Our covenant in Christ

I was once part of a faculty committee charged with rewriting the mission statement of our high school. Except for changing one preposition, I contributed little to the project. Where the original document stated that one of our school's main goals was to "convey faith in Jesus," I was able to convince the committee to change that statement to read "convey the faith of Jesus."

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First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8-15
Psalm 25
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15

I never tire of reminding my students and readers of one of spiritual writer Fr. Ed Hays' most life-changing insights: "The original followers of Jesus imitated him long before they worshiped him." This itinerant Galilean carpenter's first disciples didn't drastically change their lifestyles and follow him town to town, synagogue to synagogue, because they believed he was God, but because they saw the value in imitating the way he thought and lived. He showed them how to change their world. And he did this not by creating a new religion, but by showing them how to integrate his unique insights into the faith they already professed. Eventually they made his faith their faith.

That's why it is essential for us to understand the importance of covenants in Jesus' faith.

As we hear in today's Genesis reading, the ancient Israelites saw their relationship with Yahweh as a covenant relationship. They were convinced they'd signed a contract with their God. There were specific things they were obligated to do; specific things Yahweh had to do.

We presume Jesus of Nazareth, as a practicing Jew, was also committed to the covenants his faith ancestors had entered into with Yahweh. He never ate pork; his carpenter shop was always closed on the Sabbath.

But we presume he was also committed to the concept of hesed: doing things for God and others that go beyond the covenant's stipulations.

Such actions aren't specifically included in the covenant partners' responsibilities. But if you don't constantly go beyond those responsibilities, history shows that eventually you'll start fudging on them.

It's precisely in his covenant acts of hesed that the Gospel personality of Jesus steps out of the evangelists' narratives. Story after story, saying after saying, parable after parable, we're told Jesus took his covenant with Yahweh beyond just the regulations to which most of his fellow Jews slavishly adhered. His faith in God, demonstrated in his commitment to others, eventually led him to experience God working effectively in the people and situations that filled his everyday life.

It also led him to shutter his shop and hit the road. He morphs into an itinerant preacher, committed to sharing his experience of God's kingdom among us with all he encounters.

His message is short and simple. It takes up just one verse of today's four-verse Gospel: "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news." Jesus was convinced God is among us, working effectively in our daily lives. But unless we repent -- change our value system -- and make people and their needs the most important part of our existence, we'll never actually experience God working effectively among us.

Just as the rainbow was Yahweh's outward sign of the covenant in Genesis, the author of 1 Peter believes baptism is the outward sign of our joining in Jesus' covenant.

But what about us "cradle Christians" -- baptized as infants? Shouldn't we have an eighth sacrament to demonstrate our adult repentance?

We already have such a sacrament: the Eucharist. Every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper we're expected to take part in an outward sign demonstrating our commitment to carry on the ministry and faith of Jesus of Nazareth, a sign in which many Catholics fail to participate -- receiving from the cup.

As we'll hear during Holy Thursday's Eucharist, Jesus never thought receiving from the cup was optional -- for extra credit.

Notice the words over the cup that Jesus says in that night's 1 Corinthians 11 reading: "This is the cup of the covenant in my blood." Our taking from the cup has something to do with the covenant Jesus made with Yahweh, a covenant that included the hesed that enabled him to reveal God's kingdom around us.

It's possible the historical Jesus endured Good Friday's pain and death only because he was convinced that at least some of his followers would carry on his work. They'd demonstrated their commitment by drinking from his cup.

Can the risen Jesus count on us to make the same commitment?

[Fr. Roger Vermalen Karban is pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Renault, Ill.]

This story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Our covenant in Christ .

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