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.
more about “Sabbatical, Day 68, Maundy Thursday: …“, posted with vodpod
You have just watched video number five from Damaris Trust for Holy Week. Nick Pollard talks about Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. He discusses the significance of this, and what the command to the disciples to ‘watch and pray’ might mean for us.
I should add that today is very significant for me, both as 9th April and as Maundy Thursday. For it was on 9th April 1976, which was Maundy Thursday that year too, that I found faith in Christ.
When I was at theological college, we never got to celebrate Easter together. It always fell in the – guess – Easter vacation. So we celebrated it ‘proleptically’ (along with Holy Week and Good Friday). That is, we celebrated it in advance of it happening. And what follows here is something of a proleptic post. Three days ahead of time, I’m typing a few thoughts here about the Resurrection. It’s part of a synchroblog today suggested by Slipstream, the Evangelical Alliance‘s network for ‘younger leaders’. (I ended up in it because I was part of its predecessor, Leaders’ Digest, before anyone gets sarky about my age.)
And the Resurrection is the great proleptic event of all history. Mind you, even the Apostle Paul doesn’t use such a fancy word as ‘proleptic’. Just as Jesus regularly did, he uses an agricultural image. He calls it the ‘firstfruits‘. Ancient Israel celebrated two harvest festivals. One was the great ingathering at the end of the summer, rather like the harvests we still mark in a post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world. The other was in the late Spring, when the ‘firstfruits’ appeared, and is the festival that was happening when Pentecost erupted in Jerusalem. The appearance of the first fruits promised what was to come.
In that sense, Jesus’ resurrection is ‘proleptic’ for us. It promises our resurrection at the end of time, and with it the new heavens and new earth promised in Revelation 21. As Tom Wright has correctly reminded us, it’s about so much more than ‘going to heaven when we die’. How right he was to say that ‘heaven is not the end of the world’. It’s the foretaste of the new creation. You want hope in what I just called our ‘post-industrial, credit crunch, Web 2.0 world’? You have it – in the Resurrection. Jesus has the currency the world craves.
And it’s not just for the world: it’s something we need as disciples of Jesus to renew us over and over again. Yesterday, I bumped into a friend. She is on the leadership of a church where a number of people are going through major pastoral crises. “We just need to get to Easter,” she said. I think you could take her comment more than one way. It’s not just about getting to a certain point in time. It’s that getting to Easter puts you at the place of hope.
Michelangelo once broke out in indignant protest against his fellow artists who were for ever depicting Christ in his death on the cross. ‘Paint him instead the Lord of life. Paint him with his kingly feet planted on the stone that held him in the tomb.’
But Michelangelo continued to isolate the death of Christ, from the Pietà of his youth in St. Peter’s to the unfinished Pietà in Florence … so did the theologians and the preachers.
The point Green makes in the book is that it’s dangerous to separate the death and resurrection of Christ in our thinking or our emphasis. It’s something Jürgen Moltmann stressed in a different way. In ‘The Crucified God‘, he says we should speak of both ‘The Cross of the Risen One’ and ‘The Resurrection of the Crucified One’.
Why is it important to hold Cross and Resurrection together? Because when we emphasise one at the expense of the other, dangerous distortions creep into our thinking and discipleship. When we overlook the Resurrection, we preach that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ but turn it into legalism: ‘You’d better be grateful and live a good life.’ Atonement has to connect death and resurrection. When we overlook the Cross, we enter tawdry triumphalism and entertain a faith that cannot grapple with suffering, like those who come to worship on Easter Day having avoided Good Friday. Or we are like the church steward who once prayed with me in the vestry before a Good Friday service and referred to the day as a tragedy.
A third and final reflection. (Oh why not, I’m not getting to preach this Easter due to my sabbatical, so here’s my chance!) I want to dig out a favourite story. In my first ministerial appointment, one couple (who had left the Methodist church for the URC anyway!) disdainfully nicknamed me ‘Laugh-a-minute Faulkner’. Why? Because I committed sacrilege in my sermons by usually opening them with a funny story. I know, terrible. Write the disciplinary charge now.
One Easter, the churches in the town decided to hold a united service on Easter Sunday evening. There was to be no sermon, but I got the gig for the five-minute thought for the day. I recounted a story I’d heard from Tony Campolo, in which he told how on the afternoon of Easter Day, Russian Orthodox priests would get together and tell one another their biggest belly-laughs to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection. More soberly, I then cited the poet Patrick Kavanagh who said that the Resurrection is ‘a laugh freed for ever’. I concluded that I had ample theological justification to tell a joke.
Which I proceeded to do.
You can guess which two people didn’t laugh.
You can guess which two people refused to share the Peace with me.
Now I know how to be miserable. Ask Debbie about my Scrooge impersonation around Christmas. But one thing I know about the Resurrection is that it’s the reason for great joy. If I can outdo Larry for happiness at the thought of the Resurrection – it’s what has held me together when I’ve had crises of faith – then something was desperately wrong with this poor couple. In every sense of the word they were sad.
Maybe on Sunday, the truth that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed’ can force a smile onto the stoniest of faces. After all, why be stony on the day the stone was rolled away?
Finally, here is a list of the other blogs confirmed as participating in this synchroblog, as of yesterday afternoon: