Lections: Jeremiah: 31: 31-34; Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-12; Matthew 5: 1-12
May I speak in the name of God, who covenants with his people. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, dear people of God of St George’s Cathedral – it is good to be with you once again, this Dedication Sunday. As well as concluding our month of reflections on Stewardship of all the gifts God gives us, we also celebrate the feast of All Saints – rejoicing that God calls each one of us to be his child, to live in covenant love with him.
Covenant is the most wonderful picture of God’s commitment to his creation, and to humanity, made in God’s image. The Bible has a great number of covenants. Some are promises between individuals, like Jacob and his father-in-law Laban (Gen 31:44) or David and Jonathan (1 Sam 23:18). Some covenants are mutually binding treaties between kings and nations, as between Abraham and King Abimelech (Gen 21:27).
Marriage, too, is of course a covenant. You have perhaps heard the joke about the rector who took the vows of marriage so seriously that he had 16 wives – for/four better, for worse, for richer, for poorer … Of course, these promises indicate our commitment that, no matter what happens to us, no matter what life brings our way, we will do our best to stay together and strive to stick it out ‘till death us do part’.
But human covenanting is just a reflection of the promises that God makes to us. God makes an everlasting covenant with individuals, such as Abram – promising that he will have numerous descendants (Gen 17) – and in response, Abram becomes Abraham and is circumcised – the sign that he too is party to God’s covenant. God also makes covenants with peoples, as he does through Moses at Sinai, with the Hebrew nation – a covenant to which he returns, again and again, even though ancient Israel failed to uphold their side of the covenant.
And because of such failings, God promises a New Covenant – the covenant of which we heard in our first lesson, from the prophet Jeremiah; the new covenant that is fulfilled by Jesus, who speaks at the Last Supper of it being made in his own body and blood, as he institutes the Eucharist. I will come onto this New Covenant in a moment.
But first I want to go back to the earliest, and broadest, of God’s covenant – the covenant he makes with Noah, and with all of creation, after the great flood. Most of you know the story of Noah: God regrets he ever created wicked and degenerate humankind – with the exception of faithful Noah. God tells Noah to make an ark, a great boat, in which Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal take refuge. A flood then destroys all other living things. After the flood subsides, God warns Noah and his sons not to shed human life – for humanity bears the image of God – and God adds, ‘I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendents, and with every living creature … never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth … and this is the sign of my covenant: the rainbow.’
This is a covenant for all of humanity, and for all of creation. From this wonderful story, we can learn three foundational, and everlasting, principles. If you read my sermons and speeches, you will find that these three principles keep on recurring.
First, it is a covenant about the sanctity of human life. Second, it is about the integrity of the created world, for God promises he will never again destroy his creation. And third, it is about the dignity of difference, symbolised by the rainbow. These three principles are the bedrock of the life for which God created us – to live in harmony with one another, and with creation.
People sometimes ask why the church so often supports human rights and promotes good environmental policies. Well, the answer lies there – right near the beginning of the Book of Genesis in the story of Noah and the flood – among the very first dealings of God with humanity. So when you see me on the television, or hear me on the radio, calling for proper housing for everyone, or decent toilets and sanitation; or when (as in this month’s Good Hope) you see pictures of me in my Wellington boots, cleaning up polluted vleis, you can know it is because I read my Bible! The church is not just being sucked in by modern liberal political movements – as some people claim. No, we know that God created humanity in his image, so we might ‘bear fruit’ as it says in Genesis 1 – we should all flourish. We should do so treating every life as sacred; honouring every human person no matter how different, and indeed, seeing our diversity as a gift that enriches us; and we should care for our planet, the beautiful home that God has so generously given to us.
This generosity of God, dear friends, this overwhelming generosity, points us to a very important aspect of covenant. For a covenant is not a contract. In contracts, parties give legal undertakings to effect transactions for reciprocal benefit. In covenants, people bind themselves together, in pledges of faithfulness and loyalty, to promote mutual well-being. The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain spoke about Covenants at the Lambeth Conference, two years ago, and his powerful words still remain with me.
He summed up the differences between covenant and contract in four succinct ways: contracts concern our interests, while covenants concern our identities; contracts deal in transactions, while covenants deal in relationships; contracts benefit, while covenants transform; contracts are about competition – if I win, you lose; while covenants are about cooperation – if I win, you also win. In other words, contracts are dead words on pieces of paper – either party can do the minimum necessary, and absolutely nothing more is required, or expected. But when you come to covenants, you find these are living things – designed for relationships that grow and flourish.
And it is a living, growing, flourishing relationship with us, that God wants – a relationship that is fuelled by inexhaustible love, and by limitless generosity. This is what we find fulfilled in God’s New Covenant. As the prophet Jeremiah says, it is a covenant of the heart. Listen to his beautiful words: The Lord says ‘I shall be your God and you shall be my people.’
This is the definition of what it is to be a saint. I know that sometimes we think of the saints as those who are particularly holy, or who have overcome some particular trial in their faith. But if you read St Paul’s letters carefully, you will find, in the original Greek text, that he writes to the saints in Rome, he writes to the saints in Corinth, he writes to the saints in Philippi, and so forth. So, in other words, St Paul says that all you need to be a saint is to belong to God, to belong to his Church!
This is what we celebrate today. He is our God, and we are his people, and therefore we can rightly speak of ‘all the saints of St George’s Cathedral’! We are the ones who have responded to God’s offer of overflowing love – love shown to us in Jesus Christ. The greatest verses at the heart of the gospel remind us of the centrality of love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16). Yes, we, the Saints of St George’s Cathedral, dare to believe in his Son – our Lord and Saviour. As Jesus also said ‘No one has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15:13). And Jesus indeed laid down his life, saying ‘this is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins’. We shall hear those words again in a short while – as we celebrate the Eucharist, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet where all the saints, all of us, shall be honoured guests!
So, therefore, my question to you this morning is this: what, then, is our response to the limitless generosity of God’s love for us – love that was greater than life itself? Well, you can guess – this is where our stewardship comes in. Our response comes in the shape of our time, our talents, our money – freely given back to God, just as he has freely given to us. And for us too, the heart of the matter should not be about contract, it should be about covenant. For if we have a mindset of contract, we will find that Church giving is a very deadening thing – following the old law of a tithe, and not a cent more. But if we give from a covenant mindset, we will be set free to give with the same love and generosity that knows no bounds. Yes, of course I encourage you to give 10%! But my prayers is that when you give, you will give sacrificially; and that this will prompt you to give with covenant generosity wherever a particular need arises, to which God’s love propels you to respond.
Only in the freedom of the covenant can we find the way to live a life of blessing – to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others, we heard in our Gospel reading. So let us live in response to God’s love for us – let us be his saints – let us be his covenant people, sharing life with others as freely as he shared his with us. May it be so. Amen