Covenant with God
the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Massachusetts, March 14, 2004
17:1-10 God's covenant with Abraham
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."
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."
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
1:14-20 Jesus calls his first disciples
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
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.
God's human presence with people
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
path is the path of loving God, loving one another, and serving
our fellow human beings with thoughtfulness and love. Amen.
Music: How Great