We come to our Covenant Service today, faced with a big problem. That problem is a word. The word ‘covenant’ itself. It is one of those words that has slipped from people’s language and understanding. So much so that our first task today is to ask, what is a covenant?
Consider how we used to use the word ‘covenant’, and why it has slipped from our conversation. In the days before Gift Aid was introduced in 2000, you had to take out a covenant with a charity if you wanted them to benefit from tax refunds on your giving. At one stage, the covenant lasted for seven years, then the commitment was reduced to four years. Now – in order to benefit those one-off gifts we make – you don’t need to be committed to the charity at all.
Another area in which we have previously talked about ‘covenant’ is marriage. And while I don’t generally believe the idea that many people go into marriage today casually, saying, “Well if it doesn’t work out we can always divorce,” I do think we have lost the notion of covenant. Marriage has slipped between two stools, due to experiences of pain coupled with a sense of personal rights. One stool is the idea of it as a legal contract, and hence we see the fashion for pre-nuptial agreements.
The other stool is how we cope with disliking people in a very individualised society where we have lost the notion that we and other people need forgiving. James Emery White puts it like this:
If relationships become too uncomfortable, we disengage. We change jobs, move out of a neighbourhood, find a new church or leave our marriage. We minimize relational life as portable and disposable.
But to Christians, relational life is not portable and disposable. People are made in the image of God – even the ones we dislike. And they are just as loved by the God who brings forgiveness through the pain of the Cross.
A covenant, then, is a solemn and mutually binding commitment, framed by an understanding of love that is about commitment to the other party rather than self-fulfilment. That is why ‘the covenant of the LORD your God’ in Deuteronomy 29:12 is ‘sworn by an oath’. It is made by God’s acts of salvation for us, and we enter into it when we respond. Which is why in the same verse Moses tells Israel this is a covenant ‘which the LORD your God is making with you today’.
Just as yesterday we celebrated forty years of David and Arline’s mutual and continuing commitment in love to each other, so today in the Covenant Service we celebrate God’s commitment of love to us since the dawn of creation. He has promised unfailing love to us. He has kept that promise. He continues to keep that promise. And we enter into his covenant of love by our own solemn promises in response. Just as the Covenant in Deuteronomy was in response to God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt, so ours is a response to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
If this is the nature of our covenant renewal today, the first thing we need to do is meditate on our salvation. Let us recall the humbling gift of a baby in a manger. Let us recall the obedience of Christ. Let us remember his teaching and miracles. And let us focus on his sufferings and death, his conquest of his death, his reign at the Father’s right hand, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the promise of his return.
Then let us say – this God deserves my unswerving allegiance. And let us renew that commitment today.
But then there is a second question to ask about covenant in this passage: why does God make a covenant?
To answer this, let’s notice a misconception we sometimes have about God’s covenant with us, and our Covenant Service. When we say the Covenant Prayer, it is full of ‘I’ and ‘me’ language. ‘I am no longer my own but yours’. The modern prayer then follows with a lot of uses of the word ‘I’. The old version of the prayer, on which many grew up, uses ‘me’ a lot: ‘Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put me to doing, put me to suffering’, and so on.
And with language like that, it’s tempting to think that the covenant is between God and me. Well it is, and it’s essential that everyone makes their own personal commitment of faith and obedience to God in Christ.
But … God has bigger purposes. This is not just about me and my private relationship with God (as if it could be private). The ‘why’ of the covenant is this: God’s purpose is making a covenant is to form a people for himself. In Deuteronomy, God has the assembly of Israel together before him: leaders, elders, officials, men, women and children, plus the aliens in the camp (verses 10-11). It’s done together, because, as Moses explains in verse 13, the covenant is ‘in order that [the LORD] may establish you today as his people’.
God, then, uses his covenant to make and establish us as his people. We are to be a community of people, radically committed together to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church was never meant to be an accidental aggregation of whoever coincidentally turned up in the same building on Sunday.
And why is God so keen to form us into his covenant community? Because he made human beings to live in community, not isolation, and that has gone badly wrong due to sin. He calls us to be the light of the world together. He calls us to show how it is possible to live in committed love together in a society where break-ups, unforgiveness, prejudice and other diseases ravage people all the time.
No wonder God wants every part of the Israelite community before him for the covenant, and those not present are included, too. This is his serious project. It is the one plan he has had since Abraham. The reference in verse 15 to ‘those not here with us today’ is ‘not those accidentally absent but those as yet unborn’. We may as Christians operate under a ‘new covenant’ in Christ, but the goal is the same: a redeemed community as a corporate witness in the world to God’s holy love.
So this morning, let us not see ourselves as private individuals in separate booths, renewing our covenant. Let us recognise that we are doing this together as the people of God for the sake of the world. Before we say the Covenant Prayer together, I shall say the words, ‘We are no longer our own, but yours.’ Let us renew our covenant, not only in terms of our personal commitment to Christ, but our commitment to one another in him, and our commitment together in his Name for the world.
A recap: we have said that the covenant is a solemn mutual commitment that God initiates and to which we respond. We have said that God does this in order to form a people for himself who will be a witness as a community to a broken world. Finally, a third question: when do we make the covenant?
Well, the simple answer is ‘today’, isn’t it? We renew our commitment today in this service. And our reading is littered with references to ‘today’. One commentator says:
The emphasis in this passage is upon the present (today is used five times), not in the sense that a new covenant was being initiated, but rather in the sense that the renewing of the covenant was a revitalizing of the relationship.
‘Today’ is not just about urgency, frequency or regularity. It is about revitalising our relationship with God. How many of us could do with that? I know I could. I know what it is to go through spiritually dry seasons in my life. I imagine that many or all of you do, too.
But what do we do when we find faith dull, dry and uninspiring? Some just plod on and hope things will work out or change of their own accord. Others seek the latest religious fads and fashions. Or we might hold out for a dramatic spiritual experience.
There can be virtue in all those approaches. Sometimes, just to continue doing what we know is what we are called to do. On other occasions, new approaches to faith may help us. And it is also possible that the Holy Spirit may intervene in a powerful way.
However, sometimes the revitalisation that comes ‘today’ happens through basic decisions of obedience. Canon Michael Green, a well-known charismatic Anglican, hardly shy of welcoming dramatic spiritual experiences, once said that he knew far too many Christians who were refusing to get on with the Christian life until God did something extraordinary in their lives. He said they should just simply make the decision to obey Christ.
Let’s compare it to a marriage again. It isn’t always the flowers, the box of chocolates or the diamonds that make a difference. A dry marriage is watered when each spouse takes the trouble to think what their beloved would most appreciate them doing. That can win the heart and bring back the spark as much as anything else.
Today, then, may be the ‘when’ for saying another simple ‘yes’ to Jesus. ‘Yes’ to walking in his ways. ‘Yes’ to pleasing him – as Paul says, ‘Find out what pleases the Lord’, implying of course that if we find out what pleases the Lord, the natural thing is then to do what pleases him. Today, as we say another ‘yes’ to Jesus, it may just be that as we do so from the heart, it so delights the Lord that there is a new spark in our relationship with him.
So if the finely crafted words of our promises today are met by finely crafted acts of devotion and obedience, who knows what might be around the corner? As we respond to God’s committed love of us with our own committed actions of love for him, might we just see God renewing his purposes for the world in our neighbourhood? Might we then be on the brink of a renewal in our life and witness?
May the Holy Spirit so empower us that it is so.
 James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p140.
 Methodist Worship Book, p290.
Many of us will have heard all sorts of stories about baptism. A friend of mine, when he was an Anglican curate, really did baptise the wrong end of a baby! Me, I just worry about the baby grabbing the radio microphone – or, worse, my glasses. Or there’s the story of the minister telling the congregation before a baptism, “The water isn’t anything special or magic, it’s the same water we’ll use later for making the coffee.”
But what, in all seriousness, shall we say about baptism today on Holly’s big day? Early in the baptismal service, I read two passages from the New Testament. The second was from Acts chapter 2. I prefaced it with these words:
‘On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Those who heard the message asked what they should do. Peter told them:’ (Methodist Worship Book, p89)
And then I read what he said:
‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:38-39)
I want to say this is all about anticipating the future. We anticipate future events. For example, later in the year we shall be conscious that Christmas is coming, and will make our plans. We shall ask people what presents they would like, buy special food, make arrangements to see family and so on – all because we are anticipating a future event. We want to get ready.
When Peter preaches ‘the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection’ he’s using that to make people think of the future. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the future, when God will raise everyone from the dead and he will reign unopposed over all creation. And what Peter calls his hearers to do is anticipate that future. In what ways?
Last Sunday morning I asked people how good their French was. It’s similar with the word ‘repent’. ‘Re’ means ‘again’ and ‘pent’ is from penser, ‘to think’ – like our word ‘pensive’. So to repent is to think again, and that’s what the New Testament Greek word translated here means, too. When Peter calls the crowd to repent, he’s telling them ‘think again’ – about the way you live your life, and change where needed.
I used to preach at a church that was on the ‘wrong’ side of a dual carriageway from the direction in which I lived. Every time I took a service there, I drove beyond it on my side of the road, to the next traffic light junction, where drivers were permitted to do a u-turn from the filter lane.
Repentance is like a u-turn. When we encounter Jesus, he makes us think again about the way we live our lives, and we do a u-turn in our lifestyle.
What does that have to do with anticipating the future? I think the point is this: when God raises us all from the dead, judges us and reigns without opposition, we need to be in line with his will. We need to start now – by doing a u-turn.
Last month, every class from Broomfield Primary School came here during the week to look at our building and ask me questions. One of the things I showed them was the font. They were intrigued by our small, portable font, in contrast to the large stone font at St Mary’s.
We talked about what it meant. They knew we put water in the font, but not necessarily why. So I asked them what we use water for in everyday life. Some said for drinking, and I could have made something of that answer. But I concentrated on those who said that water was for cleaning ourselves. I tried to explain that the water in baptism is a symbol of God cleaning us from sin.
That’s what the symbolism of pouring water on Holly has been about today. It has been to show that God wants to clean us from every sin. Have you ever felt dirty inside after doing something wrong? God wants to remove that from us.
And it’s done, says Peter, ‘in the name of Jesus’, because these gifts come to us from God through Jesus, and especially his death on the Cross, where he died for our sins, in our place. That’s why we need faith in Jesus – to receive this cleansing from all our sins that are a barrier between ourselves and God.
What does this have to do with the future? It means that at the Last Judgment, God will – amazingly –deliver a verdict not that we are guilty but that we are in the right with him, all through Jesus.
And that leads onto the third element:
I guess everybody knows that the central message of the Christian faith is about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? Some people think it is pretending that a bad event didn’t happen. Others think it means excusing people’s actions, by explaining away their conduct. Others think it is about suppressing our anger when we have been wronged.
I don’t think it’s any of these things. True forgiveness looks the person in the wrong squarely in the eye, knowing where the blame lies, not excusing their actions, nor pretending we are not angry. But then, despite laying the blame where it rightly belongs, the one who forgives refuses to pass sentence on the wrongdoer.
And that is what God does for us in Jesus. He knows our actions are wrong, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows we are blameworthy, but he refuses to sentence us to what we deserve, which is life and eternity without him. He discards the sentence and invites us into his family, which we do but handing our lives over to him.
Again, this is about anticipating the future. Trust your life to Jesus Christ and follow him, and you need have no fear of God’s verdict on you, either now or in the future. He knows where we are in the wrong, but he refuses to pass sentence. In fact, the Greek word used for ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘to set free’. We are like prisoners, expecting to be sentenced for our crimes. But instead, the Judge sets us free by forgiving us.
Our call, then, is to receive that by giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, and then to set others free as we forgive what they have done to us.
The Holy Spirit
So far we’ve had two commands – ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’, plus one promise ‘the forgiveness of sins’. 2-1 to commands, then. But finally, we have an equaliser from promises: all who repent, are baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins receive God’s own presence in their lives – the Holy Spirit. Why?
At the secondary school we attended in north London, my sister and I had an English teacher who worshipped at a high Anglican church in central London. My sister once asked him why he went there. “I’m just a terrible sinner and I need to feel forgiven,” he replied.
“Don’t you feel that God can change you?” my sister enquired.
“No,” he said.
But the Good News is that change is possible. It isn’t just that God forgives us and cleanses us. As the saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.
And that’s why Peter promises the Holy Spirit to those who become disciples of Jesus. So that not only may God forgive us in Jesus Christ, he may also start the long work of making us be more like Jesus Christ. In that sense, God is anticipating us for heaven. The Holy Spirit fits us for the life of God’s kingdom, where everything will conform to his will.
Two thoughts as I close. Firstly, I don’t want our regular churchgoers here to think this doesn’t apply to any of them. Remember that Peter addressed these words to devout religious Jews in Jerusalem for a major feast. Sometimes, those who have been involved in religion all their lives need to hear the call to conversion as much as anybody.
Secondly, what does any of this have to do with one-year-old Holly? She can’t repent, she can’t understand her baptism yet as washing her clean of sin, she can’t appreciate the forgiveness of sins, let alone the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life.
But today, Ruth and Mike make the promises for her, on the basis of their own faith. They do so, because they aspire to Holly making this kind of commitment for herself, when she is old enough to do so. Today, we promise to pray and prepare so that becoming a disciple of Jesus one day seems the most natural thing in the world for Holly.
I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.
Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.
Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.
Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.
Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.
Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.
At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.
What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.
And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.
So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’
On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.
During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.
See you tomorrow.