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Wesley’s Covenant Renewal




In his journal entry for August 6, 1755, John Wesley, a minister of the Church of England and the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote:


I mentioned to the congregation another means of increasing serious religion, which has been frequently practiced by our forefathers and attended with eminent blessing; namely, the joining in a covenant to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul.


Wesley’s first formal Covenant Service was held in the French Church at Spitalfields, in those days outside London, on August 11, 1755. Wesley wrote that at the close of that service, “all the people stood up, in testimony of assent, to the number of about 1800 persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever.”


The Covenant Service was published as a pamphlet by Wesley in 1780 and was used without alteration for nearly a century. After the time of Wesley, several versions of the Covenant Service were developed, gradually giving Wesley’s material less place in the total service.


The present service is substantially shorter than the original – at least two to three hours shorter — follows closer our own Sunday pattern of worship, and updates language. Most significant, the liturgy with the invitation to the COVENANT and the COVENANT PRAYER is taken directly from Wesley’s service of 1780.


Many Methodist and Wesleyan churches celebrate the Covenant Service on New Year’s Eve and therefore is sometimes called a Watch Night Service. This service would also be appropriate on one of the Sundays after the Epiphany, during Lent, on a church anniversary, or during a revival or preaching mission. Ideally, the service should be used only once a year.

Towards the end of our service today we will sign (or just write your name) our cards with the Covenant Prayer. Our cards will be collected in one of the offering plates and brought to the altar together with our regular tithes. Next Sunday, which happens to be the last Sunday of Epiphany (also the Sunday before Lent), cards will be returned for you to keep.


The two hymns we are singing today were written by Charles Wesley, John’s brother, and his right hand in ministry. A prolific writer and composer, Charles wrote thousands of hymns. Some of them can be found in our Hymnal.


Our opening hymn today was published in 1762. Based on Jeremiah 50:5, it soon became popularly known as “the Covenant Hymn.” On Covenant Sunday, Methodist congregations sing it to the tune of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” yet another inspiring hymn by Charles Wesley.


Finally, let me echo Wesley’s advice to his congregations –this service should be a reminder of our condition as sinners, our solemn obligation to reaffirm our covenant relationship with God, and an opportunity for a fresh experience of the reality of God’s promises and presence.






Isaiah 54:10;   John 15:1-8


Every year sometime in January or February, the church where I was raised to be a “good Christian Methodist” would renew their Covenant with the Lord. They loved this celebration — a service crafted by no other than John Wesley, a very mobile preacher who sparked a revival movement first in England, then in America.


To us kids, the service was rather long and boring except for the singing – we could sing two, three, even four Wesley’s hymns non-top. But then something happened that we loved to see happen – after two hours or so, we were given a pencil and invited to sign our full name on a card with a prayer.

At 7 or 8 years of age, we kids felt so proud to sign our names the way our dads and moms would usually sign any letter they got from our teachers. It felt so good –we too were signing a “pacto” with Jesus –that’s the Spanish word for “covenant.”


In our minds, a covenant with Jesus was like a big deal –we kids promised Jesus to do our very best to behave, he would do his very best to secure some kind of reward for us.


All we were learning in Sunday School about Abraham and Moses and Isaac and Joshua and Ruth and Mary and Priscila and Peter and many other big heroes and heroines in the Bible reinforced this understanding.


Years later, now a teenager, a time when critical thinking gives us new perspectives on everything — even the way we think of God — I gradually discovered that God’s covenant was much more than some kind of trade off. It was a PROMISE, too, like the promise God gave his nation through Prophet Isaiah when they felt so overwhelmed by adversity: “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, for I have compassion on you.” (54:10) Soon this annual service became one of my favorite church celebrations, such was the joy and the comfort I found in God’s promise during such a challenging season of life.




But there is more to covenant that meets the eye, my friends, and I tell you what it is –in the Bible, the word for covenant, the Hebrew be’rit, also means “eating together,” sharing a meal with God! Even better –accepting God’s invitation to sit around his own table to partake from his blessings! No wonder Jesus’s most significant words about a “new covenant” were spoken around a common table as he and his closest friends ate together the same way our families eat together every day.


And “when the supper was over, Jesus took the bread . . . and then he took the cup, gave thanks to Almighty Father, then gave it to his disciples, and said: ‘Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant.’”




Now, Jesus never asked his disciples to sign up on a dotted line the way we usually sign a contract, an agreement, a deal. All Jesus asked them was to remember him –to never forget what God had done for them and with them. Wesley was a clever preacher –he would rather have his people sign on their Covenant Prayer, something quite visual and symbolic to help them remember, sort of RSVP to take seriously.


So, in a few moments we will write our names on this Covenant Prayer. This is our humble way of letting God know that we welcome his invitation to partake with him and with each and other.


Picture this card as an RSVP invitation to come together, to abide in Christ as the branches abide in the true vine so that we can be fed and strengthened for yet another season of mission, ministry, fellowship, and service — to bear abundant fruit in Jesus’s name.