This Covenant of All Flesh

This Covenant of All Flesh
Photo by Felipe Giacometti / Unsplash

As we begin our Lenten discipline and preparation in earnest, we are met today with the big ideas of covenant, membership, forgetting, and remembering. What does it mean to be part of a covenant? What happens when we don’t hold up our end of that promise? What to do when we forget who we really are? Can we remember ourselves?

A covenant is, fundamentally, an agreement and promises about the nature of a relationship. It’s similar to a contract where all parties have responsibilities to and expectations of one another. However, unlike the sterile legalism of a contract, a covenant feels somehow deeper. It’s a solemn kind of agreement that fundamentally feels wrong to let down or break. There’s a deeply personal investment in a covenant. Covenants are the stuff of marriages and family ties; contracts are about the price of sheep and the terms and conditions of Apple Music that none of us have read.

We Christians have a covenant with God—and the rest of creation, but more on that later—not by happenstance, but by choice. We have, each of us, chosen at some point to be Christians. We were not born into the faith, but entered into this particular covenant of our own will at baptism or confirmation or both. A powerful and important moment, that choice to give up one’s life for a share in the life of Christ. It is, I think, the most important day in the life of a Christian, when this covenant is joined.

In the story we tell about our creation, humanity begins in covenant with God, helping to tend the Garden of Eden. Humanity also quickly forgets and from the third chapter of Genesis on, we see a growing enmity between humans and just about everything in creation, including themselves. The relationship between us and other creatures is strained, between one human and another, finally an internal conflict over the necessary work to survive outside of the garden. If all of that weren’t enough, then we add murder to the mix and a continuous spiral downward until Noah’s generation. By his time, humanity has almost entirely forgotten its covenant. God is deeply grieved and betrayed by our forgetfulness and corruption of our promises.

The grieving God regrets some of what has been created, and so collects those who have a good conscience, even if they’re not perfect people. Once they’re safely aboard the ark, God floods the earth, destroying much of their creation. When the waters recede, God establishes a further covenant with Noah and “all flesh” upon the earth. All flesh is an interesting scope for the covenant because it includes every living thing. Not just the men on the ark, but their unmentioned wives, too. It will include their offspring, too. Even the disabled ones, the queer ones, and the ones whose skin and hair look different. All flesh includes all of humanity. But not just that. It includes the cows, the birds, the bees, the cats, the dogs, and all else that lives. We are all of us in this together, working and walking along with God. (The Anglican Communion would have a global conference and call it The Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence of All Flesh.)

If there is another environmental disaster on par with the great flood, it won’t be God’s doing. We can see all around us, of course, the consequences of forgetting our commitment in this covenant. When we ignore our partners in God’s creation and take only for ourselves, we flirt with that spiral from the early chapters of Genesis all over again. These stories, like Noah and the flood, hold important truths and warnings for us about the consequences of neglecting our covenant relationships.

When we make new Christians, the baptismal covenant includes promises to, among other things, continue our traditions, to respect the dignity of every human being, to repent of sin, and to care for all of creation. For those around the world who are preparing to be baptized on Easter and for those of us who will renew our baptismal promises at the same time, we learn and relearn what it means to be covenant people. We learn and relearn by practising.

We practise by taking on disciplines in our lives, whether abstaining from some things or practising greater charity. The liturgy of the Church gradually becomes simpler over Lent, focusing more intently on its core components as the season progresses. We remove for a little while some of the pieces of our worship that are good and helpful but not essential to remind ourselves that, even with less, God is still with us. Even with less, God maintains the divine end of our covenant.

Through these practices we remember—we re-member, putting ourselves back together—what it is to be people of the new covenant. We renew our participation in the covenant which includes all flesh. We remember the baptisms we have seen and been part of. We recall that, just as God says when Jesus is baptized, we, too, are God’s beloved children in whom our creator is well-pleased. Children who God will never abandon or forsake, even if we forget our promises for a time.

Even if we take 40 years in the desert to remember what it means to be people of God’s covenant. Or six months on an ark. Or our own 40 days in the wilderness. God is faithfully present in all of these places, which is precisely what we go to those places to remember. That God is faithfully present with us, even when we forget our covenant and slip into corruption and violence. Even if all we can offer is anger and murder, God is there, saddened and grieving, but always calling us to repent and return. God offers forgiveness and helps us to remember, to put ourselves back together, and know ourselves again as beloved children.

This is the life that baptism sets before us. This is the life that Lent prepares us for and reminds us of. In this holy season, I pray that you are able to visit the wilderness, repent and turn to Christ, and remember your true self, beloved child of God.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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