Sunday, November 15, 2009

Living in a Covenant Community

In the Disciples we speak of the relationship between congregation and the regional and general manifestations of church (we use the term general instead of national since we have a small Canadian presence in the North American expression of our denomination) in terms of covenant. We know that covenant language has deep biblical roots -- God made covenants with Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. Jesus initiated a new covenant, one that is celebrated at the Lord's Table.

But covenant not only binds different manifestations of our institutions together, it binds us together as a community. As Ronald Osborn puts it, when we enter into a congregational relationship, we enter a covenant. That is, "they have pledged themselves to Christ and to one another, sworn to conduct their common life as a true church of Christ, and be guided by the Scriptures." (Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979, p. 63.) I'm wondering what this means for us?

I ask this question in light of one of today's lectionary texts -- the one I happened to focus upon in my sermon -- Hebrews 10:19-25. In this text, we hear the biblical author speak of our call to "provoke one another to love and good deeds." There is an assumption here that one cannot truly hope to live faithfully in isolation, that we need one another. The passage reads:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful (do you hear in this covenant language?). And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25).

Osborn speaks of our responsibility under the covenant is to respond faithfully and with sincerity to the will of God, expecting that God "is there to meet us in our good intentions." For, "God stands ready to make up out of divine goodness whatever is lacking in our performance" (Faith We Affirm, p. 64.) There is an expectation in covenant language that even as God initiates the relationship, there is need for our response.

And the question then is this -- how do we enter this covenant relationship? And the answer is by way of the sacrament -- baptism.

Viewed as an act of covenant-making, baptism becomes a covenant-sacrament which occurs within a community. Not only is it intensely personal in its assurance to and claims on the person being baptized. It is also intensely corporate, binding us into the life of the company of Christians. (Faith We Affirm, p. 60-61).

Baptism is not simply an individualistic act, by which we make a pledge of allegiance to God, it is also a sign of mutual relationship as one enters a community of faith. Now, Disciples believe that baptism initiates us into the whole body of Christ, so that we needn't do this every time we join a new church and we affirm the baptisms of other traditions, seeing in them a sacramental act of covenant making, but baptism shouldn't be entered into willy -nilly. That's because, as Osborn suggests, in baptism we are binding ourselves to the Christian community. We are entering into a community relationship.

And how do we reaffirm and renew this covenant relationship? At the table, of course, for it is the other sacramental marker of the covenant community. Because we gather weekly at the Table (as Disciples), we renew this covenant at least on a weekly basis -- another reason not to absent ourselves from the covenant-community.


joel said...

Are there any practical examples of how this covenant concept works inter-church? That is between two distinct congregations or perhaps to distinct pastors?

How about outside the positive aspects of covenant in community - how might the covenant aspect play out in church discipline or when one pastor finds another in error?

Improving our idea of covenant relationships between churches will take a commitment to hear out the other.

Thanks for raising these questions!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you got away from the baptism thing in your post, you were making me nervious! Only one baptism for me thanks, even though I was a babe at the time.

I agree with Joel, The less "cult-like" the covenent the better.

David Mc

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Living in covenant relationship is not easy -- because it requires that we live in mutual submission to one another. In truth, we've given more lip service to this than we've actually lived it out.

In our region, there are around 44 churches, 12 of which give to Disciples Mission Fund. Some would say they don't have anything to give -- but they could participate in one of the Special Day offerings, especially the Christmas offering that goes to the Region. Others say, well what do we get from the region -- or the general church -- but is that the point. Are we using our giving as a pay for service kind of thing? Or is our stewardship a sign of our commitment to living together in covenant.

As for church discipline, you know that's a difficult one. Church discipline, in the American situation is near impossible to live out. If you try to hold someone accountable --whether an individual, group, or a church, they will simply leave and go elsewhere.

But, at least it's a start!

Anonymous said...

It must be that those 72.727272...% don't give because those in charge don't ask?

Mutual submission? That doesn't sound do-able. How about mutual openness and best respect?

It funny, because I was thinking today- Has there ever been a study comparison on style, denomination, faith etc. based on "ego factor"? I feel I have a small ego, but I still have a definate negative reaction to the term submission. I'll submit to God, not Man in this world. I'm playing it safe. David Mc

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

I once asked a teenager in Sunday school whether they were more comfortable with the label "slave of Christ" or "servant of Christ."

The answer was slave. The reason he gave was that it required a greater degree of sacrifice to be slave than a servant.

For me each title carries with good and bad connotations. Most significantly, "servant" implies a degree of choice, while "slave" implies a greater degree of "permanence". Both however require submission to the will of God.


Anonymous said...

Say John,

Next time I see you, please teach me how to delete a comment. Might come in handy. I like servant, implies free choice of occupation. David Mc