Here are some words from today’s first reading - from the prophet Jeremiah:
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
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what a “covenant” is? The term can be used in different contexts. During the 1980s and 1990s perhaps churchgoers heard less about the biblical use of the term than about a “covenant” as a financial device. If you took out a “covenant” with a church or a charity - agreeing to pay so much money to that church or charity over a minimum period of time, say four years - then the church or charity could reclaim the tax you’d already paid on that sum of money. You can understand the appeal this sort of covenant held: the church or charity was promised committed giving over a particular period, and it got even more money back by reclaiming the tax from the Inland Revenue.
These days it’s easier. You can “Gift Aid” your giving. You don’t have to say how much in advance you’re going to give - and you’re not committed to giving for any fixed period. If you’re a tax-payer and you don’t already “gift aid” the money you give to your church, then please start doing so - it costs you nothing more than what you would give anyway, and the church gets another 25% back in tax from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The same for charities. We should all think of how much we can give away of our income - and when we give, every tax-payer can make their money worth still more to the charity that benefits. If - after last week’s Budget - you think you’re paying too much tax, then remember that giving by “Gift Aid” enables you directly to decide where some of the tax you’ve paid should go - whether it’s to your church or to the charities you support. Our Treasurer can tell you more!
“Gift Aid” has replaced covenants as a means of making charitable giving worth more. But the term “covenant” remains a legal term where someone is bound to do something. A “covenant” can be part of an agreement dictating terms for repayment of a loan. Buildings and land can have covenants placed upon them which restrict the way they can be used. You can make a covenant which is of legal benefit to members of your family.
But the origin of the term is religious. When we say that the Bible is made up of the Old Testament and the New Testament, you could replace the term “Testament” with “Covenant.” So the Old Covenant is about God’s interaction with his people, the Jews. There’s a covenant with Noah after the Flood, that never again will God bring destruction upon his people in such a devastating form. There’s the covenant with Abraham where God promises that Abraham’s descendants will be a people for whom he will have special care. And there’s the covenant which God makes with Moses when he gives his people the Torah - the Law - on Mount Sinai. As for the New Covenant it’s still more far-reaching. The New Covenant is made between God and all people through the work of Christ on our behalf. God calls everyone to be his people through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And a Covenant is binding. To benefit from it we simply need to see that we are included - that God is calling to us.
So Jeremiah speaks of God promising to make “a new covenant.” We need to read these words of today’s Old Testament Reading - and see how they apply to us.
I’m afraid often, though, we just don’t act as if they really do apply to us. God is calling to us - to me… He’s inviting us to be his people. And we miss what he’s saying. Or we mis-hear what he’s saying. We can’t believe that we’re included. Or we think that if we’re involved, then other people should be left out. I’m afraid there’s been a process going on in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion over recent years and months which has been taking almost exactly that approach. It’s the move to create a “Covenant” for the Anglican Communion. In other words to come up with a form of words which every Church within the Communion should sign up to - the aim is to give a sense of what we hold in common, to have something we all agree upon. The problem is that we don’t all agree - so inevitably some Churches are going to get left out. And a further problem is - I’m afraid - that God himself is in danger of being left out. A Covenant in the sense it has in the Bible is not just an agreement made between people, however legally binding it maybe and with whatever good intention it might have of holding as many people together in unity. A biblical Covenant is always between God and his people. It’s about what God does for us - and what God promises for us.
In fact we now know that the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion isn’t going to happen - or at least it’s not going to include the Church of England, so it’ll be a very strange Anglicanism that it could be left to propose. As of yesterday, a majority of Diocesan Synods voted against the so-called Covenant. So there’s nothing the General Synod can do to make it happen.
Some people are really pleased about this - and are pretty-well literally trumpeting their glee. I’m glad it’s not going to happen. We should be held together by something more than paper agreements. But I don’t think we should now be rubbing a sense of triumph into the wounds of those who had proposed the Covenant. In a sense it’s a defeat for the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who had both wanted the Covenant for good reasons - they wanted people to continue talking to each other; they wanted a Church where Christians are held in Communion - where Episcopalians from America can get on with Anglicans from Nigeria, where the radically conservative Diocese of Sydney can recognise the radically liberal Diocese of New Hampshire as an integral part of the Body of Christ; they wanted a sense of boundaries so that people could both know how far they can go and also be given the space to live out their witness.
But hopefully now - with the Anglican Covenant dead in the water - we can go back to recognising what the true meaning of “Covenant” is. We don’t need the one that was proposed because already we have a Covenant made with God through Jesus. And it’s something always new. In the written form of the Old Covenant - in tablets of stone given to Moses - it was all too easy to break. Even God can’t provide us with the legislation we need to be able to live in righteousness. Instead he tells us,
this is the covenant that I will make… 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…
Can we believe that? We need hearts that are open to God, not documents telling us the limits to which we will hold each other accountable. We need not to be telling each other off, but hearing what God is saying to us. We need not effective sanctions, but the recognition of forgiveness. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That’s what God says to us - we are forgiven. And our calling is to live in charity and unity with other Christians with whom God shares that forgiveness equally.
The next two weeks - which the Church calls Passiontide - are a time for recognising that our best human efforts always fall short. We can’t win salvation for ourselves. We can’t put the world to rights by what we want and what we want other people to do. We can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy recipients of God’s love.
We can simply know that God loves us. He writes upon our hearts. And when he calls us, it is with a call to follow the way of Jesus. It’s a way which will lead Jesus to the Cross - and to seeming defeat. But only through his death can the way be opened to new life in the power of his Resurrection. In Jesus’ own words:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.