Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
There is something very precious that our western, neoliberal society is in danger of losing. I am speaking of the need human beings have to live together in covenantal ways. We have a need to make covenants with one another.
I have a bible dictionary that defines ‘covenant’ as
a formal agreement or treaty between two parties in which each assumes some obligation.
When someone says ‘covenant’, many people think first of the covenant of marriage. You know,
Mary, will you give yourself to Fred,
to live together in the covenant of marriage?
Will you love him, comfort him,
honour and protect him,
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him,
as long as you both shall live?
Marriage fits the bill. It is certainly ‘a formal agreement […] between two parties in which each assumes some obligation’. (And there really are times when marriage may seem to be more like a treaty…)
Marriage isn’t the only relationship I would describe as a covenant. Let me name friendship as an informal kind of covenant. True friendship can join people together in ways which involve a mutual obligation on both parties through time, perhaps through a whole lifetime. In covenantal ways. The companionship of friends in good times, and the support good friends offer in hard times therefore has a ‘covenant’ aspect.
We can say that there is a covenantal aspect to being part of a society, though I believe that is in danger of breaking down. In our society, we seek something like ‘the common good’; though that is under threat. Margaret Thatcher once famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society’. I think she meant that we are an economy first and foremost, and that the bottom line is not a covenant to seek the common good. The bottom line becomes the dollar. Full stop.
The Uniting Church still believes in covenanting and seeking the common good. In 1994, the Assembly established a covenant between First and Second peoples in our Church. In 2009, we adopted a revised preamble to the Uniting Church’s Constitution which recognises that the triune God was in this land working among Indigenous people long before 1788. And it also recognises that Aboriginal and Islander peoples ‘continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians’ of the lands and waters.
This covenant is why we recognise the Jagera people, the First People of this place, at the beginning of our services.
Covenants are as old as time, and they are not just between people. God makes covenants with people too. In fact, covenants are central to the relationship the people of God have with God. Last week’s Old Testament reading was the story of the covenant God made with every living thing after the Flood, never again to flood the earth. And today’s Old Testament reading concerns the covenant God made with Abraham, to make him ‘the ancestor of a multitude of nations’. Next week’s reading is the covenant with Moses and Israel, which centres on the Ten Commandments which were given by the grace of God.
Do you see the progressive focussing of these covenants?
The covenant of Noah is with the whole of creation.
In God’s covenant with Abraham, God promises that he will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
And in the covenant mediated by Moses, God focusses on the nation of Israel.
Then the focus is upon one person, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus established the New Covenant with us—but not only with us but with all humanity and with the whole creation once more, because he is the Lord of all. The New Covenant focusses on Jesus, but applies to all creation.
Before we go further, note one thing: God initiates all these covenants. God is the author and guarantor of the promises, and invites us to trust those promises.
The Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are the signs of the New Covenant, just as male circumcision was the sign of the Old. We enter the New Covenant in Baptism and we reaffirm the New Covenant every time we receive the Sacrament of Communion.
Today, you may have noticed that the font has been moved a metre or so. It has stood at the door—the entry to the church—on Sundays for a number of years as a sign that we enter God’s covenant family, the Church, through the sign of baptism. That’s why it’s there.
The water in the font is a witness to the New Covenant that Jesus Christ has made with us. We never outgrow baptism, and we can never put the Covenant of baptism behind us. To be baptised is to be marked forever with the sign of the Cross. The Christian life is an outworking of what God has done for us, and that is shown in baptism.
So there are those who would like to be able to dip their finger into the water as they enter church to remind themselves that through their baptism they have a place in God’s family. Some may want to mark themselves with the sign of the cross as they do. That’s why the font is now in a more accessible place.
I welcome this practice. Our Christian faith tells us that God became a human being, he breathed and slept and got tired. God works through material things like water and bread and wine. Yet in our tradition we have often starved ourselves of physical acts that help to reaffirm our place in God’s family.
I’m also happy that some of us will continue our present practice: to allow the water to be a witness to the Covenant as we walk by it.
Both practices are fine. Both may allow the water to bear witness to the Sacrament of Baptism.
Soon we’ll renew the New Covenant as we come to the Communion Table. The Basis of Union says
In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptised people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom.
So come to the Table in confident faith, come ready to be fed by the Lord as he comes to you.
A recap: a covenant can be described as ‘a formal agreement or treaty between two parties in which each assumes some obligation’. We need covenants; we need them to live in peace with one another.
But most importantly of all, God has made an everlasting New Covenant with us.
God is faithful to us. That’s God’s part in the covenant. Our part is to have an active faith, a faith that seeks to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Thanks be to God.