Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Covenant Service, a somewhat "tweaked" version

On Sunday, I’ll be leading a Covenant Service, a service in which a congregation renews its commitment to the life of Christian faith and service, in a nearby congregation. This is based on a service developed in the 18th century by John Wesley.
Traditionally the Covenant Service was observed annually, either on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, or (as in this case) during a congregation’s first service of Holy Communion for the year.
While this is based on the Covenant Service found in Uniting in Worship 2, the Uniting Church’s main liturgical resource book, I’ve tweaked the service a bit. Here’s the covenant renewal part of the service as I’ve tweaked it, with the changes being underlined and in italics, and with number (in parentheses) leading to footnotes explaining the changes.
In the Old Covenant, God chose Israel as his people and gave them the gift of the Law. For the Jewish people today, this Old Covenant still abides, and will abide for all time.
In the New Covenant, God made the gift of his Son Jesus Christ to the rest of humanity. (1) We stand within the New Covenant and we bear the name of Christ. God promises us new life in him. We receive this promise and pledge to live not for ourselves but for God. This covenant is renewed each time we meet at the table of the Lord. Today we meet, as generations before us have met, to renew that which bound them and now binds us to God. 
The minister continues:
Beloved in Christ, let us again claim this covenant for ourselves, and take the yoke of Christ upon us. To take this yoke upon us means that we are content that he appoint us our place and work, and that he himself be our reward.  
Christ has many services to be done:  
  • some are easy, others are difficult;  
  • some bring honour, others bring reproach;  
  • some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests; others are contrary to both. 
  • In some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. 
Yet the power to do all these things is given us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant with God our own, trusting in the eternal promises and relying on divine grace. (And I invite those who can stand safely and comfortably to do so now.) (2)
The people renewing their covenant stand, if they can do so.
Let us pray: 
Lord God, in baptism, you brought us into union with Christ who fulfils your gracious covenant; and in bread and wine we receive the fruit of his obedience. So with joy we take upon ourselves the yoke of obedience, and commit ourselves to seek and do your perfect will. As we do so, before we recommit ourselves to your service, we pray in silence for the world which you love. (3)
Silence is kept for a time. The minister says:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
The minister and people say together:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
enable me to make things happen, enable me to let things happen; (4)
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. 
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours, to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.
(The service continues with the celebration of Holy Communion.)
(1) This affirms that the relationship between God and the Jewish people is still an ongoing relationship, and that Christianity has not, in any way, superceded Judaism.
(2) This simply recognises the presence of people of different physical abilities, including those for whom standing in one place for a few minutes is painful (if not dangerous).
(3) This is a simple addition of a brief time of intercession in this part of the service. Normally, prayers of intercession serve as a bridge between the Service of the Word and the Service of Holy Communion, and I’ve included the intercessions here.
(4) Here, I’ve “tweaked” the language of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, without changing the meaning. At one point, the congregation traditionally said, “Put me to doing, put me to suffering”. The word “suffering” there does not involve our usual meaning of the word “suffering”. We’re not saying that God causes human suffering. To say that, or even to think that, would be to make a monster out of God.
Instead, the word has the same meaning as when the translators of the old King James version of the Bible had Jesus say “Suffer the little children to come to me”, in other words “Allow the children to come to me”, or “Let the kids come and don’t stop them”.
To allow things to happen is an important ministry given to all people of faith. Sometimes we see some possibility in the church’s ministry and mission which (deep, down inside) we know is a good, healthy, wholesome, development for the people of God, but, still, we don’t particularly like it. 
In these cases, we have two options:
· We can either allow it to happen graciously, (or)
· We can stamp our foot and say “Over my dead body!”
And this “Over my dead body” mentality has been destructive to the life of many congregations and many denominations over the years.
When we say, in the Covenant Prayer, words to the effect of “Put me to doing, put me to suffering”, we are expressing our rejection of the whole, destructive, “Over my dead body” mentality. 
In more modern language and (I hope) in less potentially misunderstood language, I’ve expressed this same idea in the phrase “Enable me to make things happen; enable me to let things happen.” I hope Mr. Wesley approves.

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