WHAT DO WE BELIEVE? … continued
My dear friends in Christ,
As we continue our exploration of our Episcopal Catechism (which begins on page 845 in the Book of Common Prayer), we come to a point that might seem a bit unexpected. In the preceding section, our Catechism introduced us to God the Father, the First Person of the indivisible Holy Trinity, and gave us some insight into the nature of the God who made us. We also looked at what the nature of our Creator implies about the cosmos and about us as God’s creations. Having introduced the concept of God as trinity in unity and unity in trinity, and having spoken specifically about the First Person of the Trinity, we might expect to turn next to the Second Person of the Trinity, yes?
Our Catechism, however, now turns in a different direction to address the idea of covenant. If we take a look back at the last question and answer from the previous section, we can understand the need for this change of direction:
Q. How was this revelation [regarding the nature of God] handed down to us?
A. This revelation was handed down to us through a community
created by a covenant with God.
We know what we know about God because God has revealed Godself to us, not just individually but collectively, as a community. And “community” here is defined in a very specific way; it does not refer merely to a random assembly of human beings, lumped together. No, this community is one that has been created by means of God’s entering into a covenant relationship with the community of God’s people. Implicit in this definition is that one of the purposes—perhaps even the primary purpose—for which our community exists in the first place is to receive, preserve, and pass on to future generations the revelation of God to God’s people.
That is no small responsibility!
And the authors of our Catechism rightly recognized that, before we go any further, we need to be clear about what a covenant community actually is. To do that, we must understand what is meant by the term “covenant,” of course. From there, we will examine the original covenant God made with God’s people and what God has revealed about God’s will for us as God’s covenant community.
Take note of the way our Catechism defines “covenant.” All too often in our contemporary world, we mistakenly think of a covenant as being essentially a contract. But a contract is a formal agreement between two or more parties that are, for all intents and purposes, more or less equal in power, status, authority, etc. But a covenant is not like that. The parties involved in a covenant are not equal, and they do not enter into the agreement from anything resembling a “level playing field.”
It can be uncomfortable in our tradition to focus on the notion of power (I suspect because many of us have seen the ways in which unscrupulous people have, for centuries, misused and abused religious authority to exercise worldly power over others in extremely destructive ways). But when it comes to our relationship with God, we cannot ever forget that “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” all belong exclusively to God and God alone. Any view that contradicts or undercuts that principle is, essentially, idolatry.
The Old Covenant
Q. What is meant by a covenant with God?
A. A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a
body of people responds in faith.
Q. What is the Old Covenant?
A. The Old Covenant is the one given by God to the
Q. What did God promise them?
A. God promised that they would be his people to bring
all the nations of the world to him.
Q. What response did God require from the chosen people?
A. God required the chosen people to be faithful; to love
justice, to do mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.
Q. Where is this Old Covenant to be found?
A. The covenant with the Hebrew people is to be found in
the books which we call the Old Testament.
Q. Where in the Old Testament is God's will for us shown
A. God's will for us is shown most clearly in the Ten
The Ten Commandments
Q. What are the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments are the laws given to Moses and the people of Israel.
Q. What do we learn from these commandments?
A. We learn two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors.
Q. What is our duty to God?
A. Our duty is to believe and trust in God;
I To love and obey God and to bring others to know him;
II To put nothing in the place of God;
III To show God respect in thought, word, and deed;
IV And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God's ways.
Q. What is our duty to our neighbors?
A. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as ourselves, and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us;
V To love, honor, and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands;
VI To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God;
VII To use our bodily desires as God intended;
VIII To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God;
IX To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence;
X To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people's gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.
Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?
A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?
A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
It has been said that righteousness can be defined as being in right relationship with God, and that justice can be defined as being in right relationship with one another. The original Covenant that God established with God’s people was never intended to be restrictive, punitive, or burdensome in any way. We often fall into the trap of thinking otherwise, I suspect because we project our own, human ideas about law (and our often painful experiences with human examples of law enforcement) onto our conception and perception of God and God’s law.
But we must remember that the law was given to us by God as a precious gift, a gift designed by God to enable and empower us to live together in community lives that are truly free, healthy, whole, holy, and filled with abundance. Indeed, measured against that standard, it is frighteningly easy to see where we, as individuals and especially as communities, sin and fall short of the glory of God. We shall take a closer look at our sinfulness and our need for redemption next time.
As always, if this column sparks any questions, concerns, ideas, curiosities, or any other kind of response in your hearts and minds, please reach out to me via email or phone—let’s talk about it! And if you’d like to explore these things in a safe and engaging group setting, please consider joining our Faith Talk formation series on Thursdays on Zoom.
Peace & blessings,
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