What does “covenant” mean?

What is the word “covenant”? You know when you’ve heard a word so often that you take it for granted, and you don’t really know what it means? I feel that this word is important enough to slow down with and try to really understand it

Jesus speaks about his blood being the blood of a new covenant in the story of the first Lord’s Supper. This takes place in MT 26:26-30, MK 14:22-26, and LK 22:14-20.

Matthew 26:28 (HCSB)

28 For this is My blood that establishes the covenant; it is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.

I tried a different translation to see if I could get more meaning out of the word “covenant”.

28 for this is my blood, sealing the new covenant. It is poured out to forgive the sins of multitudes. (TLB)

Then I looked at the other Gospels to see if they said it any differently, looking at both translations.

Mark 14:24

24 And he said to them, “This is my blood, poured out for many, sealing the new agreement between God and man. (TLB)

24 He said to them, “This is My blood that establishes the covenant; it is shed for many. (HCSB)

Luke 22:20

(TLB)

20 After supper he gave them another glass of wine, saying, “This wine is the token of God’s new agreement to save you—an agreement sealed with the blood I shall pour out to purchase back your souls. (TLB)

20 In the same way He also took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood; it is shed for you. (HCSB)

I still wasn’t getting very far.

According to Google, “covenant” is defined as an agreement. Synonyms include – contract, undertaking, commitment, pledge, pact, arrangement, and understanding.

What is the first covenant? God promises to not destroy the earth by flood. He says this to Noah after the waters have gone away.

Genesis 9:8-17 (HCSB)

8 Then God told Noah and his sons, 9-11 “I solemnly promise you and your children and the animals you brought with you—all these birds and cattle and wild animals—that I will never again send another flood to destroy the earth. 12 And I seal this promise with this sign: 13 I have placed my rainbow in the clouds as a sign of my promise until the end of time, to you and to all the earth. 14 When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds, 15 and I will remember my promise to you and to every being, that never again will the floods come and destroy all life. 16-17 For I will see the rainbow in the cloud and remember my eternal promise to every living being on the earth.

So why is it significant that God makes a new covenant through Jesus? He promises not only not to destroy the world, but to save it. Instead of being a negative, it is a positive. While it is good for someone to promise to not hit you while you are in a pit, it is better if they promise to hand you a ladder to get out of that pit.

Let us look at more examples of God making covenants with people.

God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:1-22 (CEB)

When Abram was 99 years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. 2 I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants.” 3 Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, 4 “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. 5 And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham.6 I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. 7 I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. 8 I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.” 9 God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. 10 This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male.11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us. 12 On the eighth day after birth, every male in every generation must be circumcised, including those who are not your own children: those born in your household and those purchased with silver from foreigners. 13 Be sure you circumcise those born in your household and those purchased with your silver. Your flesh will embody my covenant as an enduring covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male whose flesh of his foreskin remains uncircumcised will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.” 15 God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and even give you a son from her. I will bless her so that she will become nations, and kings of peoples will come from her. 17 Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child? 18 To God Abraham said, “If only you would accept Ishmael!”19 But God said, “No, your wife Sarah will give birth to a son for you, and you will name him Isaac. I will set up my covenant with him and with his descendants after him as an enduring covenant. 20 As for Ishmael, I’ve heard your request. I will bless him and make him fertile and give him many, many descendants. He will be the ancestor of twelve tribal leaders, and I will make a great nation of him.21 But I will set up my covenant with Isaac, who will be born to Sarah at this time next year.” 22 When God finished speaking to him, God ascended, leaving Abraham alone.

God made a covenant with Israel as a whole in Deuteronomy 30:1-10 (HCSB)

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, 3 then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live. 7 The LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you. 8 Then you will again obey Him and follow all His commands I am giving you today. 9 The LORD your God will make you prosper abundantly in all the work of your hands with children, the offspring of your livestock, and your land’s produce. Indeed, the LORD will again delight in your prosperity, as He delighted in that of your fathers, 10 when you obey the LORD your God by keeping His commands and statutes that are written in this book of the law and return to Him with all your heart and all your soul.

There are a lot of conditions there! If you do this, then I will do this. This is known in legal terms as quid pro quo, (this for that). This doesn’t sound very mature or healthy.

Jacob makes a covenant with God in Genesis 28:18-22. This is right after he’s had the dream of angels ascending and descending to and from heaven on a ladder where he is sleeping in the desert.

18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that was near his head and set it up as a marker. He poured oil on top of it 19 and named the place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me.” (HCSB)

Once again, quid pro quo. I’ll do this if you do that. It is kind of like saying “you first”. I’ll serve you as God if you prove that you are God.

I’m getting somewhere with this, but it still doesn’t synch up with Jesus at the Lord’s Supper.

What is the “new covenant” that Jesus speaks about? The prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God is to make in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Jesus would have known this writing, and expected his disciples to know it too.

31 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the LORD’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke even though I had married them”—the LORD’s declaration. 33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. 34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (HCSB)

This is what Jesus is referring to when he speaks about his blood being the blood of the new covenant. His blood was like an offering on the altar in the Temple that was used to atone (pay for) sins. People would bring bulls, sheep, and other prescribed animals if they had broken a commandment. The animal would be ritually slaughtered by the priest and the blood poured out on the altar. The animal would die, and their sins would be erased.

If we accept the blood offering of Jesus as paying for our sins, then God will forgive them. Everyone in the world who accepts Jesus’ offering will know the Lord in their hearts, completely, without having to be taught. All sins will be erased.

Ashes to Ashes

I was looking around for a church that did Ash Wednesday services. It is coming up. I go into work in the afternoon that day, so I need one that is early enough that it won’t affect my schedule. I can’t go to an evening service because I’m closing that day.

I looked around and there are very few options nearby. Not every church has an Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes service, so I’m already limited there. I could go to the nearby Catholic church, but I’d have to fake being Catholic. While that is easy to do from my many years of Episcopal worship, I resent that I’d have to. I resent the whole idea of exclusion in church. Jesus didn’t make any such rules.

Jesus wasn’t Catholic. Jesus wasn’t a member of any denomination. Any denomination that says they have a lock on the Word hasn’t read it right. Any denomination that says only members can participate hasn’t gotten the message that we are all members of the same Body. There aren’t any limits. We are all in.

I could go to an Episcopal service at another church. I’m not stepping foot inside the one I used to go to. But even if I did go to another parish, I feel that it would get back to the priest at my former parish. I don’t feel like giving her the satisfaction of feeling like I’ve caved in.

Then I thought I could go to a Lutheran or Methodist church, but by this point I realized something. I really just don’t like the idea church as it exists right now. I don’t like that it seems more social club than social justice. I don’t like the idea of the division of lay and ordained. I reject that whole idea as not being of Jesus.

Then I thought that I could do this myself, at home. I’ve got the palms from Palm Sunday from last year. I could burn them on Shrove Tuesday (which is also Mardi Gras). This is what is traditionally done. The very same palms that we waved to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday are kept for a year. They are dry and brittle by that point – and perfect for burning. They are burned in a fire and the ashes are sifted and mixed with a little anointing oil. It is then applied to the forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Easy. I can do this. I have all the ingredients.

And then I really woke up. What am I trying to do? What do I expect to gain from this?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It is the beginning of forty days of penance and sacrifice. It is in memory of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the Devil. During all that time he gave up eating and drinking. During this time, many liturgical Christians traditionally just give up meat, at least on Fridays. Some go all the way and give up oil and eggs and a slew of other things in addition to meat, for the whole time.

Some people give up more than that. Some people will give up drinking, or chocolate, or playing video games. The idea is to give up something that you like. The idea is to then make space for something that you’ve not made space for. The idea is to make space for Jesus.

In Lent, we give up so we can take on. In Lent, we gain far more than we give up.

But the unspoken message of it is sacrifice, and in a way, that we are being punished. The unspoken message is that we aren’t worthy of God’s love unless we give up something. The unspoken message is that God has to be appeased in order for us to get anywhere, or anything.

And that isn’t the message of Jesus.

So I’m skipping Ash Wednesday. I’m skipping Lent. I’m skipping the whole idea of it, because the message of Jesus isn’t about making myself lesser than what I am in order to be considered worthy.

Jesus says I’m worthy just like I am, and that is good enough for me.

On Communion, and worthiness, and leftovers, and grief.

Some people won’t take communion. They will go to church and say all the creeds, but they won’t go to the altar rail. When asked, they say they aren’t worthy of it.

Some feel that they are too much of a sinner to take communion, even while hearing the words that Jesus erased that concept. Jesus died for their sins. That debt is paid.

Some people will come to receive communion, but will not touch the chalice. They feel that it is too holy to touch.

Strangely, it is helpful if they do touch the chalice. Being a chalice bearer is weird. The angles are strange. It is hard to serve wine to someone who is kneeling while you are standing. It is weird to have to hold onto the chalice with one hand while they drink. It is hard to make sure they get a sip of wine, while making sure that they don’t get wine spilled on them. So for them to guide the cup is really a good idea.

For those who approach but won’t touch, I wonder how they can justify eating the bread and drinking the wine. Eating and drinking is far more intimate than just touching. For those who don’t approach at all I wonder what it is about the Passion that they aren’t getting.

It is like being invited to a banquet and refusing to go in. All that work has already been done. The bill has already been paid. You are invited, and you showed up, so some part of you accepted the invitation.

To not partake of it isn’t polite, it is rude. It is the exact opposite of the intent of the sacrifice. It doesn’t make sense. But then I also think of people who say they want to go to church but don’t because they feel they aren’t good enough. This is like saying you want to go to the gym, but you aren’t in shape. You go to both places to get better. You go to both places to transform yourself. You go to both places because you think you can’t do it on your own so you go where other people are trying to figure it out too.

But I wonder how much of this feeling comes from our society’s obsession with guilt, or with making people feel like they aren’t worthy. Nothing healthy comes out of this. There is a lot of control wrapped up in this too. Some families are like this, and some institutions are like this. But the institutions are just made up of people who are operating out of their own insecurities.

Jesus wasn’t like this, but the church has become this way. I think a lot of that is because the church is full of people, and people aren’t perfect. I no longer take Communion because I no longer go to church. It isn’t because I feel unworthy but because I can no longer participate in something I feel is a sham.

I’m the kind of person who used to eat the last piece of pie in the break room. There is this strange habit of people to not eat the last piece of something. They don’t want to finish it off. They think it is rude. I feel it is rude to be wasteful. I used to look at that last piece and think “hey, thanks for saving that for me!”. But I’ve changed. I exercise now, and I care about what I eat. Every calorie needs to be helpful. Every calorie extra is that much further away from my goal. Sometimes I’ll eat a cupcake, but I think of how much exercise I have to do to burn it off. There is a connection here. I don’t go to church anymore because I don’t feel it is helpful or valuable. I feel I’m getting further away from my goal.

I can’t be part of something where people aren’t taught how to hear from God. I can’t be part of something where there is a hierarchy of lay and ordained, of us and them. I can’t be part of something where it is more social club than social outreach.

I’m not sure where I’m headed. I miss going to church. I mourn in a way. There was a lot of my identity wrapped up in going to church. But the more I read of the Gospels, the more I felt that I was being pulled away from what Jesus meant. When he said “Upon this rock I will build my church” he was talking about Peter, the person. Peter was a person, a faulty, Jesus-denying person. But people misunderstood, and made a grave for Peter, then put an altar over his grave, and put a building over that. When you take Communion in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you are consuming something that has been consecrated over a grave. That is creepy.

That alone would stop me from taking Communion.

Predictive text poem 3

I’ve been studying for the ability to get to God,
and I found bridges.
I was going on a roundtrip.

We need reminders of God that are not allowed.
We need to work with God, not only mentally,
but the stone green expanse of the way home is now two miles away.

They are hungry.

Love everything that you can.
Look for the ability to work.
Like the world and the resulting behavior of God.

Yet that too is church.
Yes, there was always a chance of me getting in the way.
You’ll find me unwinding to be able to fill their mouths.

How many times did I grow from being suppressed?
I want to have that kind of relationship with God.
His sacrifice of himself is real.

We need reminders but it is harder than I thought.