This is the sermon I gave at all three of my churches this year (Barnes, Putney and Roehampton) as part of our annual Methodist Covenant service. The texts were: Genesis 12:1-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.
The concept of ‘covenant’ runs through our Bible like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. This morning we have heard just three examples of the term’s use in our scriptures. From Genesis, we heard about God’s first covenant with Abram (or Abraham) and his descendants. From Jeremiah, we heard how God promised the people, who were experiencing such hardship and suffering during the Babylonian siege, that there would be a new covenant, one written on their hearts (31:33). And from Mark’s gospel, we heard the realisation of that promise: the new covenant made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, once for us all.
There are, however, many more examples to be found in the pages of scripture. God’s covenant with Noah, for example, sealed by the sign of the rainbow; the covenant with David; and of course, most importantly, the covenant made on Mount Sinai with Moses and the people of the Exodus. And this is not to mention those covenants made between individuals that we often read about in the Old Testament especially, such as that between Ruth and her future husband Boaz (Ruth 3:11-13). Indeed, the very concept of covenant is the organising principle of the Christian Bible. We essentially divide our scriptures up by relating them to the old covenant made at Sinai – the Old Testament – and the new one made in Jesus Christ – the New Testament.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a great Biblical scholar, knew all this very well. Inspired by the Puritans, he encouraged Methodist members from the earliest days to make this language and concept of covenant their own. To engage in a regular re-examination and renewal of their covenant relationship with God. To ask themselves what the state of their relationship with Jesus Christ actually was, and crucially what that relationship was calling them to do in their own life and in the life of God’s Church and world. I am so often asked what is distinctive about Methodism, and this service highlights so much of our core DNA, if we have ears to listen:
- the desire to enter into a personal relationship with Christ;
- the call regularly to re-examine the state of that relationship, and recognise that it will mature and develop over time;
- the absolute imperative that that relationship should change us and the world for the better, as we seek to serve God and our neighbour as ourselves.
I could wax lyrical about this proud heritage, the beauty of the liturgy and the vital importance of the language of covenant in the Bible for some time. However, an abiding challenge would still remain: the fact that the language of covenant seemingly has no place in our world today. Like so many of the words and phrases we use in church life – ‘redemption’, ‘intercession’ or even ‘communion’, for instance – it has little or no relevance to those outside our doors. Think of how many times you have heard the word used in everyday speech. A quick search on the BBC website reveals a few references to the ‘military covenant’ and the recent film starring Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant, and that is about it. Even good Methodists I encounter often struggle to define what this service is all about.
If I used the term ‘contract’ or ‘agreement’, then we would perhaps be in a much easier place. All of us enter into those on a regular basis: phone contracts, loan agreements, repayment plans. Many people will be signing up for new gym contracts as we speak, or entering into agreements with Weight Watchers and other similar groups, as the New Year’s resolutions begin to bite and we resolve to fight the flab and get fit. Others will be busy cancelling agreements, trying to cut their expenditure after the expense of Christmas, or getting a better deal elsewhere. (I did precisely that the other day, when I cancelled my Amazon Prime contract the other day after the free trial period had come to an end and I had received all my Christmas packages free from delivery charges!)
We know all about these kinds of contracts. Ones made to suit us and our needs, where we feel no real loyalty to the other party involved – be it a bank, mobile phone company or gym – and they seem to demonstrate little loyalty to us. Agreements that are all about getting as much as we can, while giving as little as possible. Purely transactional relationships, which can be dispensed with whenever we like.
That is not what ‘covenant’ means, though. Within the scriptural covenants there are certainly elements of transaction and reciprocity. But when God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (Jer. 31:33) that is an absolute commitment made by God. God is not saying, “You will be my people, until I find some better people, who are less stiff-necked and nicer than you”. Or, “You will be my people, until the cooling-off period expires and the monthly payments increase.” God is saying very clearly that he is entering into a relationship with his creation for all eternity. God is not saying that relationship will always be easy or that we will always get what we want from it – or at least what we think we want – but it is relationship that will always be there. A hand always out-stretched; an ear always ready to listen; the ever-present offer of a true covenant relationship.
As I have said, this concept of a covenant relationship is arguably so hard for us to understand because it seems to exist so rarely outside the pages of scripture. As we look around us, where do we find other examples? Marriages, where one or other partner feels able to walk out when they are not getting exactly what they want from the relationship. Friendships built on gain and advantage, which can be ended at the click of a mouse on Facebook. Employment contracts that discard people when they are sick or in need, and no longer useful. Politicians who seem to believe they have a divine right to rule and no responsibility to those who elected them. And sadly, too often, churches that seem to be built on the concept of, ‘What do I get out of this? How does this all meet my needs?”
As we renew, or even enter for the first time into, our covenant relationship with God today, I urge you to recall Christ’s warning that we need to be in this world but not of this world. We cannot bring the world’s concepts of covenant to this holy place. Instead, we need to take our concept to the world. We need – as always – to model ourselves on Jesus, and particularly his relationship with God. A relationship not built on what he could get out of it, or on what was in it for him. A relationship that didn’t just last when the sun was shining and all was going well. But a relationship built on absolute faith and commitment, through the good times and the bad. A relationship – a covenant – built on flesh and blood, on sacrifice and divine love. A relationship that calls each one of us to be the very best that we can be; to serve God wherever we are; and to love even the unlovely as we love ourselves.
This is not an easy call. Many Methodist deliberately avoid this service because of the challenge those words we will say together shortly place upon them: “I am no longer my own but yours”. But as we make our pledges today, sisters and brothers, let us do so not in our own strength but in that of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Let us reach out with open hearts and open minds and say to our Maker, “Yes, I want to be in a relationship with you. I know I have done much in my life of which I am ashamed. I know that I shall let you down and myself down in the coming weeks and months, time and again. I know that I will resist your call on my life in so many ways. But I want to know you, Lord, and in turn to be known. I want to be part of your wonderful plans for the Kingdom you are building soul by soul. I want to live my life knowing that it has purpose and meaning and use, because of you and what you have done in Jesus.” Let us take up our covenant again and show the world the desire of its Creator to live in relationship with each one of us – today for all eternity. Amen.