(Or, indirect reflections on Romans chapters 5-11)
A covenant is an agreement between two persons, which results in a new identity and – where covenant is faithfully kept – a new way of relating to those around the covenant partners.
The most accessible example for many of us today is marriage. At their wedding two people make covenantal declarations; and exchange rings, as an ongoing public sign of that covenant.
The promises made declare their intention (or, will) to live out the implications of their covenant, in relation to the ever-changing variables of circumstances and of relationships within the wider community.
At the giving of the rings each party gives their innermost identity – “all that I am” – and the outward expressions of that identity – “all that I have” – to the other, to be held as one entity, something new that previously did not exist.
This is a deep truth, but it is not a magic spell: the two parties must continue to exercise their own will to live out being one common entity; as opposed to continuing to live, or reverting to live, as autonomous parties. If this becomes easier – and that is by no means guaranteed - it most often does so by tiny incremental degrees over a great deal of time.
God is looking to enter into covenant relationship with humans: to share himself, to be known, to be enjoyed, to stand alongside us. Unlike marriage, however, this is not a covenant between equals. This covenant:
is grounded in the person of God...
initiates a new identity for us...
and has its outworking in actions which are consistent with – or faithful or obedient to – that new one entity.
The staggering, frightening thing is that God is faithful even when we are not faithful.
Jesus’ baptism is a public entering-into covenant. God offers himself as Father, and, grounded in that, Jesus receives his identity as Son.
Jesus is the Son of God. This cannot be revoked, changed, undone. But at this point the question remains to be seen: What kind of son will Jesus be?
What will he do with this identity? You see, Adam was the son of God, something never revoked; but Adam did not express that identity in obedience...
Immediately Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the Holy Spirit drives him into the wilderness. He spends the next forty days and forty nights alone, clinging to the side of the deepest rift valley on earth, almost sheer cliffs which rise up from where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the face of the earth. And then he is tested, by the one who ensnared Adam. What kind of son will Jesus be?
Will he use his identity to feed his own physical appetites?
Will he use his identity to force others to acknowledge his authority over them?
Will he use his identity to establish himself as a celebrity?
(At the end of the day, in one form or another, it comes down to physical appetites, power, and money, time and time again...)
And what of us?
There is a matter of identity; and then there is a matter of obedience - by which I do not mean subservience to rules enforced over us, but living consistent to our identity, living with integrity, living in harmony with what we have become: not the outward obedience of a dog trained to fetch to command, but the inner obedience to doggy-ness that causes dogs to fetch things – an innate characteristic which, of course, can be shaped by discipline.
God invites us to enter into covenant relationship with God. The Bible employs many pictures to describe this:
children of a heavenly Father;
sons of God (‘sons’ being gender-inclusive, because our identity here is in being one with Jesus, the Son);
the very body of Christ;
the church as the bride of Christ (‘bride’ being gender-inclusive, because our corporate identity is being described in relation to Jesus, the bridegroom).
Within that covenant, we discover more and more of the person of God, and our identity in relation to that revelation:
God is our provider...therefore, we are those whose needs are provided for...
...and therefore, we are called to be those who provide for others, out of the resources of heaven. That is an example of living in obedience to our God-grounded identity.
God is gracious: that is, gives good gifts that are unearned, undeserved. We experience grace...and extend grace to others. God is merciful: that is, does not mete out deserved punishment. We experience mercy...and extend mercy to others. That is consistent, obedient behaviour.
The question is: what sort of son will we be?
Will we use our identity – which, once given, cannot be taken back – to feed our appetites; to control others; or to live in wealth, both material and of reputation?
Or will we embrace the wilderness, and there, alone, watched only by angels and wild animals, put to agonising death these desires within us?
Because those desires are within us, within every one of us...And unless they are put to death, we might do many great things, genuinely great-and-of-God things* but, sooner or later, we will be a danger to others and to ourselves.
Many Christians believe that if only they were more obedient, more faithful, God would entrust them with greater power. This is not true: in fact, it is legalism: seeking to earn God’s approval. The reality is that it is the other way around: it is the power of God within us that enables us to obey. This power – the very Spirit of God, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from death - is already within us, the consequence of covenant.
Many other Christians recognise that identity is not conditional on obedience, and so believe that obedience is inconsequential. But while obedience is, indeed, utterly – terrifyingly - inconsequential to our identity, obedience and disobedience each have profound consequences for the extent to which we can both experience for ourselves and hold out to others the freedom of life in its fullness.
These apparently opposing misconceptions are both exacerbated among charismatic evangelicals by the current emphasis on the kingdom of heaven, divorced from an equal emphasis on covenant.
Obedience earns nothing; but expresses everything:
the extent to which we have understood who we truly now are;
the extent to which we have left behind, in the howling wilderness, the carrion-stripped sun-bleached bones of who we once were...
*This is why we see, all too often, examples of ministers who have behaved scandalously still exercising miraculous power. This is also why, from an Anglican perspective, the efficacy of the sacrament of Holy Communion is not impaired by the wickedness of a priest. But it is also true of any child of God.