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What is the Old Covenant?

In today’s society, the word “old” can often imply something out of date or no longer valid. We (Americans especially) tend to want to discard things that are old in favor of the newest and shiniest things. To answer the question about the Old Covenant, we first need to do some word study, starting with the word covenant. The Hebrew word for covenant is berit (בְּרִית), and it describes a “contract or agreement between two parties” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary). When there is a contract or agreement between two parties, the implication is that each party contributes something to the agreement. For our purposes, the covenant referred to as the Old Covenant is an agreement between God and Israel. This covenant started as a promise from God to God’s chosen people. The people were to follow God and keep God’s law, and God promised to be with them, identifying them as God’s chosen people.

There are several instances of covenants in the Hebrew Bible. It starts with Noah after the story of the flood in Genesis 7-9. This was a promise to never destroy the earth again. But this is just the beginning, and a foretaste of God’s covenant with Israel. Abraham is the next partner with God in covenantal relationship, with God promising Abraham many ancestors and protected land. For his end of the agreement, Abraham promised the obey God’s laws. God specifically refers to this covenant when dealing with the Egyptian enslavement of God’s people before leading them to freedom. It was during this time that the Law of the Covenant was established with God and through Moses in Exodus. In this text, and then again in Deuteronomy, the laws or commandments are stated, and following these commandments was to be the sign of being marked as God’s people. This is most often what is considered as the Old Covenant.

Without giving too much away, there can’t really be anything called an Old Covenant unless there is also a now a New Covenant, a topic to be discussed in a later post (spoiler alert: Jesus!!!). We can think about these covenants as a series of ways that God has entered into perfect relationship with followers, only to have the followers falter in upholding our end of the agreement. You can think back to the story of Noah and the flood, one of the most famous stories from the Hebrew Bible. We often focus on the cartoonish two-by-two animal parade loading onto the ark, rather than focusing on God who seemingly wipes out all of humanity in response to our generations of sins and failures. The iconic symbol of the rainbow is a promise that God would not ever do that again, with God arguably holding up his end of the bargain. Meanwhile, there can be a pretty compelling case made that humanity has continued to find other idols to worship besides God, separating ourselves from God in a multitude of ways. Along comes the Old Covenant. The Ten Commandments were given to God’s people through Moses, detailing what following God should and should NOT look like. Ten rules about living in community with God and one another were provided, given to a people after they have been rescued from a life of slavery and persecution. This is followed by God giving these chosen people their own land. And everyone lives happily ever after, right? Well, not exactly….

Let’s be clear about one thing – God holds up God’s part of each covenant. Any failure is directly attributable to our own desires. It is fairly safe to say that in any contractual agreement between two people, one person who continually fails to uphold their end of the bargain effectively negates the contract entirely. The non-offending party doesn’t continue providing the services or promises from the agreement. That just wouldn’t make much sense from our human perspective. And that is what sets God and the covenants made between God and God’s people apart. God never leaves. God never gives up. God continues to pour out grace and mercy where absolutely none is deserved. God continues to try to reach us, making more and more promises and giving us new revelations of who God is. In fact, God even comes to live among us, driving home the ultimate commitment that God is willing to make. Each covenant builds on the one before, further revealing God’s unending love for us.

The Old Covenant was a revelation of God for the people of God when they needed it the most. It is our heritage within the great cloud of witnesses, our inheritance as Christians. And God never fails to love and be with us. Understanding this is critical to our transformation as Christians who work to continually love and follow God. It’s when we lose sight of God’s commitment to us through our own distractions that we falter and stray from our baptismal covenant to “promise and obey” God.

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Theology Matters: Why the Creeds Matter by Paige Hanks

The baptismal liturgy in the Episcopal Church is a powerfully moving service. The call and response between the celebrant and the congregation at the start of the service sets the tone, as the participants in the service begin with statements of “oneness.” As we prepare to welcome our newest brother or sister in Christ, we remind ourselves of our catholicity by boldly proclaiming that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism. We say the Baptismal Covenant every time we conduct a baptism, boldly proclaiming our beliefs in the context of welcoming our newest members. We say the words of the Nicene Creed together each week for much the same reason, as we come together as a community of believers to remind ourselves what we believe about God and God’s church, focusing on the “oneness” of our beliefs.

In this day and age, getting a group of people together to find common ground on a particular subject seems overwhelmingly difficult. If you think about it, it is remarkable that we have these ancient creeds at all! Following Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, the early Christ followers struggled to make sense of this new revelation of Godself. Out of that struggle to make sense of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church, bishops gathered together to find agreement, eventually creating doctrinal belief statements that we call creeds today. Prior to the development of the creeds, the Christian practices and beliefs were developing quite loosely and were often subject to local interpretation and authority. In response to that, and as a way to unite Christians in common beliefs, the councils often met for years at a time. The creeds that arose from these councils were the result of deep dialogue, and continue to be familiar to us in our worship today.

The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are both found in our worship services in the Book of Common Prayer, and other mainline denominations use these in similar forms in their worship services as well. The structure of these creeds include statements of belief about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and make bold claims about what we as a church believe. And that gets to the heart of why the creeds matter in 2016.

There are churches of all kinds, worship services held different ways, and beliefs in God that are all over the map in modern Christianity. The creeds for us, are to be considered the anchors of our faith. The most important idea to remember is that the doctrinal beliefs found within these creedal statements are scripturally based, interpreted by a body of believers together in community. This is critical to understand, because our beliefs about God should not be dependent upon a particular pastor or developed on our own without the benefit of community. When we say the creed together in unison, there is great power in this shared experience, even when the words become so familiar that we don’t always stop to think about what we are saying. We are affirming our oneness as a community, while at the same time individually speaking our truth about God.

There is something to be said about the repetition that comes from saying the Nicene Creed week after week on Sundays and the Apostles Creed when we do the services of the daily office. Free flowing prayers to God certainly have their place in our spiritual lives, but one of the strengths of Christianity is what we believe about God. Consistently saying these creeds, particularly within a church assembly, binds us together with one another in common beliefs which strengthen the community. Our individual utterances of belief reverberate with others around us, but also with the communion of saints who have come before us. Think about it: for approximately 2,000 years, Christians have been saying the same basic things about God. These creeds have been spoken week after week, month after month, and year after year in church communities. This common experience links us to the past and is foundational for the future for believers, with a world full of Christians speaking the same things about God over and over again.

The creeds matter in the life of God’s church. When we say what we believe, we are drawn closer to God and one another through those shared beliefs. When is the last time you really thought deeply about what you are saying as you recite the creed? Saying what we believe for the sake of the words is not the point. These words should be coupled with our intentions, so if we believe that God created us, then we believe we are loved. If we believe that Jesus came for our salvation, then there is hope in a world without end. And if we believe that the Holy Spirit gives life now and in the world to come, then we are called to be active in God’s kingdom in the present. The creeds are an integral part of our personal transformation as children of God and our work in the world to make Christ known.

Paige Hanks is a Postulant , studying at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.