The following sermon is based on John Wesley's "Covenant Prayer". The text of the prayer is given below.
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do
and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me
and when there is none;
when I am troubled
and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued
and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment
and when it is lacking;
when I have all things,
and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer
all I have and am
to serve you,
as and where you choose.
Glorious and blessèd God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.
When I was studying in theology college, one of my tutors told us about his experience attending bible college in the United States in the 1970s. The tutor – let’s call him John – had actually decided to study theology as a young man for his first degree. In his second year at university he had the opportunity to go to the United States for a term and study in a US bible college.
John arrived at the US bible college as a life-long British Methodist. He was 19 years old and had never before left the UK. This was his first experience with a foreign country and it was also his first experience with Christianity, American style.
John told us that one of the first things his fellow students asked him was “Have you made a commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” John said that he was quite surprised by the question, that he thought for a few seconds and then said “Well, the last time I made a commitment to Jesus as my Lord and Saviour was this morning, why do you ask?”
Today we observe “Covenant Sunday” together and I want to explore the idea of what it means for a human being to make a commitment to God in conjunction with the observance of this special Sunday.
The Covenant Prayer is quite a powerful prayer. One might even call it extreme. It is certainly uncompromising. I suspect that it would more than meet the demands of the student who wondered whether my tutor had committed his life to God.
If you wish to do so, turn to page 288 in the Worship Book and look at this prayer with me. I want first to look at the last six lines of the prayer, on page 289.
These lines tell us clearly that we are praying to the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although the Covenant Prayer does not begin with an address to the Father, Son or Spirit, it does end with the Holy Trinity because it has been assumed from the beginning hat it is the Triune God to whom we are praying.
Now, let’s go back to the very beginning of the prayer – to the boldfaced type – and look at the very first line of the prayer.
This is strong stuff and the prayer jumps right in with a most astonishing commitment: addressing our prayer to the Holy Trinity, we pray, “I am no longer my own but yours.”
I am no longer my own but yours
“I am no longer my own but yours” What, exactly, does this phrase mean?
First of all, I think that it is simply making a statement of truth. Properly speaking from God’s perspective, we are not “our own” in any sense of the word.
When we make our offerings of money here in church we often say to God in prayer that we are giving back to him what he has given to us in the first place. And that is also what we are doing in the first line of the Covenant prayer. God has given each individual here his or her life and in this prayer we are offering that life back to God. But the thing is that we don’t have to.
Although it is true from a “God’s eye perspective”, that our lives are a gift from God and we are held in being by God, God does not say that he will cease to hold us in being if we do not acknowledge that our lives are gifted to us by Him – which is just another way of saying that God is Lord in our life.
Our very lives are a free gift from God and God generously holds us in being for as long as we are to live whether or not we acknowledge God, whether or not we ignore God, whether or not we curse God. God gives us the gift of free will because he wants us to freely turn our lives over to him.
As we know, the Great Commandment is love God and love your neighbour. (I hope you know this by now, because I think I must say it almost every week). As we also know, love is about self-giving.
The only way that a person can love God is to give to back God his or her life, his or her very self. Because the essence of Christian love is the action of self-giving, our love for God can’t be coerced from us, nor can it be pre-programmed into us. God freely gives us our lives and he hopes for our free giving in return.
I don’t know how many of you have seen the film “Bruce Almighty”, a film where the character Bruce is given all of God’s abilities and responsibilities for a short time. Bruce’s one frustration is that he can’t make the woman he loves love him back, even with God’s powers. At one point, Bruce asks God “How do you get someone to love you?” and God chuckles and responds “Welcome to my world!”
God freely gives us our lives, our families and everything that we have. God also gives us the gift of freedom – to choose to acknowledge him and love him in return or to choose to turn our back on him. God hopes that we will respond by giving him our love, by acknowledging him as Lord, as the one who holds us in being.
And in this prayer we begin by doing that very thing. We pray “I am no longer my own, but yours”. Lord, I give up any notion I have of being in charge of my own life and my own soul. I know that without you, I am nothing, and I freely acknowledge this fact to you, to myself and to my Christian brothers and sisters. I give back to you, I intend to give back to you, I hope to give back to you, the very life that you have given me.
Your Will be Done
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “your will be done”. In the Covenant Prayer, we also pray “your will be done”.
If you look again on page 288, most of the rest of the prayer after the first line is an elaboration on the sorts of situations where we pray for God’s will to be done in our lives. The list does not make for comfortable reading.
This list is also powerful, extreme and uncompromising. If you look closely I think we can divide this list into two broad categories: when things are going well and when things are not going well. It’s very much like the marriage vow to stick by one’s spouse for better or for worse. What’s effective about this prayer – and also somewhat shocking – are the specific instances listed.
Many of us who consider ourselves committed Christians will want to work for the Kingdom of God. But in this prayer, we are asking for God’s will to be done when there is no Kingdom work for us to do as well as when there is Kingdom work for us to do. This can be very difficult. Sometimes God may say to us “No, this kingdom work is for your brother or sister in Christ to do, it’s not for you.” Or God may say “This work is for the Holy Spirit, not for you.” And we may feel troubled and useless because we think we see an urgent need and we want something to happen. Now!
But this prayer also asks us to pray: “Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded.” The work of the Kingdom ultimately belongs to God and God knows what he is doing. But this can be really hard to trust – I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. I’m sure we’ve all been there. God calls us to work for his Kingdom, but we always have to keep in mind that it is God who will ultimately usher in the Kingdom, not us and our work.
This can be a delicate and difficult balance to strike. It is a hard thing to be disregarded and it is especially difficult to be disregarded if we think that it is only in “Doing Something” that we can be tools of God.
My tutor’s youthful college friends wanted to know if he acknowledged the Triune God to be his Lord. The Covenant Prayer that we will pray together in just a few minutes acknowledges the Lordship of the Trinity in a fairly dramatic way.
The prayer acknowledges implicitly that all that we have – our family, friends, homes and our very lives – are gifts from God. The prayer acknowledges that none of these things could exist apart from the love and grace of God.
We begin the prayer by offering back to God the greatest gift that he has given us – our selves.
We remember that as our Lord, it is the Triune God who has offered us the possibility of this Covenant. It is he who initiates this Covenant, not us.
The Covenant of God’s faithfulness was offered from the beginning and is testified to in both the Old and the New Testaments. The Covenant was made possible and was brought to fruition by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died and rose so that we might be reconciled with the Father.
Before we could do anything, God offered us his forgiveness, his love and his grace in order to draw us to him in love. This prayer is an opportunity to respond to God’s offer for forgiveness, love and grace and I hope that each of us will feel able to pray this prayer.
If you have never before responded to God’s offer of forgiveness and love, this service is a good opportunity to do so. If you responded to God’s offer of forgiveness and love many years ago, this service is an opportunity to make that commitment again in the context of Holy Communion.
At the Communion table, we understand in very concrete terms that God has prepared his banquet table for us in advance, before we could do anything. In the company of our brothers and sisters, we will now confess our sins, renew our commitment to God and we will taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen