A Comprehensive Covenant

Diane Givens Moffett
Pastor, St James Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC

Isaiah 61:8-9; John 3:16; Acts 15:1-3

Many of you may have heard the story of a little girl who was about six years old. She was in school and it was time for an art lesson. The teacher said that this little girl hardly ever paid attention, but at this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and went over to her and asked, What are you drawing? The girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God. The teacher said, But nobody knows what God looks like. The girl said, They will in a minute. This little girl was confident in what she was drawing. She was using her creativity and her experience to make a picture of God based upon her understanding, and as limited as it may have been, it was meaningful and valid for her.

Now while some may laugh or smile at this incident, I believe that many people do the same thing. We create God in our image. We draw pictures of God based upon our understanding. And while our experience may be valid for us, we have only part of the story because God transcends our understanding. God is larger than our experience, bigger than our background and greater than our grounding. Through the history of humanity and in this nation where we have witnessed the election of Senator Barack Obama, the first African-American man to become President of this country, we can see how God keeps breaking out of the boxes we place God in, refusing to be shaped in our image, defined by our minds, and drawn with our limited understanding.

Because you see while there is no harm in using one’s divine imagination and inspired creativity to paint a picture of who we believe God to be, a problem arises when our picture is not in keeping with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. He represents the new covenant and promise of God to the world. He came to establish this new covenant with whosoever would believe in Him. Jesus places no condition on the whosoever. He does not speak about one’s place, state or condition in life. He does not make mention of one’s marital status, one’s sexuality, or how old or young one may be. Jesus does not say that one’s gender, race and ethnicity—whether one is white, or black, brown, red or yellow–determines our salvation. He does not say that one’s religion or creed is the basis of our liberation. Jesus places no limitations on the proclamation; he states that whosoever will believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. And through this open-ended invitation God illustrates what I call a comprehensive covenant.

A comprehensive covenant is a promise that God makes to all believers. It is a covenant that extends to all disciples of Jesus Christ. My dad who is now deceased was an insurance salesman. As I child I learned about the business as he interacted with clients in his home office. I learned the importance of being fully covered when it comes to life insurance. Full coverage was often expensive, especially if you were purchasing a whole life policy. Yet full coverage is what Dad recommended because comprehensive coverage includes everything. It protects the insured and his or her family from all loss—one who holds a comprehensive policy is in good hands.  

In the same way those who believe in Jesus are in good hands when it comes to the covenant God makes with us through Him because it is a comprehensive covenant. The covenant guarantees the salvation and secures the liberation of all those who believe in Jesus.   The covenant is an assurance policy, purchased in full by God’s Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ on behalf of the family of God.  We did not pay for this coverage because we could not afford the bill.  Rather, as the hymn writer says, Jesus paid it all… All to Him I owe. Sin had left the crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.   All believers are heirs to this assurance policy, inheritors of the new covenant made possible through our faith in Christ.

It is no surprise then that Paul and Barnabas entered into sharp debates and disputes with the early church when beyond faith in Christ, an additional demand for the new Gentiles converts was being made in order to secure their salvation.  I appreciate Paul because he places the issue on the table. Some of us don’t like controversy or to speak with those who may not hold our view or agree with our perspectives. Others don’t mind putting up our fist and playing hardballs. Church fights can be ugly. But while some of us may not like debates and disputes—while we may grow tired and weary of the recourse and rhetoric, our Reformed History teaches us that when we argue well and debate openly, a new day can dawn, a new season can emerge, a new time can spring forth and our comprehensive covenant can be strengthened.

A good argument helps strengthen covenant by raising critical questions that help put the issues on the table; a good argument can move us to new insight and a new position. Anyone knows that if you do not address the issue and ask the appropriate questions in a debate, it can lead to inappropriate and even irrelevant conclusions. Just because I am in a donut shop does not make me a donut; but if my question is “Are donuts in a donut shop?” I may come to this conclusion.

When we read the Gospels and roam the pages of Holy Writ, we discover that one of the reasons so many contemporaries of Jesus miss him is that they are raising the wrong questions. Instead of asking what the Spirit of God is doing in Jesus, they ask why Jesus does not follow the law. Instead of celebrating the healing he performs on the Sabbath Day, they asked why he performs a healing work on the Sabbath. Instead of listening to his teaching, ruminating, contemplating and meditating on his Word, they want to question his authority. So often we err in our thinking because we are not asking the right questions nor debating the proper subject.

I am glad to be a part of a denomination that is not afraid to argue and confess the error of our ways. The motto of our Presbyterian Protestant and Reformed tradition is once reformed, always reforming.   We understand that we don’t always get in right in terms of homiletics, hermeneutics, and speaking what thus says the Lord. We understand that from time to time good men and women may err in our understanding of God’s word to us and our embrace of what God is doing in the world. We are a confessing church who questions, critiques and entreats ourselves in order to get right with God and neighbor. Our sometimes fiery and furious debate allows us to see a different picture and make a new sketch that is more in keeping with the God we serve.

It is the arguments and debates and the questions raised, for example regarding the innate right of African-American slaves to be free, in the former Southern and Northern streams of the Presbyterian Church and in this country at large, that helped liberate African-Americans and empower us to serve God and others in the church and in the world. It is the arguments and discussions of equality and justice, righteousness and truth that helped the civil rights movement to save the soul of America and compel her to keep the covenant she made to be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Many shed tears of joy on November 4th when President-elect Obama won the election for the highest office in this nation, because we know about the blood, sweat and tears, the arguments, protests and debates that the ancestors endured in order to see this day come forth. It was not an easy road to travel. Initiating change and introducing something new seldom is easy. The movement of this country to this present moment did not happen over night, but over time, because people operating in the tradition of Paul and Barnabas, kept raising the issue and questioning the nation about a picture of the land of the free that was seriously flawed.

Looking back at the church, it is from the discussions and debate of the critical questions concerning the leadership of women in the PCUSA that we now mount the pulpits, preach and pastor churches in this denomination. It is from discussion and debate, good arguments that put the problem on the table, that issues are solved and positions changed, not over night, but over time.       

Paul and Barnabas raise the critical questions and issues regarding how to include the Gentiles in the church of their day. It takes some time to change the mental mode of the church leaders. It does not appear to be an easy task. Yet, history shows us that the work of people like Paul, and Barnabas is not in vain. When we invest in our church through arguments and debate out of a sincere desire to keep covenant and to move the church to a more powerful witness, we strengthen our covenant and acknowledge its comprehensive scope. A passionate debate and a good argument help to move people to new positions as we put the issues on the table and listen and learn from each other. Good arguments can also expose the assumptions and mindset we cling to regarding the issues at hand.

The late Reverend Dr. Sandy Ray, Pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York once told the story of some years ago, while he was working in a hospital. The head nurse became desperately ill. He was informed by the surgeon that she was suffering from what he diagnosed as “intestinal cohesion.” Some of the intestines had flattened and no nourishment could pass through her system. She was losing weight and becoming extremely weak. The surgeon had to correct the “cohesion” of the intestines so that food could pass through.

Sometimes the church can get sickly and feeble because we suffer from spiritual cohesion. We reject the life-giving truth and our souls become famished because our minds are closed—especially when we think that no one is right, but us. One thing that Paul and Barnabas appear to have is an open mind. We can see it through the assumption beneath the debate and questions raised by them. It is clear that their assumption is that the Gentile believers, although different from the Jews, are part of God’s covenant and should be included in the church. Just because Jews are circumcised does not mean that Gentiles need to be.

You see, one of things that I remember from seminary (and believe you me there are a lot of things that I do not recall) is this debate between Paul, Barnabas and the elders and apostles in Jerusalem. I was blessed to be under the tutelage of two outstanding scholars and teachers, Bob Coote and Marvin Chaney. They were the Old Testament Professors at San Francisco Theological Seminary when I attended. They were helping us neophytes to understand what was going on with Paul and the Gentile converts. They explained, (and many of us know, but thank you for allowing me to remind you) that there are three overarching covenants made in the Old Testament. The first covenant is with Noah—never to destroy the earth by water. The sign of the covenant is the rainbow. The second covenant is with Moses to free people from bondage and the sign of the covenant is keeping the Sabbath. The third covenant was with Abraham, and the sign of the covenant was circumcision.

When Paul begins converting Gentiles to the faith, some of the early Jewish Christians suggest that these new Gentiles to the faith be brought in under the covenant of Abraham—ouch! Paul does not co-sign with this painful decision, nor does he believe it is required to be saved and an heir to the covenant of Christ. Having witnessed the work of the Spirit, they are challenged to search the scripture to find an overarching covenantal theme that will make sense for bringing the new converts in. If we read further in Act 15:20 and 29, we learn that the Gentiles come in under the first covenant of Noah, which means the only restrictions on new believers are not to eat meat from the blood of strangled animals or from food polluted by idols, and to abstain from sexual immorality.  (That is another sermon and song, but suffice it to say it had little to do with sexual preference and more with sexual promiscuity).

My point is that the question raised for Paul and Barnabas is how to include the Gentiles in the covenant and not how they can be saved. They assume salvation is already there because of the Gentiles belief in Jesus. It is clear that they assume the church to be an inclusive of all believers. An inclusive church operates under the assumption that all believers are heirs to the covenant of Christ and looks for ways to yield to the Spirit while being obedient to the law. And because the law is subject to interpretation, debates will arise, arguments will ensue, disputes will manifest. And while we may grow weary, while we may ask the question, Lord, how long? Know that those who argue well, help move the church to a new place and clarify our assumptions concerning the comprehensive covenant made by Christ.

We bring the church a gift, whether the church knows it or not; and our life can be even more meaningful because of our desire to open our arms to all believers. Paul is known for expanding the Gospel. What will you be known for?  It is my prayer that, as the song says, If I can help somebody as I pass along. If I can cheer somebody with a Word or song. If I can show somebody that they are traveling wrong—then my living will not be in vain.    

When my oldest daughter married, she and her husband were blessed to be counseled by Dr. Ansley Lamar. She said that one of the things she learned from Dr. Lamar was how to argue well. He explained that couples who argue well have an opportunity to learn more about each other and grow in intimacy, love and appreciation of one another. Couples who cease arguing, usually after bitter debates, cut off communication and are more susceptible to breaking the marriage covenant. As they talked about raising children, Dr. Anstey also inserted that he felt it could be a good thing for children to hear their parents argue, especially if it is a good argument—one that is designed to foster learning and love for each other. When parents argue well, and don’t jump ship, and remain open to each other, they teach the next generation what it means to have a comprehensive covenant that stays intact through the peaks and valley of the relationship. In fact the parents model for the children how to love and care for each other through our differences.

Is this not what God calls the church to do? Through fits and starts with controversial issues, when we argue well, it forces us to look outside of the box we place God in. When we argue well we learn that God is doing far more than what we can understand or comprehend. When we argue well, we learn to appreciate one another and the gifts we bring to the table. When we argue well it helps us see the error of our ways, turn to God who is fair and gives people what they should have. When we argue well we demonstrate to all those who look upon us that we are a blessed people of God—a people who can work together, pray together, play together, worship together, because despite our differences we are all covered under the covenant of Christ. 

When we argue well we are able to see new colors and new shades that help paint a more accurate picture of the God who shares a comprehensive covenant and saves whosoever will believe in him! The hymn writer William Kirkpatrick spoke truth when he wrote, I have heard the joyful sound, Jesus saves. Jesus saves. Spread the tidings all around, Jesus saves. Jesus saves. To the utmost, Jesus saves. To the utmost Jesus saves. He will pick you up and turn you round, hallelujah, Jesus saves.

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