Happy new year! This is the sermon I preached at Barnes, Putney and Roehampton Methodist Churches, as we marked the start of the year with our Covenant Services. The texts for all three services were: Genesis 17:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.
For many years, Methodists have begun the year in a very distinctive way with the Covenant Service. It draws on the important concept of covenant that can found throughout the Bible, celebrating God’s gracious offer to Israel that, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”. This offer was then extended beyond Israel to all women and men in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God.
This idea of Covenant was basic to John Wesley‘s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as,
my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death
Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.
Over a number of years Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He first created a distinctive form of service in 1755, drawing on Puritan examples. It emphasised both the individual and corporate nature of the covenant, and the earnest response required of all those who participated. From its earliest days, it was celebrated alongside Holy Communion.
Christmas is now long gone but we are still in the season of Epiphany, when we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ child, and the gifts they brought. Sadly, we are unlikely to be the recipients of any gifts so late after the festive season. If we are lucky, though, we may be recipients of a thank you note for the presents we have given, especially to children. I have already received a number from my godchildren, and their conscientious parents.
Speaking personally, I always found writing thank you notes the very worst part of Christmas! My mother was very strict with my sisters and I, and insisted that letters had to be written promptly, offering fulsome gratitude for any gifts received. She was right, of course, but I used to dread the hours sitting at the dining table desperately trying to think of things to say to an elderly great aunt! As my mother would observe, though: “If you don’t want to write the thank you letter, then you’ll have to send the present back.”. In many ways, the gift and the letters illustrate a sort of covenantal relationship. The gift requires a response on the part of the recipient. If we are honest, many of us will make judgements about the quality or absence of letters when we send a gift, and they may determine how we act in the future. No thank you letter this January, no Christmas present next year!
Within our scriptures, we can see something similar in the understanding of covenant. One of the challenges in studying and understanding Biblical covenants, ranging from the time of Noah to that of Paul, is that the concept develops over time. There is always a moral component to them, making an appeal to values like integrity and loyalty. Especially in the Old Testament, though, they are undeniably influenced by models of treaties and the legal language of charters from contemporary cultures. In these, a powerful king or overlord commits himself to meet certain obligations, in return for the continued loyalty and service of a lesser ruler or people. They are often couched in high-flown, diplomatic language but the basic relationship is a contractual one, imposed by a stronger power on a lesser one. This understanding, for better or worse, perhaps inevitably affected how the Israelites viewed their relationship with their almighty God: they must meet follow the laws given by God, if they are to retain their cherished status as the ‘chosen people’.
Despite what we know about the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, it is still tempting to think of covenant in those terms – like the unwritten covenants of presents and thank you letters, a relationship of obligation that places commitments on both sides. On the one hand, we can feel that we are under an obligation to be worthy of this covenant with God. To fulfil our side of the bargain, we must be perfect people, never falling by the wayside, and thereby ‘earning’ our place in heaven. It is not, in fact, unlike that other great January tradition – the new year’s resolution, whereby we vow never to slip up even for a day on our promised ‘new start’. Such thinking has led numerous great Christians in history astray, Augustine, Luther, Wesley to name but three. All of whom tried to ‘earn’ their salvation by fulfilling their side of the covenantal ‘bargain’ to the letter.
On the other hand, there can be a temptation to place the obligations on God. In a few moments I will invite you to read again those beautiful expressions in the Covenant Service so loved by Methodists: “put me to what you will”, “put me to suffering”, etc. But is there an un-stated sub-text? “And in return, Lord, you will grant me my prayers, not actually ask that much of me, and give me eternal bliss after a long and happy life…” One of the most frightening features of 20th / 21st Century Christianity has the been the rise of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. Wikipedia provides a good, simple definition of its teachings:
a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.
This theology ignores large parts of the Bible, which teach something directly contrary, not least the book of Job. Such teaching almost seems to assume that we could take God to an ombudsman or regulator if he failed to keep his side of the supposed contract!
Interestingly, even in the Old Testament we find writers who are unhappy with this legalistic understanding of the term covenant, like the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and, as we heard, Jeremiah. As we heard, he famously spoke of a covenant that would be written on people’s hearts, not scrolls of paper or tablets of stone (Jer. 31: 33). That understanding of covenant is the one of which Jesus speaks: an organic covenant, we might say. For the new covenant that Christ ushered in was not an agreement carved in tablets of stone but a living, breathing covenant; a thing of the spirit, daily renewed and incapable of being pinned down by scribes and lawyers – then or now. At the heart of this new covenant was not a new set of rules and obligations, but a gift. And that, for me, is what lies at the heart of our covenant service – the response to a precious and costly gift, lovingly given.
The introduction to the Covenant Service in our worship book states that the service should be followed by a celebration of Holy Communion, and we shall do precisely that shortly. it is perhaps this latter part of the service that helps us understand the former, and illustrates what I am trying to say. For this is an unequal covenant, where one partner has given so much more than the other. As it states elsewhere in the Worship Book, in the service for baptism:
for you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered death on the Cross;
for you he triumphed over death,
rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you,
before you could know anything of it.
In renewing our covenant promises today – or indeed making them for the first time – we are not signing up to a credit agreement or writing a thank you note, in the hope of gaining a better present next year. We cannot take God to court for failing to provide what we expect, nor can the gift we have been given be taken away from us, because we did not pen a good enough letter. Nor are we engaging in a ‘box-ticking exercise’ – telling God what we have done and reminding him to keep his side of the bargain. We are making an inadequate response to the greatest gift anyone can ever receive: the gift of God himself in Jesus Christ. Our Covenant is but a fumbling and wholly inadequate response to that gift. It is an aspiration to be worthy of Christ’s great sacrifice. It is a reminder of our high calling as Christians to be like Christ to all whom we meet. It is a token of our earnest effort to be the person that God truly wants each one of us to be.
I have no doubt that each of us shall fail to live up to that aspiration – I shall probably lead the way. I have no doubt that our response will often resemble my grudging, ill-written, childish thank you letters. But I also have no doubt that God shall keep his side of the bargain regardless. And that, brothers and sisters, is good news indeed. Amen.