This year during Lent we are in the season of covenants, in the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. Last week we heard about the covenant that God made with Noah: that God would never again destroy the entire earth by flood; a covenant of care for the flourishing of all humanity and all creation. And just as a reminder, covenants in the Bible are binding agreements in which both parties have responsibilities and rights, and usually carry some sign, symbol, or tangible reminder.
Today’s passage is about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah – a very brief version of the much fuller story. Abram, you may remember, first heard the call of God in Chaldea, a part of Mesopotamia which became the Babylonian Empire, which we know today as Iraq. And Abram and his wife Sarai pulled up stakes, left their home to go to a place which God would show them (they knew not where), and make them the founders of a large and abundant family (as many as the stars in the sky), through whom God would bless the rest of the world. Pretty incredible promises – in both senses of the word – especially because Abram and Sarai had so far not been able to have any children together. So if this family of abundant generations was God’s part of the promise, what was Abram’s? It was faith – to have faith, to exercise faith, to trust that God was the center and focus of his life, his decision-making, his purpose. And the sign of this covenant, which the lectionary delicately skips over, is circumcision. Talk about something being etched into your very being! God also changed Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah – another mark of their life-changing encounter with God. If they would walk by faith with God, God would give them a family full of nations and kings, as we know today: Jews, Christians, and Muslims – all descendants, spiritual and actual, of Abraham and Sarah.
God’s covenant was for a world-wide family whose hallmark was faith, trust in God – especially trust for the things we cannot yet see or be sure of. And the mission of that big family was to be a vehicle of God’s blessing to the rest of the world. It’s a responsibility, a role, a job, a ministry to be God’s agents of blessing. These covenants that God made with God’s People in ancient times, in the Old Testament, are still in force today. God has not backed off of them. But they look different now; in many ways their true depth and meaning has been opened and revealed over the years and the centuries.
And so part of what happened in Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection is that he opened the way for Gentiles, for those outside the Jewish community, to be grafted onto Abraham and Sarah’s family tree. By faith – just as Abraham and Sarah had faith and trust in God. When we put our faith in Jesus, when we trust him with our lives, then we know that we are part of that world-wide family that is rooted and grounded in God. And the sign for us is no longer circumcision, but baptism. Our baptism ratifies our faith and seals us by the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the sign that we have been joined to Christ, that we belong to the big family that God intended from the start and promised to Abraham and Sarah through faith. And in our Prayer Book we use the language of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles’ Creed – that ancient statement of faith used at baptism – in question and answer form, followed by the five promises of Christian living and practice:
- To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.
- To persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
- To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
- To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
- To strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
And we need to hang on to, and be rooted in, and engage in these baptismal practices, these markers of faith and spiritual family because the challenges of following Jesus and living as a Christian can sometimes seem daunting. It is both hard work, and we meet with plenty of resistance – both in our society and in ourselves.
We have a very clear example of this resistance in the Gospel reading. In the several verses before this, Peter has just gotten finished acclaiming Jesus as Messiah; Jesus’ identity has finally dawned on him and he has blurted it out, and Jesus commends him for it. So far, so good. Jesus then goes on to teach the disciples about his coming suffering, and rejection, and betrayal and death – and Peter is horrified: God forbid! Peter could not possibly imagine that the Messiah, God’s Anointed, the One whom he expected to be king and to deliver Israel from its oppressors, could meet such a fate. That did not match up with Peter’s expectations; it did not follow the script Peter was hoping for.
So Jesus had to speak harshly to Peter, rebuke him, essentially say “Snap out of it!” Peter needed to learn to see Jesus, and his ministry, and their whole project from God’s perspective, not from a human perspective. And we are just like Peter, all of us. Because, left to our own devices, we want to take the soft way, the easy way, the path of least resistance, the story that has the straight road to the happy ending. But that is not the way faith works, it’s not the way following Jesus works, it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. Jesus tells the disciples and us: What will it profit a person to gain the whole world and yet forfeit their life? If you really want to follow me, you’ve got to be prepared to do the hard stuff, to take up your cross, to tell the truth about life, to put your own desires and ego aside.
We will meet resistance when we follow Jesus – out in the world, and in our own hearts, sometimes in our families, and even in our church. That doesn’t mean everything will be hard, or a struggle, or a life and death issue. There is plenty of joy, and glory, and exaltation in being a Christian, but there is no short-cut through the hard stuff; we can’t leap-frog over it, much as we would like to. And while we are in those hard places we need to remember that we are not alone. God is with us, accompanying us, preparing the way before us, waiting for us to catch up, to notice, to remember that our covenant with God places requirements on us: faith, trust, staying connected to Abraham and Sarah’s family of faith, living the practices that we promised at our baptism: We will, with God’s help.
And when we remember our covenant with God, when we walk through the hard stuff, take up our cross, we will be changed, and we will know the power of God’s presence and love – for the long haul.
Let us pray.
Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
take up your cross with willing heart,
and humbly follow after me.
Take up your cross; let not its weight
fill your weak spirit with alarm;
Christ's strength shall bear your spirit up
and brace your heart and nerve your arm. Amen.
~ Hymn 675
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday in Lent
February 25, 2018