Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Ames-Lewis
Members of the congregation of St Bene’t’s Church may just possibly have noticed a curious architectural feature in this church. Not the famous Saxon arch, nor the elegant 13th century arcade, nor even the curious curved staircase at the head of the south aisle. The feature I want to point out is hardly noticeable, so you would be forgiven for not knowing what I am talking about, but I think it may have something interesting to tell us today. If you look at the east wall of the chancel, either side of the east window, and just below the springing of the arch, you will see what appears to be a horizontal line in the plaster. When you get up closer, you see it is not a line but a change of plane, which continues vertically down the moulding of the window either side. There is in fact a flat panel either side of the window, perhaps about one inch thick. But you don’t notice these panels because generations of whitewash have covered them over till they just look like wall.
What can these panels be? Donald Flett, who was our church architect for many years until his retirement last year, had a theory which I find quite convincing. He believed that these panels are our church’s Commandment Boards. At some point in history they were placed there, probably having been moved from a position of greater prominence centrally behind the altar. If we were to scrape off the layers of whitewash we would, he thought, find some fine 17th century lettering.
Commandment Boards used to be a common feature of parish churches. In 1604 they were officially instituted as one of the measures of the Canons Ecclesiastical of the Church of England, under which bishops were to ensure that “the Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every church and chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said churches and chapels in places convenient. All these to be done at the charge of the parish.” Nowadays, Commandment Boards can still sometimes be found in churches un-touched by Victorian restorers; sometimes even after the Victorians had done their work these boards can be found banished to some dusty vestry or side chapel. They set out the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments of the Law, for all to see and read. Usually there were two boards; placed behind the altar at the East end, the board with the Decalogue on the North side would be balanced by a board with The Lord’s Prayer on the South. My guess is that this is what we had behind our altar, some 400 years ago.
The reason why Commandment Boards were thought necessary is not hard to see. The upheaval of the Reformation, only 50 years earlier, had included the removal of all images in our churches. The emphasis of the reformed church was on Biblical text rather than paintings or statues, and this had brought to a newly literate populace a need to be schooled in the Scriptures. They also needed something appropriate and educational to look at in the new, plain whitewashed interior. But there was something else. It has been well observed, in our struggle today to understand what Brexit means, that Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and the separation of the new Church of England from its catholic heritage, was itself a kind of Brexit. It brought with it huge turmoil, persecution and martyrdoms both catholic and protestant, and its legacy was a toxic hatred of all things catholic which lasted well into the 20th century. So a constant weekly reminder of the Ten Commandments was regarded as an essential part of protestant discipleship for compliant Church of England people. It also satisfied the scriptural injunction of Deuteronomy that we heard today “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today… then you shall live and become numerous; but if your heart turns away… you shall perish.” Of course it didn’t actually work. While the Ten Commandments without doubt provided the ethical foundation of the British rule of law, which was in time exported round the world, neither personal nor national behaviour really showed obedience to them. “Thou shalt not kill” was ignored by a 17th century where the killing of the king was followed by a bloody civil war; and in subsequent centuries, as we know, inhumanity has never been done away with.
But history moves on. Priorities change. Our Commandment Boards, like those in most churches, were retired, repositioned and eventually painted over, like the images they had themselves replaced, and our altar and sanctuary redesigned in accordance with the prevailing fashion and theology of the worship of God.
So if the Ten Commandments could be thought of as important for a while and then be painted over and not apparently matter, what are we to make of them today?
Jesus famously said, in the passage of St Matthew leading up to today’s gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil…for I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” St Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses, fulfilling the Law given by God to Moses in olden time.
So Jesus set high store by the commandments. But the commandments have to be fulfilled. They have to live in human lives and actions. What was written on tablets of stone, as St Paul says, needs to be written by the Spirit on tablets of human hearts.
And in today’s Gospel passage we hear Jesus commenting on three:
- the Sixth Commandment, you shall not murder;
- the Seventh Commandment, you shall not commit adultery;
- and the Second Commandment, you shall not swear falsely; you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Let’s look at these three and see how Jesus regards the Commandments in the light of the new Covenant brought in his person. He is counter-cultural, tough and uncompromising.
It all very well to say “You shall not murder”, but Jesus says if you are angry with a brother or a sister, or even if you insult a brother or a sister you will come under judgement. Anger is to killing as thought is to deed. We may not be tempted to kill, but we sure are tempted to anger. There is so much anger in our lives, anger from politicians, anger from our neighbours, anger within our families and anger in our own hearts. Jesus’s new commandments make clear that we should stop being angry, that we should make peace with whoever has offended us; and indeed that we should refrain from offering our gift at the altar until we have done so.
Then, it is all very well to say “You shall not commit adultery”, but Jesus says that anyone looking at another person with lust has already committed adultery with that person in their heart. Lust is to adultery as anger is to killing. Lust is the selfish objectification of sexual desire. In our sexualised world we see this so much around us. With characteristic hyperbole, Jesus says if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out; or if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. So dangerous is the path of lust that it would be better to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go to hell.
Then, it is all very well to say “You shall not swear falsely, taking the name of the Lord your God in vain,” but Jesus says do not swear at all – let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything else comes from the evil one. Stop falsely using the name of God. Cut out bad language. Hold fast to plain truth. Again this has terrible contemporary resonance, not just in the careless way we so often profane the name of God, but in the way in a “post truth” society we may be tempted to put our faith in falsehood.
These three examples, anger, lust and swearing, show how Jesus wants us to go way beyond the outward words of the Decalogue and strive to find a way of living which springs from the heart. He is searching us out to find what is good and honourable and true and urging us to do away with all that springs from our base and sinful natures. “Be perfect,” he says, “even as your heavenly Father is perfect”. But this is impossible. We are but frail, feeble, human beings. How can we transform ourselves into such paragons of goodness?
The answer is, we cannot. But the commandments can be fulfilled, and are fulfilled, in Jesus himself. In his own person he came down from heaven to share our humanity. As a human being he invites us to share his divinity. Through his sacrifice on the cross, we are called to die with him and rise with him in a new life of worship and service. In this new life we have been forgiven for our failures and redeemed from our feeble humanity.
Perhaps this explains why it was never enough to place Commandment Boards in the sanctuary. Too black and white; too condemnatory. Instead we now hang a crucifix, the image of our Lord, who has died, has risen again, and calls us to follow.