The God of the Covenant
The old Testament lections for the previous two Sundays have recounted the evolution of a crucial element in the historic relationship between God and humanity. This crucial element we call, covenant. On Lent I, we received a reminder of the second covenant. God makes the first covenant with Adam and Eve. The flood symbolizes a God who despairing of the evil that had come to distort the goodness of creation wipes the slate clean. In this second covenant that God makes with Noah, we glimpse a sign of God’s regret, having destroyed the creation, he now vows to never do this again. God seems to have learned that destroying things is not the way to reform them. As an enduring sign of his faithfulness to his promise to Noah and all of those who are, symbolically, his descendants, God makes the rainbow in the sky.
On Lent II we read of the call of Abram and Sarai, whom God now renames Abraham and Sarah as a sign of the covenant God makes with them. The promise is to Abraham and Sarah, a promise to make their descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. In return, God simply asks for Abraham and Sarah to keep faith with God and to trust God in a relationship of collaboration.
Covenant evolves as God renews the covenant he made with Abraham, with each of the Patriarchs, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Then today we hear of a new covenant between God and Moses on Mt Sinai. The covenant with Moses takes a new form. This time the human side of the obligations are spelled out and written down.
The New Covenant
In many of our Anglican-Episcopal churches dating from the late 17th and 18th Centuries, Trinity Newport being a fine example, one often sees the tablets of the Ten Commandments on either side of the altar. What many don’t fully appreciate is that this is a particular theological statement of the period. It’s somewhat anomalous to have the Ten Commandments depicted in tablet form adorning Christian Churches because they have been supplanted by Christ in his teaching of the two great commandments: love God and love one another. For Christians these two great commandments take the place of Moses’ ten.
The presence of the Ten Commandments in some of our colonial churches represents a shift in religious consciousness during the period known as the Enlightenment. This shift was characterized by a movement away from a relational experience of God, mediated through image, ritual and mystery, towards an experience of a more impersonal universe, where God having set up the mechanism goes on vacation. Now, the goal of the spiritual life is not the pursuit of a felt relationship with God, but to live an ethically-moral life.
The basis of an ethical and moral life is to live according to the codes, hence the importance of having the mother of all codes in plain sight. Codes, stipulate what is, and what is not to be done. Like all codes, the Ten Commandments tend to emphasise the negative – thou shalt not. The ideal may be that following the code leads to an appreciation of all that it noble and true, but the danger is that code driven faith degenerates into a stultifying legalism. At its best, pursuit of the moral-ethical life decoupled from relationship with God becomes an allegiance to the grand project of ethical and moral self-improvement, both at the level of the individual and at the level of society.
This has produced our modern secular age in which it is now possible to live morally and ethically without any reference to God. This is no small achievement and I don’t mean to disparage it. I mean only to refute the widespread misapprehension that to be a follower of Jesus amounts to simply being a good person, dedicated to a life of ethical and moral self-improvement. Christians are not good people merely doing what society dictates that good people should do!
Paul, in the opening of his first letter to the Corinthians, speaks of this tension. On the one hand, there is the high ethical philosophy of the Greeks that places the self-assertion of the noble individual as the source of wisdom. To the Greeks, allegiance to Christ seemed folly, flying in the face of reason. On the other hand, he speaks of the slavish adherence to every letter and jot of the written code. He characterises this kind of legalism as the struggle within the Judaism of his day. Ethics on one hand and legalism on the other, neither of which are the way of Christian discipleship.
In John’s Gospel, we are shown a picture of Jesus, raging. What has made him act in a manner that most of us consider to be out of character with our conception of Jesus, meek and mild? Jesus rails against a religious institution, i.e. the Temple, that has placed money as the determinant of access to God. No money equals no pigeon, or no sheep, which equals no sacrifice and thus no access to God. He rails against a system of exchange – the money changers- who defraud the people. To buy what was necessary to make sacrifice, you couldn’t use ordinary money. You had to change your heathen denarii for Temple currency at an extortionate rate of exchange. Jesus cries out against an attitude that says that doing business as usual is the price for purchasing a relationship with God.
Much more significantly, we see Jesus engineering a shift. This is a shift from a spirituality which locates God in the externals of a building or a code, or in behavior. He alludes to his body as the Temple, signaling a shift in emphasis from true religion as allegiance to institutions and codes, to true religion as an allegiance to personal relationship.
Living in the New Covenant
This last week we celebrated the lives of John and Charles Wesley. These great Anglican priests, were part of a reaction against the Enlightenment’s impersonal view of God, a view which goes by the name, Deism. They led a return to a spiritual emphasis on the primacy of relational love as the way to live the New Covenant, inaugurated by God through Jesus.
For the Wesley’s relationship with God was more than being ethical, or moral. It had little to do with being wise and reasonable. Relationship with God was a manifestation of devotion, devotion rooted in the worship and common prayer of the Book of Common Prayer. For them and those who joined them, relationship with God emerged from a heartfelt encounter with God through the Scriptures, a heartfelt encounter that compelled them into lives of generous service. They were branded as Methodists, because of their methodical commitment to loving God from the heart, marked by a life of devotion.
In my two previous postings, I explored fasting and self-denial in an attempt to make these ancient practices comprehensible to our 21st Century mindset. Prayer and meditating on God’s holy Word are further practices commended to us. Many of us get stuck on prayer as intercession. Much intercession seems to function as our initiative, seemingly designed to raise God’s consciousness about the concerns we think important, or to present God with our shopping list of desires. In reality, intercession works in reverse. Intercession attunes our consciousness to the concerns that God continually bears for the plight of the creation. Thanksgiving is prayer opening us to experience gratitude, paving the way for converting gratitude into actions of generous living. These forms of prayer take root only when we begin to listen more and speak less. So what are we listening for?
In answer to this question, I would like to commend two ways of living prayer-filled lives guided by meditation on God’s holy Word. I’m more intuitive than sensory. Therefore, I try to follow a pattern of sitting and listening for the presence of the Spirit speaking through my intuition, which is my gut-level awareness, or through my insight, which is more of an intellectual awareness. If you are more sensory in orientation, you might listen for God communicating through images, and, or feeling states – often triggered by the world around you. Very often, the most I can manage is simply to try to sit in one place and watch myself breath, repeating under my breath the Aramaic phrase: Maranatha, or come Lord! I am hardly ever conscious of how this prayer makes a difference other than at some dim level of awareness I know that in the silence, which is paradoxically still filled with the clamor of my thoughts, I am opening a little chink in the protective walls of my defenses, my preoccupation with myself, through which I am slowly being transformed by the trickle of Grace into my life.
To meditate on God’s holy Word is an ancient practice known as Lectio Divina or divine reading. Taking a small section – no more than a sentence or two, particularly from the Gospels or Psalms, we slowly read the passage several times. We note the word or phrase that attracts our attention. This word or phrase creates associations in our imagination. This is not so much a study of scripture as it is an encounter with the text brought to life so that we might discover God’s invitation to pay attention to something in the next 5-7 days. Norvene Vest describes this process in a very user-friendly manner in her little book, Gathered in the Word http://www.amazon.com/Gathered-Word-Scripture-Pathways-Spiritual/dp/0835808068
A startling discovery
The invitation to keep a holy Lent speaks of the spiritual practices that help us to translate into action and behavior our spiritual longing for relationship with God. Oftentimes we live out of touch with this longing because it does not always register consciously. Spiritual practices are simply methods for bringing unconscious soul longing and soul pain into conscious awareness. In this sense, are we not all methodists?