Monday, August 08, 2011

The Baptismal Covenant, Part 2

Photo by Billy Alexander
Several weeks ago, I started a series on the Baptismal Covenant, found starting on p. 304 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Today, I want to continue our discussion around the idea of covenant. This week we will explore a biblical image of God's covenant making. Next week, we will talk about the way the Baptismal Covenant is portrayed in the Book of Common Prayer.

Abram and the Firepot

Genesis 15 contains a curious story. In Genesis 12, God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans. Genesis 13 sees Abram parting ways with Lot. In Genesis 14, Abram goes to war to rescue Lot and afterwards is blessed by the enigmatic prophet-king Melchizedek. Genesis 15 sees Abram receiving a vision from the Lord.

God promises Abram many things, including descendants as numerous as the stars. When Abram asks how he will know that he will possess it, the really strange stuff begins.

God asks Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram cuts them in two and places them across from one another; a bloody path lies between. This was a customary way to seal a covenant between two parties. They would walk among the pieces as they made the deal, essentially saying "If I don't hold up my end, let it be to me as it is to these animals."

But God does not let Abram walk through the pieces. Abram falls into a deep sleep, and a firepot and a torch passed between the pieces. "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants, I give this land …' (Gen 15:18)." It is as if God says, "You and I are in this covenant, but I take full responsibility for it, both for you and for all generations."

I've heard this called God's 'unconditional' covenant. I don't think this is quite fair. God's expectation is "Walk before me and be perfect," and the OT is full of God threatening through the prophets to remove the covenant from Israel. The covenant carries blessings and curses. It is a dreadful thing to be in covenant with God, as the name "Israel," "the one who struggles with God," attests. But, even if the covenant is not unconditional, it is at least unilateral. It is God's desire to establish covenant with humanity. There is a willing human partner, but God does not meet Abram halfway. God comes all the way to Abram and pitches his tent with the children of Israel. God graciously moves toward humanity, and this movement is unilateral, full of promise and life. It makes a people where there was no people.

If the Baptismal Covenant is meaningful in the broad sweep of the biblical narrative, then it must be meaningful in relationship to this, the establishment of the Old Covenant, as well as the living out of the New Covenant inaugurated in Jesus Christ. Next post, we will explore the way the Book of Common Prayer talks about Covenant, and the relationship of the Baptismal Covenant to the Old and New Covenants attested in Scripture.

No comments:

Post a Comment