Forming a new Covenant

The text for this post is taken from a sermon I gave on Sunday June 26th at one of our local Methodist churches. The theme of the service featured on the forming of a new covenant which also coincided with the many ordinations into Christian ministry which took place over that weekend. The readings for this service were Jeremiah 31:31-34, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Matthew 16:13-19.  

This weekend saw the ordination of new ministers into full connexion of the Methodist Church in many districts around the country. It also coincided with the time of Petertide, the Sunday nearest St Peter’s Day (June 29th ) when the Anglican church ordain their new priests and deacons at ceremonies held in many of our great cathedrals. It is a time of celebration, where those ordained and their families gather to witness something very special, as anyone who has ever been to an ordination will testify.

For it is a special calling, a willingness to step into what is often unchartered territory particularly for those who are relocating – often with their families – to other parts of the country.  As an undergraduate it used to be a standing joke at my theological college that if you were moving from the south to certain parts of the north, you would need a translator for the first six months after your arrival. If you went from north to the south, particularly if you were posted in certain London boroughs, a book of cockney rhyming slang was considered a must-have requirement.

This willingness to attest to ordained ministry is in itself a form of covenant by the newly ordained not only with God, but also to the people they are called to serve. The readings today emphasise that covenantal agreement commencing with the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah chapter 31. In this reading from verses 31-34, Jeremiah is predicting a new covenant being formed following the period of exile in Babylon of those Jewish elite including scholars and artisans who were taken there around 589 BCE. The book of Jeremiah tries to warn the Israelites to turn back from their sinful culture, warning of the severe consequences for their failing to obey the previous covenants struck with God after Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt.

Jeremiah in his writings attempts to help Israel to see what it steadfastly refuses to see it is to thrive once again. It has to re-position itself in a covenant with and a reliance on God or YWMWH. In many ways this is where we find ourselves today. The need to re-position both ourselves and our churches in such a way, that by following and sharing of the Gospel and making us relevant to those in our communities is the ONLY way for us to thrive, there is no other way. Yet however, it is also fair to say that like Israel and its people, we too have been here before.

Jeremiah was known for his pro-Babylonian sympathies and had previously stood trial for prophesising Jerusalem’s downfall. It was his position as a King’s advisor together with a similar prophecy from the prophet Micah which saved him from certain death, but still the warnings were not heeded. In chapter 29, Jeremiah writes to the exiles encouraging them to integrate with the host community. He urges them to build houses, marry and raise families, grow and eat crops, to become part of the local culture. Verse seven contains the memorable command, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” It is a verse often used to send missionaries and priests and other religious on their way to new surroundings. Those of you who have been to Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral would have seen this verse inscribed on the memorial to the late Bishop David Sheppard, who felt God’s call to go and minister to a very troubled city. Of course, one must not forget that the host cities too have a role to play in welcoming new arrivals and as we know from our own history, some of our churches and their communities were not always welcoming strangers into their midst. This made our keeping of God’s covenant that much harder and regrettably led in some cases, to these arrivals setting up their own churches.

Jeremiah’s motive for writing the letter to the exiles could be viewed as a clever ploy by God to start a new dynasty, by a fusing of cultures for which we might all benefit? Certainly the premise of verses 31-34 of Chapter 31 was to create the basis for a new covenant, this time a binding one where all would know who God was and where they would all live in peace and harmony and where everyone would gain an equal share of its gifts. This blending of cultures was the blueprint for the later early Christian churches overseen by both St Peter and St Paul. The Celtic Christians incorporated Celtic pagan symbols and practices into their worship practices creating a new form of Christianity which lasted for several hundred years and the principles of which are beginning to make something of a comeback. Today, we see how modern worship mission and practice continues to infuse different cultural traditions especially in our own unique multi-cultural society.  

The second reading from 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 contains in verse 17 the important phrase, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything has become new.” Like the Israelites before this is our new covenant, we know who Christ is and what he represents, why we too are prepared to give our lives to him in whatever we do once we have taken that step to accept him as our saviour. Paul tells us we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal to us through his son so that we may be reconciled to him. Our clergy act as ambassadors for Christ to their local congregations; our congregations act as ambassadors for Christ to their local communities; but ultimately, we are all ambassadors for Christ to one another.

Becoming reconciled to God through Christ as we have done so and continue to do means we can put down a marker for future generations to follow provided we keep ourselves relevant to the needs of the times. Jeremiah warned Israel of the consequences of breaking covenant, and they occurred. Today we too can see all around us the consequences of our not being reconciled to God and his Son. Our cultural heritage is overawed with wealth and power and worshipping the cult of superficial celebrity, extolling and advertising a way of life that is not only alien and unachievable to most of us but unsustainable for many who do manage to get there.

In our gospel reading from Matthew 16, Peter tells Jesus he is the promised Messiah and his reward is to be the rock upon which Christ will build his church. This simple fisherman from Galilee, course in manner and probably language becomes the symbol on which our faith is founded. But for some reason Jesus swore them all to silence on his being the chosen one. Why? For many first century Jews the Messiah was meant to be a warrior who would lead them in driving out the hated roman occupiers. But as we know, Jesus was a different kind of warrior. His power was today what we call “soft power”, he sought change not by violent means but by showing love and mercy and service to others, yet was still willing to challenge the prevailing culture.

The story of Christianity then is the same as our story today – to use the Gospel to bring reconciliation to God through Christ and to create that new covenant that will bring peace and justice to a troubled world.

This weekend as we ordain those who will lead us into the future – and we send them off with our heartfelt prayers for them and their families – perhaps we should also take a closer look at ourselves, at our being ambassadors for Christ, how we perform that role. For by doing so we too can show that the way we lead our lives will be the example for others to follow, so we create our own new covenant within our own communities, and with each other.