Thursday, March 15, 2012

Non-Virtual Faith
Exod. 20:1-19; Ps. 19[1]
It seems that more and more of our lives are focused on what can only be called “virtual reality.” Most of us spend a great deal of time staring at some kind of screen or another—and the younger we are the more this is true for us. Whether it’s composing a document or tweaking a spreadsheet, what we’re looking at is not the “real” thing, but pixels of color meant to represent reality on our computer screen. In many cases, we don’t even handle “real” documents any more—they just get passed around from one computer to another. And then there’s the internet—a vast store of knowledge, the greatest encyclopedic collection of information in the history of the world. But all of it is virtual as well. When we look at pictures of the places we want to go, we’re not looking at the real thing, but again at pixels that present a more or less realistic facsimile of the real thing. Even our televisions don’t show us what’s real, but tiny bits of color transmitted over the cable network to represent the people, places and events on the news programs.
It’s no wonder that virtual social networks have become so popular—more than 800 million people belong to Facebook, a number that will soon soar because Africans who have limited access to internet service will soon be able to connect to Facebook via their cell phones. The attraction of Facebook is easy to understand—we spend so much time at our computers anyway, that it’s nice to check in on what our friends are up to for a few minutes before and after and in between working. But it’s still a virtual connection. There’s no real voice. There’s no human touch in the interchange. It all happens over computer.
When it comes to living out our commitment to repentance and faith in order to experience the life and love that God is constantly working to bring into our lives, our fascination with virtual reality will simply not do. The Scriptures are incredibly down to earth and practical when it comes to what it looks like to experience a relationship with God, to follow Jesus the Christ, or to live out the life of faith.
I think this is one of the reasons why the Ten Commandments remain so important to us today. They are practical, objective, and specific. I think we can see this in the way Jesus made faith a matter of loving God and loving others. When we look at the two passages in the Hebrew Bible where he drew those great commandments, we get a better idea of how practical and specific they are as well. In Deuteronomy 6:4-6, loving God means to bind the commands to your lives, adhering to them with your heart and your actions and diligently passing them on to your children![2] And the context for the second great commandment is even more specific. It’s an alternate version of the Ten Commandments in Leviticus 19:1-18. In this chapter, to love your neighbor means to refrain from stealing, oppressing your workers, cursing the deaf or trying to trip up a blind person, being impartial in judging between the poor and the rich, hating another person, and taking vengeance or bearing a grudge (Lev. 19:13-18)! Just in case you have any doubts about how important these very specific instructions are, they conclude with “I am Yahweh”![3]
Of course, in a Christian context, many of us have been taught essentially to ignore the Hebrew Bible. Since the days of Martin Luther, “law” has occupied a secondary place in our faith, if it has any place at all! But make no mistake about it: the Ten Commandments are echoed by every major writer in the NT—they remain an important guide for the specifics of what it means to love God and love others. And Jesus made them a central part of what it means to live in relationship with God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48)! There Jesus spells out in very specific terms what it looks like to respond to God’s love with repentance and faith. For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred, anger, and disrespect. For him it means that we not only don’t engage in promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts. For him, it means that we not only love our friends, we also love our enemies.
That’s not something you can do virtually. It has to move beyond an idea we hold in high regard into the actual ways in which we live our lives. That’s why I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Psalm lesson for today in The Message: “The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.” (Ps. 19:7-8, Message).[4] The directions for living we find in the commandments and in Jesus’ teaching are intended to be put into practice in real life. And they are intended to make that life more whole, more peaceful, more joyful.[5] When we live this way, we are allowing the life and love of God to flow through us, healing the broken and wounded world around us. Living out the repentance and faith that Jesus calls us to embrace translates to love, compassion, understanding, kindness, mercy—in our actual, real-life relationships with those around us.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/11/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Walter Brueggeman, “The Book of Exodus,” in New Interpreters Bible, I:837.
[3] Cf. Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” in New Interpreters Bible, I:1133-34, 1136.
[4] Cf. similarly, J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in New Interpreters Bible IV:752, where he translates v. 7 as “the instruction of the Lord is all-encompassing, restoring life.”
[5] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that the Ten Commandments are the principles through which we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99; and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 146.

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