A sermon on Genesis 17:7 by Nathan Nettleton
As most of you probably realise by now, in a few minutes time we will be celebrating with our children the formation of our Junior Catechumenate. Now I wish I could take credit for planning ahead and scheduling this on a day when the readings had something to say about the place of children in the love of God, but I have to confess that it was pure luck on my part that in the first reading scheduled for tonight we heard God say, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Now this is a line that opens up all sorts of curly questions because it is exactly the sort of line that has been used by many to justify the baptism of children, but one of the reasons we are forming a Junior Catechumenate is precisely because we don’t baptise our children (or at least not while they are still children, anyway!). So the fortunate conjunction of this passage of scripture and the event we are about to celebrate gives us a good opportunity to reflect on just what it is that we are and are not saying about the place of children in the life of our community and in the love of God.
So let’s begin by looking at this covenant which God establishes with Abraham and Sarah and with their offspring forever. The most striking thing about this covenant is that it is unconditional. Throughout the biblical history, God makes a number of different covenants, and they can be roughly divided into two different kinds: unconditional covenants, and conditional covenants. The conditional ones are the ones where God says, “if you are faithful to these expectations then I will bless you in these ways.” If … then… But this covenant established with Abraham and Sarah is not one of those if-then covenants. This one is unconditional. “I, God, will do this, for you and your offspring. Full stop.”
So straight away you can see why this covenant can include generations of offspring who haven’t even been born yet and whose response cannot be predicted. It can include them because it is not in any way dependent on their response. God will be true to this covenant regardless of their response. So what is it that God is promising to do? “I will be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Now at first glance, that might seem like a big let down. God promises to be God. So what? How is that any different than me promising to continue to be Nathan whether you like it or not? Well, there is a big difference actually, because God is not so much a name as a description of essential being or character. You remember God saying to Moses, “I am who I am.” Different story, but similar idea here. So it is more like me saying, “I will continue to be who I am, to be true to myself, whatever you think of it.” But I can’t really make an everlasting covenant to do that, because I don’t know myself sufficiently and because I am susceptible to bending to pressures and expectations from those around me. But God is capable of knowing exactly what it means to be perfectly truly God and of promising to be so now and ever and to the ages of ages.
So one of the implications of this covenant is that God is promising not to be two-faced. It is not “if you are good I will love you and if you are bad I will turn into an angry vengeful enemy”. God is promising to be consistent, to be truly God, no matter what. We have the privilege of being able to interpret that through God’s later self-revelation in Jesus. In Jesus we have seen who God is and what God is like. In Jesus we have seen that God is love and grace and mercy and is so without ceasing. We have seen that even in the face of the most horrendous response, in the face of fearful bitterness and violent hostility, God remains gracious and self-giving and generously merciful and utterly utterly loving. In Jesus we have seen this unconditional covenant expressed fully under the most extreme rejection, and so we can know that there is nothing we could ever do and no response that we could ever make that could make God ever be anything else or ever love us any less.
And thus we can affirm that this covenant encompasses our children and our children’s children without it violating their freedom of choice at all. Whatever they may or may not do in response to the love of God, God will continue to love them and forgive them and desire for them the full joyous experience of that love and mercy and life without limit. God will be faithful to this covenant no matter what, because that is who God is and always will be.
And so, the argument in many churches goes, we can baptise our newborn children because God’s covenant is unconditional and God’s grace precedes any response we can make and so baptism is a sign and a seal of this unconditional covenant. Well, I understand the argument, and I have some sympathy with it, but I still think it is mistaken. As I said before, the Bible talks about a number of covenants, and so we can’t just assume that this covenant is the covenant that baptism expresses. The New Testament is consistent in linking baptism with a decision to repent, that is to turn our lives around, and to follow Jesus. So baptism expresses both God’s call and our response. It is a dialogue, not a monologue. A part of that dialogue is our expression of commitment for life. In a few weeks time, we will celebrate with Rita as she makes that commitment for life in the waters of baptism here. But I am ready to baptise Rita because I am confident that she comprehends what “for life” means. My daughter Acacia, on the other hand, is only thirteen, and if she came to me and said “I want to get married” or “I want to get my face tattooed” or some other “for life” kind of decision, I would doubt whether she can yet sufficiently get her head around the implications of “for life”. So I am more than happy for her to participate in a ritual that celebrates God’s unconditional covenant love for her, but I am not yet going to facilitate a ritual that asks her to make a lasting covenant response of her own.
Not that I don’t hope that she will. I’m sure that all of us hope for all of these children that they will grow up to embrace the life of love and mercy and discipleship that Jesus is calling us to live. But will they do so? Maybe. Maybe not. None of us can decide for them, and it is one of the things we parents have to learn as our children grow is that we cannot make them believe or value or choose the things we believe or value or choose. They will walk the path of discipleship, or walk away from it, themselves, as responsible individuals.
But that doesn’t mean that we have no influence. We do, and part of what we are doing here today is acknowledging that influence and committing ourselves to exercising it as generously and graciously and gently as we can. This, of course, is nothing new. Half of these kids have been here since birth. We are already a significant influence for better or for worse. And they don’t get to choose what sort of influence we will be. They are not here because they decided to be church-going kids, but because their parents decided to be church going parents, and they had to come along. And every time they come along, they are influenced by us in one way or another. So the only expressions of commitment to be made in this rite will be made by us adults, committing ourselves to expressing God’s unconditional love towards these children, to taking an interest in them and praying for them and living out the faith as openly and generously and attractively as we can before them.
There is however, some differences between the various youngsters here. Some of them are more able to play a full part in these choices than others. Three of them are now adolescents and have been through their rites of initiation into young manhood or womanhood. They were offered the choice of opting in to the Junior Catechumenate tonight, or opting out and perhaps becoming part of the adult one in a few years time. They have all honoured us by opting in, by accepting the invitation to be named now as being part of this congregation in this way. But that doesn’t mean that we should try to push them further. You will notice a significant difference from last week’s rite. Last week when Lauren and Minnie were enrolled in the catechumenate, they pledged themselves to actively seeking faith and fullness of life and to praying and reading the Bible and seeking to learn the way of life from it. The children will not be asked to make any such promises. Promises will be made to them, but not asked of them.
Our Junior Catechumenate expresses the everlasting unconditional covenant, as expressed to Abraham and Sarah, but it does not assume that our children will necessarily embrace it. It expresses the gifts we hope to pass on to them, but it doesn’t demand that they accept those gifts. It expresses that these children have a home in God’s family, and that we will always welcome them and love them, but it doesn’t lock them in and demand that they stay. It acknowledges that they are now brought here by others but that in time the choice will become theirs. It doesn’t put words in their mouths, but it expresses the prayerful hope that their words of their mouths will increasingly echo the love and grace of Jesus. It is an invitation, not a committal. It is a prayer, not a confinement.
So tonight we celebrate the presence of these children among us. We give thanks for the way they reveal the face of God to us and challenge us to be open to encountering God’s revelations in the spontaneous, the vulnerable, the chaotic, and the restlessly creative. We acknowledge that we would be a much less faithful reflection of God’s kingdom if they were not among us. We declare that they are welcome here and that they have a treasured place of belonging among us. And we pledge ourselves to sharing our gifts with them and living out our discipleship openly and transparently before them, honouring their freedom to do with those gifts as they will, not pushing any beliefs or practices on them, but inviting them to come with us as we journey more fully into the life of God. We seek to hold them lovingly but lightly, trusting their futures not to our own strategies but to the grace of God. And this we can do because both we are they are held lovingly and lightly in the everlasting covenant first made known to Abraham and Sarah: “I will establish my covenant with you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God — unconditionally faithful, inviting, loving and gracious — to you and to your offspring after you, now and ever and to the ages of ages.” Amen.