WINNIPEG, Man.—Three years ago Braeside EMC began to discuss its membership model through meetings, round table discussions and sermons. We realized our “inactive” membership list was growing; in fact, it was about the same size as list of regularly attending members. Continue reading Covenant Membership, Baptism Occurs→
As I travel across our conference I often wonder: what is it that holds these churches together? What ties bind us across the 4,555 kms of our conference’s breadth? The word I keep coming back to is covenant. What fastens us is similar to a marriage covenant between congregations with the challenges and fun of any marriage.
In fact, I would say that a congregation’s ability to stand up for the truth of marriage in our culture is greatly strengthened if it lives out its own covenant with other EMC churches. It’s hard to convince the world that a marriage covenant is a human tasting of God’s long-suffering faithfulness when the congregation itself can’t bear the nuisance of being in binding covenant with other churches that it does not find agreeable, attractive, or handy.
Which brings me to the difference between a covenant and a contract. In a contract I give you money or services in exchange for the services I know I will get from you. If a wife said to her husband, “What has this marriage done for me lately, anyways?” you would know that marriage is in a very bad place.
That husband would be a fool who would say, “Sure, no problem. I can easily draw up a list of 10 things I have done for you lately and then you will see that our marriage is great.” That marriage has become a contract, and will soon dissolve completely if a deeper mystery is not found.
Likewise for a congregation to ask, “What has belonging to the EMC done for us lately?” is also a very sad question. It would be a foolish conference that tried to draw up a list of all the benefits of belonging to a conference as though that was addressing the real problem.
Covenants involve work and mutual service but they are not based on works. If this connection we have as churches is something created by God (and if not, then let’s be rid of it), then it is a covenant of grace and not of works. We are bound together because God found us lost and alone and bound us together for His greater purpose and our training in divine union. We have not negotiated a contract to scratch each other’s itch.
But like a marriage, once we are taken up into the mystery of our divine fastening, we find all kinds of ways to serve each other, work together, grieve with each other and to celebrate and relax together. Sometimes the covenant needs to be renewed and freshened in our wills and wallets. But none of that is done to prove that this marriage is worth it. None of that is done as a membership fee.
Some of our congregations have annual covenanting services where they renew the bond between them. It’s a way to resist the drifting autonomy and alienation that constantly plagues modern life. Perhaps we, the Evangelical Mennonite Covenant, need a similar reminder that “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Note: This column reflects some of Layton’s report at the EMC national ministerial meeting on July 6, 2018, in London, Ont.
In Matthew 26 the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and prepared the Passover meal. “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matt. 26:26-28 NIV).
It is easy for me to skim over what Jesus was saying and doing here because I have grown up hearing, reading, and thinking about Jesus’ new covenant, looking at life and relationship with God in terms of Jesus. Yet Jesus was making a change here. Jesus was introducing a brand new way.
Covenant. The term is obscure, theological, legal, vaguely theoretical, probably a bit technical. It leaves an impression that someone very well paid and wearing suit and tie to work came up with it. Perhaps it’s too formal for T-shirts and diesel fuel.
Covenant. A defined relationship offered and accepted unconditionally, without an expiry date.
Covenant. God made covenants with people throughout Old Testament history. He made humankind for relationship, and covenants were relationship.
People knew covenant in the ancient world. Powerful kings offered covenants to lesser kings. The terms were set by the powerful king. Typically, “I could wipe you out, but, instead, let’s make it easier for both of us. Serve me and I will protect you.” Negotiations by the lesser were simple, really, consisting of either “I accept” or “Over my dead body.”
Israel knew covenant. Yahweh had made covenant all along, from Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Moses to Solomon. The terms were simple, really. “I am God. Your only God. I will make you great, because you are precious to me. Serve me wholeheartedly. Fail to do so at your peril.”
Israel knew failure. Personally, nationally, historically, persistently, Israel knew failure. Israel knew the terms of the covenant and failed to keep them. The covenant, often renewed by God with a new generation, anticipated failure. Failure is very nearly as old as humankind. Yahweh anticipated failure; he called it sin.
Jesus and the disciples were observing Passover, an annual 1,500-year-old symbolic observance of covenant between Yaweh and Israel. The covenant meant freedom from slavery at a cost of a lamb and its lifeblood. Blood was the covenant’s price for failure to be overlooked and death avoided. Sacrificial blood always accompanied the covenant ceremonies of repentance from sin. Every year a new offering was given for the sins of the past to be overlooked.
Jesus was now changing the covenant—an unthinkable thought for anyone but the Son of the God who had written the original. No more blood of year-old livestock. No more overlooking sin.
The old covenant had done its job. It had fully made the point that it is not possible for sinful humans like you and me to live up to the terms of a holy God who loves us. Every avenue, every possible variation, had been shown futile. The time was finally right for God’s ultimate solution to sin.
Jesus had been identified as the Lamb of God by the last Old Covenant prophet, John the Baptist. Jesus was about to give himself as the covenant sacrifice.
The blood price was being paid not at the expense of the sinner, but at the expense of the one being sinned against. Not for an annual reminder of failure, but as a once-for-all redemption.
The new covenant terms no longer defined what to live up to in order to receive the covenant benefits, or how to acknowledge sin with an annual observance. Now the covenant was to be forgiveness.
Sin finally dealt with and wiped away completely. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense—GRACE. It had, of course, been grace all along. If it hadn’t been grace then Adam and Eve wouldn’t have made it a day past the fig leaf fiasco.
Now, though, God’s ultimate plan was being revealed. Jesus was rolling out the new release. Not with a list written in stone, not with shock and awe or a miraculous dream or national ceremony, but with a meal.
Bread and Wine
A meal shared meant more than just another sandwich time. It was a relationship offered. A meal shared with another was an expression of a deep friendship.
Zacchaeus had known this; Jesus had invited himself to dinner. Zacchaeus had fairly tripped over himself to get cooking; offers of deep friendship, apparently, did not often come to the local tax collector.
The new covenant Jesus offers is not a standard of approved conduct by which to gain right standing with God. The new covenant Jesus offers is: “Share this meal with me. In fact, I want to share my own self with you.”
I offer you deep friendship. I don’t offer you my groceries; I offer you myself. This is my body. Take. Eat.
Jesus invites you to his table; he invites you to finally relax in his presence and enjoy the life that only he can offer. This is the covenant of old truly fulfilled. The negotiations are simple, really. Is there any reason not to accept the terms as offered? To accept means to acknowledge that I, you—indeed, we together—depend utterly on Jesus as the only possible solution to our sin. To accept means I acknowledge my sin. I accept forgiveness, and choose to enter the deep friendship that is offered.
The bread offered is not a cheap friendship. We enter into a communion with the Father through the Son. The Passover meal wouldn’t let the covenant people forget the release that they had been given or the cost of being passed over by death.
This Lord’s Supper, this Communion, won’t either let us forget the release that has been given us, or the cost of being passed over by death. It is no longer a symbolic sacrifice of prime livelihood, but a remembrance of the blood and body of our Saviour who willingly and freely gave his life for yours and mine.
Richard Krahn is the congregational chair of Westpointe Community Church in Grande Prairie, Alta. He holds a BRS from SBC and is a certified journeyman in the flooring trade. This is based on a sermon presented at WCC.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference