Since the days of John Wesley, Methodists have sought to renew their covenant with God at the turn of the new year. Our church followed in this tradition this morning.
I framed the covenant renewal with a message from Joshua 24. The most quoted part of this chapter, “Choose you this do whom you will serve… As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD,” is a climax to Joshua’s recital of God’s mercy and grace shown to the people of Israel, leading them from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land. Again and again, the LORD delivered the people. Now at the end of his life, Joshua challenges the people to retain their faith in and obedience to this LORD.
The people sound somewhat offended by his challenge. It’s as if they say, “Joshua! How could you say such a thing? We have only and always been faithful to the LORD. Surely you know we’ll keep doing it!.” But they haven’t. There was a time in their lives when they had made a commitment to follow the LORD, but they had wavered in their commitment. The fact that they had made a covenant with the LORD, or had been members of the covenant community in the past, was not sufficient. They needed to renew their commitment to the covenant.
We need the same kind of renewal today. Some of us have at some point in our lives entered a covenant with Jesus. We may call it, “Giving our life to Christ,” “Making a profession of faith,” “Being confirmed,” “Joining the church,” or something like that. And we sometimes think that having done so, we have, in a sense, graduated.
As a United Methodist pastor I have taught many confirmation classes over the years. We have a great time in the classes. Sometimes, however, those who are being confirmed treat it like a graduation from church. “Yes! I have learned about God and the Bible. I have given my life to Jesus. God has written my name in his little book, so that when I die and show up at the gate of heaven, he will see my name and let me in.” Having done “all that,” now we can move on to other things. After all, the big thing about coming to faith in Jesus is avoiding hell, right? (That’s the idea we get from some high-pressure “evangelism” techniques at least.)
People tell me exercise is a good idea. If I exercise, I will have a healthy body and a resulting good life. I have exercised. I even worked up a good sweat. So now I’m finished, right? I’ve challenged my muscles, made my cardio-vascular system work, now I’m set, right? You tell me, “That’s not how exercise works. It has to become a lifestyle.”
Or, let’s think about marriage. A couple fall in love and plan to get married. They spend their tens of thousands of dollars on a beautiful ceremony (and heaps of food). They say their “I wills” (the United Methodist liturgy doesn’t have “I do”) and repeat their vows. They exchange rings. The preacher pronounces them husband and wife. Such a beautiful couple. But, now that all that bother is over with, they go their separate ways. You tell me, “That’s not how marriage works. It’s more than just a wedding, it’s a lifestyle.”
Faith in Christ, a life with the LORD, works analogously. By some means/event, we enter a relationship with God. That entry point is only the front door, however. Having a front door is a great starting point. But the point of having a house (shifting to yet another metaphor) is to live in the house.
Sometimes in our life with Christ, we’re like Joshua’s buddies: we wander. We get distracted. Sometimes we find the gods of our age less demanding and more accommodating to our pleasures and lifestyle preferences. The Wesleyan Covenant Renewal service is predicated on the observation that sin and rebellion is all to common, even among those of us who “love the LORD.” We need to confess our unfaithfulness. We need to repent of our sin. We need to renew our commitment. This renewal is a way for us to live into and live out the relationship we claim with Jesus.
The good news for us, as for those who heard Joshua, is that God goes first. God is not standing back, arms crossed, waiting for us to make the first move. The step we take in covenant renewal is in response to God’s continued grace in our lives, and call to return with all our hearts.
In the next several posts I will examine the various parts of the traditional Wesleyan Covenant Renewal, as found in the United Methodist Book of Worship. Follow along with us, not just to satisfy your curiosity (“What odd things are those Methodists doing now?”) but provoke you to discover and take your next step with Christ.