Covenant Renewal in Methodism has often been a way of marking New Year's Eve. At University Hill Congregation this annual rite of renewal took place on the Sunday in Epiphany when we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Though I had been active in the United Church for four decades when I arrived at UHill, it was all new to me. At first it felt odd. I had not integrated this ceremony into my own life or into my ministry. Now, all these years later, I look forward to the Sunday in the year when we renew our promises with God and with one another. This is what we will do this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent.
Some time ago Margaret commented that she found that the Covenant Renewal service was at once very powerful and yet also came too suddenly. She said that we had just celebrated Christmas and then arrived one Sunday to make these most extraordinary commitments unprepared. She wondered how we might be better prepared to participate. It prompted us to look at the Christian Year and to find a Sunday when the service of Renewal of Baptism and Covenant Renewal made a better fit. At the same time we were cultivating a spirit of growth in discipleship during Lent. We noticed that Lent had tended to have a rather mournful, dark, sombre tone to it and we thought that this might not really capture the challenge and wonder of the call to discipleship that is at the heart of the journey to the cross. That is how it came to be that we moved the service to the last Sunday of Lent prior to Holy Week (Lent actually continues through to Holy Saturday, with Holy Week being a week in Lent).
This is what happens. Following the sermon we remain seated and sing the first verse of a baptismal hymn ("Wash Us, God, Your Sons and Daughters"). Then the presider and worship elder move to the baptismal font. The baptismal font always sits at the front of the Chapel as a reminder that our baptism marks our initiation into the church. Water has been poured into the font, as it always is, at the beginning of the service when the candles are lit and the Bible is brought forward. Then those who have been baptised are invited to come forward and to stand by the font. Then the worship elder and presider place their hands in the water and make the mark of the cross on the forehead of the person standing before each of them. While making the mark of the cross they say: “Remember your baptism. Walk with Christ in newness of life.”
This is a reminder of Paul's words: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3-4). While our font is not shaped in the form of a cross like the one pictured above from a sixth century Nabatean church we are learning to re-imagine our baptism as a journey through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday, as a journey through death to life. It is easy for us to forget our identity as children of God, adopted into the family through the grace of Jesus Christ. We can sometimes imagine that our primary identity is shaped by our passport or birth certificate or cv. That is why the annual renewal of our baptism is such an important event in the Christian Year.
Once a person has received the mark of the cross at the font they do not return to their seat. Instead, they stay at the font, replacing the person who marked their forehead. Then they place their hand in the water and say the words of remembering and mark the forehead of the next person in line (we make sure that the words "Remember your baptism. Walk with Christ in newness of life" are on the font to assist everyone's participation). When all who wish to come forward have done so the worship elder and presider come to renew their baptisms.
Then we move from a renewal of our individual baptisms to a renewal of our mutual covenant with God. This is an act of the community. We make it clear that only those who feel able to make such a covenant need to speak the words. We want no one to feel compelled to participate. We ask those who are witnesses rather than participants to stand in solidarity with the congregation when the time comes to speak the promises. At the same time we remind one another that, as in a marriage, the promises are a reflection of our love for God and a stating of our deepest desires before God. That we fall short of these promises is evident in Holy Week when Peter and the rest of the disciples swear on a stack of Bibles that they will never leave Jesus, only to hear the cock crow after Peter's denial and the disciples' flight. This is the paradox of discipleship. It requires us of a deep commitment in faith and love. Yet our commitments fall short, the church flees, abandoning Jesus at the cross. Then, in its despair the church - including Peter, who has been anything but a rock in the face of trouble - is met by the Risen Christ who forgives, calls and sends a newly courageous community of disciples who now live not out of their own faithfulness but out of God's Easter newness. We locate the covenant renewal within this story of commitment, failure and of God's redemption of our broken promises.
The service of Covenant Renewal is introduced by the presider. As part of that introduction I find that the following words speak powerfully of our mutual calling:
Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.
Let us give ourselves to God,
trusting in God’s promises and relying on God’s grace.
Then the congregation is invited to stand and to renew its covenant with the God met in Jesus Christ:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me and when there is none;
when I am troubled and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfillment and when it is lacking;
when I have all things, and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer all I have and am
to serve you, as and where you choose.
Glorious and blessed Triune God,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.
This is a contemporary version of the original Wesleyan covenant prayer and comes to us from the Methodist Church in England. When the service of covenant renewal has ended we offer our gifts, we sing the final verses of the baptismal hymn and we celebrate the sacrament of communion - the Messianic wedding banquet celebrating the future present - God's will done and God's kingdom come.