The Bread of Life 4: Covenant
Today is the final sermon in our 4-part series on the Holy Eucharist. We’ve been looking this month at how our Old Testament readings help us understand Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life, and we’ve looked at how he gives himself to us as provision, strengthening, and wisdom. Today, our Old Testament passage is from Joshua 24, and we’re focusing on how the Eucharist is a covenant.
Every week, as I speak on your behalf the prayer over the bread and wine, I quote Jesus’ words that he spoke at his last meal with his followers, where he himself gave the Eucharist that name; he called it the “new covenant.” A covenant is sort of like a treaty: it’s public, and it sets into being a state of affairs that you’re situated inside. In the Bible, God initiates covenants with his people, situating them in his story of the universe, and publicly constituting them as his own.
We don’t really do covenants in Western society. We’re way more used to contracts, which are nothing more than deals people agree to. They don’t define us or constitute our life story, they just set up temporary arrangements like “If you give me $70 a month I’ll give you unlimited texts and 2gig of mobile data… but that offer expires in 30 days.” That is not what a sacred arrangement that situates you in the universe sounds like. That’s just a contract.
So the Eucharist, says Jesus, is not a contract but a covenant. In fact, it’s the New Covenant. It puts into action a whole new way of being-situated in the world, a whole new story that comes from God and requires God to work. And we Episcopalians quote him on that over and over, every time we have Mass, because we are so very prone to forget.
Our passage from Joshua today too, is trying to prevent forgetting. The Israelites have been set free from slavery by God and traveled into the land he promised them, and now Joshua has gathered them for a ceremony of renewing their allegiance to the covenant God gave to them on the way. For us as Christians, to what we call the old covenant, the way of relating to God that God gave before he came to us in Jesus. Now you might note, if you check the verses on your insert, that we skipped a few. Those verses tell the backstory, repeating how God dealt with them in establishing this covenant. Because people are prone to forget. And though you can’t tell this from your insert, we also stopped a few verses early. If you go home and read this episode in your own Bible, you’ll see that the way it goes on is that after the people say AMEN to God’s covenant, Joshua in essence replies, “I don’t believe you. Are you absolutely sure?” And three times he has them affirm: yes, we are sure. Yes, we want to center who we are on this God. We accept being part of his story.
You cannot understand who you are until you know what story you’re in. Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist who taught at Duke and attends an Episcopal church in North Carolina, has pointed out that our era simply assumes that there is no story to our lives except whatever one we happen to choose. The assumption these days is that we’re not in a covenant given by God, we just make up our own story. There is no core narrative. We construct our own identities in ways we find meaningful. Those of you who have read People of the Way will recognize this description from Dwight Zscheile’s work as well – it’s the way he himself lived for many years, before he became a Christian and discovered our core narrative, and it was the way I lived before I became a Christian too – barely knowing there was any other option than trying to author your own life.
In one of his essays, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “[The idea that] we should have no story except the story we chose… is a lie. To be human is to learn that we don’t get to make up our own lives because we’re creatures.” To have learned that is so uncommon now, though, so against everything we read and hear and see on TV and in the movies and yea, even in many religious institutions, that we can’t be reminded enough: God’s not a spiritual enhancement for me to write into my own story if I find it meaningful. He’s the author. My story is God’s to tell.
If we belong to Jesus Christ, he has written us into his New Covenant, constituted in Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, that story is God’s to tell, and it has a very definite shape, and we are in it. But how many people have really internalized that shape? I wonder, in fact, if we stopped right now, and if we each turned to the person nearest us and took five minutes as a pair, together, to tell each other the Christian story, to set forth the New Covenant and how it works, how many of us would be completely comfortable articulating it with no time to prepare?
And we’re in church. Not just any kind of church, either, we’re in the kind of church that retells God’s core narrative every week in the Eucharistic prayer. We hear the Gospel retold at the altar every week, and are given the chance to renew the New Covenant in Christ afresh every week when the Prayer Book directs us to answer Amen as we receive. That chance to say yes to being in God’s story is there for us unendingly. Of course God won’t force you. He will give you as long as you like to make up your mind. But as Joshua points out, a covenant has to be agreed to. You have to answer the question, “Are you sure?” When the bread is put in your hand and the chalice is raised to your lips, nobody else can say AMEN for you.
When Jesus offered people the chance to say their Amen, to enter into this New Covenant in his body and blood, as I mentioned last Sunday, the more he said the more confused and angry people got. By the end of today’s Gospel, the disciples themselves are upset. All the regulars have gone off out of his hearing to have the meeting after the meeting, and complain, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Jesus does not say, “I can tone it down a little if you think it’s not going over well.” He doesn’t say, “oh, look, it doesn’t matter that much.” No, he says, “See? I told you that nobody can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Jesus expected people, once they saw what they were getting into, to require assistance from God to accept it. In fact, the next thing he does is to turn to his inner circle and say, “Do you also wish to go away?” Just like Joshua. Are you sure? Do you really grasp what your AMEN means? What you’re getting yourself into by signing on for this way of life, by dedicating yourself to a God who doesn’t ask you to approve of him but asks you to eat him? A God whose idea of glory is to be crucified and put to public shame? Is that the story you want to be in? Or do you also wish to go away?
I find Peter’s response to this one of the most poignant verses in the New Testament. “Lord,” he says, “to whom can we go?” That is the voice of someone who has, with the help of God, actually perceived what it is that Jesus is offering, grasped the beauty and the power of the New Covenant, and come to trust that as crazy as it all sometimes seems, Jesus Christ knows what he’s doing. It’s safe to bet it all on him. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.” None of the alternatives even begin to compare.
“Lord, to whom can we go?” That is what I always end up answering, as over and over I struggle with being part of this countercultural Christian story that has me swimming against the stream day in day out. That is what I end up answering, as over and over I struggle to let Jesus teach me to want something as extravagant as what he offers in the New Covenant, rather than settling for wanting the kinds of promises made by all the other, louder, easier stories we hear all day. “Lord, to whom can we go?” That is what I end up answering as I look at the New Covenant himself, right here on the altar, given for me and for you, patiently loving us as we say our AMEN at every Mass and then go right back out and forget what story he’s put us in. But as crazy as it all sometimes seems, Jesus Christ knows what he’s doing. It’s safe to bet it all on him. In fact, with a Covenant like this one, the only way to lose is to bet anything less than all. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
The essay by Hauerwas is in Living Gently in a Violent World, Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas, InterVarsity Press 2008, p 72.
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