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Sermon for Covenant Sunday 2008

The Reverend Dr Joan Crossley

Did you make any New Year resolutions? This new year I was too busy even to think about it, in fact I hardly noticed the turn of the year. There must be a resolution to be made there somewhere! Most peoples’ resolutions seem to be about improving their bodies, cutting down on alcohol, stopping smoking. The magazines are full of diet articles. The car park at the gym is overcrowded, On Saturday mornings, the streets are full of breathless people running for the first time in twenty years. It is “new year, new you” time.

Every now and again it is helpful for us to stop and take stock of every aspect of our lives and I suppose that January the time of new beginnings is as good as any other. Wesley, who was an astute judge of human nature, recognised that a regular spiritual health check was vital to the well-being of every member of the church. Accordingly he established an annual service of renewal of baptismal vows and Christian promises. I have spoken (at some length!) in previous years about the ways in which Wesley put together the service. This morning I am going to look at the theme which underpinned Wesley’s theological formulation of the service: namely, the kind of relationship that the new Covenant implies between God and his people.

At one stage Wesley envisaged that the Covenant promise would develop the idea of a marriage between God and his people. It is a very ancient idea. As we heard in the Old Testament reading today, Jeremiah spoke of God as being “as a husband “ to his chosen people. It was an idea which John Wesley found deeply appealing, setting up a model of a relationship which is at once intimate, responsible and permanent. But because it is a Covenant, a contract between God and humanity, it implies that there is responsibility on both sides. Humanity must acknowledge its need of God, obedience to his Law and God will not forsake his people. Wesley developed the ideas in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 5.21-33) in which the idea of Christ being wedded to the Church is intertwined with exhortations to married couples.

Christ is mystically wedded to us, both as a community and as individuals, a bond which is indissoluble, constant and faithful. With this theme of God as the husband, Wesley looked to the Marriage Service in the Book of Common Prayer for inspiration. In this early version the person making the Covenant was to take Jesus as "my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death". This version was dropped in favour of the one we all know and love. But it is worth exploring the analogy of marriage (to a limited extent) with our relationship with God. In retrospect we can see why Wesley dropped the theme because it was too much intertwined with problems: men would have to vow to take Christ as their husband which would have dented their male pride; women would have felt that Christ was identified with a state in which they were less equal than men. Marriage then as now was a problematic institution and Wesley was wise to move away from it as the foundation for the Covenant service. But there are some aspects of the idea that the relationship between God and humanity is a marriage are worth considering. Wesley retained the central idea of the Covenant Service which was that our relationship with God is evolving, changing and developing. As in a close relationship with another person, changes in environment, circumstances or experience cause us to change. As we change we move to a slightly different place in our relationship with God. Wesley believed that God’s grace and love constantly prompts and seeks to transform us, and chooses that the relationship should be a dynamic and changing one. The yearly renewal of Baptismal vows and renewing of the Covenant is an opportunity for appraisal of self and the relationship with God. This morning we will take a chance to reflect, how have I changed in my thinking about God, in my worshipping of God? Have I moved further from God? Do I feel closer to Him most of the time? Where would I like to stand with God?

In earlier times we might have been asked to publicly account for any “backsliding” that might have gone on in the last year. But this is not a phrase that we now hear and I am sure it would infringe peoples’ privacy to ask them intrusive questions. But today is an occasion on which we can interrogate ourselves, be fearless in challenging ourselves and make a resolve to do better. It was part of Wesley’s design that we should make our Covenant at a service when there was a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, so that honesty and renewal was set in the context of the act of Christ’s loving Sacrifice of himself for us, symbolised in the sacrament. When we reach out to God, in the covenant or in any other way, the loving response is immediate and all encompassing. So we pray that in this New Year we may find a deeper value for God’s love and reflect it out into the world. Amen