We are a Covenant people! — So announced the theme of the biennial Eastern Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo. What does it mean to be in a Covenant relationship with God? Certainly this word is not in common usage today. Perhaps ‘promise’ comes close.
Yet Covenant conveys more. First and foremost, to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to trust that God worries about the results. God brings it home. God’s action is the punctuation mark at the end of all our sentences. God finishes.
And we do not. That’s important.
Nevertheless, to assert God’s side of the bargain, what is presumed is our action as well. There’s no point in having punctuation marks at the end of sentences that aren’t written. And so to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to take the risk of faith, not knowing what the consequences may be. Without this element of faith we bring judgement upon ourselves in living and believing in “cheap grace.”
Indeed what we often need to start with — and that is why we being most acts of worship with confession — is seeking forgiveness for blocking God and locking ourselves in false ways of being church. How do we block God and lock ourselves in patterns of unfaithfulness? A worthy question worth exploring: How do we block God and lock ourselves in ways that keep us stuck?
Have you considered that being Christian is not just about going to church on Sunday? Have you considered that being Christian has just as much to do with what we do in our free time? — being Christian has just as much to do with Monday to Saturday as it does with Sunday? — being Christian has just as much to do with what we spend our money on? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we vote? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we relate with our spouse, our children, our extended family, our neighbours, our community? — being Christian has just as much to do with our behaviour as it does with the words we speak? “Preach the Gospel; use words, if necessary,” instructed Saint Francis.
Many of us, myself included, grew up in the church with the idea that faith was a private affair; and, therefore there were three topics good, pious Christians would never discuss openly, especially in the church. You know those three topics, right? — sex, religion, politics.
In looking recently over our annual Canada Revenue Agency charitable report that all churches are bound by law to complete and submit annually, I was surprised to find a question among a hundred other questions: The question was: “Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period?” The little note above the question clarified that churches indeed can be involved in politics, as long as that political activity is non-partisan and limited in extent.
I was also struck by the meaning of the Old Testament story optioned for this Sunday, from the book and prophet, Samuel. In this story, the Holy Ark of the Covenant — there’s that word again! — is brought triumphantly into Jerusalem. We read about that procession of King David dancing as the Ark is brought into Jerusalem and placed at the center of that great city. It is an image of uninhibited, unabashed glory, of joy and celebration (2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19).
Now, just for a moment, reflect with me on the meaning of this: The Ark of the Covenant in ancient Israel was at the time the most powerful and central image of Israel’s faith. And Jerusalem was (like Ottawa is for Canadians) the center of political power in the nation — the capital city.
And what does David do? He brings the two together: religion AND politics. And, perhaps more significantly, he does it not begrudgingly nor fearfully, but joyously!
At the Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo, we passed several motions that you could deem “political” in nature. Let me briefly review a few of these: a motion in support of non-violent solutions in pursuing justice in the world and in situations of conflict; a motion to call upon the government to re-instate full health care coverage to refugee claimants; motions to address affordable housing, poverty, racism and environmental action. These motions can be viewed on the Synod website; hard copies are also available from your delegates.
Faith is not exclusively ‘private’. It is ‘public’. It’s not just about me and Jesus; but about me and the world that God so loved. It’s more than just me. And as soon as we translate our faith into the public realm, it gets political. We have the biblical witness to this marriage between faith and politics:
When the seven perscuted churches in west Asia on the Aegian Sea coast (in present day Turkey) of the Book of Revelation are pressed to swear allegiance to Emperor Nero they are brought before the courts; and the encouragement of scripture is heard: Do not worry about what to say when called upon to testify to your faith in Christ as Lord. “For what you are to say will be given to you; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19).
The beheading of John the Baptist, from our Gospel text for today (Mark 6:14-29), provides a gruesome image of what sometimes may happen when religion and politics meet in the same room.
And perhaps the most poignant image from the New Testament — the Cross — was a political symbol and practical means of Roman capital punishment. It’s like the electric chair or lethal injection would be for us today. For several centuries after Christ early Christians shied away from using the cross as a central symbol; you can’t find images of crosses anywhere in the archeological record of those first centuries. In fact, the fish was the first central symbol of Christianity. Did the early church find the cross too brutal — too political — an image? I wonder.
I know I need to confess my own fear of bringing my faith to bear on the public world around us. I know I need to confess my own fear of blocking what God wants to do and locking myself because of my fear of rejection, my fear of failure, my fear of sticking out my neck.
One of the speakers at last week’s Synod (I’ll want to talk more about Michael Harvey in the near future) said that fear is the socially acceptable sin of the church today. It is a sin of omission. This is the sin we need to confess. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the biblical injunction: “Do not be afraid/Do not fear/Fear not!” appears some 365 times throughout the bible. We need to hear that; I need to hear that, each day of the year.
Because on the other side of fear is the vision, the abundant life. On the other side of fear is new life. The thing we fear is actually God’s call on our lives. We need to accept and confess our fear. We need to go there.
And when we do, God finishes. God is faithful. God remains true and steadfast to the Covenant relationship. Because God loves us and wants us to love God and those around us. God wants to be in relationship with us, even though we so often miss the mark.
Listen to Paul’s words we often recite: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? [notice the political words here]. No, in all these things we are conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
Jesus goes there. Jesus has crossed the boundary between private and public, religion and politics. Jesus enters all aspects of our life together. There is no place Jesus does not go. Even to those places we fear most. Jesus goes there — into our hurt, pain, suffering, persecution, illness. It is not our job to be successful; it is our job only to be faithful, and do it. We are called only to follow, to follow in the way. And then “Jesus will bring to completion the good work begun in you” (Philippians 1:6).
Thanks be to God! Amen.