I know that some members of the congregation are Episcopalians by birth, that they have always been part of the Episcopal church; I, however, have come to the Episcopal church via a very convoluted route. I was born, if you like , into the Methodist church, I dabbled in house churches and Pentecostal congregations, I went to a Church of England teacher training college, I joined the Baptist church, I trained as a LLM under the Ecumenical Church scheme in Milton Keynes, I went to the Eglise Reformée in Thiers and finally I washed up on the stone steps of Christ Church, and feel I have found my home.
But I do not regret my journey through the denominations, as in each church I found something that attracted me or repelled me; something which helped to form and mould me into the Christian I am today, with the beliefs and attitudes that I hold dear. Of course, I recognise that we were all worshipping the same God. It was the human aspect that was so different. From each church I have passed through I can be thankful for what it has given me, or taught me; for the liturgies, the music, the style of worship, the hymnody, the prayers.
And today I want to share with you something from the Methodist worship, something which is a focal point in the Methodist year. Even from my youth I never understood why the Eucharist didn’t seem important in the Methodist church. Every month, we would have a “Lord’s Supper” tacked onto the end of the usual morning service, but often people would leave in the pause between the end of the service, and the continuation to the taking of the bread and wine (or rather, grape juice) The fact that Communion is so infrequently celebrated stems from the roots of the Methodist church, which is, essentially, a “People’s Church” – it was created as a revivalist movement, focussing on the salvation of people, as a rebellion against the pomp and circumstance of the established church, which alienated the lower classes. There were not many pastors, so they would travel around their circuit, only able to celebrate the Eucharist in the meeting houses every few weeks. So the focus was the preaching of the word, which was something that anyone was entitled to do- hence the creation of local preachers.
Another sacrament of the established Church of England which was rejected by the burgeoning Methodist church was infant baptism. The belief was that only those who could make rational decisions were able to make a commitment to God, so instead of baptism there is simply “membership” of the Church. But each year there is a Covenant service, in which people renew their promises to God.
The website of the Methodist church explains it like this: At the start of the new year Methodists make a distinctive resolution
The covenant service, often celebrated on the first Sunday of the year, is at the heart of Methodists' devotion and discipleship, and their dedication in working for social justice. In the service the Church joyfully celebrates God's gracious offer to Israel that "I will be their God and they shall be my people".
This offer is then extended beyond Israel to all people in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God. That relationship primarily involves the corporate life of the community of God's people (i.e. Israel; the Body of Christ). It is concerned with individuals within that group. What God offers is a loving relationship. The Covenant is not a contract in which God and human beings agree to provide particular goods and services for each other! It is not something that we have to do to create a relationship with God. God has freely and graciously already made it possible.
Rather, the Covenant is the means of grace by which we accept the relationship and then seek to sustain it. It is therefore not so much about getting into a relationship with God as it is about staying in it. It is not about acquiring a relationship with God but living within the loving relationship that God has already offered us.
God's gracious offer to us is therefore simultaneously a challenge. If God is committed to us, are we prepared to accept that as reality and commit ourselves in return to God? Even if we do choose to accept it, how can we manage to live out our commitment adequately, frail and human as we are? The New Testament suggests that as we join the group of those seeking to follow the way of Jesus, we respond to God's challenge with him and begin to share his relationship with God as Father. Within the group of disciples, this leads to his Spirit bubbling up in us as individuals, encouraging and enabling us to live out our side of the relationship (i.e. "writing God's ways on our hearts" as Jeremiah 31 describes the Covenant).
Last week Nick talked about baptism, and how this signifies a new beginning with God. We are lucky to have Arman, who was baptised here last year, and his dad Alain with us today, and we rejoice in the commitment made on behalf of Arman by his parents and Godparents. In that service we too committed to upholding Arman in prayer, and we renewed our baptismal vows. During the service held here after Convention, someone whose name I have forgotten was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, and we also renewed our baptismal vows.
But the Covenant service is almost more than that. A Covenant is a contract made between two individuals, with promises on both sides. And as Christians we are a Covenant people, just as the Israelites in the Old Testament were a Covenant people. From Noah onwards, God had made covenants, first with individuals, and finally with Israel as a nation. Covenants which were all binding promises between God and humans ~ isn’t that amazing? Between GOD and humans? From the beginning of time God has cared so much about his people that he has wanted to be linked to them by a covenant, by a promise, by an agreement that said “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people”. God loved the world so much that he bound himself to them.
And Israel entered into these solemn covenants enthusiastically, aware of the need to follow God, to improve the way they lived. But human nature being what it is, they soon fell away from the right paths. In Exodus 19, the Bible tells us of how Moses goes to the people of Israel, with a message from God “If you obey me fully, and keep my covenant then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” The elders meet together, and the people respond to God “We will do everything that the Lord has said”.
Brilliant. The covenant is agreed on, the Israelites will follow God’s commandments. But this soon crumbles, and literally within days, as reported in Exodus 32, the people have built a golden calf and are worshipping another god! It seems almost unbelievable that the Lord God would want to have anything to do with them after this display of unfaithfulness, but even if the Israelites don’t take the covenant seriously, God does. He has said that they are his people, and he will remain faithful to them.
And from then on this is the pattern of the Old Testament: Israel falls away from God, unable to keep the Laws on which the covenant is based. God sends prophets to warn the people of the punishments, they take no notice, the punishment comes, the Israelites beg forgiveness, God is gracious, and everything is back on track. And then, Israel falls away from God… and the whole cycle starts again. Israel is as unsuccessful keeping their side of the covenant as I am keeping to my new year’s resolutions!
This might still be going on today, but for one man: Jesus. As the Son of God, he came to make a new covenant with humankind, and it is this that we read about in the New Testament. It is different. Unlike the old covenant, which brought condemnation and punishment, this covenant brings life, for this covenant is no longer based on a list of Laws that are nigh-on impossible to keep, but rather on love. Jesus came as the mediator between God and humankind, he was the perfect sacrifice that sealed the covenant, and through him we are bound to God. And this covenant is open to all ~ not just to the people of Israel, but to all who accept Jesus as Lord, God gives the right to be called children of God. This then is the new covenant of which we are a part.
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 (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other (cf. 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 prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.
And for me, at the beginning of a new year, it seems to be a good time for us to borrow just a little bit from the Methodist Church, and to renew our Covenant with God. I want to use the prayer from the Covenant Service – a prayer which, if we take it seriously, is challenging and powerful. A prayer which I used at my adult baptism, and a prayer which I repeat to myself at least once a year. A prayer which renews our Covenant with God saying This is what you require of me. And I will try to fulfil my side of this Covenant.
let us pray….
Beloved in Christ,
let us again claim for ourselves
this covenant which God has made with his people,
and take upon us the yoke of Christ.
This means that we are content
that he appoint us our place and work,
and that he himself be our reward.
Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ,
who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.
Let us give ourselves to him,
trusting in his promises and relying on his grace.
Lord God, holy Father,
since you have called us through Christ
to share in this gracious covenant,
we take upon ourselves with joy the yoke of obedience
and, for love of you,
engage ourselves to seek and do your perfect will.
We are no longer our own but yours.
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.