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Why Relationships Matter - Part 2

Pastor Reed Bernick

Last time I posted, I argued that Christianity’s emphasis on ‘relationships’ goes way deeper than it first appears. As I said then, there are certainly practical reasons why here in Northern Virginia we talk a lot about community and friendship – because our culture makes establishing connections with others difficult. But that’s not the whole story. Our focus on ‘relationships’ isn’t just a way that we package more important “spiritual” claims, or even address tangible needs. Rather, we believe that ‘relationship’ itself is a consistent, foundational theological principle in our faith.

To make the case in the first post, I walked through three big Christian ideas in roughly chronological order: the Trinity, Creation, and the Fall. This time I’d like to talk about three others: the Covenants, the Church, and Redemption. Before I do though, let me make something clear: for one, I’m aware that we’re flying pretty high here – and that by splitting up the Biblical story into six parts I’ll inevitably be skipping quite a bit. But my point isn’t to provide a comprehensive interpretation of scripture, only to show how ‘relationships’ are clear priorities in God’s plan for us and the world.

Also: I’m aware of how diverse my use of that word ‘relationship’ is. Sometimes I’m talking about the relationship between people, sometimes I’m using it more generally or ambiguously. But that’s important too, I think. As I’ll talk about further down, the significance of ‘relationships’ in the Bible may seem abstract when we’re discussing the Trinity or the Fall, but when we consider the idea as a constant red thread running from Genesis to Revelation, we’re able to recognize exactly what kind of relationships matter so much to God and ought to matter to us. That’s how I would like to land the plane at the end of the post. Let’s see if I can.

4. The Covenants

Covenants are formal promises – ‘formal’ because they tend to take a certain kind of form: they often have detailed stipulations, prescribed punishments, defined roles for the parties involved, etc. So rather than thinking of something spiritual or mysterious when we hear the word ‘covenant,’ it’s more proper to think about contracts and treaties.

There are at least six main covenants in the Bible – though readers sometimes disagree. And each of them have to do with re-establishing the relationships that were broken in the fall. In fact, almost immediately after things erode, God begins the work of putting them back together – slowly, methodically, one negotiation at a time. In Genesis 3 – maybe just hours after Adam and Eve confess their disobedience – we receive the Edenic Covenant (vv.14-19 – though it could be argued that the initial agreement between Adam and God in 2:16-17 is also an “Edenic Covenant”). All three of the relationships that we mentioned last time are addressed in it: the relationship between people, the relationship between people and the created order, and (perhaps most obviously) the relationship between people and God. But if you read carefully, even here at the start of all things, God’s plan to reunite himself with what had fallen away is clear. He tells the serpent that he will strike the heal of Eve’s offspring – but that, in time, that offspring will crush his head (3:15).

The Noahide Covenant (Genesis 9:8-17), which may at first seem a bit too particular to be helpful or relevant, codifies God’s love for people – right after a story that draws that love into question. It’s not just that God promises to never flood the earth again – it’s that God’s intentions about people are clarified: he cares for us, and rather than treating us as expendable or replaceable, he reveals that he sees us as creatures worthy of his care. The story of Noah ends with a decisive confirmation of God’s faithfulness.

With the coming of the covenant between God and Abraham, the ‘how’ of God’s restorative plan for the world is finally set in plain sight. After its first appearance in Genesis 12:1-3, it’s reiterated several other times (Genesis 13:14-17, 17:1-14, 22:15-18) – but the essentials are unchanged: God will bring the nations back into relationship with him by first establishing a people for himself. And after the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic and Davidic covenants go even deeper – revealing a perfect Law that can teach us about God’s ways, and introducing a Davidic dynasty that, in Christ, will never come undone. In the New Covenant, of course – these things are brought to fulfillment with the arrival of Jesus. The favor that was exclusive for Abraham’s descendants is finally made available through association with God’s Son.

5. The Church
I suppose that I could have lumped the church in with the other covenants – because it’s the same story, and really, the New Covenant that Jesus gives us in his body and blood determines its identity. But it deserves its own heading here because of its significance in salvation history. The church is primarily about a new social reality breaking into the world through Jesus’ presence mediated by the Spirit. In ways that no prior community, initiative, institution, or ethic could ever hope to achieve – in the church, God finally sets forth a viable manifestation of the unity he’s worked so hard to achieve since the beginning.

The most striking explanation of that unity comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30. Paul tells us that the church – which is a “social” reality because it is a community (and never an individual) with its own unique values and priorities – is the veritable body of Christ on earth. And each person who is a part of it is an indispensable member, equipped with skills and passions meant to contribute towards the flourishing of the whole. Literally, we are members of one another – and Jesus is the one who has reconciled us together, and who is revealed to the world through the way we cooperate and exist in unity. That’s why it matters so much that we get along!

6. Redemption
There’s more to say about each of these points – but especially about redemption. I’m using the term only to gesture towards the final fulfillment of this narrative I’ve been summarizing. But what’s important to say here is this: that what starts as an intimate relationship of equals within the Trinity – a perichoretic dance of divine persons – finishes with the dwelling of that communal God in a New Jerusalem, surrounded by creatures and creations that he’s won with his love. As John puts it in Revelation 22:3, no longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

The Christian story doesn’t finish where it starts. God’s doesn’t withdraw his ancient decision to create the universe. Nor does he conquer the disunity and disfunction of creation by absorbing it back into himself somehow and thereby annihilating any and all distinction. No – there’s no nirvana here. In its most basic form, the Bible culminates in a perfect community with God at its center: people relating to people; people “seeing God’s face.”

Which means that ‘relationship’ is, in some sense, the main point of the story all along. And not just passive relationships – but relationships of reconciliation, and hard-fought unity (case in point, the scope and breadth of the Abrahamic covenant). It’s who God is, it’s how God has worked, it’s what God has cared about, it’s what God has established and maintained, and it’s what his plan ultimately produces when all is said and done. So when we as a church uphold the value of ‘relationships’ as a central tenet of our faith and life together, we do so not because it’s in line with the most recent church trends or strategies, or because it’s what we think our people need or want. No, we do so on much more solid ground.

Thanks for reading!
Reed

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