The Gospel text appointed for a Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service is from Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage, Matthew recounts Jesus’ familiar Parable of the Great Judgment about separating the sheep from the goats; thus, saving the sheep and damning the goats because of the goats’ failure to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to visit the prisoner. It’s an uncomfortable passage for all Christians striving to be better disciples in service of God’s kingdom. It convicts every one of us. But, why is this the appointed passage for a covenant renewal service? And, what is a covenant renewal service?
Every year – usually in January – we undertake to renew our covenant to God. This tradition comes from John and Charles Wesley who found the practice of examining our souls and of remembering the covenantal promises of God through Jesus Christ to be efficacious in the Christian experience. In the Wesley household where John and Charles grew up, their parents Samuel and Susanna were inspired by many Puritan traditions. A periodic renewal of our covenantal relationship with God was one of those Puritan-inspired practices of the Wesley family.
In 1780, John Wesley wrote a pamphlet entitled “Directions for Renewing Our Covenant with God” in which he described the state of the human soul, the decision one makes for or against Christ, and how one goes about making or renewing a covenantal relationship to God by and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn specifically for covenant renewal services in 1762 entitled “Come, Let Us Use the Grace Divine.” It’s hymn number 606 in The United Methodist Hymnal. Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer” is number 607.
At the forefront of John Wesley’s mind was the personal preparation that should be undertaken before confessing and professing the solemnities of a covenant renewal with God. Making or renewing a covenant with God is not to be undertaken lightly or apathetically. Wesley begins his pamphlet with this recommendation: “Get these three Principles fixed in your hearts: that Things eternal are much more considerable than Things temporal; that Things not seen are as certain as the Things that are seen; that upon your present choice depends your eternal lot, Chuse [sic] Christ and his ways, and you are blessed for ever; refuse, and you are undone for ever.” Wesley reminds his readers that making a covenant with God is a choice that comes from a recognition deep within our hearts and souls that only dependence on and trust in Christ will make us whole, will save us from an eternity of suffering, and will bring us to salvation.
In the spirit of this advice from Wesley, it is appropriate that the Matthew text recounting Jesus’ Parable of the Great Judgment should be appointed for the Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service. This Parable helps us recognize our own accountability in the Christian life. It employs Jesus’ words as a measuring stick for us to use to judge our actions and omissions in our Christian journeys. It shines a light on the way we live with our neighbors in God’s kingdom. By its very nature, the Parable reminds us that we do not have the strength by our own willpower to perfectly follow the teachings of Jesus. We must surrender our lives and our wills to Him who is the Author of Salvation. As Wesley reminds his readers: “Trust not to your own strength, to the strength of your own resolutions, but take hold on His strength.”
Please join your brothers and sisters in Christ for our annual Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service on Wednesday, January 9, at 6:30 pm, in the Sanctuary following our first Wednesday evening fellowship meal of the new year.
May you find renewed strength to take up the cross of Christ and to follow His Way,
Your sister in Christ,