Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A New Covenant

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Greg Johnston at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, March 22, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Jeremiah the Prophet.
The Bible, as we have it, is printed as one book, divided into two halves: what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament (in English) contains 569,267 words—I hope you had fun over Spring Break while I was counting them all. This is the first three-quarters of the volume. The New Testament is 176,417 words: the last quarter.

And yet of our four weekly readings, two are from the New Testament; one is a little snippet of a psalm, cycling through about 5% of the Bible; and only one is from the remaining 70% of the text, the Old Testament, the only Bible that Jesus or Mary or Paul, Matthew or Mark or Luke or John ever knew. And even then, our lectionary doesn’t always follow through. Today’s first reading is the second-to-last reading we’ll hear from the Old Testament (not counting the psalms) this year—at least at our Sunday evening Chaplaincy services. Next week we have one more, and then during the season of Easter we switch over to the Acts of the Apostles for the first reading, and then we leave for the summer.

So it seems appropriate this week to preach on our reading from the Hebrew Bible. (Christians call it the Old Testament, Jews call it the Tanakh, I’ll mostly call it the Hebrew Bible—they all mean more or less the same thing.)

This passage from Jeremiah is in the midst of a series of readings from the Hebrew Bible that we’ve had throughout Lent. Rather than reading through a single book, we’ve had themed readings in two sets.

The first have been covenant stories, stories about God’s promises to humanity. On the first Sunday in Lent we heard the story of God promising Noah never again to destroy all life with a flood, and setting the rainbow in the sky when it rains to remind himself to stop the rain. This shows God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins. It’s God’s covenant with all living people through Noah and his family. The next Sunday we heard the story of Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah. For Paul, Abraham is the central example of faith. He faithfully answers God’s call in response to God’s promise of children, even though he is so old he’s nearly dead and his wife Sarah has been unable to bear a child. He’s also the first one to enter into the covenant through circumcision, which would become a defining Jewish act later. Abraham narrows the story down from Noah to be God’s covenant with all monotheistic people; so we hear Judaism, Christianity, and Islam referred to as the “Abrahamic faiths.” The next week we heard the Ten Commandments, the central precepts of the Law, which would become—again, for Paul—the defining characteristic of God’s covenant with the Israelites, and later the Jewish people. These covenant stories tell us about God: God is merciful and forgives sins, God is faithful and values faithfulness, and God is ethical and calls us to be ethical.

Then the readings flip over to a second set, readings that are supposed to point us toward Christ. I’ll recap last week’s reading in case you skipped church during Spring Break. It’s sort of a bizarre story. The Israelites are wandering in the desert with Moses. The people complain about the food—they’ve been eating in the dining hall for too long—so God, in a not-very-proportionate response, sends a plague of poisonous snakes. The people repent, so Moses prays that they be saved. God agrees. Okay: now God tells Moses to make a snake, and put it on a pole, and raise it up in the air; when people are bitten, they’ll look at it and live. Here’s how the Gospel of John explains: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the cross], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).

So last week points us toward the cross. Then you’ve got this week’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, promising a new covenant; and then next week, on Palm Sunday, a reading from Isaiah that’s in the first person, that almost demands, in the context of Palm Sunday, that you put Isaiah’s words into Jesus’ mouth:
“I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
And then you have this week’s reading from Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord”; so this is a future time from Jeremiah’s perspective, days which have not come yet but surely will. Jeremiah’s writing right around the destruction of the last Israelite kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the traumatic period of the Babylonian exile. This is a promise for some sort of future restoration of the fortunes of these people, who have had their lives upturned. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:31–32). And how will it be different? “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me… for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34). So God will make a new covenant; the law will no longer be an external thing we have to learn, but an internal thing, part of our inmost being; and God will forgive our sins.

This sounds like the God we’ve been hearing about throughout Lent, right? God is faithful and keeps her side of the covenant; God is ethical and teaches ethics; God is merciful and forgives sins. But what is this new covenant?

As Christians, of course, we answer: the new covenant is the one God makes with us in Jesus Christ. I think the Old Testament readings from the last few weeks through Easter guide us toward a certain idea of what this means. This new covenant looks a lot like the Christian faith we hear about in a certain way of reading Paul, Augustine, or Luther: a law of the spirit, rather than a law of the flesh or a law written in a book; personal knowledge of God; and the forgiveness of sins.

Taken as a whole, the story goes something like this: God makes covenants with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. Although the people repeatedly fall down on their half of the covenant, God keeps the promises, gives warning after warning through the prophets, and finally fulfills all those promises in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is our half of the new covenant; forgiveness of our sins is God’s half.

I think we can take this reading of Jeremiah too far, and many Christians have. Augustine, for example, goes on to equate the new covenant not only with Jesus, the Christ, but with Christianity, with the Christian New Testament: “Nowhere,” he writes, “or hardly anywhere, except in this passage of the prophet, do we find in the Old Testament Scriptures any mention so made of the New Testament as to indicate it by its name. It is no doubt often referred to and foretold as about to be given, but not so plainly as to have its name mentioned” (On the Spirit and the Letter 33). In other words, according to Augustine, in this passage Jeremiah explicitly names the New Testament.

I think I must have dozed off during that part of the reading. Well are some interesting translation questions here. But basically, Augustine is reading a text of Jeremiah that he understands to say, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will will to the house of Israel and the house of Judah a New Testament” (Jeremiah 31:31). Even though Jeremiah is living and writing six or seven centuries before any piece of the New Testament is written, and maybe nine or ten centuries before it will be called the “New Testament,” the Holy Spirit is somehow guiding his hand to write those words, “the New Testament,” as a promise to later Christians and an argument to persuade later Jews. All throughout the Old Testament, clues are hidden about its replacement, the New Testament that tells us about Christ.

I think there’s a danger if we take the reading this far. It’s what we call “supercessionist.” Supercessionism is the idea that the new covenant in Christ has replaced or “superceded” the old covenant of the Law given to Moses, and so Christians have replaced the Israelites—and their Jewish descendants today—as God’s chosen people. (This is why the name “Old Testament” can be offensive to Jews). Incidentally, the New Testament book of Hebrews, from which we read today, is one of the classic examples of supercessionism; commenting on this passage from Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews writes, “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13). As a sort of understated note from the Jewish Annotated New Testament puts it, “Such language helped foster the view that Judaism was an inferior religion, a temporary guide prior to Christ.”  Similarly, in John’s Gospel, you see frequent, charged references to “the Jews” as if they’re somehow a separate group from Jesus (a Jew) and his band of Jewish followers. Particularly during readings of John’s Gospel on Good Friday during the Middle Ages, this has historically led to huge amounts of violence by Christians against Jews.

In a certain way, you can follow the logic. If in Jesus Christ, God has offered a new covenant, replacing the old one, then Jews have rejected a covenant with God. In the Old Testament, in their own Tanakh, when the Israelites reject a covenant with God, God punishes them—either supernaturally or through human means. So the whole history of Christian violence against Jews can be (and has been) explained away as the victims’ collective fault for rejecting God’s new covenant with them.

The point is not that every Christian who believes the supercessionist view is an anti-Semite; but that pretty much every Christian anti-Semite needs to believe something like that supercessionist view. In this season of Lent, we are called to repent not only for our own individual sins, but for our collective sinfulness; and one of the great sins of the Christian Church has been the violence it has inflicted or accepted in the name of God.

So how do we deal with this in a religiously pluralistic society like ours? How do we affirm our Christian faith without accusing our Jewish brothers and sisters of rejecting the covenant God has offered them?
Well of course, if you don’t believe that the covenant in Christ has replaced God’s covenant with the Jewish people, on the other hand, then you don’t believe that the Jews have abandoned that covenant, and so there’s no reason to try to get Jews to convert to Christianity, violently or otherwise. If you believe, for example, that God has extended this covenant to all people, without turning away from the covenant with the Jewish people through the law of Moses—God, after all, we’re reminded in the story of Abraham, is a faithful God, who keeps his promises—you have no theological basis for anti-Semitism. But then what about this new covenant in Christ? I think Jeremiah’s promise actually supports this idea.

There are some plot holes in Augustine’s version of this story. Let’s take a look back at Jeremiah. Do we still teach one another? If you say “no,” I can just sit down. Of course we do! Do we still say to one another, “Know the Lord”? Sure! Do we all know the Lord, from the least to the greatest? No… Is the law—here the word is torah, law or teaching—is God’s Torah written on our hearts, or is it written in a book? We Christians, as much as Jews, rely on a book to understand God’s teaching. Our lives today do not look like the world of the new covenant Jeremiah is promising.
How then can we understand what this new covenant means? I think the very “flaws” I just pointed out are the key.  The world we live in today does not look like the world that God describes to Jeremiah. (Interestingly enough, the world today is also not the one the author of Hebrews predicted, where the obsolete and old Jewish covenant has passed away.) God’s promise to Jeremiah is not completely fulfilled for us in the earthly life of Jesus, or even in his death and resurrection.

I think in particular the notion of a covenant “with the House of Israel and the House of Judah” gives us a clue. The House of Israel is the Ten Lost Tribes, whose kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and who were exiled and lost. The promise of the descendants of the lost tribes being returned, being gathered together from all over the world, to make a new covenant with God, is an eschatological promise, a promise about the end. There is some future time in which the world will be this way; not necessarily a time we can identify as July 3rd, 2315, but an eternal time outside our understanding. Just as the Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey long before they arrived there, we too have been promised a new world brimming with God’s beautiful possibilities; and we cling to the vision of that world, even as wander in the desert.

Most of us are students. All of us have been students, at one time or another. And all of us are, in fact, students still, students of that God who is writing her teaching, her Torah, on our hearts. Our God—the God of Jews and Christians alike—is like that outstanding teacher we could all name. The one who teaches us facts, knowledge, sure; but who, even more importantly, inspires us to care about what we’re learning, draws us out of our focus on grades or college admissions or internships, and shapes the path we take in the future.

The Torah—the first five books of our Bible—if you think about it, is so much more than a series of laws, or even teaching. It is a vivid set of stories, stories that range from poetic hymns of creation and covenant, to funny fables of trickery and betrayal; stories shared for centuries around campfires and among families, repeated over and over again and finally, painstakingly edited together and written down, the holy texts of a people faithful to God through many trials and setbacks, just as God was faithful to them. In and through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God is writing that story on our hearts, writing us, indeed, into that story; so that just as he is the God of the Jews slowly writing the Torah on their hearts in careful study, so too he might be the God of all the nations. Not cutting off the covenant created in Moses with the Jewish people, but restoring and renewing the covenant through Noah with all people, until that day when we shall all know him, from the least to the greatest, Jews and Gentiles alike, the chosen people of God and those who have afflicted them for so long.

“For I will forgive their iniquity,” says the Lord, “and remember their sin no more.”


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