New Year’s resolutions come and go, but for Christians – especially Reformed Christians – the notion of covenant is our most enduring symbol, and it’s one worth pondering as we begin a new year.
John Wesley encouraged the practice of covenant renewal; to this day our United Methodist friends celebrate a meaningful covenant renewal service on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, publicly reaffirming their commitment to God. Presbyterians would do well to do the same, for the notion of “covenant” is an alien one for most modern folk, who tend to prefer limited commitments rather than deep and binding engagements. The notion of “covenant” summons us to clarify our ultimate allegiance and to put away idolatry, for in biblical perspective, as creatures we are always subject to some lordship (if not to divine lordship, then to other, unworthy lordships) — or other “principalities and powers,” as the Apostle Paul put it. Bob Dylan captured this dynamic succinctly in a classic song: “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
We are always subject to the lure of other principalities and powers — of “devils” at loose in our world with power to diminish and disfigure our lives. In our current historical moment, devils of racism, nationalism, xenophobia and greed have been all too visibly evident, wreaking their deforming havoc on human hearts and the whole creation. We’re gonna have to serve somebody, so which will it be? God’s life-giving covenant or forces that warp our common life?
The arrival of 2021, a new year, is an opportune time to renew our covenant commitments, to put away deforming idolatries and publicly declare our ultimate allegiance. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Brief Statement of Faith offers a powerful affirmation we could make personally and collectively: “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”
Renewal of covenant relationship with God also entails renewal of covenant relationship with others — particularly vulnerable others whose lives have been most disfigured by the demonic on the loose in our midst. The deep relationality at the heart of the universe to which the divine covenant bears witness finds pointed expression in theologian Brian Bantum’s important book, “The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World.” He writes: “In our deluded sense of independence God reminds us of our essential relationality. In our exile or imprisonment God comes near. In the midst of our violation of others’ bodies, bodies made in the image of God, God becomes like us, makes bodied life a part of God’s own life.” Bantum’s observation directs attention to the embodied vulnerability of others, whose suffering compels us to relationality, attention and action — not out of charity or patronage, but because we recognize our own vulnerability in theirs, our own fears in theirs, our common experience of alienation and the violence in us all. In their crucifixions, we see our own — and covenant commitments draw us to such intersections as God’s partners in the holy work of bringing life out of death. At such junctures, God is binding us together in covenant community, so that justice, reconciliation and reparation can emerge from the broken places in all our lives.
May it be so in this new year.