Feb 1, 2015 Luke 22:14-20’ Acts 2:41-47
There’s a line from a play entitled “The Rock” by T.S. Eliot that goes like this: “What life have you if you have not life together?” (repeat)
It reminded me of a sermon given by Sumner Blaha (what a name!), a retired member of a congregation I belonged to many years ago. Funny the messages that stick with you years later! He told us, “When you retire, don’t move to a place, no matter how appealing it may look, where you have no family or friends. You will need to be among people you know.” This advice rings in my ears whenever I talk with my friends about where we want to be when we retire.
A certain amount of solitude is important. Jesus demonstrated that as he would try to escape from the crowds to find some quiet time with God. But too much solitude, we find, can be detrimental to our health. We are hard wired for relationship. Jesus instructed us to not only love God, but to love our neighbors as well.
Sumner was lucky to have part of his family close by, along with the friendships of the retired firefighters he had worked alongside for many years. But equally important, he told us, was his church family. He was active in it in so many ways, including being moderator for a couple of years. Shortly after I joined the church he adopted me, calling himself my west coast dad. My parents lived in Iowa and he thought I needed another dad close by. What fond memories I have of that relationship.
Joining The Congregational Church of Northridge, UCC, after leaving Catholicism and organized religion, and going it alone in my 20’s, changed my life. As is often the case today, my biological family were scattered around the country. I think of how lonely my life would have been without the covenant I had made with that church - the support and meaning and richness it brought to my life. I came back to the church all those years ago to find community, and it was there I found a deeper relationship to God through my life in that community. I am standing here as a result of the covenant I made the day I joined that church.
Over a dozen friends I have today were made in that church. Our covenant remains even though we are scattered into different churches and communities today. Even across the country, that bond remains. “What life have you if you have not life together?”
Jesus knew that after he was gone, it was essential that the bond that had been established with his followers be continued if his message was to live on. They would need the love and support of each other.
The word “covenant” appears in the Hebrew scriptures 326 times. It’s the single most overriding theme. No wonder then, as he was about to leave them, Jesus established a new covenant with them, and a ritual that would be handed down from generation to generation, to remind us of that covenant. It’s the only time in the gospels that the word covenant is used. Each gospel writer tells the story in a slightly different way. I’m using the words of Luke: 22: 14-20
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’
Christians have lived out that covenant in different ways in the generations to follow. In The Acts of the Apostles, Luke chronicles the lives of those First Century Christians, those with the closest memories and stories of Jesus’ time on earth. Here is how he describes their covenantal life as part of the Body of Christ:
Acts 2: 41-47
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Once Constantine quit persecuting Christians and made Christianity the state religion, that covenant became less a way of life and more a set of beliefs, written down in the creeds by the church’s hierarchy. This is what you must believe in order to be a Christian, in order to be saved, they told their followers.
Debates have raged on ever since, pitting belief against acts. Which takes precedence over the other in the eyes of God? Both viewpoints are argued in the scriptures. But I am not going to go there today.
What I want us to think about is this: what does it mean to be in covenant here at the Eliot Church today? We do many of the things mentioned in this passage from Acts. The United Church of Christ is a covenantal church. It’s a theme written into its founding documents. We are in covenant with other churches in the UCC, through our associations, our conferences and our denomination. This really hit home yesterday when Robert, Cathleen and I participated in a webinar with several other churches from our conference as part of the Small Church Initiative, sharing some of our activities and challenges.
At the same time each of our churches are autonomous. We have no creeds, only a non-binding Statement of Faith. Each of us has the freedom to choose what we believe and how we practice our faith. And yet, there needs to be something that binds us together and holds us accountable to each other and God.
That cord that binds us is expressed in the covenant we make when we are baptized, and confirmed, and when we join the church as members. All of us here who are members, joined at different times, so the statements we agreed to may vary slightly, but the underlying agreements are similar.
As we move into this new year of church planning and activities, and our stewardship campaign, I think it’s valuable to take a moment to examine how each of us is living out our covenant with each other and with God. So, using the four statements I use when covenanting with new members, I’m going to lead you through a brief reflection. It’s easiest to do this with your eyes closed, if you’re comfortable doing so. At its conclusion I will give you a few moments to write something that came up for you on the post it inserted into your bulletin.
Make yourselves comfortable and close your eyes if you wish. The first thing I ask is for you to journey with others on a spiritual path, seeking a profound relationship with God and a deeper understanding of how your life is a reflection of the Creator’s love for Creation?
How is this happening in your life today? (moment of silence)
Second, I ask you to covenant with this community in a spirit of tolerance and respect, allowing each person to journey and articulate that journey in their own way, being open to the workings of the Holy Spirit within you and within your sisters and brothers in Christ.
In what ways are you being tolerant and respectful of others who hold differences of opinion, or different ways of being on this journey? How do you open yourself to the Holy Spirit to guide you? (moment of silence)
Third I ask you to find ways to share yourself as an offering to God through the life of this church, giving of your time, your talents and your treasures as often and as freely as you can find ways to do so?
In what ways have you been sharing your time, talents and treasures?
(moment of silence)
Fourth, I ask you to promise each other your continuing friendship and prayers as you share the hopes and labors of the Church, and by the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to grow together in God’s knowledge and love and truly be witnesses to the power of God in the healing of the world.
Are you growing in meaningful relationships with others in the church? Are you praying for others? Are you finding ways to grow in your faith. How are you contributing to the healing of the world? (moment of silence)
You may now spend a few moments jotting down something that came up for you. As you leave today I invite you to post them on the bulletin board in the hallway that says “Living in Covenant.” That way we’ll be able to see what we’ve come up with. You don’t need to sign them.
(moment of silence)
(sing) Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The sharing of a common life is like to that above.
“What life have you if you have not life together?”