By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have historically used covenants with God to define the obligations of their faith. For the ancient Hebrews it was based on obedience to Mosaic Law, and for Muslims it required submission to Shari’a law. Jesus was a maverick Jew who brought a new and universal covenant with God that asserted the primacy of love over law.
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and confirmed by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith; but exclusivist religious beliefs have prevented it from becoming a universal covenant with God.
Jesus only sought to reform his legalistic Jewish religion; he never promoted a new religion or asserted that he was divine. It was Paul’s doctrine of atonement that made belief in Jesus as the alter ego of God essential to salvation, and exclusivist Christian doctrines evolved into distorted beliefs that God ordained Donald Trump to be America’s political messiah.
John Wesley was an 18th century maverick Anglican priest who sought to reform his stiff-necked Anglican Church with the reconciling power of God’s love and mercy. He organized his Methodists to promote discipleship with acts of selfless service in orphanages and hospitals. It has been said that Wesley’s Methodist movement averted a civil war in England.
Wesley advocated renewing a covenant with God at the beginning of each year. As a UMC pastor I followed his example, and I urge you to do the same. It’s a commitment to follow the universal teachings of Jesus as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.
Exclusivist church doctrines that limit salvation to Christians and condemn those of other religions may have made Christianity the world’s largest and most powerful religion. But in the process the church has sacrificed the moral imperatives taught by Jesus to popularity and political expediency, and that has cost the church its credibility and legitimacy .
God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer; but Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and politics, and is winning the popularity contest in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s a major problem for America's democracy; but with God’s help, good can prevail over evil.
A corrupt political regime supported by the White church and the pandemic made 2020 a year to put behind us. For the new year we need to make a covenant with God to restore the moral teachings of Jesus as America’s standards of political legitimacy and promote a politics of reconciliation. Wesley’s covenant service can help us accomplish that objective, and I have provided below an adaptation of Wesley’s covenant service that I used as a pastor in 2006.
A Covenant Service at St. John United Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C. (January 1, 2006)
Note: Christ is Greek for Messiah. It means the anointed one, and is not a synonym for God.
Call to Worship:
Pastor: We, like all people of faith who have gone before us, are called into a special relationship with God that transforms our relationship with God and with all of our neighbors.
People: Father God, we are here in repentance, to ask your forgiveness, and to commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the New Year that awaits us.
Hymn: Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult UMH #398
First Reading of Scripture: Exodus 34:8-10, 27, 28
The Call to a Covenant of Discipleship in the Wesleyan Tradition:
God sent us Jesus Christ as His Son and as our Savior.
We now commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ,
and to follow him as God’s Word wherever he leads us.
God has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suited to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please God and ourselves,
but then there are other works where we cannot please God
except by denying ourselves, picking up our cross and following Jesus Christ.
It is necessary, therefore, that we consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray together:
Father God, we are here to answer the call of Jesus Christ.
We will submit to his command;
We will no longer be our own, but yours as disciples of Jesus Christ.
By following Jesus we will struggle to do your will, not our own, Father God.
We will allow Jesus Christ to give us our place and work from this day forward.
And we will pray daily the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, saying: Our Father…
Second Reading of Scripture: Hebrews 8:7-13 (Jer 31:31-34); Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-15
Hymn: O Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee UMH #444
Gospel: Mark 12:28-31
Sermon: Your Covenant with God
The Bible reports several covenants with God, beginning with God rewarding Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son to God with a promise to bless Abraham and all of his descendants. (Gen 22:15-18) Then we have the more elaborate covenant with Moses, with God giving Moses a detailed set of religious rules and rituals to obey, promising blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience. (Ex 34:8-28)
Later the prophet Jeremiah announced the coming of a new covenant that would replace the old Mosaic rules and rituals. It would be a covenant of love written in peoples’ hearts. This prophecy of Jeremiah was cited in the Book of Hebrews as Biblical authority for early Christians to reject the old covenant of Moses for the new covenant of Jesus Christ. (He 8:7-13)
Jesus taught that the rule of God’s love superceded the rule of law. Paul echoed Jesus when he wrote to the Romans and Galatians that the entire law was summed up in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Rm 13:9,10; Ga 5:14) In saying this, Paul was reaffirming the primacy of the greatest commandment: We love God by loving others, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. (Mk 12:28-31)
Today is the first day of the New Year, and the first day of the rest of our lives. It is a good time to make resolutions for the future, and first among them should be our resolution to serve God.
How do we serve God? Jesus made that very clear in the greatest commandment and the new command: We show our love for God by loving all of His creations. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Worship is meaningless if not combined with loving service to others, especially the least, the last and the lost—even our enemies.
In the Biblical tradition, commitments of the faithful were made in covenants. Therefore, as the people of God, it is only right and proper that we make a commitment and covenant with God here on this New Year’s Day.
You have in your bulletin a form commitment: My Covenant of Discipleship. Please give this covenant your careful and prayerful consideration; and if you truly mean to keep it, then sign it and keep it in your heart.
This covenant is unlike any other agreement you will ever enter into. It cannot be enforced against either party. You are free to disobey it, but there will be consequences if you do—they are the wages of sin and death. On the other hand if you obey it, there are great benefits to be received. That is because when it comes to God’s gift of love, you can expect to receive the measure that you give to others--and even more--just as Jesus promised you.
Now let us consider your covenant with God. John Wesley admonished his people to carefully consider the covenant before committing to it. I ask you to read over those words and commit them to prayer, then join with me in the Covenant Prayer, which will be followed by holy communion.
Considering Your Covenant with God:
First, set apart some time, more than once, to be spent alone before the Lord;
in seeking earnestly God’s special assistance and gracious acceptance of you;
in carefully thinking through all the conditions of the covenant; in searching your hearts
whether you have already freely given your life to Christ.
Consider your sins, and then consider the commands of Christ,
and whether you, after having carefully considered them, are willing to choose them all.
Be sure that you are clear in these matters so that you do not lie to God.
Second, be serious and in a spirit of holy awe and reverence.
Third, claim God’s covenant, rely upon God’s promise of giving grace and strength,
so you can keep your promise.
Trust not your own strength and power.
Fourth, resolve to be faithful.
You have given to the Lord your hearts, you have opened your mouths to the Lord,
and you have dedicated yourself to God.
With God’s power, never go back.
And last, be then prepared to renew your covenant with the Lord.
If you are prepared to enter into a covenant of discipleship, open your hearts to the Lord, and make your commitment to God as we pray together the Covenant Prayer:
Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
Put me to suffering,
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
O Mighty God, who came to mankind as Jesus Christ,
You have now become my covenant friend.
And I, through your infinite mercy and grace, have become your covenant servant.
So be it. And now let the covenant I have made on earth be ratified in heaven and in my heart through the sacrament of holy communion.
My Covenant of Discipleship
Preamble: I covenant and commit myself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; and I acknowledge my dependence upon my faith, the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to sustain me in all things.
As a member of the body of Christ I covenant and commit myself to be a loyal member of the faith community at St. John UMC, and to support this church with my time, talent and resources. I will support and encourage other members of this congregation to be disciples of Jesus Christ and to follow him as the Word of God on our journey of faith.
Duties and Obligations of Discipleship: As both an individual disciple and as a member of the body of Christ I covenant and commit myself to regularly perform and fulfill the following duties and obligations:
I. Individually I will perform acts of compassion and acts of devotion:
A. Acts of compassion (mercy): I will be sensitive to the needs of those around me, and share with all the forgiveness, love and mercy of God as exemplified by Jesus Christ, with an emphasis on reaching out to the least, the last and the lost, whoever and wherever they might be.
B. Acts of devotion (piety): I will pray and read Scripture daily, and take time to meditate on the Word of God whenever my spirit is troubled.
II. As a member of the body of Christ (the church) I will perform acts of justice and acts of worship:
A. Acts of justice (outreach): I will work with and support my brothers and sisters in the faith and with those of other faiths to serve the basic human needs of all people, to overcome fear, hatred and violence, and to promote the reconciliation of all people as children of God.
B. Acts of worship (nurture): I will attend church services regularly and participate in my Sunday School class, sharing with others my successes and failures as a disciple so that we might all grow in faith.
Excecution: By signing below, I hereby make this my commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and to faithfully carry out the above duties and obligations. I will struggle to follow Christ wherever he leads me in my personal life and in my politics, trusting in my faith and the grace of God to give me the strength to keep this sacred covenant.
Exodus 34:8-10; 27, 28:
Exodus 34:8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. 9 "O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes," he said, "then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance."
10 Then the LORD said: "I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you.
EX 34:27 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." 28 Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant--the Ten Commandments.
Hebrews 8:7-13 (Jeremiah 31:31-34):
HEB 8:7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said: "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 8:9 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. 8:10 This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 8:11 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 8:12 For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (see Jeremiah 31:31-34) 8:13 By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
RO 13:8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
GAL 5:13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
MK 12:28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" 29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."