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God’s Expansive Covenant

Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall

2015 Theologian in Residence/Visiting Scholar

February 22, 2015

Genesis 9:8-17; 1 Peter 3:18-22

This past Monday, CNN Religion writer Daniel Burke, called the prior week “Religion’s week from hell.” “Whether you believe that religious violence is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors—political instability, poverty, cultural chaos—one thing seems clear: Last week was hellish for religion.”

I am grateful to be with you for this time of engagement about what it means to live in a religiously plural world. It is one of the most important questions of our time. We do not live in the isolation of former times, and the whole religious spectrum unspools before us in the media. Our task today, in my judgment, is to construct a theology of religious pluralism. How do we cultivate a new understanding of God’s redemptive purpose?

You are a thoughtful congregation, or you would not have wanted me to pursue this topic. I trust that you know that over the past several years, I feel that God’ Spirit has been beckoning our kind of Baptists to consider the new horizons before us. Our General Secretary, Roy Medley, has been prophetic in his prompting of Baptist-Muslim dialogues, and we have profited by this exchange. Around the world, global missionaries understand their work as finding common ground rather than triumphalistic and coercive conversion.

Postmodernity has challenged us to consider whether the world has a coherent metanarrative; indeed, can the claim of Christianity to interpret the whole of the human story from creation until the present continue to have purchase on our understanding?

In earlier times, we could perpetuate our understanding of the “other” when we really did not know any of them, and we saw the biblical narrative as the only sacred story, telling the history of the whole creation. Maybe it was for you like it was for me: I really did not know that there were stories of creation other than Genesis. I was not aware that a myth of origins resided in every culture as a way of interpreting present existence.

God has been at work throughout the creation God fashioned, and the history of covenant may be more expansive than we have considered. I am delighted that the lectionary texts for this first Sunday of Lent offer a perspective of God’s care for all humanity as well as tell the particularly Christian form of it.

The story of the flood has prompted great and whimsical art; it has been told as a children’s story when it is really a horrific tale. It does not portray God in the best light—One willing to destroy all that had been created because of human sinfulness. Only one family worth saving; really? Noah’s family?! We know that he liked to “get into the grape,” as Will Campbell describes drunkenness.

Even though the saga of the deluge remains an early story of judgment, there is surprising and expansive grace in the narrative. The covenant God makes with Noah and family is the first covenant in the Bible. It precedes the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, and it renews the blessing given at creation (1:28). It is a covenant made with all humanity; and we are left to wonder, did the more selective covenant eventuate because of widespread failure of this earlier covenant? Lent is surely about human failure and our need for the divine assistance!

It is worth retracing what this promise of God was about, for it may help us as we think about our religiously complex world. In the words of Will Willimon, “it is up to God to make something out of the mud and mess after the flood.”[1]

So God establishes a covenant with all future generations, not just Noah. It will include Jew and Gentile alike, and it is not just for humanity, but includes God’s creatures, too. Later Jewish writers appealed to this covenant to explain how the “heathen” had knowledge of God. Paul certainly reflects this in Romans 2 when he speaks of “conscience.”

We are used to thinking only about God’s covenant with Abraham, and then by extension our share in the covenant as Christians. Too often we have viewed the covenant with Israel as abrogated, and saw supersessionism—that the church has replaced Israel—as the truth of the Bible.

It was John Baillie who highlighted the Noachic covenant in his book The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought, a concept I had never heard prior to seminary. The covenant God made with this family, indeed, the whole human race, occurred before it was divided into tribal groups of Shemites, the Hamites, and the sons of Japheth. One hears echoes of this covenant in the writings of Paul, who suggests that all persons have received revelation of the character of God, and that conscience can be an index of righteousness for those who have not heard the Gospel. In other words, God is at work through all religious traditions.

Our Epistle reading from First Peter gives a further reflection on the flood story, and this is one of the most difficult texts to interpret. So theologians plunge in where NT scholars fear to tread!

On a surface reading, the flood is compared to baptism. Noah and family were saved from water, and Christians are saved through it. On a deeper lever, we learn that no realm is untouched by the resurrected Christ; there is both descent and ascent in this passage. The Spirit gives him life to display his Lordship over all while making it possible for all to hear the proclamation of his power over death.

There is also the accent on God’s patience. The God who was patient in the time of Noah is also patient in the time of 1 Peter. It is God’s desire that none perish, and the wrath of the OT flood is submerged in the mercy revealed in the Jesus story.

In my regular pilgrimages to Myanmar I am confronted by the reality of what it means to be a Christian in a primarily Buddhist country; 6 percent of the population is Christian, which has been a stubbornly persistent number for year. Buddhists offer many reasons for their unwillingness to convert—Christianity is transplanted from the West; Buddhism is a superior philosophy and practice; and Christianity only appeals to tribal people who are less sophisticated, in their judgment.

How do we think of God’s redemptive purposes in this world of varied faith traditions? Is one consigned to hell because of an accident of birth or a principled refusal of the gospel when it comes imbedded in a culture-destroying way? That is too simple an answer, in my judgment.

I believe God’s expansive covenant includes other ways of faith. Might it be possible that the death of Christ somehow offer provision for them even if they do not hear the proclamation of the Gospel until they die? God is at work, drawing all toward God’s purpose of redemption. I trust that God will honor faith’s promise in its varied forms.

[1] The Lectionary Commentary, The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 17.



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