After beginning with the narratives of Creation and Fall, our Formation in Faith Lectionary has turned to the story of Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis chapter 12, God calls Abraham to get up and go to a new country that God will show him. There he and his family will receive a new blessing, find a new home, be given new names, and become the founders of a new nation. In the following chapters, God announces that this is all a part of a new covenant that God is making with Abraham, a new promise that Abraham and his descendants will be the people of God and that God will bless the world through them.
We hear the word “covenant” often in our exploration of scripture. The dictionary defines a covenant as a kind of promise, like a legal contract freely made between two people, or a treaty that binds two nations together in peace and mutual defense. When nations negotiate a treaty, they make certain promises to each other in order that they may prosper and live in peace. Amid the sin and darkness of a fallen creation, God promises to bless Abraham and his descendants and make them a new light to the world. They will strive to obey his commands and live in right relationship with each other and with God, and God will bless them and make their obedience an example to the world. This may sound like a transaction (if Abraham obeys God, then God will bless him in return), but the meaning of covenant is much deeper than that. Covenant implies relationship, mutual trust, and a real sense of unity. Indeed, the Book of Common Prayer describes marriage as a kind of covenant. Together a couple makes promises to each other, to love, comfort, honor, and keep each other, not as a contract but as a commitment of new life together. Likewise, God’s covenant is not simply a legal contract. God enters into a mutual relationship of love and care with Israel, and will ever call on Abraham and his descendants to enter into it with him. In our Genesis 12 reading, God commands Abraham to get up and go, and Abraham responds in covenant faithfulness by doing what God commands. Trusting in God’s promise, he takes all of his family and all of his possessions and sets off across the desert. In chapter 18, we will again find Abraham honoring his covenant with God by offering hospitality to God in the form of the three visitors. But again, this is deeper than a simple act of hospitality. Abraham has responded to the covenant promise by making openness and generosity a part of his personal practice of faith, and through that practice will find his life to be enriched and blessed.
There are many practices and habits of faith that draw us into closer covenant relationship with God. In our baptismal covenant, we have promised to enter into a new relationship with God, through prayer and service, and participating in the holy work of the Kingdom. Just as a married couple needs to spend time with each other to grow in love, there are things we can do to spend time with God. Regular times of prayer, saying the daily offices, reading scripture together as a family, attending Sunday worship – these practices help shape us as people committed to a loving relationship with the One who made us and who wants to be in covenant relationship with us. Likewise, we respond to God’s covenant faithfulness every time we share the love of God with others, visiting our elderly relatives and neighbors, welcoming friends and neighbors into our homes, inviting people to church, volunteering with a community organization, befriending the poor and homeless in our community.
Again, this is not a transaction. We engage in these practices not so that God will love us, but because God already loves us. Abraham was not always successful in living up to the promise. The rest of the Old Testament speaks of the trouble that Abraham and Israel have in struggling to live up to the covenant and to the commitments they have made to God. Fortunately for us, God never fails to live up to his commitment, and sent Jesus to be the cornerstone of a renewed covenant of grace and love. What ways can we respond to God in covenant faithfulness today?