Embracing the New Covenant in Community

There is a story told by old Clarence Jordan, founder of the Koinonia Farms Christian community in Americus, GA and birthplace of Habitat for Humanity, about the time he was invited to preach at a new, large, suburban Atlanta congregation. The proud pastor took Jordan on a tour pointing out the majestic, air-conditioned state-of-the art Sanctuary, the costly meditation fountain and reflecting pool, the expensive sound system with its resources for the hearing impaired and all the rest. As the tour ended, Jordan’s host took him outside and pointed to a stunning 20 foot stainless steel cross atop the church saying: “Isn’t that beautiful? Cost us over $20,000.” To which Jordan replied, “You know there used to be a time when a Christian could get one of those for free.”

My friends, it is easy for a local church or its minister to get out of focus: If you’ve been following the political campaigns this week you’ll have seen a pastor get out of focus and let his ego and tongue get the best of him at the National Press Corp in Washington, D.C. on Monday. If you’ve paid attention to the local news you’ll also know that our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers must close six of their local churches because there are neither the priests nor the money to keep them going.

And in her very insightful book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass chronicles what has happened throughout the United States to churches very much like our own stating that over time many forgot that the church is not a place where the congregation congregates and the minister ministers. No, the church is the place where both beams of the Cross are put into practice: the vertical connecting the individual with God in a quest for grace and inner strength; and the horizontal uniting each person with the other in a community we call the Body of Christ.

Bass writes that over time congregations like our own have often forgotten the cross so that “by the middle of the twentieth century,” she writes, “we forgot how to be both a gathering of the saints and a hospital for sinners. Instead… we became a kind of Christian version of the Rotary Club, understanding the church as a religious place for social acceptability and business connections.” She continues: In a very real way, (we) retained the ideal of comprehensiveness while jettisoning the idea that people are spiritually sick and need healing. Everyone was welcome in our churches, of course, but there were no spiritual demands other than to conform to some sort of generalized Protestant morality. As a result, many congregations forgot the practices that originally formed their traditions, making participation in these churches optional at best and irrelevant at worst.

So much so, she concludes, that “by the time I was born in 1959, church was an extension of post-war middle class aspirations, run by bureau-cracies in the faith business.” Ouch! Gone was the ideal of the church as a counter cultural community grounded in the Cross – both a hospital for sinners and a community for saints – all striving together to experience and express the goodness of God’s love in our flesh.

So… we have some work to do, Christian friends – and part of that work requires that we reclaim the horizontal connection given to us in Christ’s cross. I’ve told you before that one of the issues facing us has to do with folk believing that Sunday morning worship is all about “me and God” “I want quiet time for meditation,” some say while others tell me. “Church should be a time for me to get right with God – a time of quiet, gentle beauty, heavenly music and helpful, gentle prayers.” Listen: I believe in meditation and quiet time, I love beauty and sweet, sacred music and I affirm the importance of authentic personal prayer. But church – ecclesia – is about the assembly – the community – the body of Christ made flesh among us.

Church isn’t about me and Jesus – or better said – it is about me and Jesus only now Jesus looks like you and you and you and all of us all together. Remember how the Bible put it? The Word of God – the Idea and Ideal of God – became flesh and blood in Christ Jesus and moved into our neighborhood… John the Baptist pointed him out saying, “This is the One I told you about…!” And now we all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift. We got the basics from Moses and then God shared this exuberant giving and receiving – this endless knowing and under-standing in community – through Jesus the Messiah. (The Message, John 1)

Did you hear that? Did you grasp its truth – that God’s way for us who follow Jesus Christ is grounded in flesh and blood – the Word made flesh? That’s why we’ve changed the way we do communion, you know? It is not some preacher ego trip about preferences; it’s about helping us reclaim the horizontal connection of the Cross at the heart of our life together.

The old “me and Jesus” way of being the church is so antiseptic and privatized that it is killing congregations all across America. But what is reviving and renewing churches just like ours is living into the time tested practices of making God’s word flesh among us. That’s why I’ve asked you to come up to the table in clusters – or “clumps” as some have said – where you have to look at one another in the eye and serve one another real bread and wine. It has to do with actually seeing that you are a part of the body of Christ – not a solitary pilgrim waiting upon the Lord – but a real living, breathing, hurting, beautiful, sinful and saintly member of the Body of Christ. And that wigs some people out: it doesn’t look pretty – or ordered – and God knows it doesn’t give us time to be quiet and alone in the presence of Jesus.

But such is the challenge that has always confronted the company of the committed: to live our faith in such a way that it becomes flesh and blood – incarnational as the theologians like to say – always makes some people uncomfortable because it is messy – human – and leads to the Cross. What does Jesus say to the people who stand before him – the wounded, the lonely, the sinners, the arrogant, the forgotten, the abused, the discarded and oppressed – what does he tell them?

Go sit by yourself in the beauty of our Sanctuary and listen to some pretty music? Go get yourself right with God in private? No – if you have your Bibles you can turn to the key passage in Matthew 11: 28 – and I will read it to you out loud. He says: Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Get away with me and you will recover your life. I will show you how to take a real rest if you walk with me and work with me and watch how I do it. You will learn the unforced rhythms of grace because I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you will learn to live freely and lightly.

Can I get an “Amen” from the church? To follow the way of Jesus is to be connected – really connected – with one another so that we bear one another’s burdens and celebrate one another’s joys. In fact, being connected in our tradition is how we see God and meet God and find our way into healing and wholeness. Let’s do some Bible study: John’s gospel begins with that great poem about incarnational living: in the beginning.

What do those words remind you of in scripture? Genesis, right? That’s not an accident, beloved, John seeks to evoke the heart of the Old Testament so that we learn something important about living the Jesus life. First, he wants us to know that since before there was time, the very idea of Christ was with God and was in God.

Second, John wants us to understand that the Word – which is a poetic way of talking about the way God communicates most clearly with humanity – is always creative and compassionate. You see, in tradition, the word always refers to God’s creation of life. Psalm 33 tells us: God’s Word is solid to the core; everything God makes is sound inside and out. God loves it when everything fits, when his world is in plumb-line true because the earth is drenched in God’s affectionate satisfaction. Remember that the skies were made by God’s command; he breathed the word and the stars popped out. He scooped the Sea into his jug and put the Ocean into his keg.

The word has to do with the creation of life, or, it speaks to us of the way God communicates with humanity through the holy prophets. Jeremiah 1 tells us: The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Same is true for all the prophets – take Ezekiel 1: the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar the hand of the Lord was on him here. Are you still with me?

Well, the point John is trying to make is that there came a time when this creative and prophetic word of the Lord became… flesh – literally John tells us that the essence of God took up residence among us and pitched his tent right next to ours – in order to bring light – that is enlightenment and hope – into the darkness. And light in our Jewish roots is always a messianic event. Isaiah 9:2 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light and those who have lived in a land of deep darkness on them a light has shined… for the Lord our God will increase their joy. Isaiah 60: 1-3: Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth… but the Lord will arise upon you… and nations shall come to your light.

Now all of this is background – important to grasp but prelude – because what John says next is crucial. John observes that one expression of God’s light came into the world through Moses; this is a reference to the Exodus, the 10 Commandments and the totality of the Law and the Prophets in Judaism – in Israel the light of the world came to the people through Torah. But he doesn’t stop here and I ask you to pay careful attention:

John goes on to say that the way of Judaism is one loving and powerful expression of God’s light, but it is not the only way for grace and inner truth – charis – have come to us through Jesus. That is, there is another way light has entered creation – Jesus – who has not abrogated the Old Covenant nor replaced it – he has offered another way. Another way first prophesied by Jeremiah back in the 7th century BCE. And this expression of God’s light – this spirituality grounded not in Torah but in grace and inner truth offers the world a New Covenant. Jeremiah tells us that:

The time is coming when I, the Lord your God, will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part… no this is a brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them—write Torah on their hearts – so that I will their God and they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. And I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!


The loving word of God’s light, Jeremiah says, will be carved and cut into the hearts of those who follow this New Covenant – his words remind us of the words of the First Covenant carved into the stone on Mt. Sinai and given to Moses – and let’s be honest: our hearts are no less hard than those old stone tablets. Are you still with me? Ok, because what the prophet Jeremiah saw in a mystical vision came to pass when God’s word became flesh and blood in Jesus.

And we who walk in this covenant – a covenant grounded in the forgiveness and grace made flesh in Jesus Christ – have been called to stay in focus through building up our community. The Body of Christ, you see, our horizontal connection in the Cross is how Jesus taught us mature in the way of his compassion, creativity and commitment. Do you recall what Jesus told those who gathered around the Passover table with him? The gospel of Matthew puts it this way: As they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to his friends saying: “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he took a cup and after he had given thanks to the Lord he shared it with his friends saying: “Drink this all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many… for the forgiveness of sins.”

There are different ways to walk in the light, beloved; there are different paths into God’s compassion and creativity. Our spiritual cousins in Judaism celebrate one – Torah – and we give thanks to God for how it brings blessing and healing to creation. At the same time, let us be clear that we, too, have a path to walk – making the word of forgiveness and grace flesh within and among us – and it can’t happen unless the horizontal connections between us in the Cross are strong.

Let’s sing together our affirmation of the New Covenant made flesh in Jesus:

Be known to us in breaking bread, but do not then depart;
Savior, abide with us and spread thy table in our heart.
There sup with us in love divine; they body and thy blood,
That living bread, that heavenly wine be our immortal food
.

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