A Covenant with God

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 14, 2004


Genesis 17:1-10 God's covenant with Abraham

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you, and will greatly increase your numbers."

Abram fell face down, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God."

Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised."

Mark 1:14-20 Jesus calls his first disciples

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fish for people." At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

Arcana Coelestia #1990.3
God's human presence with people

The Infinite Being, which is Jehovah, could not possibly be manifested to people except through the Human Essence, that is, through the Lord, and so has not been manifested to anyone except the Lord alone. So that he could be present with and be joined to mankind, after mankind had removed itself entirely from the Divine and had immersed itself in foul desires and so in merely bodily and earthly things, he adopted the Human Essence itself by being born. He did so in order that the Infinite Divine could be joined to humanity even though humanity was so remote.


Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come." (Genesis 17:9)

One of the things I really love about the Swedenborgian Church's view of the Bible is that it does several wonderful things at once: It harmonizes the Old and New Testaments so that instead of saying different things, they converge on the same thing. It shows us how every story in the Bible is really a story also about the Lord's inner life--what he did inwardly while he was here on earth. And it also shows how the very same stories that are about the Lord's life are also about our inner life, so that the Lord's life becomes the pattern for ours.

Today's two stories are a particularly good example of how the Swedenborgian Church's view of the Bible harmonizes the Old and New Testaments. If you look at them outwardly, they seem to be about two entirely different things. One is about God making a covenant of circumcision with Abram, and changing his name to Abraham. The other is about the Lord Jesus beginning to preach, saying, "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news," and also calling his first disciples.

These stories seem to be about two entirely different things. But if we look deeper they are really both about the same thing. They are both about our relationship with God, and what we must do in order to have a good relationship with God. They are also about our relationships with one another, which depend on our relationship with God.

To see this more clearly, let's look at the meaning of the word "covenant." A covenant is an agreement. In modern business terms, we would call it a "contract." A business contract is a signed agreement between two parties. One party agrees to do something, and the other party agrees to do something in return. Usually, one party pays the other money in order to have the other provide products or services that the first party wants. For example, when we get a job, we may sign a contract with our employer. The employer offers to pay us a certain amount of money in return for particular work that we will do for the employer.

A contract is a binding relationship between two people, or between a person and an organization, or between two organizations. And even though a contract is words on paper, and is usually about money, work, and products, it is really about a relationship between the two parties who sign the contract.

When we sign a contract or form a relationship with someone there are criteria that must be met for that contract or relationship to take place. There are some people and organizations that we would sign a contract with, and others that we wouldn't. The same is true of friendships. Whether or not we are aware of it, we have criteria that we use to evaluate people in order to decide whether we think this friendship will work out.

One of the criteria is that there must be common interests. If we have nothing in common, what is there to bring us together? If, for example, we like to play golf and they don't, or they are in real estate and we aren't, why would we get together with them? And why would we sign a business contract with someone if there were no common interest? For example, we may want to hire someone to do a certain kind of work, and someone may want to do that work for the money we are paying. That is a common interest. We form relationships and sign contracts with people who have common interests.

We also generally sign contracts and make relationships with people who aren't antagonistic to us. If we know that someone is going fight against us, it is unlikely that we will form a relationship with that person. Of course, we might do so anyway for some greater purpose. But generally we don't form relationships with people that we know are hostile toward us. We form relationships and sign contracts with people who will work with us on a reasonable and friendly basis.

And finally, we sign contracts with people or institutions that we think we can trust--that we believe will fulfill their side of the deal. If one side or the other does not fulfill the contract, that breaks both the contract and the trust, and it is very unlikely that another contract will be forthcoming. It is the same with relationships. If we form a friendship with someone and build up a certain amount of trust, and then one of us violates that trust, it is very difficult to rebuild that relationship. Trust is an essential part of any relationship.

To sum up: We form relationships with people who have common interests. We form relationships with people who aren't antagonistic to us--or to put it in a positive way, with people who some level of care and thoughtfulness for us. And we form relationships with people whom we feel we can trust to hold up their side of the relationship.

When a covenant relationship is fulfilled, everyone wins. Everyone is richer in one way or another. In business contracts, the ones paying the money get valuable goods or services that they want. The ones providing the goods or services get paid money for them--and ideally, they also get to do satisfying and meaningful work. Everyone gains from a contract that is fulfilled. It is the same with a relationship: everyone involved gains from the relationship. Everyone becomes spiritually and emotionally, if not financially, richer from it.

Now we can see how our two Bible stories are talking about the same thing. They are both about covenant: about God's relationship with us, and our relationship with God.

In Genesis 17, God's side of the covenant is a promise to give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. Abram's side is that all the males in his clan, and their descendants, will be circumcised. This seems like an odd arrangement. Yet the underlying meaning of their agreeing to be circumcised was a willingness to turn their lives over to God, and follow his commandments. In other places, God says that Abram and his clan must follow God's laws as part of the covenant; but spiritually speaking, it is the same thing.

In our New Testament reading, the Lord is also making a covenant with the disciples. "Disciple" means "learner" or "student." In the story, the Lord calls certain people to be his disciples, and says, in essence, "I will be your master and friend; in return, you must leave your former occupations and follow me." He says to Andrew and Peter, to James and John: "Leave your fishing and your nets, follow me, and I will make you fish for people." If they follow him, he will give them a new task, a new mission in life. This is a relationship.

If we look at it this way, these two stories from the Old and New Testaments are about one and the same thing. They are about God's relationship with us: what God will do for us, and what we must do for God in return. God is promising us the land of Canaan, and he is promising us a relationship with himself. These two are the same! Spiritually speaking, Canaan is heaven--and heaven is relationship. It is loving relationship with the Lord, and loving relationship with other angels in the heavenly community. Heaven is all about community and relationship, both with one another and with God.

God gives us this promise. He tells us: If you will follow me (that's our side of the covenant), I will give you peace and joy in relationship and community. I will give you a fulfilling and happy life in friendship with others. I will also give you a sense of mission in life. You will know why you are here; you will know what you love to do; and you will be able to do it, and fulfill your deepest desires.

God requires something of us in this covenantal relationship. It is expressed in the Old Testament by circumcision. In the New Testament, it is expressed in the words preached by the Lord: "Repent, and believe the good news." Circumcision was considered by the ancient Hebrews to be a ritual of cleansing. So in commanding circumcision, God was commanding them to cleanse themselves. God gave it as a physical ritual to represent the spiritual cleansing that we must do in our lives. Spiritually, we must cleanse ourselves by putting away the wrong that is in us. To use the New Testament term, we must repent.

Circumcision is a physical ritual that symbolizes our repentance: our willingness to give up our old bad habits and bad feelings, our wrong ways of thinking, and our faulty self-justifications. We must give up these unclean parts of ourselves, just as in circumcision males gave up a part of their bodies that was considered ritually unclean in those ancient times. Circumcision in the Old Testament is expressed by repentance in the New Testament. The two mean the same thing.

Now let's look at God's covenant with us. Consider the money in a contract. God generally doesn't give us money--at least, not directly. But God does give us spiritual currency. In Bible times, gold was the primary currency; and gold is a symbol of love. So God pays us in love: God's love and love for one another. This is the promise God gives us: God will give us love, and along with it understanding of the issues that we struggle with.

And God requires something of us if we are to receive that spiritual currency. God requires that we use his love to love and serve one another. This also means using the love and understanding that God gives us to root out everything that blocks us from treating others well and serving them out of love. In other words, we must repent, and be spiritually circumcised. This is our part of the covenant that God wants to make with us.

When we make this covenant with God, we not only build our relationship with God, but we also improve our relationships with one another. Only when we follow God's way of love can we have truly loving and healthy relationships with one another.

And God promises this not only to "Abraham"--to us individually; he also promises it to all of Abraham's "descendants." Who are our spiritual descendants? We can think of them as all the people we benefit when we feel God's love, and commit ourselves the way of truth, justice, and service. We then radiate God's love and truth out from the center within us. There is tremendous fruitfulness and outreach when we touch others with the love and understanding that God has given us! This is an expanding covenant that extends to all the people we are in contact with, now and in the future. God says to Abraham that it will be an "everlasting covenant."

As we have been learning in this series, every story in the Bible is not only about our relationships with God and one another; it is also about the relationships within the Lord himself. Let's look at our reading from the Arcana Coelestia to get some insight into this. It is quite a mind-bending reading, isn't it! What is it talking about?

For our part, we know that we have both an outer self and an inner self. We have an outer self with loves and desires of a lower order: we enjoy the pleasures of this world; we like people to praise us; we like to have fun. All of these outward things are part of us--and they will lead us astray if we focus on them too much. If we like eating too much, it can lead us astray. If we like friends too much, and are indiscriminate about it, this can also lead us astray. Yet if we look deeper, we also have an inner self. And in our inner self we have a conscience that guides us to higher ways of living.

The Lord had these two sides also. He had an outer self: he had a human mother, who gave him all the weaknesses that we inherit from our parents. He also had an inner self: he had no human father, but a divine Father. He had the Divine itself within him.

And just as we go back and forth between our higher and lower natures, sometimes following the lower way and sometimes the higher way, Jesus also went back and forth between his two natures, sometimes being more conscious of his lower nature, and sometimes more conscious of his higher nature.

Yet his goal was to completely unite the human and divine natures within him. His goal was to have the Divine fill him from top to bottom--all the way from his innermost soul to his outermost self. He struggled to make a "covenant" between his inner self and his outer self. And by the end of his life, we believe that he had fully united his human side with his divine side.

That is still a little theoretical. What does it mean for us? And what about the teaching that unless this had happened, we could not possibly have a relationship with God?

Let's look at it from our common experience. How do we relate to one another? Most of us are not skilled in ESP. We have to see and talk to people in order to have a relationship with them. In other words, we relate to one another through our bodies. We approach each other and get to know each other through the things we physically say and do.

It is the same in our relationship with God. It's very hard to relate to a theological concept or to a vast, undefined, infinite being. But we can relate to a human being. And God came as Jesus precisely so that we could relate to God as a human being. He became human just like us, and filled his humanity fully with his Divine self. Because he did this, we can now have a relationship with him just as we can have a relationship with our friends.

God wants to be our friend. And he has come to us personally, and both taught us and shown us the things we must do in order to be his friend.

God is still present with us--still available to us as the divine human being, Jesus Christ. He is present with us as a person that we can relate to, that we can have a friendship with, and yet know that it is our all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful Creator. Through that human presence of God, we can know who God is, know what he is like, and know how we must arrange our lives in order to have a true, inner, and deep friendship with God.

This is what our covenant with God is all about. It is about learning of the Lord and his ways, putting aside everything in us that conflicts with those divine ways, and becoming the Lord's true friends by following the path that he has shown us.

That path is the path of loving God, loving one another, and serving our fellow human beings with thoughtfulness and love. Amen.

Music: How Great Thou Art