18th March 2024

The New Covenant: a sermon for Passion Sunday

The New Covenant: a sermon for Passion Sunday by Kenneth Padley, Canon Treasurer
Readings: Jeremiah 31.31-34; John 12.20-33

What is distinctive about a marriage in Church? In legal terms, a marriage is a contract, through which a couple agree to share rights and responsibilities with one another. But a marriage in Church affirms something more. Here, the bride and groom commit

for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health.

These vows are open-ended. This is because a marriage in Church is not a contract but a covenant. The couple affirm a disposition towards one another which is unconditional, for better or worse, whatever the future may hold. And this limitless promise of a Church wedding is symbolised by the circle of the rings, as expounded in this prayer which the priest prays over them:

Heavenly Father, by your blessing
let these rings be to Jack and Jill

a symbol of unending love and faithfulness,
to remind them of the vow and covenant
which they have made this day
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The terminology of covenant comes down to us from the Hebrew Scriptures. Supreme among these is the passage we heard this morning from the prophet Jeremiah. Here God announces a new covenant to replace a broken old covenant. Jeremiah is not talking about an arrangement between two individuals like a wedding couple, but the basis of God’s relationship with a whole people. As we heard, the Lord says, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’

The relevance of this passage was not lost on later Christians. The eighth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes in full all four of those verses which we heard from Jeremiah 31.31-34 in what is, significantly, the longest single citation from the Old Testament in the New. Here Jeremiah’s prophecy is understood to be speaking about Jesus as the one who inaugurates and mediates God’s new arrangement with believers.

Indeed, Jesus himself was not unaware of covenant theology. He viewed his own suffering through its prism. Think of the words which he spoke over the food at his Last Supper and which we recall in this service of Holy Communion. ‘This is my blood of the covenant’, he says in Mark 14. Or, as St Paul records it in I Corinthians 11, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’. In these ways, across the New Testament, the sacrificial death of Jesus which we commemorate with solemn devotion during this season of Passiontide, is bound up with the inauguration of God’s new disposition[1] towards his people.

As with so many big ideas in Church history, the nature and meaning of God’s covenants have been hotly debated down the ages.[2] Reflection was particularly fervent in the decades after the Reformation. Mainstream Protestants warmed to the idea of covenant. It allowed them to retain the moral requirements of the Old Testament while, at the same time, distancing themselves from medieval ideas of sacrifice and priesthood which they associated with the old order that Jesus displaced. However, they struggled to agree about how covenant fitted into God’s plan of salvation. They spilt a lot of ink arguing over the number of God’s covenants (one, two, three, or more), over the ways in which the covenants might be consecutive or simultaneous, over how the covenants relate to key events and individuals such as the Fall of Adam and the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and over whether covenants are unilateral or bilateral – that is, whether God simply imposes them or whether implementation necessitates human collaboration.

Parking all of that, the majority of the Reformed were agreed by 1600 that what mattered as regards covenant and redemption – and what Jeremiah is getting at in today’s seminal passage – is a contrast between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. By the covenant of works God promises the open-ended life of heaven to those who obey him. Alas, we know that such a deal ends in tears. The season of Lent has been reminding us that everyone stuffs up. Each of us is like Adam and Eve. None of us are perfect. All fall short of the glory of God. Sin is inherent – original – to everyone. And so the first covenant, the covenant of works, is ineffective. Jeremiah knew this well. He rails against the faithlessness of God’s chosen people through many long chapters before he arrives at his vision of a new dispensation in chapter 31.

The problem of the old covenant is that it just isn’t covenantal enough. It presumes a response of perfect obedience. But, in honesty, no human can successfully contract to do this. And so, through the superabundant, overflowing love of God, we see the announcement of alternative arrangements, a covenant of grace, whereby God chooses to overlook the mistakes which we make, and not hold them to our account, because all is forgiven for those who put their trust in the victory which Jesus wins over evil and death on the cross. Jesus as the only sinless human makes available the life of heaven through an amazing new offer.

This is the towering theme of the fortnight ahead, in which we are invited to follow Jesus day by day. And this is the theme which George Herbert unpacks in his profound poem Redemption. I vividly remember being introduced to this poem in secondary school. It was the first piece of Herbert I had ever read. Frankly, it was the first piece of poetry that had ever really grabbed me. Within the fourteen short lines of a sonnet, Herbert meditates on the idea of being a tenant to God, but that the terms of his lease are too severe. Tentatively, he seeks a new deal. He struggles to locate his landlord, only to be staggered when he finds him by what he sees and hears. Here it is, Herbert’s Redemption.


Having been tenant long to a rich lord,

Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,

And make a suit unto him, to afford

A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought;

They told me there that he was lately gone

About some land, which he had dearly bought

Long since on earth, to take possessiòn.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,

Sought him accordingly in great resorts;

In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts;

At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,

Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, & died.


Herbert sought something cheap but got it for nothing. Herbert thought he would have to beg, but his wishes were known before he asked and then granted instantaneously. Herbert feared he was trapped in an impossible contract, but was released to a new freedom through a covenant enacted in the most unusual of circumstances.

Friends, Lent begins with the stranglehold of sin and ends with the solution of salvation. The covenant of grace is God’s promise that She loves us always, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

[1] TDNT II.106f.

[2] Klempa, ‘The concept of Covenant in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century continental and British Reformed theology’ in McKim (ed.), Major Themes.