Covenants order our lives, our faith communities, and, in the best of times, our nations. The promises and agreements God makes to us, and that we make to one another, are sometimes made binding by oaths or rituals. Sometimes God simply sends someone down from the mountain with a covenant fully formed and sealed.
The covenants of marriage, baptism, ordination, and church membership echo the great historic covenants, such as God’s agreement with Noah after the flood and Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments. The biblical covenants are relevant to our lives today because their wisdom—and power to order societies—has much to teach us about a covenantal way of relating to God, to others, and to the created order.
The divine-human covenants highlighted in this month’s readings offer a “two-way street” of rights, responsibilities, and relationships. Indeed, watch Jesus turn the tables when they are violated! God’s promises and future-oriented commitments surprise us. In Genesis 9, God says creation will never again be destroyed by God’s action. In Genesis 17, God pledges an everlasting involvement with, and blessing of, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants.
Over time, biblical covenants were replaced by the laws of feudal societies, kingdoms, and nation-states. Nonetheless, our fragmented, anxious times cry out for the justice, security, and compassion of covenantal living. From secular international treaties to church polity, we see the desire of peoples to have what a community bound by covenant provides.
Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Consider the magnitude of the announcement God makes to Noah: “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants....[N]ever again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:9-11).
We can only grasp the vastness of such an arrangement with imagination and the aid of metaphor. However, the culmination of the flood story offers a colorful and immediate sign; this covenant of safekeeping is sealed with a rainbow. Every rainbow becomes, for God and us, a reminder.
Peter references Noah and the floodwaters, writing that the water of Christian baptism is “prefigured” and “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). This sacred water flows to the Jordan, where we see Jesus baptized and the heavens open—not for a rainbow, but for the Spirit descending like a dove (Mark 1:9-10). This time a new covenant is sealed—again a saving act for all of creation—with these words: “[W]ith you I am well pleased.”
In Psalm 25, doing the right thing (keeping God’s covenant and decrees) means knowing God’s paths of truth, salvation, mercy, love, and goodness. The covenant of baptism saves us, “not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).
Acting free of creation-wide covenantal awareness today leads to situations such as what is happening in Yanacocha, Peru. There, a gold-mining company displaces 30 tons of earth for every ounce of gold it extracts. In 1995, another company spilled more than 790,000 gallons of cyanide-laced gold-mine waste into a tributary of the Essequibo River, Guyana’s main water source. In 2007, a third company will spend $1 billion to dig two mines, one of which will be in Ghana’s last remaining forest preserves.
Why? First, the price of gold is the highest it’s been in 17 years: $500 an ounce. Second, there is widespread amnesia of the covenants God has made with all of creation.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
In his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Jonathan Kozol writes that northern U.S. inner-city schools have again become “hyper-segregated.” The percentage of black students in predominantly white schools currently matches the low percentages of 1968. Kozol argues that segregating African-American students stifles their access to higher education and economic well-being.
These racist divisions fly in the face of this week’s readings, in which key covenants connect Abraham, Sarah, and God, and all generations to follow. Like the everlasting covenant with Noah, this covenant includes descendants across geography, race, and culture.
In this generative spiritual heritage, the “great congregation” responds to the God-initiated covenant with praise and vows, knowing the abundance of a unified humanity—where “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (Psalm 22:25-26). The covenant with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants sets the precedent for God taking action to organize society for justice and compassion. Holy covenant transforms.
The promises to Abraham surpass oaths and formal acts, writes Paul in Romans 4. They become real not “through law but through the righteousness of faith.” The promise rests on grace and is guaranteed to all descendants (Romans 4:13-16). This requirement of complete trust, and of losing one’s life to save it, necessitates the rebuke of Peter in Mark 8. We are fully connected to God and salvation history if we will but let go. Sarah trusts; Peter does not.
School segregation is alive and “well” in New York, Michigan, Illinois, and California—the most segregated states for black students, says a recent Civil Rights Project study. Kozol points to states such as Kentucky (with the most desegregated public schools in the nation) as places where inner-city students go to college in far greater numbers.
Exodus 20:1-7; Psalm 19; 2 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Time to re-read John 2:13-22. If it were a movie, the trailer would begin like this: “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables....‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’” he said (John 2:15-16).
Jesus leads a liturgical response to a world-reordering covenant known as the Ten Commandments. Having “no other gods” includes the Caesar shown on those coins. Remembering the Sabbath day to “keep it holy” suggests stopping the livestock sales in the temple. Bearing false witness, coveting, stealing, and making idols also defame the temple. Living out the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 20:1-7), Jesus took action.
Chipping the Ten Commandments into a marble plaque at a courthouse is the easy way out. The harder path engages the numerous ways the covenant challenges human law and order. Empires, both ancient and modern, are frightened by this sort of commitment to the way God reorders society. Loyalties shift. Greedy values are rejected. Coins roll.
In early biblical times, covenants presented from the dominant nation or person were called the “words.” The “word” of God also flows from this notion of the one in charge offering direction through a covenant. The “words” of our God are a threat to kings, Caesars, and presidents, for their authority comes from a distinct and unexpected source of power.
Divine covenants clarify life and sharpen ethics. Paul reminds the cosmopolitan, ethically wishy-washy culture of Corinth of the value of God’s promises, assuring that “every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Thousands of lives of those suffering with HIV/AIDS have been saved in the last few years because of expanded access to treatment in Africa and elsewhere. According to the World Health Organization, this means that while deaths from AIDS are still rising, the rate of increase has slowed. We have so far to go, yet our covenantal God brings health, wholeness, and fullness of life. Do we care enough to reverse the pandemic?
None of this week’s passages include a covenant or related commandments. Yet in the spirit of those life-giving and social order-redeeming covenants, let’s let the folks holding up the “John 3:16” signs at sporting events take a brief rest while we hold up “John 3:17”: “Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God saves lives. God saves souls. God saves peoples. God has not come in Christ to condemn, but to save. In Numbers, Moses is instructed by a Lord who wants people to live. In the psalm, God’s “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1). In Ephesians, God “loved us,” “made us alive,” and “raised us up” (Ephesians 2:4-6).
Christianity is sometimes twisted into a religion where God did “send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” In this thinking, AIDS, malaria, and poverty are all the plan of a condemning God. But we must lift up God’s great saving covenants again and again, where creation is restored, the nations are reconciled, and the lost are recovered. These covenants abound.
We grieve each of the 250,000 people who will die from AIDS this month. Women now make up half of the 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS. We are connected to all of these people in the covenantal framework our loving God has provided. According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). God gives us the covenantal commitment to live that life!