Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Covenants and Ordinances - Nature and Meaning

I began the lesson last Sunday by asking the students to define the words "ordinance" and "covenant".  We talked briefly about the fact that each word has application outside religion ("ordinance" as "law" [like city ordinances] and "covenant" as "contract" [like a rental agreement between landlord and renter]), but we then turned specifically to definitions within the realm of religion.  The definitions upon which we settled were:

ordinance: "a physical action that represents / symbolizes a covenant"

covenant: "a spiritual promise between God and humanity in which God sets the terms and we accept those terms, with a reward or benefit associated with faithful adherence to the terms of the covenant" (much like the rental agreement, where a landlord promises to allow habitation as long as we pay the established rent - understanding that we don't get to decide how much the rent is or pick any house we want regardless of the amount of rent we are willing to pay)  

We read the section on "covenant" in the Bible Dictionary, and we talked about the sentence that says "covenant" sometimes is translated as "testament".  I referred to the Bible itself and asked, based on that sentence, what the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament" might mean.  The students immediately realized that those terms could draw a distinction between an old covenant (the terms of being God's chosen people before the birth of Jesus) and a new covenant (the terms of being God's chosen people after the birth of Jesus). 

We talked in detail about the change from circumcision to baptism as the "ordinance" (the symbolic representation) of a people's relationship to God.  I mentioned that circumcision had and still has practical health benefits, but the ancient Israelites were able to imbue it with spiritual, symbolic meaning, as well.  I mentioned that it is so widespread and common now as nothing more than a medical procedure within multiple non-religious cultures that it has lost its religious meaning entirely for most people.  Thus, we have no problem replacing it with a different ordinance (symbolic representation) that makes sense for us.  We talked about the specific covenants and symbolism of immersion and why we immerse instead of sprinkling or eliminating baptism entirely - and I pointed out that some Christians sprinkle or don't require any form of baptism specifically because they don't accept and/or understand the symbolism that we accept and understand.  They don't necessarily reject the covenant; what they reject is the symbolic representation of that covenant. 

I mentioned the fairly recent change in how the initiatory (washing and anointing) is administered in the temple.  I explained how it is done now (much like a standard Priesthood blessing in form) and how it used to be done (by touching various areas while pronouncing the blessings).  I asked them if they could think of any reason why such a change would be made, and one of the students mentioned how hyper-sensitive many people now are about "inappropriate touching".  I mentioned how we are much more aware of physical abuse than we used to be and how many people, especially women, have been abused in such a way that they are traumatized to some degree by how the initiatory used to occur - even though there was nothing that I would deem to be close to objectively inappropriate and even though the ordinances is performed by women for women.  Given how our culture has changed, we needed to make sure the way we represent that particular covenant continued to convey the intended symbolism - so some of the ordinance form was modified.  (I mentioned that changes in temple ordinances and ceremonies can be hard for people who see everything in the temple literally as having come straight from God's mouth to the temple, but I told them it's no big deal if the symbolism - and the reason for symbolic representation - is understood.) 

I then had the students list ordinances that exist within the LDS Church, and we listed the covenants represented or symbolized by each ordinance.  The list they created, along with the associated covenants, was:

1) Sacrament (renewal of baptismal covenants) 

2) Baptism (becoming Christ's children, with all of the associated details of that covenant)

3) Sealing of marriage (eternal companionship and "increase")

4) Endowment (return to and becoming like God)

5) Gift of the Holy Ghost (constant companionship of the Holy Ghost)

6) Priesthood Blessings (pretty much anything given through revelation through the blessing)

7) Washing & Anointing (cleansing and specific blessings associated with physical health and enlightenment)

(We stopped there, just to make sure we had time to discuss each of them.) 

I then asked the students which part or aspect of the ordinances was the most important.  They didn't understand what I was asking at first, so I took them back to the definition on the board ("a physical action that represents / symbolizes a covenant"), told them to read it looking for its "parts" and asked the question again.  They agreed that the covenant being represented or symbolized is the most important part. 

I used baptism as an example.  I told them that I was going to say this very carefully, because I didn't want to detract in any way from the sacred nature of baptism, but that I would have no problem with baptism being replaced by dressing up a cow in ceremonial garb and enacting a play about being cleansed and becoming God's children - IF such a symbolic representation was powerful and meaningful in a particular culture.  We talked about why we use baptism (because that is what Jesus did and because it works for us as a symbol for being "born again" and "spiritually resurrected").  If, like the washing and anointing, it needed to change somehow to continue to convey that symbolism, I would be fine with it. 

Next week, we are going to talk about the covenants we accept in the temple. 

1 comment:

Steven B said...

I would consider the "ordinance" of the Laying on of Hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost to be the physical action from deity to "confirm" the baptismal covenant. The outward manifestation (physical action) of the baptismal candidate is to be immersed in water, whereas the outward manifestation from God that the covenant is enacted is the bestowal of the Spirit.

In ongoing practical application, the presence of the Spirit in the individual's life would further be evidence from God that the covenant is in effect and that God fully intends to fulfill his part of the agreement.