01 March 2015

Covenant & Cross

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16;
Mark 8:31-38

Second Sunday in Lent/ 1st March 2015

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

I’m thankful for this week’s lectionary. To be honest, I’m not always a fan of the Revised Common Lectionary.  I often follow it, but not always.  What I’m thankful for this week is the way the lectionary links a text from Genesis 17 with the pivotal verses in Mark 8, where Jesus makes unsettling statements about a cross, that a cross is required of him and of us.

It’s this link, this alignment, this juxtaposition of these two texts that is absolutely fascinating, and drew me to something I’ve never considered before or never quite saw in this light.  In Genesis 17 we have the establishment of God’s “everlasting covenant” with Abram and his descendants.  “This is my covenant with you:  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  …I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you….  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:3-4, 6-7).

Here God—Almighty God, El Shaddai—makes a pledge, a promise with Abram.  God rewards Abram for his faithfulness.  God makes clear what God’s intentions were from the start, when God first called out to Abram and summoned him to leave home (Genesis 12:1-3).  Here in chapter 17, God made a covenant with Abram and not just with Abram, but his children, along with his children’s children, all of his descendants, from generations to generations, multitudes.  God made a commitment to be faithful to Abram—no matter what.  God binds Godself to Abram’s destiny.  And as a sign of this arrangement, Abram becomes Abraham, meaning “ancestor of a multitude.”

There are many covenants in Hebrew Scriptures. There’s one with Noah (Gen. 8:20-9:17) and with David (2 Samuel 7).  But it’s this one, the covenant with Abram—this is the big one.  It’s this covenant that runs all the way through the story of Israel, all the way to Egypt and back again, all the way to Babylon and back again.  Throughout, God remains faithful to God’s people and never, ever gives up on them—even when they deserve as much.

Covenants are serious things.  This one in particular binds God to humanity (through Israel) and humanity to God—and nothing can tear it asunder.  Both parties, God and humanity, agree to the terms. And the terms of this covenant have shaped us ever since.

Now fast forward with me to sixteenth century Geneva, to John Calvin (1509-1564).  Calvin loved to preach and write about God’s covenant with Abraham.  Covenant and covenantal theology loom large in the history of the Reformed tradition.  I would guess that the most popular name given to Presbyterian churches in the U.S. (after numerical designations, such as First or Second, etc., or Westminster) would be Covenant.  Calvin felt very strongly—and correctly—that God’s covenant with Abraham was a sign that God is generous and good.  “Calvin interprets God’s power as God’s ability to do good for [God’s] people: Abraham discovered that the hand of God would be to him the wellspring of every good.  The very fact that God’s promises were made to Abraham’s descendants as well as to Abraham is, in Calvin’s eyes, the most remarkable testimony to the Lord’s amazing goodness.”[1]

And then Calvin does something remarkable.  Calvin links the generosity of the covenant with Abraham with the generosity of the gospel that we find in the New Testament.  Calvin wonders, Can the promise of the gospel possibly be less than the promise made to Abraham?  Of course not.  Therefore, Christians are Abraham’s posthumous children and as such we have a share in that covenant.  The gospel then becomes a clearer explication of what was made to Abraham.  The gospel doesn’t improve upon it or change it, but it extends it and expands it.  Because, in Calvin’s eyes, it was God’s infinite goodness that was poured out more liberally than ever before in the life and witness of God’s son, Jesus Christ.

In many ways, this is what the lectionary does.  And this is what struck me in a new way this week.  In other words, by linking these texts, the meaning of the cross, that is, Jesus’ statements about the cross are couched within the larger covenantal promise made to Abram.  Instead of seeing the cross as an isolated historical event it’s embedded within the larger story of God’s saving love.  The cross of Christ has a larger frame of reference.  The cross occurred within the ongoing narrative of God’s covenantal determination to not be God without humanity, to not be God without us! Or, to put it a different way, the cross is not something Jesus had to take up and endure, suffering for our sin, in order to get God to finally love us again.

In the cross, God is effectively saying to us—in big, bold, dramatic gestures—what God has always been saying to us from the beginning of time: I am forever bound to you. I will be your God. You will be my people.  And nothing —not even death—has the power to break my promise to you.  In love, God sends God’s own flesh and blood to make this point.  And the Son endures the cross and conquers death to show the extent of God’s covenantal commitment to be with us, and to love us, and forgive us, and hold us, as the old hymn put it, with a “love that wilt not let us go.”[2]  This covenantal commitment is seen in the way God remained faithful to Jesus throughout his life.  Jesus’ trust in the surety of this covenant enabled him to do whatever was needed—even death on a cross—to convey to us that God does what Jesus does, Jesus does what God does, and that Jesus is his name, Yeshua, Yahweh saves.

Writing about the nature of covenant, Calvin said this is “how [a] covenant is rightly kept: …God binds Himself to the promise given to us; so the consent of faith and of obedience is demanded from us.”[3] This covenant, then, places demands upon us. God expects us to do our part.

The covenant then frees us to take on our respective callings knowing that God is committed to us.  Confident of God’s faithfulness, Jesus invites us to pick up a similar cross, living lives of comparable faithfulness. Jesus invites us to take on and even crucify those things in our lives or in the world around us that act as if God’s faithfulness is not true, that causes you or people you know to think that God is not committed to you or them.  Jesus invites us to take on and crucify, to take on and even suffer with and for the sake of your neighbors so that your neighbors come to know or know again of God’s faithfulness, that God desires that they and their descendants “live long and proper,” that we are all children of God, and that we are held in a love that will never let us go.

Calvin wrote, “Once God has received us into [God’s] family, to treat us not merely as servants but as children, [God] undertakes to feed us, too, throughout the entire course of our life, so that [God] may fulfill the role for the best of fathers, concerned for his children.  And even that was not enough for [God]: [God] wanted to assure us of his unfailing generosity by giving us a pledge.”[4] 

Part of that pledge is this Communion table,
here in bread and wine, given to feed us. 
Here at the table we remember the cross. 
Here at this table we also remember the covenant.

[1] Brian Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The EucharisticTheology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 121.
[2] The hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” was written in 1882 by the Presbyterian minister George Matheson (1842-1906). Matheson went blind while he was a divinity student at the University of Glasgow, yet he was determined to enter the ministry. He had an influential career in the church.  Matheson wrote the words to this hymn on the eve of his sister’s wedding.  Reflecting back on his challenging life, remembering his fiancé who left him when she learned that he was going blind, yet affirming God's faithfulness to him, the hymn came to him as a whole.  Matheson said, “I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high."  See also Ian C. Bradley, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go (Fount, 1990). Here is the Westminster Chorus’ moving arrangement of this piece.
[4] From Calvin's 1543 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in Gerrish, 124.

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