I Will Write it on Their Hearts: The Fifth Covenant
What does it mean to have a new covenant, one not written on tablets of stone as at Sinai but on the hearts of the people?
According to Jeremiah, it means that it will no longer be necessary for the people to “teach one another, or to say to one another, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34-5). No more priests, teachers or lawyers I guess. Not sure we’ll see that anytime soon, but perhaps another way of understanding this prophecy is that each individual has a touchstone of truth against which to measure the teaching, laws, information and experiences that flows through and shapes our lives and choices.
For whom is this prophecy intended? Although the prophet Jeremiah clearly intends it for his time and his people, the tribes of the house of Israel in captivity in Babylon, it has often been interpreted by Christians as referring to the New Covenant made through Christ on the cross and fulfilled through the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But if Jesus was lifted up so that he may draw all people to himself, if his life is the grain that falls to the earth only to rise to heaven (John 12:24), and then return as a shower of the Holy Spirit on “all flesh,” then the New Covenant is a restoration of a universal covenant—one made, as the first, with all living things and “all earth” (Genesis 9:13).
This will take more unpacking than I can do this morning, but let us accept for the moment that what Jeremiah is prophesying is or will be fulfilled through a universally available covenant of the heart. But what is the heart, biblically understood?
It is not the heart as the seat of emotions. It is not the feeling of love—I heart NY—though I will say in the end that the heart is where the love of god is indelibly written. Biblically understood, the heart is the enduring center of the self, the real true you, beneath all changing personal personas (persona is Greek for an actor’s mask). And the self is a unity of body and mind, which is also called in scripture a soul. The idea of a soul as the ghost inside the machine of the body, a etherial bird in a meat cage let free at death, is a platonic, not a Jewish or Christian image. Soul, in both the Old Testament (Hebrew: nephesh) and the New (Greek: psyche), is the living individual, a compound of body and mind.
Let’s start with the mind and the body, before we get to the heart. Try this exercise, children (and I will keep it simple for I have only a very rudimentary understanding of the neuroscience involved): put your hand on the back of your head. That part of your brain down at the bottom, growing from your spine, is the limbic system, the first part of the brain to evolve (so sometimes called the reptilian brain). It is constantly on the look out for danger, it works quickly—like when you jump back at the sight of a snake. It does all kinds of things to control your body that you are not even conscious of. Up front, at the top, behind your forehead, is the frontal cortex, the part we as humans are proudest of. This is the seat of self-consciousness and where rational decisions are made. In the middle of the brain, both left and right lobes, we have all kinds of stuff going on, memories, feelings, dreams and visions, sometimes conscious, often not. Often what we think are rational decisions are really justifications for actions we take for unconscious and emotional or selfish reasons. Got to keep a check on your mind—there is a lot going on up there in your brain.
And your brain is part of your body, connected with a nervous system. Your body has “muscle memory”—so that you know how to ride a bicycle and dance and throw a ball, but would have a lot of trouble explaining how.
Together your brain and the rest of the body send through your consciousness all kinds of ,sensations and perceptions, all the touches and hugs and hits. In addition, your mind is processing all the subtle or not subtle messages to do this or buy that, all the information and knowledge of parents, teachers, newspapers, TV, conversations, books, mixed in with lots of misinformation, gossip and lies—all flowing all the time, like flood through your mind, helping or persuading you to do this or that, think this or that..
Together your body and mind make up your self—an integral whole somehow formed out of all that mix of thoughts and actions, memories and dreams, needs and wishes. Your self has a stable identity, even though you are also changing over time. This is because there is a mysterious center to your self, your heart, the abiding you. Some people even deny that it exists because it is very hard to pin down and measure, hard to say, there it is, as opposed to all the changing flow of thought and deed. But in the image of heart, our biblical wisdom tradition affirms there is a true and abiding core self.
And this self, the heart of you, is open to the Spirit of God. Think of it this way:
in the center of your self, there is a heart shaped gem, hard and bright. So hard only the finger of God can write on it. All the other messages and meanings that flow through and around can obscure it from view. We sometimes lose track of our own self when caught up in our multiple personas and the words and images of the world. They are the dirt and dust and distortions that obscure the mirror of the glass. Your heart, cleansed and guided by the Holy Spirit, is a touchstone for what is true. That’s why we say that baptism is a cleansing of the soul, washing away sin and self-deception. That’s the clear intent of the prayer we read in the psalm appointed for today: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:11).
I led a retreat for some folks in Connecticut last week with my teaching partner Beth Bradley, a gifted musician and worship leader. She brought along a Tibetan “singing bowl.” Perhaps you have heard one. It makes a beautiful ringing note, a B flat, that Beth said is thought by the Tibetans to be the base note of the earth. She got the bowl ringing by circling its rim with a wood stick and then walking around, lifting it close to our open mouths. The vibration entered in—and our whole body and mind vibrated in that tone, resonant with the earth and cosmos. Pretty wild stuff.
But that’s just the way God works. As a breath or wind (the word spirit means both) that enters in and sets us ringing. The Spirit penetrates right through all the mess of messages and sings to our heart. With the Spirit, God writes a simple word on our hard but longing heart.
That word is love. I love you. The I heart NY is not so wrong after all; but this is so much deeper. It is a call to life, life abundant, and joy, deep joy, a life lived in resonance with the earth and in harmony with God and each other. “Do not fear, I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43). We are God’s—this is what is written on our heart. And when we know this, when the bell goes off, when the sunset strikes the chord, when we are brought to tears by the beauty and tragedy of life, when our deep joy carries even through the most desperate pain, then we know that we are God’s forever and nothing can destroy what God has made and God has made us good. Then we recognize what Julian of Norwich meant when she wrote, “All will be well and all manner of things will be well.” We are freed from the bondage of sin and cleansed from the distortions of false self. We are beloved and can love freely in return: loving God with all our hearts and mind and bodily strength. We can love our neighbors as ourselves—for we love ourselves by nature. We open up. The heart’s flower, the image of the lotus, the rose, the force in the universe that moves all things (Dante’s concluding image in the Divine Comedy), love.
The word of God is written on your heart. You don’t need anyone to read for you, or tell you what it means. You alone can hear its note. You alone must learn to recognize its resonant vibration when you are encounter the world, hearing all the words and messages, making choices, acting as a fully alive human person. One of the glories of God’s creation is a human being fully alive—so the ancient Christian teacher Irenaus said. That of course is what Jesus was, human being fully alive. He always heard in his heart’s core the word of God—and responded accordingly. He is the one we follow. But God has also sent us the Holy Spirit—Sophia—and together the Word of God and Spirit of God will guide us into all truth.
In Christ’s name, Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew Calkins, Rector
Grace Church, Millbrook, NY