3rd Sunday in Lent — March 7, 2021

Exodus 20:1-17
Lent 3B

One of the best ways to teach and learn theology is through liturgy, because the patterns and practices of worship are theological exercises.

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They give expression to what we believe about God and about our covenant relationship with God.  The text for the Third Sunday in Lent, narrating the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17, has played a significant role in Reformed worship in this regard. Indeed, in John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy of 1545, the Ten Commandments were sung in worship, immediately following the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. Having been restored to right standing with God and with one another, recitation of the Ten Commandments provided a sense of direction for renewed disciples by which they might enter ever more deeply into the Christian life. This understanding of the role of the Ten Commandments as a guide for the life of discipleship continues to inform Presbyterian engagement with them. Since we are all experimenting with new experiences of worship as we navigate pandemic challenges, it is an opportune time to consider the traditional role of this text in the worship of our forbearers, and the import of their engagement with it on the heels of confession of sin and assurance of pardon.

In both the old (1993) and new (2018) editions of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, the confession of sin and assurance of pardon are followed by a summary of the law — such as John 13:34, Jesus’ new commandment for his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Alternatively, we can recite the Ten Commandments. In fact, I would encourage you to try Calvin’s practice of including the Ten Commandments in worship immediately after the prayer of confession. You could do this easily on Zoom, perhaps by drafting 10 people, each assigned one of the commandments, to read them in turn as part of a liturgical hearing of them. On the Third Sunday in Lent when Exodus 20 is featured in the lectionary, preachers also might want to consider expounding on this text, explaining why the pattern of confession, assurance of pardon and a recitation of the law of God has played a crucial role in the worship life of our theological ancestors, shaping their understanding of their relationships with God and with one another. Think of it as an opportune teaching moment! Some may be in need of it.

Why? In our day and time, some consider confession of sin an archaic practice — one that introduces an unwelcome note of negativity into an otherwise positive worship experience. So it might well be important to articulate why the confession of sin is a crucial dimension of Reformed worship. We could even call it an act of public theology by which we make an open and communal expression of human transgression — of our individual and corporate failures to love God and neighbors. As such, it is a disruptive, countercultural act in a society that falsely proclaims innocence of sins like racism, sexism and classism. On the contrary, honesty compels acknowledgement that our sins are deep and pervasive. But we are not left in this predicament of bondage to sin. On the heels of confession of sin, the assurance of pardon announces the good news of our redemption in Jesus Christ. By the grace of God in Christ, we are restored to right standing with God and one another. This assurance is followed by a reading of commandments to direct our steps: the commandment to love one another (as in John 13:34), or the Great Commandment that Jesus gave us, calling us to love of God and love of neighbor as self (Mark 12:38-31). Or, you could also follow Calvin’s practice and recite the Ten Commandments at this point — especially on this Sunday when Exodus 20:1-17 is featured in the lectionary.

A sermon (or a series of sermons) on The Ten Commandments could follow. The sermon might explore how, in and through the commandments, God seeks a covenant relationship with us — one that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and embodied in our present context. Theologian John Burgess helpfully notes in “After Baptism: Shaping the Christian Life” that the Protestant Reformers explicated the Ten Commandments in three different ways, all of which can help us interpret their relevance for our lives today: by broadening, internalizing and reversing them. For example, the commandment “Do not kill” can be broadened to include the many ways in which we wound others, not only through physical acts of violence, but also through hurtful words or deeds. This particular commandment can also be internalized to include prohibition of emotions like hating or despising others in its purview. And it can be reversed to advocate reverence for life and attention to life-giving work that promotes the flourishing of others. Interpreting the Ten Commandments in these ways follows the pattern of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, who expanded the commandment against murder to include anger and insults against another in its scope (Matthew 5:21-22).

When the commandments are engaged in the manners described above, they also conform to what John Calvin called “the third and principal use of the law,” which is to guide believers in the Christian life. In other words, engagement with the Ten Commandments shapes us for life that follows the way of God in Christ. This is part of God’s own work in us, forming in us the mind of Christ. As theologian Douglas Ottati observes in “A Theology for the Twenty-First Century,” thinking of the Ten Commandments in this way helps us to see that “the law is not a burden unwillingly forced upon us so much as it is our joy and delight.” This is an important corrective to inaccurate caricatures of Jewish law as “legalistic” and restrictive. On the contrary, the Jewish tradition out of which Jesus came saw the law as a gift of God’s expansive grace.

One final ritual moment in Reformed worship might also be worth noting: the passing of the peace. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship recommends that it follow the acts of confession, assurance of pardon and recitation of the law. The passing of the peace thereby concludes the practice of confession. This makes it much more than a way to greet fellow worshippers and welcome visitors; it is a sign in this world of an alternative community based in forgiveness and justice-seeking love — the very ideals promoted in the confession, assurance of pardon and recitation of the law. Indeed, theologian Luke Bretherton suggests that the liturgical practice of sharing a sign of peace with one another has the potential to constitute an alternative social order, for the ritual is shared in the midst of contexts that are themselves distorted and divided around issues of gender, race, sexuality and class. Passing the peace of Christ with one another bears witness in this world to a different reality. As Bretherton observes in “Christ and the Common Life,” the sign of peace makes the divisions of the world visible and at the same time gestures “toward the possibility of their transfiguration. … For fallen creatures, transfiguration entails a threefold movement of conversion involving healing, exorcism/deliverance … and the formation of new, eschatologically anticipative ways of being alive with and for others.”

Taken together, the confession and pardon, the recitation of the law and the passing of the peace can enable us to hear and embody the Word of God for us today — to become the kind of community that seeks transformation in our world. Sometimes these practices may strike us as awkward, or even messy and disruptive — perhaps especially in online worship on Zoom! But God in Christ is in the disruptive work of bringing life out of the messy stuff of our world.  May it be so.

This week:

  1. How are the patterns and practices of worship great ways to teach and learn about our relation to God and one another?
  2. What do you think about reciting the Ten Commandments after the confession of sin and assurance of pardon?
  3. How would you interpret each of the Ten Commandments according to the model of broadening, internalizing and reversing?
  4. What do you think of Calvin’s notion of the “third and principal use of the law”?
  5. How might you consider the law a joy and delight or a gift of expansive grace?
  6. How, in your context, might the passing of the peace (after the confession, pardon and reciting of the law) constitute an alternative social order?

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