I had a lecture today on the covenant theme in Exodus and we looked, as background, at the covenants made between God and Abraham. If we look in the Old Testament we discover there are two types of covenant between man and God; unilateral and bilateral. A unilateral covenant is an agreement between two parties, but only one of the two parties has to do something. Nothing is required of the other party. A bilateral covenant is an agreement that is binding on both parties for its fulfillment. Both parties agree to fulfill certain conditions. If either party fails to meet their responsibilities, the covenant is broken and neither party has to fulfill the expectations of the covenant.
I was reminded of a lecture last week where the question of ordination was discussed and its similarities with baptism and the Eucharist. (see ‘Sacramental Theatre (part I)‘ post)Is baptism and ordination bilateral or unilateral covenants.
Due to the promises made at both covenant services they are clearly bilateral covenants. This means, therefore, that if one party does not fulfill the expectation then the covenant is broken. This is, however, not in the understanding of these sacraments; there is the understanding within the church that once you’ve been baptised or ordained then you can’t be undone. ‘What God has done cannot be undone.’ So has our language for this covenant relationship changed? Or have we misunderstood the nature of the covenant we are signing up for?
Let’s suggest, for a moment, that baptism is actually unilateral then it is a free gift of God’s grace given with nothing expected of us. This fits with the justification by faith teaching of Luther and other reformation thinkers, it also helps to argue in favour of infant baptism and for the continual mercy of God on His people who cannot keep their side of the covenant. This does, however, beg the question what are with the promises made at baptism? It is understood that baptism is based on the circumcision covenant of Genesis 17 rather than the original Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15 and the sign of baptism is the like the sign of circumcision. In many scholarly circles the circumcision covenant of Abraham and the Jewish people is a bilateral covenant. If were to suppose, however, that it is an extension of the original Abrahamic covenant then the sign or ‘seal’ of this covenant is nothing to do with the actual contractual covenant. Baptism and Ordination, therefore can be unilateral and they are merely a sign of acceptance. God makes promises to do something and is not reliant on us to fulfill anything in order for that covenant to be made. So what of the promises made? What of the response to this grace? We see the mixing of two types of covenant.
The similarity between these covenants and marriage is, again, helpful. It can be bilateral nature and yet be unilateral in practice. As humans we can make promises and intend to fulfill them but we don’t have the strength to change ourselves. Israel learnt that in the wilderness. God, however, in His great mercy never broke off the agreement. He sent Jesus to be a saving clause.
Mike Pilavachi uses a helpful illustration. He says God started the relationship with His people with a marriage contract but through His Son He gave them a final will and testament and all we have to do to recieve the gift is to turn up and collect.
My strange fascination with covenants started by trying to understand sacraments in the theatre church setting. Can this work and what does it look like?
The Eucharist marks a change in the covenant understanding of the church and beautiful illustrates the change from bilateral covenant to unilateral while keeping the need for a reponse on the other party (us). God gives His son freely to all and, therefore, all are welcome to take part but it requires people to ‘turn up and collect’. There needs to be intent.
What does this understanding mean in terms of open and closed table policy?
To do Eucharist in this theatre community would need to involve the whole community and not be selective. All would be welcome to partake of the meal. There would need to be intent in the hearts of the participants and they would need to be aware of what was going on. There would need to have an understanding of what they are recieving and what responding to it means. It is not just a corporate meal; it’s an individual meeting of Christ for Him to give His gift to you.
It would fit nicely into a space where we tell stories of God’s grace and ‘claim innocence and worship God’ and I have heard many stories of how people entered the Eucharist for the corporate and were deeply impacted with the personal. To introduce a meal surrounded by the story of God’s grace and love and to invite the group to enter into this story; to share a meal with each other in peace and community is not alien to the imagination of the theatre community. The impact and awareness of the personal involvement in the story must come only from God. What’s the intent in the Eucharist? To recieve the gift of Christ’s sacrifice and to hold it inside of yourself. Have we, therefore, lost the corporate response to the sacrifice for all and it was done for everyone whether you know it or acknowledge or not? How do we explain the power of the Eucharist on a personal level without giving people experience of it?
I finish on some reflections on the power of experience. While in the prison, over the weekend (see ‘Any Given Theatre (part V)‘ and ‘Wrestling With Truth (part III)‘ posts), I found myself saying to a prisoner, “We can talk and describe and use imagery. We can wreslte with these ideas until the cows come home but at the end of it all we need to do is experience it and we get a glimpse of something unspeakable. We struggle to communicate our faith because words fail.”
Claim innocence and worship God.
This is not a get out clause. We are invited to wrestle with it but we are wrestling because God wants to embrace us. He’s always got something up His sleeve which will remind us whose boss!
To share Eucharist in this theatre church would be a corporate involvement in a story; playing a part but we pray that in that moment God will reveal Himself and the personal connection will be made and the Eucharist maybe used as the key to unlock the life changing power and grace of God.