Sermon by Kenneth Padley Lent 3 2018
Exodus 20.1-17; John 3.14-21
Christians don’t always help ourselves with some of our complicated, technical words. The week before last, a friend of mine was teaching a lesson to a class of 12/13 year olds. I don’t know what the topic was, but in the course of the lesson he asked ‘what is a Protestant’? ‘Protestants sir’, came an enthusiastic reply, ‘that’s what Oxfam have been buying in Haiti’. I’m not sure whether this tells us more about religious ignorance in the populace at large or about the priorities of 13 year olds – but, either way, I am clear that specialist churchy language can prove confusing.
I want to talk this morning about another piece of Christian jargon – covenant. It is a word relevant to the Ten Commandments and to the famous text from John’s gospel about God loving the world, both of which we have just heard.
Covenant theology was all the rage in the 16th and 17th centuries when mainstream Protestants (that is, the non-Haitian variety) found the idea of covenant to be a useful frame in which to discuss God’s plan. Jan Coccieus, a major Dutch writer from the period, defined covenant as ‘a divine declaration / of the method of perceiving the love of God / and of obtaining union and communion with him’.
There were a range of views in the period about the number and nature of God’s covenants. Was there one, two, three, or even more? And was covenant a one-sided arrangement imposed by God from above, unconditional on human reactions? Or was it a bilateral agreement, contracted between God and humanity conditional on a certain response?
Unanimity was never reached but, by about 1600, a broad English consensus had emerged. Theologians talked about a first type of covenant, one embodied in moral law that offered salvation to people who keep God’s rules. This is sometimes called the covenant of works. It is especially associated with God’s giving of Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. (Sometimes this covenant of works is retrospected back to Adam under the title of the covenant of nature but the idea is essentially the same – keep these rules and you can stay in my garden; woe betide if you don’t.)
From a human perspective, this is a covenant that does not work. Nobody is perfect. We all stuff up. We can’t fulfil that requirement of perfect obedience. And so the result of the covenant of works is not the redemption of humanity, but rather that we are left guilty, conscious that we are flawed in comparison with God’s greatness and goodness.
The Ten Commandments play an important role in the covenant of works. Even though we’ll never meet the bar of perfection, these instructions for godly living are still relevant. Compared to our forebears, we probably soft pedal the Ten Commandments and so need to reflect on them more frequently. They are rightly brought to our attention during this penitential season of Lent but they remain guidance for every day of the year; we don’t give up murder and thieving for just 40 days per annum.
Some English churches still have boards at their east end which prominently display the Commandments to the congregation. Once upon a time, St Michael’s would have had big boards like this; now the only depiction in here of the Commandments are the twin tablets being carried by Moses on the left-hand side of our east window. I’m pleased to say that St Michael’s stained glass tablets are correctly labelled: the left hand board shows Roman numerals one to four and the right hand board numbers five to ten. The first four abbreviate our duties towards God: honouring the almighty, not making idols, not taking the holy name in vain, respecting a day of rest. The back six on the right-hand side represent our duties towards other people: honouring parents, no murdering, hanky panky, thieving, perjury, or coveting of our neighbour’s ass – by which I mean donkey and not a circular reference back to commandment number seven.
So there are four commandments about God, and six about people. We need to remember them. If you can’t remember them, or struggle with the way in which Exodus expresses them negatively, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that…’, then remember that Jesus reduced both halves of the Law to just two positive injunctions: love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself.
When I was in school, pupils might have needed to hit eighty per cent in an exam for an A grade but you could often scrape a pass with a mere forty. And even if you failed the exam on one occasion, there was often opportunity to resit at a later date. The problem of the Ten Commandments within the covenant of works is that the required pass rate is 100% success, 100% of the time. We simply can’t achieve it.
So the covenant of works (i) offers guidance, (ii) leaves us guilty by God’s standards – but cannot (iii) reconcile man to the almighty. An alternative solution is needed. This is a second covenant, the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is a pact made in Christ with the redeemed. This covenant is not conditional on obedience to commands, but is unconditionally based on promise, the promise that Christ’s death sorts out the barriers put up between us and God by our flaws and sinfulness. People receive this promise through faith in Christ. Or, to use the words we have just heard in the gospel, ‘everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life’.
Some covenant theologians like to go one step further and ground this second covenant, the covenant of grace, in a prior agreement which they call the covenant of redemption. By this they posit a plan, made in eternity, between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. This covenant of redemption is an agreement by which the Son pledges to save humans – or, as we heard John put it, ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son’.
Covenant theology was attractive to our early modern forebears. One reason for this is the way in which it bonds the Old and New Testaments together. Then, as now, more radical Protestants wanted to ditch the Hebrew Scriptures as old hat. Mainstream covenant thinkers, however, realised that the promise of salvation through faith runs across both testaments. It wasn’t a matter of a covenant of works before Jesus and a covenant of grace afterwards. Both covenants run in parallel across both dispensations, rendering all guilty, but offering salvation to those who turn to Christ.
This means that the difference between the Old and New Testaments is not of substance but of clarity. Things are more obvious after Jesus but the same plan and promise stretch across both eras. We find an example of this bridging in today’s gospel: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The serpent in this reference was a bronze talisman set up by Moses for healing poisonous snake bites – incidentally this serpent is still seen in the symbol of the British Medical Association. The writer of John’s gospel understood the bronze serpent to be a precursor for the cross of Christ, both in the way it is lifted up and (more importantly) in what it achieves.
The bronze serpent is one example among many. Earlier books of the Bible are riddled with ‘types’ that find their fulfillment in the life of Jesus and early Church. The upshot of this is that believers today are one in faith not only with Christian saints of the last two thousand years but also with earlier heroes and heroines who heard God’s voice too.
So covenant theology reminds us that the Bible is one book which tells one story. In turn, this opens up a whole philosophy of history – a view which discovers God’s hand at work through events and characters past, present and future.
Here perhaps is the most challenging implication of covenant theology for St Albans Man. We are busy people who like to be in control, and so we instinctively see Church as another facet of our wider identity, an activity for an hour or two on a Sunday, part of how we choose to spend our leisure time, in the same way that we while away hours playing golf or clubbing or on mumsnet.
My brothers and sisters: the Church of God is not part of the leisure industry. The massive sweep of salvation history presented to us by covenant theology – that God has a burning plan for redemption wrought in eternity which fires a spark in my heart and yours – is hardly so trivial as to suggest it can be bolted on to our identities. A God who becomes part of your story is too small. But a God who invites you to take up the place allotted to you from eternity within his story – now he is worth believing.