A Covenant People

(2 Chronicles 34:29-33)

For the past several months I've been in prayer about where God may be leading us in the New Year. What is God calling us to be and do? And in part, the Spirit of God has answered.

My understanding from God is we are to be more faithful to the covenant we've made with him as members of the Body of Christ. So my task is to help lead us in that direction this coming New Year; and as a result I'm confident we will experience blessings, as well as challenges, as we seek to be more faithful to our covenant with God. And it will be a fruitful journey, of this I'm sure.

It used to be, people would make a promise to one another and they'd keep it no matter what; their word was there bond. We used to make deals and seal it with a hand shake, a written contract wasn't necessary.

It used to be when we promised ourselves to one another in marriage we'd take seriously the covenant we made, and wouldn't violate the promises we made in our vows to one another and before God. And it used to be when we'd promise our lives to God and to following his Son Jesus, we would abide by that promise no matter our circumstance.

It seems promises or covenants have become to mean very little to too many people these days. We spend more time and money trying to get out of the promises and contracts we've made, then we do in keeping them. And this includes the covenant we make with God.

So what is a covenant? Well a covenant is defined as a formal agreement or treaty between two parties that establishes a relationship. A covenant includes obligations and mutual responsibilities that must be adhered to by all parties of the covenant.

A covenant relationship is a relationship between God and an individual or a group of people marked by God's unilateral promises or mutual agreements, between parties, especially humanity's promise for obedience to God's will.

Throughout history, as recorded in the Bible, God has made a number of covenants between himself and the world, between himself and individuals or groups, and God made covenants as declarations concerning his expectations for us as his people. And what we've seen throughout history is that in all cases God keeps his end of the covenant; its humanity that always falls short of keeping the promises we've made.

In our scripture reading from 2 Chronicles this morning it seems that the kingdom of Judah had fallen away from the covenant they made with God and were violating God's will on a daily basis. Under several rulers the people of God began drifting in a sea of spiritual and moral disorder and decay. The clear call of God was no longer heard.

But when Josiah came on the scene as king, at the ripe old age of eight, spiritual renewal began. Josiah became God's agent for renewal in a land that had fallen far from the Word of God.

Now during the early years of his reign, Josiah began a series of reforms. He tore down idols and altars to pagan Gods. He worked hard to reform the practices and the pagan influences of the false Gods the people had become accustomed to worshipping and following.

One day during a stop at the Temple of the Lord when Josiah was about 26 years old, the Book of the Covenant was found, which was probably the book of Deuteronomy, by Hilkiah the high priest. The book was brought to Josiah and was read.

As he heard the words of the book he realized that Judah had drastically moved away from God's purpose and plan for them. So Josiah had his people gather at the Temple in Jerusalem to hear the words of the book that had been hidden away.

And then the king, on behalf of the entire kingdom, renewed the covenant with the Lord, specifically to follow the Lord and keep his commands with all his heart and soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book. The people of Judah recommitted their lives to God and committed to make God the absolute Lord of their lives.

As with Josiah many years ago, it's my conviction that God is now calling us, this congregation, to be agents of renewal right here in Emmitsburg and Fairfield.

In our baptism and confirmation covenants we're asked a series of questions about our faith, about our willingness to remain faithful to Christ's church, and if we will faithfully serve as Christ's representatives in the world.

Everyone I've baptized, who can answer for themselves and those I've confirmed have said, "I will" to these questions. After the questions to those being baptized or confirmed, I then ask you the congregation if you will nurture one another in the Christian faith and life. And the response is, "with God's help we will…"

These are not just ceremonial questions of historical and ecclesiastical significance. These are serious commitments we make to God, and to others, in the presence of God.

Did you know that baptized means dead, buried, and out of the way, so that God can inhabit our body and do as he pleases? Martin Luther says that when Christians wake up every morning the first words out of their mouths ought to be, "I am baptized" as a reminder of who's we are, and what our purpose is. This is how significant our baptism covenant is.

When people are baptized and are received into membership of this local church, it's a whole lot different than being received into the local VFW, or the community pool. For those seeking membership into the local church I ask, "will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries."

I also ask if "you will faithfully participate in the church's ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service." Again the answer I receive is "I will." So why is it we can be more loyal to the communities social clubs, pools, etc. then we can to a promises we make to God?

We often say that God is first in our lives, but in reality, God comes after careers, relationships, clubs, sleep, band, sports, and yard work. This is why I am more convinced than ever, that many people in our community, including some in our local churches are following a God of their imagination rather than the risen Lord, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

I wonder what would happen if one Sunday I tore up the membership book to this church, declared we had no members, and we're starting all over again. Would anyone really care? Has membership simply come to be a name on a piece of paper that only historians one day will ever care about?

What if I said, "if you want to be a member of this local church you must keep to the promises you make in your vows, and that there would be accountability like there was in the early church."

How many of us here today would make that commitment and would want to become members? Or how many of us would decide to go elsewhere, where the commitment might not be so great?

How many of us are really willing to turn complete control of our lives over to God to follow him always as we say we will when we answer "I do" to the question "do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to all people?" You see the church is suppose to be different from clubs or institutions, however, the problem is we've been brought up and raised with an institutional mind-set. But the church is not an institution; it's a living and breathing organism. The church has far too long promoted membership in the church over faith in Jesus Christ and as a result being a member of a church is no different than holding membership in a local club or organization.

Regrettably, the church has become just another organization we belong to that we try to support along with all the other organizations that want our time, money, and presence. And often times as we're going through this balancing act our commitment to Christ and his church becomes part of the lower tier of our priorities.

But what we need to realize is that Jesus Christ didn't give his life for this institutional concept of membership. The truth is, it's far more costly to belong to the Body of Christ than to any human organization. Like marriage, membership in Christ's Body is a covenant commitment, which is different than an institutional membership. And unlike any other commitment we make throughout our lives, membership in Christ's body is an eternal commitment.

John Wesley and the other pioneers of our faith were committed to covenant, and as it turns out, keeping their covenant with God was crucial to the birth and vitality of the Methodist movement.

Covenant membership was not taken lightly. There was no concept of life-long institutional membership. In reality ongoing membership was based on accountability, discipline, maturity in love, and involvement with the poor. And membership in the days of the early Methodist movement was reviewed and renewed quarterly. If you weren't faithful to the covenant vows your membership was taken away.

Wesley instituted a process of disciplined-accountability. He wasn't interested in playing church any more. People were either committed to Jesus being Lord of their life, or not. The expectation was that people would be growing as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And a member of the church was one who was fully committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and lived that way. Membership meant something, and it was something people sought and respected.

Jeff has recently joined a fraternity at Shepherd University. He had to memorize a bunch of different things and do some crazy things like guard a pile of rocks through the night. And now that he has become a member there are certain things he must do to retain his membership. If he fails to do them his membership is revoked.

Well God's fraternity deserves even more respect because God's fraternity, the church, the Body of Christ, has eternal implications.

Now we talk about Jesus as our Savior and Lord, and Jesus as Savior is good news for us, because Jesus as our Savior offers us the grace of God, which is the underserved favor of God.

The more challenging news for us is recognizing Jesus as Lord of our lives. And it's in understanding what Lord means and living with Jesus as Lord that leads to a life as a faithful disciple. So as we continue on our journey of faith we need to hear the good news of Jesus as Savior, but we also need to live a life with Jesus as Lord. To be a member of the Body of Christ means we recognize Jesus as Lord.

Now Lord has its challenges because Lord means having absolute authority over. What this means to us is that we recognize that Jesus has absolute authority over our lives and in affect owns our lives. As our Lord we are agreeing to be his servants.

Now I know the word servant can leave a bad taste in our mouth in our culture because of what servant has meant in the past, and unfortunately continues to mean in some places today. But the word servant is the best word I can think of when describing how we are no longer in charge of our own destiny, Jesus is.

To allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives means to turn everything over to him and to be completely obedient to his will. To this end we must empty ourselves of everything, so that we can truly reflect the mind of Christ. And when we truly reflect the mind of Christ the world will begin to look at us differently, and look at the Church differently seeing a movement which mirrors the kingdom of God, rather than a fossilizing, irrelevant institution.

Now if you answer I do to the question, "Is Jesus your Savior and Lord?" then this means you have no higher allegiance in your life then following Christ. And our allegiance to Christ and his kingdom must far exceed our allegiance to our country, family, or job.

The Bibles teaches: " Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) " If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23) " Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (Luke 9:58)

To follow Jesus and enter into a covenant relationship with his Body means that he is our highest authority. So are we ready to buy into this kind of lifestyle? This is the question we need to answer this coming year, and I'm persuaded if we are faithful, God will be faithful, and the kingdom of God will grow in Emmitsburg and Fairfield.

Again the church, the Body of Christ, is a living organism, not an institution. We cannot be connected to the Head, meaning Christ, if we're disconnected from the Body, and we cannot be connected to the Body if we're not connected to the head. If we are not receiving instruction from the head and passing it on, then we're not a Body member. If we're not receiving nourishment and passing nourishment on, then we're not functioning as a member of the Body of Christ.

So a member of the body of Christ accepts all these responsibilities and the liabilities that go with membership because membership means we are now part of Christ's earthly mission.

I'm convinced that in order to grow the kingdom of God and to grow as faithful Body members one of the things we need to do is elevate the standards for membership into the Body of Christ.

This coming year one of things we will do is explore more fully what covenant membership is and what standards ought to be in place to be a member of Trinity. Now this doesn't mean that those who don't wish to be members will be excluded from the life of Trinity; it means membership will have its expectations and will actually mean something. It also means we will no longer carry a role of inactive members. Those who have not been active in the life of this congregation for a couple years or more, or don't plan to be, will be removed from membership.

When we accepted Jesus as Lord of our lives we were born into his Body the Church, therefore, we can't be committed fully to Jesus and not become an active part of the Body. The Church is the living presence of Christ in the world; therefore Trinity will be the vital, living, and active presence of Christ in Emmitsburg and Fairfield. As members of the Body of Christ, we are the only hands, feet, and voice that Jesus has on earth. So we must be fully committed to changing lives for Jesus.

We are called to be servants not volunteers, disciples not club members. We are God's people, we are a covenant people.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Colossians, "So if you're serious about living life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ - that's where the actions is. See things from Christ's perspective. Your old life is dead." (Colossians 3:1-3 The Message) Your new life, which is your real life, is in Christ our Lord.


Resources used in the preparation of this sermon in addition to the Holy Bible: Spiritual Entrepreneurs by Michael Slaughter

Read other messages by Pastor Wade