February 16, 2015

God’s Expansive Covenant

            Postmodernity has challenged us to consider whether the world has a coherent metanarrative; indeed, can the claim of Christianity to interpret the whole of the human story from creation until the present continue to have purchase on our understanding?
            In earlier times, we could perpetuate our understanding of the “other” when we really did not know any of them, and we saw the biblical narrative as the only sacred story, telling the history of the whole creation. Maybe it was for you like it was for me; I really did not know that there were stories of creation other than Genesis. I was not aware that a myth of origins resided in every culture as a way of interpreting present existence.

            God has been at work throughout the creation God fashioned, and the history of covenant may be more expansive than we have considered.  I am delighted that the lectionary texts for this first Sunday of Lent offer a perspective of God’s care for all humanity as well as tell the particularly Christian form of it.
            The story of the flood has prompted great and whimsical art; it has been told as a children’s story when it is really a horrific tale.  It does not portray God in the best light—One willing to destroy all that had been created because of human sinfulness. Only one family worth saving; really? Noah’s family?!  We know that he liked to “get into the grape,” as Will Campbell describes drunkenness.
            Even though the saga of the deluge remains an early story of judgment, there is surprising and expansive grace in the narrative. The covenant God makes with Noah and family is the first covenant in the Bible.  It precedes the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and it renews the blessing given at creation (1:28).  It is a covenant made with all humanity; and we are left to wonder, did the more selective covenant eventuate because of widespread failure of this earlier covenant? Lent is surely about human failure and our need for the divine assistance!

            It is worth retracing what this promise of God was about, for it may help us as we think about our religiously complex world.  In the words of Will Willimon, “it is up to God to make something out of the mud and mess after the flood.”
            So God establishes a covenant with all future generations, not just Noah.  It will include Jew and Gentile alike, and it is not just for humanity, but includes God’s creatures, too.  Later Jewish writers appealed to this covenant to explain how the “heathen” had knowledge of God.
            We are used to thinking only about God’s covenant with Abraham, and then by extension our share in the covenant as Christians.  Too often we have viewed the covenant with Israel as abrogated, and saw supersessionism—that the church has replaced Israel—as the truth of the Bible.
            It was John Baillie who highlighted the Noachic covenant in his book The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought, a concept I had never heard prior to seminary.  The covenant God made with this family, indeed, the whole human race, occurred before it was divided into tribal groups of Shemites, the Hamites, and the sons of Japheth.  One hears echoes of this covenant in the writings of Paul, who suggests that all persons have received revelation of the character of God, and that conscience can be an index of righteousness for those who have not heard the Gospel.  In other words, God is at work through all religious traditions.

I believe God’s expansive covenant includes other ways of faith. Might it be possible that the death of Christ somehow offer provision for them even if they do not hear the proclamation of the Gospel until they die?  God is at work, drawing all toward God’s purpose of redemption.  I trust that God will honor faith’s promise in its varied forms.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

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