Holy Love: Covenant

The third vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is the Covenant.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is the creator/creation congruence we have looked at in the past two posts.  But that congruence raises the question, “How can we tell when the will of God is being done on earth?”  The answer is found in one word: Covenant. [1]

In the book I explore Covenant in various ways.  In this post I want to expand the exploration by using Walter Brueggemann’s phrase “journey to the common good.” [2]  In using this phrase he understands that Covenant manifests itself throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament.  

The metaphor of journey is the context for Covenant.  For one thing the covenant was given during the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Among other things, this means it was given in the midst of day-to-day living.  The covenant is God’s way of saying, “This is what loving me and loving others looks like here and now.”  The historical context for Covenant is important to know, but we must not limit the Message to its original milieu.  To do so locks it in the past and limits it to a life none of us live today.  The Covenant speaks to us today because it speaks a timeless word.

Furthermore, by giving the covenant during Israel’s journey, God is showing how we receive the Message but live into it little-by-little.  For example, the Ten Commandments do not look the same and they are not lived the same every day.  On the day God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, they had only a rudimentary understanding of them—an understanding that would necessarily grow as they applied them day after day.

We too receive and practice them as we journey.  Dawn and high noon are not the same, but the sun’s light provides both.  With respect to human sexuality, Covenant tells us that our belief will begin small and develop over time as we establish relations with LGBTQ+ people.  Nothing appears in full at first. [3]  This is how relationships work—they unfold.  As they do, we nourish them with patience, tenderness, and expectation.  We live into the covenant as we journey.

And then, we discover that Covenant is for the common good.  This is the content of Covenant—life together.  I note in the book that all three iterations of the covenant (Noah, Abraham, and Moses) show it was universal, intended for all people everywhere.  But what exactly was intended?  Two things stand out.

First, the avoidance of exploitation, in whatever form it occurred.  This is one reason why there ended up being 613 commandments.  It was not so that the covenant would micromanage every detail of our lives (which is what a legalistic use of Covenant did…and does), but because holiness applies to every aspect of life.  The covenant called out exploitation because it is the mark that the relational oneness in the Godhead is being ignored and the intended onenes in creation is being violated.  One way to read every commandment is to ask two questions, “What exploitation does this commandment expose?”….and….(2) “What expression of holiness does it invite?”

The second question leads to the second major feature of Covenant, the emancipation of people.  The literal slavery in Egypt was an example, but it was also a sign of God’s pervasive message, “ Let my people go!”  This is why Paul summed it up the purpose of the covenant in his letter to the Galatians, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (5:1)   Charles Wesley described in by writing, “My chains fell off. My heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” [4]

The avoidance of exploitation and the experience of emancipation are the simultaneous results of one thing: love—the hesed and agapé we have previoysly noted.  Again this is why Paul describes the new creation by writing, “All these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18)

We enter that passage in the phrase, “gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”  We are intended to be a covenant people, offering love to all in ways that protect them from exploitation and in ways that emancipate them.  Legalism does not do this, but Covenant does.  As Paul put it, “what is written kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). We are God’s covenant people called to share covenant love—to everyone.  All means all.


(1) Do you accept the two love commandments as the summation of the Covenant?

(2) How are you expressing them, and are you expressing them to everyone?

[1] Notice I did not say Law.  Covenant is a larger concept than Law.  When we look at Leviticus in a future post, I will say more about the Law.

[2] Brueggemann develops this phrase in his book of the same title, ‘Journey to the Common Good’ (Westminster John Knox, 2010).

[3] I have discovered that this happens also when LGBTQ+ people begin to relate to Christians.  They have been so harmed by the Christian community that they don’t accept the overture of love and acceptance quickly or easily.  Every LGBTQ+ person I know has been told by a Christian, “You are loved,” only to later discover it was not so.  The entire Christian/LGBTQ+ relationship develops slowly and in stages.  Affirming Christians must gain the trust of LGBTQ+ people because they have been given waxed fruit rather than the fruit of the Spirit by Christians whose allegation, “We love the gays” turned out to be quite conditional, and in some cases, bogus.

[4] From Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be?”

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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