And so we come to covenant. In our discussion of a Rule of Life for a Missional Order, I’ve sidled up alongside this subject a couple of times already… and it’s time to dig deeper. First, I said a little about language, and the stumbling over some of the commitment-words that we use. We talked about this a little at Seabeck, as an important indicator of how we approach the idea of something we call a “rule” and make vows to live our lives by it. Later, I talked about remembering what we’ve been promised as being critical to coming through a period of exile. I was thinking about this again last Sunday evening as I was one of about 250 people sitting in an ordination service at St. Benedict’s Table as a new deacon was ordained by the bishop. There’s something about vows and resolutions that ought to be taken seriously.
As I considered the language again, I realized that I preferred a “rule” as a guide, not in the sense of a rule-book or set of laws to be kept. I like the language of resolution rather than of vows. The sense of a resolution is one of a clear decision to do something, and then to set about it. The sense of a vow has something much more solemn about it, as though dire consequences may befall the breaking of a vow. With a resolution on the other hand, you just pick up and go at it again. I realized that what I seek is an orientation toward purpose, and not so much a clear definition of every jot and tittle of that purpose itself. Too much definition, and I can only fail countless ways. A matter of orientation is different — you can be nudged off course a little, but you remain steadfast in pursuit of your purpose. It strikes me that I’m talking about our conception of law versus grace in this comparison. In the law, we are bound to keep the whole thing or to break the whole thing for having broken only a part. It says, “Step exactly in these footsteps, or you’re doomed.” Grace, on the other hand, says “Just walk toward me, you’ll be fine.” It’s all about margin for error. When we have some, we’re still intent not to use it… but when we know there isn’t any, we begin to lose hope of reaching the destination intact. I’m also talking about the essence of what a rule of life is, which as I’ve described already: the rule is there to keep you on the path, not to define the path. Orientation is a helpful idea for us as a wayward people.
Still, the destination loses meaning without a resolution — a vow, even — of some sort. It is this imagery that is in the induction into a rule of life. The tradeoff is fairly basic at one level — we live a certain way, and in return, we have greater assurance of reaching the destination. The destination, of course, is reflected in the three things I said we needed to remember while wandering through exile, or on peregrinatio.
- Who you are, and who your people are.
- What you have been promised.
- Where your home is.
I’ve already visited the subject of who we are and said a little bit about the destination, but we connect the two with a consideration of the promise… and this is of course where the concept of covenant enters the picture most sharply.
Turning our attention to covenant, I recall the language of the legal system, and plead for its substitution with the language of relationship. The legal imagery is there as background to the word, but I don’t believe this to be the aspect of covenant that needs highlighting in our minds — it is the relational dynamic we too easily forget. The word, in fact, can be misleading… it is multi-faceted and like shalom conveys a range of meanings and backgrounds. A simple word study does not reveal these, for it largely misses the greater story arc of Israel as God’s bride. Further, the single word is used over a lengthy period during which its meaning evolved somewhat.
Israel’s idea of a covenant with God… is much more than a figure of speech, at least in some periods. For all its frequency in the Scriptures, the picture of Israel as God’s bride remained just that for the ancient Israelite: a picture, a sign pointing to something else. “Yahweh our God made acovenent with us in Horeb,” however, referred to something that had actually happened—the text of the agreement was in a box in the temple. We may, for the sake of convenience, call this the history of a biblical idea, but quite obviously it was much more than an idea to Israel.
Perhaps in this excerpt from Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (p.5) we can see how the legal image first grew large in our minds, drowning out the relational one. The background of covenant is akin to that of a treaty. An ancient treaty was basically an “elaborate oath,” with two main parts — the thing to be performed and the the blessings and curses arising from its performance or non-performance. (It may be observed that this is essentially similar to most modern contracts, except for the references to the spirit-world, of course.) In summing up the suzerainty treaty as a model for their covenant or treaty with God, Hillers writes,
Even though the moment of emergence of the covenant idea is hidden from us, we may be sure that it grew out of experience, not out of abstract thought, and if we attempt to state express reasons for its adoption, we are only making explicit what must have been implicit and intuitive. To try to reduce the living reality of the covenant with God to a set of propositions is unsatisfactory in the same way that a verbal description of a symphony is.
There are several notable covenants in the Old Testament… with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David. For all intents and purposes, these might be seen as summarized by the whole of the Torah, what we refer to as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible. In many ways, the voicing of each covenant is a “fleshing-out” of the larger story of the relationship between God and his people as it is formed over time. Indeed, the earliest covenant language in the Old Testament is later referred to as a renewing or affirming of a prior covenant… which leaves open the question of when it actually began. (Back in my days of making waves in the charismatic evangelical pool, I referred to similar observations from my study of covenant to suggest that an implied covenant could exist, even in biblical terms, and that as such a common-law marriage was not a thing to be taken lightly in their clean cutting of a “position” on divorce and remarriage. They didn’t like my ideas, but that’s a rant for a different day.) When I consider covenant, my mind always directs itself to Exodus 6:2-8.
And God said to Moses, “I am Yahweh—‘the Lord.’ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty’—but I did not reveal my name, Yahweh, to them. And I reaffirmed my covenant with them. Under its terms, I promised to give them the land of Canaan, where they were living as foreigners. You can be sure that I have heard the groans of the people of Israel, who are now slaves to the Egyptians. And I am well aware of my covenant with them.
“Therefore, say to the people of Israel: ‘I am the Lord. I will free you from your oppression and will rescue you from your slavery in Egypt. I will redeem you with a powerful arm and great acts of judgment. I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God who has freed you from your oppression in Egypt. I will bring you into the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will give it to you as your very own possession. I am the Lord!’”
Here God takes covenant language to an entirely new level — he uses his personal name, recently revealed to Mo at the site of the unburning scrub-brush. For the discussion presently at hand, it has some deep phrases, such as, “I am well aware of my covenant with them.” Here the Israelites are toiling in slavery, crying out to God for hundreds of years, despairing… and the message is: “I remember you.” God plans to come through after all, and we are about to get a little more detail about this covenant… this restatement has four elements:
- God will lead them out of Egypt
- God will deliver them from slavery
- God will redeem them with acts of judgment
- Israel will be his people and he will be their God
In the mix of things, there’s a recommitment to land and place… but the final element, the fourth point, is all about relationship. In the Passover Seder, four cups of wine are taken to recognize each of these four aspects of this covenant statement… but the one to which we most look forward is the element of relationship.
Viewed in this light, we can assume a relationship with the covenant-making God already without having to create a new one. We can reaffirm our commitment to an existing covenant with him, and simply walk in the way of what already is, awaiting what is not yet. The really good news is that the manner in which we walk according to the covenant is relatively light on hardship and heavy on benefits, given that the heavy lifting has already been done. Enter the rule of life, which is set in place — if we will commit to live by it — to aid us in walking according to our part of the covenant. It can in fact be a great help, given the forgoing outline of covenant as something more organic with fuzzy edges defined by relationship rather than contractual documentation with hard edges defined by the finer points of punctuation and “whereas’s.” Covenant is nothing if not lived out, and in so doing we routinely reaffirm our commitment to it and to the one with whom the covenant has been formed.