Covenant Life: Living as Family

January 14, 2013

We continue today on the topic of The Fellowship of Presbyterians Theology Project on the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. The seventh major theme under consideration is “Covenant Life in the Church.”

God’s election of us in Christ draws us not only into a right relationship with God but also to a new relationship with other believers. We might think of the Church as a place for worship or a meeting we attend. However the doctrine of covenant refers to the people to whom we belong and to which we are bound because of our common ties to Jesus Christ. This is a much deeper understanding of the Church, and we need to dust it off and enjoy it.

The theme running through Scripture is of God calling out a people to belong to him and to which he gives himself. There is both an invitation and a challenge at work. We see this dynamic in the Exodus when God galvanizes the Hebrews under Moses’ leadership and delivers Israel to himself. God declares Israel to be a people set apart as his possession, and he opens the way for their escape from Egypt’s domination. The ten commandments are the prologue/preamble to the divine covenant that God is making, defining the characteristics by which their identity as God’s unique people will be recognized. In the rescue and the giving of the law God is shaping them into his people.

 “‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” —Exodus 19:4-6

I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high. —Leviticus 26:12-13

The God of the covenant became flesh and literally dwelt among us, in fulfillment of his covenant promises. It is in the Word incarnate Jesus Christ that the new covenant resides and is permanently established. The One who was truly God and truly human finally sealed once and for all the relationship between God and his people by “hiding” them in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Jesus builds on this theme the night before his crucifixion. At the Passover meal he declares, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20). Jesus invites those first disciples (and us) to the Table to affirm the new covenant with Jesus and with each other. By virtue of that union with Christ, enacted as we take communion, all who believe in him belong not only to God but to each other. God desires nothing more than our joy at discovering a delightful place of belonging and lots of company around the throne of grace.

The sixteenth century Reformers picked up this theme of covenant in Scripture and used it to build a theological framework for the emerging churches. Calvin preached it in Geneva in his daily Bible expositions. John Knox, who sat under Calvin’s teaching, took the priority of the covenant with him back to Scotland. Sometimes Reformed theology is referred to as “covenant theology.”

To this day, we Presbyterians attempt to live out our understanding of covenant by faithfully preaching the Word of God, administering the sacraments, and exercising mutual discipline. All these activities are intensely relational, defining, and sustaining for life together. I gained a deeper appreciation of their importance while participating in a dialogue between twelve European Reformed pastors and twelve American Presbyterians in Geneva. Researching sacraments from a Reformed perspective, I came to appreciate much more why baptism and communion are not mere duties but great privileges for the people of God. In fact, the Sacrament of Communion was considered in Calvin’s time to be so soul-strengthening that the father of Presbyterianism himself was an advocate of weekly communion!

Given our twenty-first century propensities, particularly in the American church, toward a more Word-centered and less Sacrament-centered worship, Calvin’s example certainly suggests an alternative view of communion. Instead of a “less frequent, more special” event, perhaps we might experience communion is a steady diet of the Bread of Life. I am now in a church setting where we partake of communion weekly. This experiment in the spiritual life has, for me, made communion ever more precious, as the celebration with God’s people and reception of Christ nourish my ordinary life. My writing colleague Stephen Eyre presides over weekly communion on Thursdays in the chapel at his church, and Monday through Friday during Lent. This practice may not be for everybody or every congregation, but for some the regular gathering at the Lord’s Table may provide necessary food for the soul.

Covenant life is our experience of the people of God living in complete dependence upon Jesus Christ, in whom we are united. In this context we are nourished, strengthened, and transformed for the new life that is so much more than “going to church.” May the following study open your eyes and heart to a quality of fellowship the church calls “covenant life.”




3 Responses to “Covenant Life: Living as Family”

  1. You’re very traditional here, and sincere, and thoughtful… and I just get bored with weekly communion. Same-o, same-o. Just like the so-called “Lord’s Prayer,” which we need to stop running our mouths on every week and get more thoughtful, earnest, and real in our prayers. Boo to sameness.

    • revmary Says:

      Houston, I expect that your reaction is common, which begs for a further discussion. There are two more installments in this series, and then I think I shall go back on some of these “essential tenets” themes and grapple with just the sort of reflection you make here. For now I am unpacking what The Fellowship Theology Project has produced as a way of introducing our Study Guide to the Essential Tenets paper, but as you have highlighted, the “How shall we then live?” question is right around the corner. Thanks for your honesty; I would expect nothing less from you!

  2. Good reply, pal, as expected. My reaction was knee-jerk, instantaneous — glad to wait for additional response.

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