The great theologian Henri Nouwen once said, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. [But] the mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”[i]
“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.”
In a way, this statement by Nouwen get to the very heart of what it means to live-into our covenant with God, to live-out our shared ministry as the church, and what it truly means to be in relationship with each other. We’re invited, according to Nouwen, to use our understanding of Christ’s wisdom, his teachings, and his healing acts to demonstrate the very depths of divine love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, right? But what if we fall short? What if my love for others isn’t as unconditional as God’s love is for me?
Well, in truth, we simply cannot be adequate conduits of God’s love; not on our own anyway. We’re far too fragile, too afraid, too, well, human. But herein lies the beauty of covenant. Covenant is a two-way street. We are in covenant with God, but God is also in covenant with us. So, while we may not be perfect in our love for others, this covenant that we have with God; this intrinsic, inherent, deep within our hearts knowledge of God’s love that Jeremiah espouses, will finally be enough. I say that because I believe, with every fiber of my being, that God goes before us and is there with us in all situations.
How do I know this? Well, let’s look at the history of covenant. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about covenant; from Noah and the rainbow, to Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants, to Moses and the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, through David and the Davidic line that finally leads to Jesus.
But in this week’s reading from Jeremiah, we see a significant change in the covenant. In this short passage, the prophet reveals a covenant that’s not carved in stone, or somehow external, but instead, one that’s written deep within each of us. And it’s through this change in perspective that Jeremiah helps us to understand God’s covenant as an on-going process. In a very real way, God’s covenant with us and our response to God’s promises are constantly forming and reforming, developing and changing. Covenant is always in the process of becoming more.
Now, contextually, Jeremiah was speaking to the people of Israel while they were still in captivity, still in exile, still steeped in loss and grief. Their city had been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon had carried many of them away to the far-off capital of its powerful empire. So, by the time we get to the 31st chapter, Jeremiah was no longer scolding the people for their sin or their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, he was bringing the people a new message from God. A new message of comfort and hope and compassion. God’s heart, according to Jeremiah, had been touched by their suffering, and, God had forgiven them.
And it was during this time of exile that God made sweeping promises to the people of Israel; promises of restoration, of return, and, most importantly, of relationship. Once again, as in so many of the covenant stories that came before this one, God promised to be in relationship with the people. Think again about Noah and Abraham, Moses and David; God promised to abide with them; to be present with them through thick and thin. And here, in the new covenant, relationship is again at the core of it all. God says through Jeremiah, “I will be your God, and you…you will be my people.”[ii]
And just so we know that this isn’t some temporary thing, God, says, “I will put my instruction within you and engrave it on your heart.” So, even though this covenant is new and continues to develop and progress, it never goes away. This is what Walter Brueggemann calls the “core memory” of Israel.[iii]
And this is interesting. It’s interesting because these “core memoires” these intrinsic instructions, this deep, primal understanding of covenant as knowing the law of God, as knowing right and wrong, doesn’t go away either. God’s covenant is always within us.
So, why is this important? Well, it’s important because this internal understanding, our “core memory” if you will, guides our decision making. We somehow know, deep within our being, right from wrong. Yes, I will grant that our experiences, our traditions, and what we have been taught by our elders greatly affect the choices we make in life. But, I also believe that God’s intrinsic instructions guide us as well. This is the essence of moral philosophy.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that show themselves to be a liberated people. When finished he asked them as a review to tell him what he had just said. Well, he got a variety of attempts, some close and some not so close. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so on now and behave.”[iv]
Maybe when it’s all said and done, that’s what the new covenant calls us to do; to “go and behave.” That’s certainly what Jesus challenged the disciples to do after his death and as they began to form those early communities of faith. Basically, he told them to go and behave like me, right? And what might that behavior look like in our world today? Well, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the lonely, speak up for those who have been silenced, welcome the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant. My friends, Jesus continues to challenge us to behave according to that intrinsic covenant, that knowledge of right and wrong, that remains deep within us. “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.” And I would add, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him by loving all people and all creation are the same thing.”
One final thought on this subject. In the United Church of Christ, when we talk about the Still-Speaking God, what do we mean? Is there an audible voice speaking in the world today? Some might lift-up the cries of the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed as that voice. Okay. But what if the Still-Speaking voice of God isn’t on the outside? Or audible? What if the voice of God is speaking within each of us? Maybe that’s finally what Jeremiah was driving at here. Maybe he understood that sharing the love of God comes not from righteousness or piety or perfection, but rather, sharing divine love comes from within our hearts. You know, that place where our covenant with God is engraved.
So, as we near the end of our journey though Lent, perhaps the most important “take-away” from all this is love God, love others, love from deep within your being. Perhaps, that’s the meaning of covenant; perhaps that’s finally, the meaning of the cross.
[i] Henri Nouwen In the Name of Jesus (www.journey-endurance.blogspot.com) 2007
[ii] Kathryn Matthews. God’s Love in Our Hearts (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018
[iii] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2008)
[iv] Stan Duncan Written on Their Hearts (www.homebynow.blogspot.com) 2013