Monthly Archives: January 2014
The Sermon on the Mount is something of a theological football. It gets kicked around by different parties, all claiming it supports their views. And the Beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are dragged into that fight. Is this all about politics in the here and now? Is it about what heaven will be like? Do we sit around and wait for glory? Does the teaching of the Sermon apply to all people, or only to Christians? And so on.
I think we must first of all say that this is material that is primarily aimed at disciples of Jesus. When Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain, but it isn’t the crowd that comes to him (was he trying to escape from them?), it is only his disciples (verse 1). He is teaching his disciples.
What is a disciple, then? It is someone who is a learner, an apprentice, or a student. In Jesus’ day, bright young men asked rabbis if they could follow them. They would not only learn the rabbi’s teaching, they would also seek to copy the rabbi’s lifestyle, right down to some of the minutest and most private areas of life.
If, then, we are disciples of Jesus, we are those who are being called to learn his teaching not simply by memorising it, but by putting it into practice as he did. It is a lifelong task. No disciple of Jesus can ever in this life behave as if she has arrived. It doesn’t work like that. There is always more to know and more of Jesus’ life to imitate. There is no place for complacency. We should always be thirsty for more of Jesus’ teaching, and we always need to retain a passion to follow the example of Jesus. If we ever can’t be bothered to learn of Jesus or seek to model more of our lives upon his pattern, then something is seriously wrong with our lives, and we are not behaving like true disciples.
The story is told of a young girl who watched with fascination and incredulity as she regularly saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Why do you keep on reading the Bible, Grandma,” asked the girl, “Surely you’ve read it all by now and know it?”
The elderly lady smiled sweetly and replied, “Because I’m studying for my finals.”
I wonder if that is our attitude. We may have been Christians for many years, but still as his disciples we are called to study for our finals. It doesn’t require the physical strength of youth that may have departed years ago, it merely necessitates a serious commitment to Jesus.
For Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is not a run of the mill spiritual teacher. Note how he goes up the mountain in this story. That would have been very suggestive to Jewish people. Moses went up the mountain and came down with the laws of God. Any time someone goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something big happens.
In fact, just as there were five so-called ‘Books of Moses’ in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – so there are also five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. He is the new Moses.
More to the point, he fulfils the ancient prophecy that one greater than Moses would come, for there is one key difference. When Moses comes down the mountain, he returns with laws given to him by God. Jesus does not go up the mountain to receive from God something that did not originate with him – he gives teaching that is his, and with authority (as we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount). We are called to be disciples not merely of a human teacher, but the Lord himself. This is all the more reason to take our apprenticeship seriously. He is giving us the New Law of the Messiah. He brings ethical teaching that is from heaven, based on future judgement and rewards, and earthed in true wisdom, all for our reception and action.
So yes, Jesus gives this teaching to disciples, but the crowd is at a distance, watching them. When we get to the end of the Sermon, we shall find they are still there. You might say that the teaching is given to disciples, but it is to be lived in the full gaze of the crowds, of the world. For this is teaching about a distinctive way of life, and right from the start here with the Beatitudes, we have Jesus painting a picture of good living that is vastly different from worldly expectations.
And that means we are onto our second observation about the text: it’s about what kind of disciples Jesus has in mind. Just pause for a moment and consider the list of disciples he gives us in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While some of those qualities are sporadically attractive to the world, they are not generally the kind of people who ‘get on’ in life. Society likes the full, the happy, the proud, those who aggressively trumpet their rights, the go-getters, those who lust and are lusted after, and those who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. These are the people we celebrate. These are the kind we reward. Not Jesus’ list. We know how the world mocks the teaching of Jesus: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – provided the rest of you don’t mind, of course.’
If anything, Jesus gives us a list of losers. And you only have to hang around children and young people today to know that ‘loser’ is not a term of sympathy, but an expression of derision. But the disciples of the kingdom don’t look much like a photo-opportunity of celebrities that are getting themselves into our fairly news-free newspapers at the slightest chance. The disciples of the kingdom are usually a long way from the business success stories of our day, the millionaire sports stars, and even the celebrities of the religious world who gain millions of followers and sell thousands of books. Not that God doesn’t love these people too, but those who are alert to the values and ethics of the kingdom Jesus ushered in almost inevitably live different lives.
Why? Because when you look at the kingdom of God as described by Jesus, it is good news for the materially poor and the spiritually destitute. It is good news of healing for those who bear great grief. It is grace and mercy, not judgmentalism. It is about reconciliation, not putting one over your opponent. These are the things you know, appreciate and build on when you apprentice yourself to Jesus. These are the lifestyles you adopt when you sign up to be a student of Jesus.
Yes, they will put you at odds with the world. You may be teased, mocked or worse at times. But this is where following the Lord of life takes you, and in every case he pronounces the word ‘Blessèd’ over you. ‘Blessèd’ doesn’t simply mean ‘happy’, although that can be involved in it. Nor does it always mean that you are having a wonderful spiritual experience – although again, that can certainly be included. But ‘Blessèd’ means that the favour of God rests upon you, and what more could you want? How does a shiny new car compare with the favour of God? What comparison is there between a successful career and knowing God’s favour? Which is better – society putting your name up in lights or God lighting up your life with his blessing? Yes, those who walk in the ways of the kingdom, following Jesus may suffer rejection in this life, but they do so knowing there is One who does not reject them but does the opposite – he approves, he favours, he blesses.
And that leads us to the third and final observation this morning – it’s about the kind of blessing the disciples receive. Here is the list of blessings: theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What do we observe about this list of blessings? Most of them are promised blessings for the future – they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, be called children of God. The first and last, though, don’t speak of the future, they speak in the present tense. Both the first and last blessings say, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Of course, the kingdom in all its fullness also belongs to the future. But it also starts now. God is already reigning in kingly power, but in this life his rule over all things is still disputed by rebel forces.
The blessing of Jesus’ disciples, then, is much like the kingdom of God itself. It has started, but is not fully here. There is great blessing to come in the future – there is a bliss to come, the description of which can only paint the shadows. But it is not simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’: the blessing starts now. We can see glimpses of glory even in the darkness of a sinful world. Even now, God begins to make what the American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘an altar in the world’. Jacob looked back on his dream of the ladder and said, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” and similarly with us. We may not expect to encounter the blessing of God in a world of sin, suffering, injustice, and death, but he breaks through in the ordinary areas of life as well as in the places we might more conventionally expect him, such as church services. And as he breaks in (not that he was ever absent), he smiles at us. In fact, I like to think that sometimes he even winks at us. He gives us the knowing look of the secret conspirator that all will not remain the way it is, and even now his pleasure is directed to us, with a view to that day when that joy will no longer be restricted by the powers of sin.
Indeed, about five years or so ago there was a Christian song doing the rounds called ‘God is smiling’, and the chorus said this:
God is smiling over us tonight
God is smiling over us tonight
Where hearts are broken, love unites
God is smiling, God is smiling over us tonight.
Yes – as the song says, even (and perhaps especially) ‘where hearts are broken’, God smiles. Not at the pain, but his subversive love breaks in and turns upside-down the pain of this world. And all that is a foretaste of the great reversal that began in the coming of Jesus and will be completed when God has finally made all things new. Then, the new creation will be populated by the meek, the pure, by the righteous, by those who have made peace, and so on.
It seems a long way off now, and it is still discouraging when being an apprentice of Jesus means walking in the difficult ways of the Beatitudes while the world watches, but what a promise is held out before us, a promise that even begins its fulfilment now.
So let us commit again to being the apprentices of Jesus, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate him. And as the world looks on, sometimes puzzled, sometimes scornful, and at other times curious, let us rejoice that we are ‘blessèd’, the recipients of God’s favour, beginning now and becoming a torrent in the life of the world to come.
You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
We begin a new sermon series to cover the next three months this Sunday at Knaphill, and as you’ll see from the introduction, it’s on conflict and is loosely based on some Mennonite values.
One of the things I’m pleased that today’s ministerial students are trained in that I wasn’t is in handling conflict. You would think that a college training ministers would include that one, knowing the level of disagreement and outright argument that happens in churches, but it didn’t happen in my time. It’s all very well coming up with pious desires that there should be no conflict in the church, but the reality is that it does happen and it needs addressing. The New Testament calls Christians to be of one mind and purpose, but we clash because we have different interests, different perspectives, different gifts, different personalities … and because, frankly, we are all sinners.
That’s why we are going to spend quite a while examining the theme of conflict. We might like to pretend it doesn’t happen here, but it does. We might think it shouldn’t occur, but it still does. And having had the privilege last September of going away on a week’s training course with an organisation called Bridge Builders that specialises in ‘conflict transformation’, I am using some material from them as the basis for this series. Explicitly, the material for this series comes from a group of Mennonite Christians – a tradition that specialises in peace and reconciliation. It is centred on a group of twelve commitments they made in their understanding of conflict and faith.
We begin with this week with the need to accept conflict. And we take this chunk from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes, in Tom Wright’s words,
‘the mutual welcome which … is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.’
In other words, this is what the forgiven life in the family of God looks like. It is very much about what we do to avoid unnecessary conflict. We accept that conflict happens, because we are different and fallible human beings, but it is possible in the church to major on minors, and Paul gives us principles to hold us together in the face of our real differences.
Firstly, Paul calls us to accept one another:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. (14:1)
He gives two examples of conflict, one about food and one about holy days. Carnivores such as me might be amused to read of him saying that those who only eat vegetables have weak faith (14:2), but this is not a dispute about vegetarianism. It is about a debate that ran not just in Rome among the Christians, but also among the disciples at Corinth. It was about a prevalent issue of that time: meat sacrificed to idols. Generally, the meat you bought in the market had already been offered as a sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some Christians felt ‘strong’ about this and said, “It’s all right, the idols are really nothing at all, so although I wouldn’t worship them, there is nothing to worry about here, I’ll eat the meat.” But others said, “There are demons behind the idols at the pagan temples. I want nothing to do with that, so I will not eat meat.” Both in their way are respectable Christian approaches to the problem. Both reflect the desire to serve the Lord, as Paul goes on to observe (14:3-4, 6b-9).
And if that is the case, the different sides had no business in showing contempt for, or looking down upon, those they disagreed with. Whether to eat meat or to abstain, all sides were servants of Christ. Anything that elevates itself over the common commitment to serving Jesus Christ and divides us off from each other in doing that is not the work of God, but of the enemy.
Perhaps it’s easier to understand in our context when we look at Paul’s other example here, where some keep a calendar of holy days, and others treat all days as the same. It’s like those who keep saints’ days, all the Christian festivals, and follow the Lectionary on the one hand, and those who find none of that helpful. At the more extreme ends, it’s like holding Catholics and Baptists together, but you don’t have to go as far apart as that. Methodist to Baptist would do. Indeed, before she met me, Debbie didn’t even know what Lent was, because it was never marked in her home church. But would it be right for us to unchurch them or them to unchurch us? Of course not! It’s therefore wonderful to live in a village where the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics can run an Alpha Course together.
None of this is to downplay our differences, or our varying convictions. Differences exist, even within our traditions. So we as a church where many people expressed a preference for sermon series as part of Christian teaching find that one or two preachers in the circuit prefer to do all their preaching from the Lectionary. We have good reason for what we do, and they have good reason for their preference. It means it is hard to work in partnership, but we should by no means despise each other.
And just as that is true across churches, it needs to be true within churches. We need to commit to a level of acceptance of each other, whilst respecting our differences.
Secondly, and following on from this as the other side of the coin, Paul calls us not to judge one another. We are well advised not to judge others (14:13), because we shall be judged by God (14:10-12). I take that to mean a couple of things: one is that we should leave all judgement to God. The other is: what will God think of us if we have spent our time ripping other people to shreds?
But rather than just seeing the call not to judge our brothers and sisters as a mere negative command, what can we positively do instead of being judgemental? Paul has some ideas.
One is this: to encourage those we disagree with, we can choose to forgo our own rights. The meat-eater should not eat meat and upset those who struggle with meat that has been offered to idols, Paul says. That isn’t love (14:13-16). I do not have to spend all my time demanding my rights when the exercise of them will become a stumbling-block to others (14:13). I am persuaded that it is all right for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation, but I will not condemn those who disagree. I will not bring a bottle of wine with me to your house if you invite us for a meal. For the sake of Christian love, I will happily put aside my enjoyment of wine. On a corporate level, that’s one reason why I’m happy with the Methodist position that we use non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion. Our first positive step in avoiding judgmentalism, then, is to remove stumbling blocks.
Our second strategy to counter judgmentalism is to set out to edify others:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (14:19)
Edification is the construction of an edifice. It is ‘building up’. Paul calls us to build up, rather than to tear down, which is what judgmentalism does. Perhaps we know that there is someone in the church with whom we have a problem. There is something about them that winds us up. We find ourselves thinking all sorts of unworthy thoughts about them. We may even share some of these with our friends – and may not even realise that we have been overheard. Could you set out to affirm that person, even bless them, instead?
An example of what I mean: when one of my cousins was going out with the young woman whom he eventually was to marry, his future mother-in-law made it plain to him that he wasn’t good enough for her girl. You can imagine what this did to my cousin.
But then he took a transforming decision. He vowed that every time he left his girlfriend’s house, he would say ‘God bless you’ to her mother. At first, he said it through gritted teeth. However, in time, the relationship thawed and became warm. It all happened because he chose to bless.
So I want to challenge everyone here this morning. Is there a person you despise? Is it someone in this church? Will you commit to blessing that person instead? Edification instead of judgmentalism makes all the difference in conflict. You still may not agree with that person. But that does not stop you blessing them.
Thirdly and finally in this approach to conflict, Paul’s word to us is that we should seek to please our neighbours, not ourselves, because this builds them up and follows the example of Christ, who did not set out to please himself (15:2-3).
By ‘neighbours’ Paul still has in mind the people we disagree with – those who eat meat sacrificed to idols versus those who don’t, those who very liturgical versus those who are more extempore in their faith. Our neighbours here are not those who are like us, but those in the family of God who are not like us. If our neighbours were the people who thought like us, then pleasing them would be easy. But instead, Paul lays down a challenge – seek to please those people with whom you are at odds.
Indeed, it is countercultural. We are taught, especially by advertisers, that it is good to please ourselves. ‘Go on, you deserve it,’ they say. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ said the infamous L’Oreal advert. But Christians are to please others, even and especially those they are in conflict with, those where they are risking a major fall-out.
What does this look like? Here’s another story. I once had a barney with a fellow minister. He announced an initiative which involved coming into the area where one of my churches was, and he didn’t consult me or the other church leaders in the area. I sent him a rather angry email, complaining that he hadn’t listened to the existing local Christians in that town. We would have welcomed his church as partners in evangelism, but were upset that they were coming in as if there were no disciples of Jesus already there. It had the potential to be a damaging row.
Yet however much we were upset with each other, we both wanted to put it right. He contacted me and invited me out to lunch at a nice hotel. He insisted on paying the bill. I turned up with a box of chocolates for him and his wife and children. We managed to talk through our conflict, understand each other, and find a peaceable way forward, because we both entered into that lunch meeting with a desire for the other person’s good.
What difference would it make when we disagree at this church if we were to set our arguments within a context of actively wanting the best for our opponent? I think the conflict would be transformed. I think the potential for resolution and reconciliation would increase hugely.
In fact, more than that: Paul says that when we bring this attitude to our differences, we bring praise and glory to God (15:6-7).
So let us accept that conflict exists and happens. Let us not cling onto forlorn hopes that we shall never experience it in the church. But let us approach our so-called opponents in such a spirit of acceptance, a rejection of judgmentalism in favour of edification, and a true desire to please those who antagonise us that a miracle of reconciliation happens, even if neither party manages to convince the other.
Yes, let even the way we handle our conflicts be a witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. And may God receive all the praise and the glory.
Are you a church leader who wants to make the most of your life and ministry? Would you like to be part of a supportive network that helps you with this goal? If so, the Focusing Leaders Network, run in the UK by Leadership In Three Dimensions, could be what you are seeking.
There is an initial two-day retreat, with four one-day meetings spread over six months, plus a little bit of homework and an individual coaching session in between meetings.
FLN gives you the chance to reflect on your past, clarify your future and identify the resources that will help you grow and become more effective.
A new cohort for the south-east of England begins soon – with the retreat on 23rd to 24th January at Douai Abbey, near Reading. There have been a couple of late withdrawals, so an opportunity has arisen. Go here for more information.
Finally, let me declare an interest: I am on the board of management for Living In Three Dimensions.
Sometimes as a preacher I think I must sound like a broken record, repeating the same themes. Usually I am brought down to earth by congregations who haven’t remembered the theme I think I am repeating, anyway. (What that does to the value of preaching is another matter that I won’t consider at this point.)
One of the themes I know I repeat comes around at Covenant Sunday every year. It’s the notion I like to advance that tries to deal with the fears we have in making such solemn and even radical promises to God. And that thought is the one that points out – virtually every year – that the human side of a covenant with God in the Bible is always a response to his great acts of mercy, love and salvation. We only enter into a covenant with God because he has already done so much for us.
That is the position the Israelites find themselves in when we come to our first reading in the Covenant Service, from Exodus 24. God has saved them from the terrors of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The commandments are only given in the Old Testament after that act of salvation. They are not being required to do something good so that God will feel favourably disposed to them: God loved them before that, and unconditionally. As we consider God’s call on us as disciples of Jesus again this year, we remember that as our starting-point: God acted to save us before we did anything for him. It isn’t slavery in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea in our case, it’s slavery from sin and the parting of the waters of death.
So the first point I want to make this morning is precisely that: yes, today is a day when we are called to reaffirm our obedience to God. We might not like it, but we do so because we already know God loves us. He loves us beyond measure. As Christians, we would go beyond the Exodus text and say that he loves to the point of his only begotten Son taking on human flesh, and living and dying for us. This is the love by which God sets us free, and this is the love to which we respond today by offering our obedience.
Some of us might find it helpful to draw an imperfect parallel with parenting. We ask our children to do what we require of them, but we do so out of love. We ask our children to obey us, because we love them and because we have already shown that love sacrificially for them, and indeed we shall go on loving them at great cost to ourselves. That is the love that calls forth a child’s healthy response to parents.
And it is similar in the life of the Spirit, as I have said. We gather to make these promises today, because we know a God who loves us to the uttermost in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t simply say to us, “Do this, because I say so,” he says, “Do this, because I love you.” That makes all the difference in the world.
So the commandments are the first feature of the covenant, from our perspective, and they are our response to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
The second feature of the covenant in Exodus 24 is blood. We read about the animal sacrifices made by the Israelites, and how Moses divided the blood between the basins and the altar.
You might expect me to make a point here from a Christian perspective about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for our sins, but that isn’t quite what I’m going to say – apart from the fact that I have already alluded to that in talking about the level of God’s committed love for us in the first point.
Actually, there were several kinds of sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the ‘sin offering’ was only one. Here, we have ‘offerings of well being’ (verse 5). Other translations call these ‘fellowship offerings’. They are offerings that express something about the relationship between God and the people. They do not so much make the relationship by dealing with the barrier of sin as show that the relationship already exists.
Furthermore, in the context of a covenant, the shedding of blood is significant. In ancient times, a covenant was sealed with blood. We may seal an agreement with signatures, or perhaps a solicitor will attach a wax seal to something particularly serious, but go back three thousand years or so and you will find people sealing covenants and solemn agreements with the blood of an animal.
So – this may not be the way we do things now, but the essential message for us to take from this in the passage is our relationship with God has been sealed and confirmed.
Our covenant is, of course, sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. His death does not only mean the forgiveness of our sins, it means a permanent relationship of mutual commitment has been settled. Through the Cross, we become not only forgiven sinners, but disciples and friends of Jesus.
In other words, this is what we say in the Covenant Prayer when we conclude with the words, ‘you are mine and I am yours.’ It is a declaration of such close fellowship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit that we are united. The covenant is not simply an exchange of deeds – God’s salvation and then our obedience – it is the making of a deep and lasting relationship.
Can it be broken? The Old Covenant was broken by God’s people, as we heard in Jeremiah 31. Some say the New Covenant cannot be broken, but John Wesley said it could – albeit only in extreme circumstances.
Again, think of the parent-child relationship. When that has been built on sacrificial love, it takes something extreme to break it completely. Wrong-doing can seriously weaken it and make parent and child distant instead of close. Likewise, it takes something on the scale of our utter rejection of God to break the fellowship of the covenant. We can by our sin weaken the relationship so that it is not as close, rewarding and joyful as it could be, but that should not make us complacent. Instead, would it not be good to think that as we renew our covenant this year, we commit to building and strengthening our relationship with God through the use of spiritual disciplines (what Wesley called ‘the means of grace’) and by doing his will?
And that leads neatly into the third and final feature of the covenant: eating and drinking. Listen again to the curious way in which the reading ends:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Verses 9-11)
You have the close fellowship, culminating with those words, ‘and they ate and drank.’ You can soon think of other biblical examples of people ‘eating with God’, even if not quite so directly. The Passover meal. Jesus dining with sinners. The Lord’s Supper – of course. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride in Revelation. It’s very physical and material, hardly the ethereal, spiritual occasion that many assume a religious experience to be. No wonder C S Lewis called Christianity ‘the most materialist of all the religions’.
Again, in ancient times, after a covenant had been sealed with the sprinkling of blood, the parties to the covenant would sit down and feast together. We shall do this at the climax of our service with bread and wine, although when we speak of the sacrament being ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ and then swallow a tiny piece of bread and a thimbleful of wine, it is a pretty microscopic foretaste!
This God enjoys our company, meets us in the ordinary and necessary areas of life, and transforms the mundane into feasting. This God turns everyday grey into multi-coloured celebration.
Most of all, perhaps, the thought of us sitting together and feasting with God confirms the notion that the covenant has brought us into a family. Like a family sitting down to eat in the evening when everyone has come in from school or work, so we reflect together on what we have done with God and what we shall do tomorrow with him. And we do that with food and drink, bread and wine, at tables and in cars, in homes and in shops, breathing air and using our five senses, because we can not only taste and see that the Lord is good as the Psalmist said, we can also touch, see, smell and hear that he is good.
We live out this relationship which the covenant has established and confirmed not waiting for heaven but seeking to do his will on earth as it is in heaven, all the while giving the world an advance taste of the new heavens and the new earth which God will bring with the resurrection of the dead at the end of all things as we know them now.
What does this have to say to us as we renew our covenant this morning? We are called not only together into the fellowship of the church with God but also to go into the world with him and celebrate his love there. We can find him in the normality of daily living just as we can also find him in the specialness of Sunday morning. And as we encounter God in the physical world, so we rejoice in that love as we turn material things back into the stuff of his kingdom.
May that be what each of us does this year.