Of all the world religions, Christianity places a high premium on community. “Christian” spirituality is uniquely communal. Our relationship with God is nurtured, formed within a group of people.
One of the most distinctive things we do, is gather together. We worship together. We pray together. We sing together. We commune together around the Lord’s Table. And of course, we eat together- potlucks, pancake Shrove Tuesday suppers , Loaves & Fishes, Out of the cold Dinners, Soup Suppers. No “lone-ranger” spirituality here, where it’s merely and only about one’s private, “me-and-God”, “me-and-Jesus” spirituality.
One of the other distinctly unique things Christians do while being together in community, is to make promises to each other. We say we will do something; and we try to do it. We make promises.
We make marriage promises. We promise commitment to a community of faith, and to helping others, by our volunteerism and acts of service to others. At Baptism and Confirmation, we promise faithfulness to God’s way.
But, of course, no-one needs to remind us how hard it is for us to keep promises, how bad we’re at it, and following through on them.
The divorce rate among Christians mirrors that of larger society.
Our “New Year’s Resolutions” – essentially promises we make to ourselves for our own good and health – eating less, exercising more – are often made January 1, and already long broken by January 31.
We make promises to “give up” things for Lent, or conversely to “take on” some new activity or some spiritual discipline, only to realize by the 3rd Sunday in Lent that we’re already sneaking that piece of chocolate.
Here’s one: We promise to ourselves and our children, to be better communicators to our children; being less reactive, less angry with them. And then, later in the evening, the children are yelling at each other over something, and then we parents, in our own frustration and anger, yell at our children not to yell at each other in the house. Wonderful modelling, eh? Another broken promise.
Let’s face it; we’re not particularly stellar at keeping our promises. As someone once said, the church is “sort of like Noah’s Ark: It’s a stinky mess inside, but if you get out you’ll drown.”
And yet, we continue, in the practice of the Christian faith, to make them.
But we make promises, not because we’re particularly good at keeping them, but because God is good at keeping them.
We may mess up on our promises time and time again, but God never does.
To Noah and his family, God promised to protect and save his family from the coming flood waters; and God did.
To Sarah and Abraham, 95 and 100 years old respectively, even when it seemed so unlikely and impossible for them to have a baby, God promised them one; and sure enough, God “delivered” (no pun intended). Isaac was born. And in this way God fulfilled another earlier promise to Abraham, that God would give Abraham descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And these descendants would become a blessing to all other people of the earth.
Because we have a God who is faithful to us, and who keeps promises, we, as followers of this God, also make and try to keep promises to each other.
But given our poor track record on keeping our good promises to one another and to God, we might expect God to have long ago given up on us, vacated planet Earth, and gone to some other planet to try and start all over again with another species. We, not God, are the ones who’ve long ago already broken the terms of our promises and contracts.
But God doesn’t operate on contracts, but rather, on covenants.
Contracts are conditional. That is, they’re based on writing out, in black and white, the exact terms of a commitment. “If you do this, then I will do that.” Each party to a contract knows exactly what they are expected to do, and what they can expect from others. Contracts also spell out, in no uncertain terms, what will happen if any party fails to keep their promise. A dissolution policy. Contracts are inherently conditional.
Covenants, in contrast, are unconditional in nature. Covenants interrupt the hard, consistent logic of a contract.
So for example, even though, throughout the sweep of Biblical history, the children of Israel, the people of God have time and time again proven unfaithful to God, again and again turning to worship Baal or some other god, even though Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the prophets cried out against the people’s unfaithfulness to God, God never gave up on the people, always going back and trying again, inspiring again in a different way, prodding with the Holy Spirit some other person or group of people to show the way.
This covenantal relationship between God and God’s people was brought down to earth and embodied in the person of Jesus, who showed unconditional love, even to those who tortured and killed him.
Knowing our own failures in keeping even good promises, does not, and should not, discourage us from continuing to make good promises to each other.
We continue doing so, knowing that in this lifetime, we’ll never really “arrive” at that perfect spot we’d all like to be in. None of us is there yet. And yet we all strive for it, reaching for that ideal keeping our good promises to each other, not expecting to be perfect, and yet, always trying, learning, stumbling, and helping each other up.
Not condemning each other. But helping each other. Ergo: the importance and purpose of community. To be around others who help us along the way, picking us up when we fall, helping each other up and pushing us along the way. Helping each other keep our promises, and always leaning on, and resting in, and depending on, the grace and goodness of God, who is faithful.
I like what C.S. Lewis said:
“No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready and the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt, that God is most present in us: it is the very sign of His presence.”
We see Jesus in our own point of weakness. What is our weakness? What is our point of failure? Jesus is there. And we are made stronger in Jesus. We are weak, but He is strong, and always faithful.