COVENANT SERVICE - 1993.

For well over two-and-a-quarter centuries, the 'Covenant Service' has held an important place in Methodist tradition and practice. Here is a reminder of how it came about.
 
An extract from John Wesley's diary entry, dated the 11th of August 1755, says: ‘I mentioned to the congregation, another means of increasing serious religion, which had been frequently practised by our forefathers; and attended with great blessing, namely, the joining in a Covenant to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul ...
 
... I explained the nature of such an engagement, and recited the tenor of the Covenant proposed, in the words of that blessed man, Richard Alleine. All the people stood up in testimony of assent, to the number of about eighteen hundred persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it, shall remain for ever’.
 
As the 'Journal' makes clear, Wesley borrowed the words from a man who had been born nearly a hundred years earlier. The intention behind the words used, was not original to Richard Alleine...
 
...because, obviously, the whole matter of recognizing, and responding to, the covenant-relationship with God, goes back to the New Testament, and the Lord’s initiative in making a 'New Covenant' with his people, in, through, and because of Jesus Christ.
 
Scripture teaches us that the Covenant is God's. He created it, and laid out its terms. Some of the words in our service recognize this and say: 'Therefore, let us make this Covenant of God our own’ .
 
The Covenant is God's; designed it for the needs of his people. Generation after generation of Christians have shared in what the Lord brought into being, through binding themselves to its terms. 
 
Christians make the Covenant of God their own, not by mere intellectual assent to its words; but through living out the principles of it. In that way, their daily lives express what they believe.
 
When John Bunyan wrote 'Pilgrims Progress', he took certain things of God; in which he utterly believed: and not only made them his very own by living them out; but also, through his book, shared his beliefs and hopes with vast numbers of Christians, over several generations.
 
According to some sophisticated critics of his day, John Bunyan was a common sort of fellow, too ordinary altogether to be capable of anything very much; and they raised this question:  ‘How can such a common fellow as that, write so great a work as 'Pilgrim's Progress'? They answered their own question, by saying that he could not; and declared him to be a fraud, and not the author.
 
Bunyan himself had a word to say about that. He wrote:
 
‘It came from mine own heart, and so to my head,
And then to my fingers trickled ... Then to my pen,
From whence, immediately, on paper I did dribble it daintily.
For none in all the world, without a lie, Can say: “This is mine”, excepting I’.
 
He knew that 'Pilgrim's Progress' was something of the story of his life, and, therefore, his own. And yet there is a very proper sense in which he knew that it belonged to God, before it belonged to him.
 
The Lord gave him Christian parents, and, in due course, a Christian wife. He possessed religious fervour, and a spiritual hunger; and was given knowledge of salvation in Christ alone; a vision to see; a Way to follow…
 
…a faith to live by, and much more. Bunyan knew; as we have come to believe for ourselves; that the gifts of God cannot be worked for but, once given and received, they must be worked at if they are not to be lost.
 
Bunyan accepted the many gifts of God; worked at them; built them into his own life, and expressed his possession of them, through his work. Some critics are reckoned to have said of him: ‘Good qualities of that order, are not found in such a fellow as this’: and they wrote him off.
 
Many otherwise good, sensible Christians, do much the same, in relation to themselves. They become too self-critical: and 'write themselves off'. This human tendency to judge, and to 'write off' is a sin; because judgement belongs to God alone, and is not something that he shares with mankind.
 
It can be said that, whenever we judge; we usurp God's unique position; and offend against his will: every bit as much when we judge ourselves, as when we judge others.
 
The Bible encourages us to see ourselves and each other with the eyes of Christ; to see the great potential for good that lies within us all, and then, in God-honouring ways, seek to promote that good's fulfilment.
 
The Lord did not have to make a covenant with anybody, at any time; but he chose to do so, as an expression of his love and grace. Grace may be defined as being ‘unmerited and unrestrained goodwill'.
 
God continually ministers grace to us in Jesus Christ. His unmerited and unrestrained good will towards us; never judges, to see where we fail. Instead, it judges to see where we might be helped to make further growth, in all those good qualities that we both honour and desire.
 
We should see in ourselves, and in others, those things of God designed to make us more Christ-like; and, as we look into our lives, and theirs, we should expect to see ongoing development.
 
The more that we see, and accept, that which is good: the more the Covenant gifts of God become our own.
 
In this way, what seem to be hard, almost impossible to keep promises; within the Covenant Service; take on less forbidding aspects: not so much through what we do, but more through who we are becoming.
 
As the words that we use in making those promises, lose some of their hardness; they become expressions of our understandings, in the here-and-now of our lives; and of our hopes of the future.
 
God invites us to share in something of his qualities and attributes. His faithfulness ensures that, on his side, the Covenant promises are kept
 
On our side, it is the degree of our response to what God has done for us:  that decides whether or not the Covenant will be fulfilled in us.
 
The words from our service-book are: 'Let us make this Covenant of God our own’. So far, emphasis has been paced on 'Covenant of God’ (because it is his) and on ‘our own' (because we are invited to accept it). A final emphasis must be placed on ‘Let us make’: for things don't just happen of themselves.
 
The real test of who we are in Christ: is not so much how we relate to God in prayers of faith and hope, but more how we relate to our own selves, and to other people, in our daily lives.
 
Scripture teaches that love is at the heart of all that God is, and does; and that love should form and direct us. Jesus taught that our love of God: is proved by the love that we give to one another. There is a bit of doggerel verse that says: ‘To love the whole world, for me is no chore. My big problem is the chap next door’.
 
The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, once wrote that people are rather like a group of porcupines on a very cold night. The sub-zero temperature forces them to huddle together for warmth ...
 
... but, as soon as they press close to each other, they jab and hurt one another. So, they separate, only to feel the cold again. They huddle close together once more, only to feel the pain again, and so on.
 
Christ would not accept this view, put just like that; for it indicates an ‘either/or' situation; either you are without relationship and 'cold', or you try to effect relationship, and get 'hurt' in the process.
 
Jesus says that there is another way, that of love: which removes both the 'cold' and the 'hurts'. Certainly, learning how to love can sometimes be difficult; and having our love rejected can be hurtful ...
 
... but the Way of Love in Christ, is the God-ordained Way; and it is always eminently worth while.
 
‘Let us make’ ... (the Covenant of God our own). These are fine words, but, unless they are matched with equally fine actions, they achieve little.
 
Most of us know about situations that exist, where relationships may be a bit cool, if not actually 'cold'; or where things may be said to be more than a little prickly, and even 'hurtful'.
 
Where we know of such situations: our prayerful concern may be able to introduce more love into them; and help change things for the better.
 
For some while, it has been something of a fashion to designate particular years as 'The International Year of This, or That'.
 
We can resolve to make this year a bit more special, and designate it to be 'The Year of Love' for us, and for all those whom we know.
 
The Covenant of God is a big thing. Unless we are very careful, much of it can slip from our grasp as the year goes by. 
 
But, if we are both careful and prayerful; and, as far as we can, express God's love at all times, and in all places; then we will be gradually making the Covenant of God more fully our own.
 
What is truly ours, we are unlikely to treat lightly, or let go of ...
 
... and those things of our faith, that we hold on to, and nurture, are likely to grow within us; and be a blessing to ourselves, and to others.
 
Amen.