We come to church every week not only because we believe in God but also because we are members of a community. These dual desires characterized the saints’ lives. After the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) finished teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he returned to Germany and joined the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler. He was arrested and executed by the Gestapo just before Germany surrendered. Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was another believer who “belonged.” With great ingenuity and courage, she bought enslaved people to safety in the north. A third believer was the Chilean Jesuit Alberto Hurtado. He risked his secure place as a university professor to challenged ordinary Chileans to care for the poor in their midst.

Where did these heroes of faith get these self-transcending ideas? How did they nourish the belief that made them so committed to a community? They got them from the readings like those we just heard. In the first reading, God gives Israel the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Worship God alone was the first commandment, but it was followed by commandments regulating people’s membership in a community. In addition to teaching us how to live, the Ten Commandments do something for us. Observing them formed a community out of demoralized Hebrew slaves on Pharaoh’s state projects. Moved by the people’s prayers, and with Moses as his servant, God defeated Pharaoh and led the Hebrews out of Egypt to their homeland in Canaan. The people responded as a group to God’s offer. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (Exod 19:4-6). The people said yes as a community. 

When Israel said yes, God came to them in a storm, and proclaimed to them the Ten Commandments. Israel as a people was born. The Ten Commandments were not original, for every one of them (except the tenth) can be found elsewhere in the Bible. What made them distinctive was that keeping the commandments was the condition for being the Lord’s people. Obey the commandments, and you’re in. Disobey them, and you’re out. They are not just commands; they make it possible for the people to be the Lord’s people. That story of Israel’s origin explains that believing in the Lord is not simply a private thing. It enables you to be a member of the people of God, the Church.