one who says, "No looking" – because we already have all we need. And if we believed that, friends, there would be nothing in this world we'd think worth stealing. Maybe no two words in modern usage have lost their meanings as much as stealing and lying. They don't mean anything, really. I believe rich people steal far more than poor people. For example, a CEO who makes over $480 million dollars, while full-time employees have to get food stamps to feed their kids, is stealing. Stealing from me and you. But they aren't even breaking the law, while a poor person who steals to eat can go to jail. What's worse?
The poor person testifies to the failure of the church. Testifies to the failure of the people of God to act out the generosity of God. If we were on our game, no poor person would have to steal, and rich Christians might even hear more convicting sermons. Who's to say? I mean, other than the prophets; and Jesus; and the apostles. You know, those guys.
Lying – to be lied to by someone with whom you are in covenant, then to be lied to about being lied to – in my experience – has the effect of making one feel insane; of being invited to join the lie and maintain the pretense of covenant or insist the truth and expose the loss of covenant, neither of which feels like the faithful choice. Possibly because faithful has been conflated with not causing any trouble and getting along with everybody all the time.
Words. Words HAVE to matter. If words don't matter, covenant is five consonants and three vowels. Without words, we have no means of covenant. Without covenant, we have no means of community. Without community, we have no relationships. Without relationships, we are what we most fear: alone. Even God didn't want to be alone. Seems like that makes “alone” something to avoid. We are afraid to be alone and afraid to be found out when we are with others. So we use our words to invent some other self we hope and pray might be more interesting or attractive or acceptable than the terrified or hurting self inside. And out come these words.
The three sets of people we interact with – you know those folks. You're in a meeting and they're talking and you smile and you nod and you play along. But you've known them awhile, and you know not to hold them to anything they are saying, ’cause they are just talking. And that's okay because you love them, and they are your sister or brother.
And then there are the other types, who truly believe the things they are saying and expect you to believe them too. But it doesn't feel right, but you can't pin down what isn't right, and there's a slightly sinister edge to it that nobody talks about. And then the smaller set of folks, the ones who say what they mean and mean what they say. Generally, they talk less than most other people – go figure. Solid folks, we call them, dependable.
The best way not to lie: talk less. Not my advice – Jesus's. Don't make promises at all, he says. When you mean yes, say “yes.” When you mean no, say “no.” Don't say yes when you mean no, ’cause that's a lie. Don't say you'll do what your own calendar clearly says you cannot do – that's a lie. You may feel better for a minute, but it's going to mess up at least two other people, probably more. "No" is not a bad word – especially if it's the truth. Then it is the most godly word of all and the easiest. Isn't that awesome, when the godly way works out to be the easy way too?
Why do we lie? Fear. Fear cloaked in other language. "Oh, I can't say no. I just have a servant heart." Maybe – or maybe you need to feel needed, because you don't trust others to love you if they don't need you. Or maybe, you haven’t yet believed that God just loves you as you are, so you wear yourself out earning what you already have.
To tell the truth, we have to know the truth. And to know the truth, we have to hear it. And to hear the truth, we have to do two things: we have to be where the truth is told – that's fidelity; and we have to listen every single day of our lives – that's faith.
Would you pray with me?