To begin with a question.
How would you describe the nature of your relationship with this great mystery that our human ancestors have called “God”?
It is not an easy question to answer. Some might describe the nature of their relationship with God with words like trust or dependence; others might speak of devotion to a divine master; still others might use words like worship, or obedience, or friendship.
And, if we are at all honest, we have to realize that the words that we use to describe the nature of our relationship with God change as we go through our lives. There can be times of profound communion and connection in our relationship with God, and other times of great distance and doubt; there can be times of certainty and confidence, and other times of great frustration and indifference.
In almost every culture, from the dawn of human consciousness, people have tried to understand the nature of the relationship between humanity and God. At times, the nature of the relationship has been almost mechanistic, in which humans have believed that God could be manipulated by certain rituals, or sacrifices, or offerings. If the humans made the right sacrifices or promises, then our ancestors could expect particular divine blessings to sustain and enrich their lives or to guarantee success in everything from harvests to victory in battle. And any one of us who ever made promises to God, while in high school, that we would go to church every Sunday if God would only help us to pass this test that we did not sufficiently study for will know that this mechanistic view of our relationship with God may not be quite as archaic as we might like to think.
At other times, the divine realm was seen as an entire pantheon of different deities, each of which needed to be honoured and appeased in different ways.
And, as we all know, one of the greatest challenges in modern culture is the assumption that everything can be understood without any need for recourse to divine explanations. We need not try to describe the nature of a relationship with God since there is no God with whom we need to be in relationship in order for life to make sense.
Suffice it to say that to speak of God is not an easy thing to do.
In the biblical tradition, however, there is another common word to which most of us do not pay a great deal of attention. And yet, it is a word that is worthy of our reflections.
And that word is covenant.
Most of us probably have some concept of what a covenant is. We speak of a marriage as a covenant, in which the spouses makes promises about how they intend to treat each other as they share their lives. By voluntarily and freely entering this covenant, the marriage partner is making a solemn promise that is not simply for their own benefit or advantage, but for the intended good of both spouses. And if that marriage covenant is to be sustained, both parties must take responsibility to faithfully and intentionally fulfill their individual promises.
In a similar way, there are covenantal dimensions to our relationships in the workplace which transcend mere contractual obligations. In the best workplaces, there is a sense that people are intentionally working together, beyond the technicalities of their job descriptions, both for the good of themselves and of the others with whom they are working.
And even on a global stage, covenants shape the relationships between peoples and nations, both in times of peace and in times of war. A trade agreement or a peace treaty are forms of covenant that can be established through negotiation, but the signatories must fulfill their promises if the intended benefits of those covenants are to be assured.
From the dynamics of our personal lives, to the productivity of our workplaces, to the relations between nations, faithful adherence to these covenants are essential to the maintenance of those relationships.
We sometimes forget how important, and how central, the idea of covenant is in Jewish and Christian theology. The idea that we are invited into a relationship with a covenant-making God is so central to our spiritual tradition that we sometimes overlook the fact that our Scriptures are structured in relation to this idea of covenant – that is, we divide the Bible into what we usually refer to as the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament” – while forgetting that another word for testament is “covenant”. The framers of the Christian biblical canon chose to separate the Hebrew Scriptures that we share, in common, with the Jewish people, from the uniquely Christian portions of Scripture, by referring to them in relation to the “old covenant” and the “new covenant”.
Without doubt, there can be misperceptions that arise from this arbitrary division of the Bible, not least of which is that it can lead to a perception that the God of the Old Testament is somehow a different deity than the one who was revealed in the New Testament.
But in spite of this challenge, it can be good for us to remember that the essential nature of the relationship between the human and the divine, in the biblical tradition, is often described in relation to the establishment of covenants, in which both the divine and the human participants in those covenants have responsibilities to fulfill in order to maintain that relationship.
Over these past few weeks of Lent, our suggested readings have often invited us to read of different covenants that were established between God and humans. We have read of the covenant that was established with Noah and his family after the flood; of the covenant that was established with Abraham and Sarah, in which they would receive blessing if they responded to the call of God with faith; of the covenant that was established with the people of Israel when they were promised an abundant life in a blessed land if they lived in obedience to the commandments that were entrusted to them on Mount Sinai; these were only a few of the different covenants that the ancient stories of the Bible describe.
In each case, there is a sense in which both humans and God have responsibilities and promises to fulfill so that the relationship might flourish and be sustained. To take one example – the people of Israel were promised peace and prosperity if they upheld their covenantal responsibility to live in accordance with the law that was intended to focus their worship on God alone and establish a community of justice and compassion for all.
But, as the stories of Scripture also attest, covenants get broken. Again and again, the promises are undermined by human sin, by unfaithfulness, by injustice, by the brokenness of the world.
And so, we are left with a dilemma – how can we, as humans, maintain our relationship with this covenant-making God if we, as humans, are destined to fail, destined to make mistakes, destined to sin, destined to break covenant?
What hope could there be for a sustained relationship with a covenant-making deity if the human propensity to brokenness is so clearly inevitable?
Today’s suggested reading from Jeremiah invites us to hear a profound and important prophetic proclamation – that God was promising, through Jeremiah, that a new covenant was going to be established.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
The most common Christian interpretation of this passage, of course, is our belief that this new covenant was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We believe that somehow, in Jesus, God was establishing a new relationship, a new covenant with humanity.
But, we might rightly ask, what are our obligations, what is the part that we are to play in this new covenant?
The answer to that question centers our attention, of course, on the person of Jesus himself. After all, as we will be remembering and celebrating on a Thursday night less than two weeks from now, his claim during his last supper with his friends was that “this is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood” – a claim that we continue to call to mind every time that we celebrate communion.
Which reminds us – if nothing else – that this new covenant is no longer really about us, or what we are supposed to do.
Instead, it is all about what Christ was about to accomplish, for us and for our world. He was about to take, upon himself, both sides of the new covenant – to represent God for humans, and humans for God.
Our baptism into him, and the life of Christian discipleship that we are called to embark upon as we journey out of those baptismal waters and into this world, are the ways that we join ourselves into the life of that new covenant.
As such, our relationship with God is no longer based on what we do or what we do not do; it is not based upon how morally upright or spiritually perfect we are; it is not based upon our religious duties and devotional practices. It is, instead, based on what Christ has done for us – and what Christ alone could do – to maintain, forever, both the divine and the human sides of this new covenant.
God came to us, in Christ, so that we could come to God, in Christ.
Which means, at its very heart, that this new covenant with God is based entirely on God’s glorious grace made known in Jesus Christ.
And that is good news.
Thanks be to God.