Monday, January 24, 2011

Being the covenant people

Deuteronomy 29.10-15
Romans 12.1-2
John 15.1-10

Deuteronomy chapter 29 is a reconstruction of what might have been. The writers of Deuteronomy want us to think that it is real history, that Moses actually stood in front of the people of Israel and made this speech, but actually that is most unlikely.

The Book of Deuteronomy, or its first draft at any rate, was miraculously discovered in the Temple in the reign of King Josiah. The credulous were persuaded that it had been mislaid there in the reign of King Solomon, and then forgotten by his worthless successors. Supposedly it had been brought to the new Temple by priests who had handed it down, from generation to generation, since the time of Moses himself. But, in fact, it was almost certainly a construct of a group of reformers active during Josiah’s own reign. Among other things, they wanted to reinforce the idea that Israel was a covenant people.

Interestingly, they had a very inclusive approach. In many religions men have a privileged place, and even today that’s true of orthodox Jewish religion, although not of more liberal interpretations of the faith. However, the writers of Deuteronomy make clear that the covenant is not just for the leaders, officers and elders, nor even for the men of Israel, it includes women, children and even foreigners who live in the land of Israel.

Nor does the covenant make any distinctions of class - the humblest slaves, who are forced to draw water and cut wood - can be part of the covenant too. To be a member of the covenant people is a privilege, but it’s not for the privileged few. It’s open ended - a circle which draws everyone in rather than shutting some people out.

Later, Judaism was to turn its back on this inclusive approach and become much more inward-looking, much more defensive. But the Deuteronomists are on a mission to build a new nation of believers and, for the time being, anyone can join.

Most strikingly of all, the covenant reaches out to embrace those who are not even born when Moses makes his speech. The Deuteronomists no doubt have in mind the people of their own day who were hearing these ideas for the very first time and learning that their previous understanding of the covenant had been incomplete. However, by implication, the passage also broadens out the reach of God’s covenant to include anyone since that time who has been willing to embrace the faith. For Christians, of course, it means that we are bold enough to include ourselves in the covenant people - not by virtue of our descent from Jewish ancestry, nor because we deserve it, but because Jesus has invited us into the circle.

People have often worried about making the covenant promise and many Methodists refuse to attend the covenant service at all. It’s intriguing then to read the Deuteronomists’ claim that even those members of the community who are absent when the promise is made are somehow, mysteriously, bound up in its claim over us.

What does it mean, then, to be part of the covenant people? Paul spells it out very succinctly in the opening verses of Romans chapter 12. It means offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to God by dedicating ourselves - body, mind and soul - to him. And it means separating ourselves from the prevailing culture in so far as it would hinder us from knowing and doing what which is good, acceptable to God and perfect.

It’s pretty challenging stuff, and the words of the covenant promise in the Methodist Service help to spell out its full implications. Interestingly, though, the covenant is not just about putting our faith in God or trusting our emotions to him. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Paul emphasises that entering into a covenant relationship with God is a rational thing for people to do. It’s not like joining a cult, where we’re asked to leave our common sense or our critical faculties behind. It’s about becoming more truly ourselves by renewing our minds as well as our feelings.

If Deuteronomy emphasises the open endedness of God’s covenant promise, John’s Gospel turns back to the idea of its exclusiveness. John is more inclined than the other Gospel writers to draw a circle with shuts some people out. This is because he was struggling to lead a church which was deeply divided between people who insisted on the importance of knowing the right things and people, like John himself, who had a lot to say themselves about knowledge but who understood that love is more important still. Claiming to know Jesus isn’t evidence of being in a covenant relationship with him, unless it changes the kind of person we are and puts us more in touch with God’s loving kindness.

So, in John’s community, bad disciples had to be cut out of the vine and got rid of and good disciples had to be pruned to make them even better and stronger. And the definition of whether or not a branch can stay, or needs to be cut out, is - of course - whether it is bearing fruit. The good disciple heeds Jesus’ commands and dwells in his love. The bad disciple does not.

This passage finds its way into the covenant service because of its promise that we can draw sustenance from Jesus himself. Entering the covenant may be a rational choice, as Paul described, but it’s not just about believing the right things and then trying to put them into practice. It’s also about being in a living relationship with Jesus - being grafted onto him like a vine stem being grafted onto a different root stock to make it grow stronger. Unless we allow ourselves to be united to Jesus, and to dwell in him, we shall not be able to bear the fruit of loving kindness that John sees is so essential to the spiritual life.

Tonight’s service is a reminder that, like the crowd of men, women and children, foreigners and slaves who gathered in the Temple to hear the Deteronomists unpack Moses’ ideas - supposedly uncovered for the first time in centuries - we too can become heirs of God’s covenant. And, by a rational decision to abide in Jesus we can also find the strength and the resources that we will need to live up to the challenge.

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