Covenant

Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’
—Luke 22:19-20

From tabulating the top songs of the year to debating the most important newsmakers or influential citizens to efforts at identifying the year’s best athletes, recording artists, or actors, it is virtually impossible to avoid lists and discussions attempting to assess and quantify the past year. Equally, once the New Year has begun, newscasts and newspapers, pastors and governments not only review the past year but also imagine the possibilities for the year now underway. Often, these imagined possibilities include a cataloging of resolutions.

Among the countless promises, we pledge to lose weight, to save more, to spend more time with our families, to volunteer more, and to finish those projects perpetually left undone. (Generally, we plan to be better versions of ourselves.) Whatever the items crowding our personal and corporate “to do” lists, the start of another year seems an appropriate time to construct these hopeful catalogues. Much like us, John Wesley was no different.
However, more than generally assessing what we did last year and what we must do in the year just begun, Wesley was specifically interested in encouraging the members of his societies to identify those intentional actions done in the previous year that moved them toward perfection—i.e., toward being and living like God would love. In addition, Wesley was interested in fostering an environment where members would find such a pursuit of perfection successful in days to come. One means Wesley contrived to facilitate this pursuit was the Covenant Service.

But, just what is “’covenant,” and why bother having a service dedicated to it?
The concept of covenant is central to the Christian faith. Originating in the Hebrew Scriptures, covenant describes a type of relationship where at least two parties enter into a formal agreement. Much like a social contract, a covenantal agreement assumes that each party will get some benefit from the arrangement. In the original covenant established by Yahweh with Israel in the person of Abraham, Yahweh gets a people with whom directly to relate and Israel gets land, becomes a people, and is blessed. Yet, there is a difference. Unlike a contract that is about establishing a relationship to get something you expect, a covenant is a relationship that exists for itself—the benefits serve as incentives but are not essential. The existence of the relationship is more important than the personal gain acquired from being in the relationship. This shift in focus away from personal benefit toward relationship building makes a covenant markedly different from a contract.

A contract judges a relationship successful by what we get out of the relationship. On the other hand, a covenant is judged successful by our capacity to maintain the relationship. The former is personally useful while inherently about self-gratification. The latter is personally useful while inherently about self-sacrifice. This notion that covenant has similar essential components to a contract yet components that are utilized for contrasting purposes and outcomes exhibits the persistent appeal to inverting expectations that defines the Christian tradition.

In summarizing the importance and centrality of covenant to both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Kevin Vanhooser notes that from their origin covenantal concepts deliberately contrast one set of expectations with another. Emergent from a context where neighboring religious communities regularly constructed house and local deities in their own images, the Hebrew Scriptures begin with a confession that all of creation is God’s temple and that this temple is filled with images crafted in that God’s image, not the other way round. This deliberate reversal begins a scriptural trend of countervailing local expectations with a universally particular call to be different, live differently, and think of the divine differently because with Yahweh conventional assumptions will inevitably invert how we live in and see the world. Most notably, as Vanhooser observes, is the fact that the biblical covenant is always marked by divine initiative: “humans do not, as pagans do with idols, imagine a covenant; instead, God breaks into history with a revelation of relationship in terms of covenant.”

Thus, we might conclude that there are two defining characteristics of a biblical covenant: (1) covenant is descriptive of a relationship that is self-sacrificial and (2) covenant is marked by divine initiative and is, thus, inherently gracious. Importantly, these two characteristics of covenant are always expressed in the purpose of forming a particular community of people. Moreover, this dual characteristic permeates the Covenant Service crafted by Wesley as a means to remind us that when beginning our lives anew at the outset of each calendar year that we should begin that year with the expectation that self-sacrifice and gracious living must characterize our renewal.

In the passage of scripture from Luke’s gospel cited above, we hear what the church calls the “words of institution.” The institution that is established is that of communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist. Yet, as the words above imply, a second something is instituted in their being said. Equally important as the establishment of a sacrament, this ceremonial act around a common table helps establish precisely that covenantal community meant to be defined by both self-sacrifice and grace. It is of our persisting and consequential membership in this graciously sacrificial community that the Wesley’s service is meant to remind us. More directly, this service aims to remind us that as members of that community that we are to embody the covenant’s gracious and sacrificial expectations.

Heavy stuff.

As I type, I am making a mental catalogue of my own, reflecting on those parts of my life—overt and subtle, public and personal—that need to be sacrificed by me and in me. Also, I think of those parts of my life requiring more grace in how I treat others—those I know well and those whom I have just met. I, also, imagine—at the outset of a new academic, general conference, and election year—those aspects and systems of this college, my communities, and my country that would benefit from additional common sacrifice and greater doses of grace.

Heavier stuff.

Yet, the part of the service that brings me the most comfort rests in the word describing the service’s purpose. It is a “covenant” service, meaning that it is a service demanding commitments offered by a people, together. The good news of the service is that we do not take our pledge to sacrifice more and supply more grace alone. We take it together. This service reminds us that no matter how much we try, we are in this together. That is good news indeed.

Have a great start to your week, your semester, and your year. Or should I say, let’s have a great start to our week, our semester, and our year.

Peace.

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