February 27, 2016

Encounter, Action, Faith: Tending Our Covenants


Text: Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

We are following a three-part theme through these first Sundays of Lent, tracing a path from our own first experiences of God’s love and the way in which those experiences draw us into the Christian community, through our own first faltering efforts to live out our faith in practical acts of discipleship, and finally to our deepening understanding of the ideas of our faith, a faith that doesn’t lead us to, but results from, our engagement as disciples with the world of need and hunger.

Today we find ourselves in the middle of that arc, at step two. The idea of it, drawing on an insight from Jane Shaw’s book A Practical Christianity, is that we don’t first come to perfect understanding of Christian doctrine and then behave like disciples; instead, it’s the other way around. We get to right belief as a result of doing the things that disciples do.

To say that in different words, we don’t think our way into behaving like Christians; we act our way into thinking, and believing, like Christians.

Some of those acts are simple to do and easy to identify. We instantly recognize them as the acts of Christian disciples because they fill in a certain outline. In the old language of the church, we used to call those things works of mercy. There were two kinds of works of mercy: corporal and spiritual. Corporal works of mercy were the ways in which we were to look out for the material needs of others, the needs dictated by this world: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead.

WorksofMercyThe spiritual acts of mercy are a little different; they are the acts by which we look after the souls of other folks. Most of us were pretty clear on the practical matters of the material world, but but maybe we were a little hazy on imagining ourselves carrying out any of these acts. Instructing the ignorant. Counseling the doubtful. Admonishing the sinful. Bearing wrongs patiently. Forgiving offenses willingly. Comforting the afflicted. Praying for the living and the dead.

You might have thought at least some of those were just the priest’s job. Turns out we’re all supposed to be doing these things. I confess that I am still working on the “bearing wrongs patiently” category.

It is not an abstraction that we are given these guidelines. Make no mistake about it—this list of recommended ways of behaving are the charter and constitution of our Christian community. When Paul speaks to the Philippians about our citizenship being in heaven, he’s not just speaking in poetic metaphors. He means something very real.

Like any constitution, this list of the works of mercy that we are meant to act out in our behavior toward each other is not just a list of recommended actions; it is what binds us together as a community.

Paul would have been the first to say that in the order of things before the coming of Christ there was also a constitution, a charter document of the community. That document was the decalogue—the Ten Commandments. Taken together with all the other, more particular instructions of the Torah, this was the covenant code—the charter for a community of God’s people bound together in a covenant relationship, not just with God but with each other.

The same is no less true for us. We have a covenant code. Like the covenant code of old, it has major constitutional claims and specific recommendations about how to act so as to live a good life. The specific recommendations are the works of mercy. The constitutional claims are stated clearly in Jesus’s summary of the Law: Love God with everything you are and everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. Period.

This all began as a sermon about acting out our faith as disciples as a step on the path of coming more deeply to grasp the claims of our faith. So here is where these two themes come together into a single point.

Yes, it is true that our acting as disciples comes before our deepening growth in the faith, and not the other way around.

And yes, it is true that being part of the Christian community means being part of a covenanted community, a community in which we are bound not just to God but to each other, and in which we live out the claims those bonds lay on us in very specific ways.

This all starts to take on very substantial meaning when you add one last piece to the puzzle. It is that being part of a covenant is itself not a matter of belief, but of action. Being in a covenant is act of faith.

When we are baptized, we enter by virtue of that baptism into a community of people bound to each other not by a contract, but by a covenant. We don’t make a lot of covenants. We make them carefully, and selectively, exactly because they demand a very great deal of us. They demand that we give ourselves to them unconditionally. And that is a profound act of faith.

All of us here make promises to God, and we do our best to keep them. But do not ever forget that part of what it means to be part of this place, this place called the church, is that we are also bound to each other by promises—by a covenant.

That covenant calls on us to act toward each other in very specific ways. Just in case you needed a reminder, I tucked it into the leaflet this morning. You can put it up on the fridge at home and remind yourself every morning what it is others have promised toward you—and what it is you have promised toward all of us. We tend to our covenant with God by treating each other, and anyone who comes here, in these ways.

Living out the terms of this covenant, acting in ways that make real these works of mercy, are exactly the means by which God’s transforming love breaks into this world and changes despair into hope and mourning into joy. No, we won’t always succeed, and no, we won’t always look like we know what we’re doing. But when we work together, when we encourage each other, when we believe in each other, it gets easier and easier—and then we are empowered and emboldened to turn those acts, those works of mercy, loose in the world as well. Amen.