15th April 2024

‘From the Old Covenant to the New: a journey of God’s people’ – Sermon 7/04/2024

2nd Sunday of Easter 2024

Genesis 3:8-15, Galatians 4:1-5

‘From the Old Covenant to the New: a journey of God’s people’. Sermon by Maggie Guillebaud

The Easter eggs are eaten. The left-over lamb long gone. Half-price Hot Cross buns are safely tucked in the freezer for later consumption. A wet Holy Week and a damp Easter Sunday disappear in our rear-view mirror as we face forward to the rest of the year.

And yet what a Holy Week it was, filled with liturgy and drama and music as yet again we followed Christ’s journey to Calvary. And then the outpouring of joy as we celebrated his triumphant rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. It was a tremendous week.

And yet here we are on the Second Sunday of Easter, down to earth with a bump. Two readings, at first sight apparently disconnected, from Genesis and from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Solid teaching on sin and responsibility, and what it means to have been released from what we often call the slavery of sin by the coming of Christ. And behind that, the idea of Covenantal theology.
Genesis is the foundational myth for the Jewish people and their early relationship with God. In it appear the first two covenants, or promises, God makes with his people, first with Noah and then with Abraham. These are followed by three further covenants, with Moses in Exodus, with David in the second Book of Samuel, and finally with Jeremiah. Each covenant in essence seeks to establish, or re-establish, a closer connection between God and his back-sliding people through various promises. In fact the Hebrew bible is often characterised as being the story of the Old Covenant, or strictly speaking Old Covenants.

From the succumbing to temptation, against very clear instruction, in the eating of the apple, to the first murder, that of Adam and Eve’s son Abel who murders his brother Cain, to the story of Noah and the ark and so forth – a picture is painted of a God who created the world as good and yet has to watch as human beings pull perfection apart.
In many ways it is a dark story. But as the story unfolds we see humanity learning countless lessons, in the story of Adam and Eve this evening the lesson of moral responsibility.
Here they have to learn that actions have consequences: the snake is cursed and has forever to slither along the ground; Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. Later on Cain is forced off his land to become a wanderer; Noah and his family survive, but only after great anxiety and danger. But God does not destroy humankind in the face of their endless disobedience; he forebears. But his people have to learn.

Moral responsibility is difficult. It is sometimes difficult for us to hold up our hands and take responsibility for our actions. The practised bully, for example, will always blame his or her victim by saying ‘you made me do it’. One country will blame another country for its invasion, or justify its actions retrospectively to make a narrative fit with what has happened on the ground. History can be twisted to justify current aggressions, as in Ukraine, or denied, as with the Armenian genocide or the storming of the Capitol in Washington. We are very good at deceiving ourselves, both personally and on an international level, and the truth is not always in us, as the Book of Common Prayer has it.

The contemporary phenomenon of social media has led to threatening behaviour and false news on an industrial scale. Being in the public eye, or holding unfashionable opinions, can, as we know, lead to a torrent of anonymous abuse, and even death threats online. Hidden behind the anonymity provided by social media platforms, who are themselves corrupted by countries who like to stir the pot in the West, false news and rumours are free to circulate with no fear of any consequences. No one takes responsibility for what they have done because they don’t have to. Freed from moral responsibility behind the wall of anonymity provided by social media, the world becomes ever more dysfunctional and chaotic. And we know that this is not good for society, let alone for the individuals who become targets for cyber-bullies and harassment.

Now this may seem a long way from Adam and Eve and the apple. But the principle holds: we abandon the taking of moral responsibility at our peril. There will be consequences. And as Adam and Eve found when they tried to hide from God in the garden, he still found them out. We cannot hide from God.

So it is with a measure of relief that we turn Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which points to new way forward in humankind’s relationship with God.
The letter is what the theologian John Barton calls ‘the most passionate of Paul’s letters.’ And it is generally agreed to have had, along with his letter to the Romans, the most profound influence in the early church.

The problem besetting the Galatians is that the agitators who have infiltrated the church are trying to argue that the old Jewish customs and practices laid down in Jewish law should be followed, including circumcision for new Gentile converts. This arcane argument over circumcision need not concern us this evening. Paul’s message is that in what we call the Old Covenant, or Covenants, Jews lived under the law, or as he puts it at the end of chapter preceding this one: ‘….before faith we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed’, faith in this context meaning the coming of the Messiah.

In our reading he uses the legal metaphor of young boys who have not yet reached the age of inheritance: they are minors, and ‘remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by their father’. Until the Messiah should come, the Jews remained under Jewish law, just as young boys remain under the tutelage of their guardians and trustees until the appointed date for their majority.

In the coming of Christ, Paul says, that date has arrived. We, and the Galatians, are freed from living under the law, and redeemed through the life and death of the one who gave himself for us on the cross. We are not let off the hook to behave as we would like – Jesus’ teachings are proof enough of that – but we are not required to follow the dictates of the Jewish law anymore. Our road to salvation will not be by following to the last tittle the prescriptions of the law. Rather, through belief in Christ and his redeeming love Christians come into a new relationship with God, independent of the Law.

The risen Christ is God’s new covenant with us. He carries the world’s guilt and misdoings on his shoulders. He offers to everyone, not just the Jews, the possibility of living in a close relationship with him through belief in him, who with God and the Holy Spirit in equal measure make up the Godhead. He offers us the promise of eternal life. His invitation to us is to live a full Christian life, following his teachings and taking responsibility for our actions in the light of those teachings. We are to live under grace, not law.

This is God’s Easter promise to us. And so with this Easter promise embedded in our consciousness, we can look forward to the rest of our Christian year with hope and confidence, and thank God that Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluiah. Amen