Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus recently announced it was closing after 146 years of touring and performing. “The Greatest Show on Earth” will soon be gone. If you’ve ever seen their show – or any circus for that matter – you know that your eyes are drawn in many different directions, from exotic animals to clumsy clowns. The act that always amazes me is the trapeze.
Cecil B. DeMille once called flying trapeze artists “the daredevil performers who slap death in the face.” If you’ve ever watched trapeze artists do their thing, you might agree. In 2011, the circus company Cirque du Soleil toured a show called “OVO.” Their trapeze artists gave an interview to National Public Radio (NPR). “A flying act,” they say (they call it “flying”) “is built on trust — but first, each artist needs individual strength and training.”
Flier Andrey Shapin, the one who does the somersaults and flies from bar to bar, was a gymnast in Russia before he joined Cirque du Soleil. He was a highly disciplined, elite athlete who literally had to learn to fly. Shapin’s main catcher, the one who swings out to catch the flier, or who sends the bar out for the flier to catch, is Sergei Philippenko. Philippenko says, “My job is to save him all the time.”
Imagine saving someone while swinging by your legs, upside down on a bar, while your partner is diving toward you at high speed. Shapin says of his catcher Philippenko: “I just know he will catch me. This is for sure.”
“Their life literally is in each other’s hands,” says The show’s artistic director Sylvia van Grunsven, “so if they don’t trust each other, we have a big problem.”
Magrey DeVega says that “Claiming the Covenant” is like letting go of the trapeze. We are the “flier” and God is the “catcher.” The supreme act of faith required to accomplish this third aspect of Wesley’s Covenant is letting go and trusting God to catch us
Up to this point, it might sound like the whole covenant endeavor is up to us. Confide in God. Confess your sins. Compose your spirit.
But, one thing is clear through the entire Biblical witness – we can never earn our salvation. We are not able, by our own efforts, to make ourselves right with God. Throughout the Scripture, it. Is God who initiates the relationship with us – from the first day of creation through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, right down to the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The move from God to us is so strong, it has lead spiritual writer, Richard Foster (in Life With God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation) to claim that the key to understanding scripture is the “Emmanuel Principle” – the notion that everything in the bible is meant to describe how God is with us.
DeVega, in One Faithful Promise, say that the concept of covenant, of God promising to be with us and to work on our behalf, is the “defining pattern of all Scripture.” In ancient times, a covenant was often made between two parties – individuals, families, or nations – one of whom might be more powerful than the other. The greater party would promise to protect the weaker party, in return for land, livestock, etc. There were also covenants between parties of equal power. They agreed, or promised, to protect each other, respect each other’s property, share territory, etc.
Look at the book of Genesis, for example, and we see in just the first 15 chapters, four times that God makes the first step to initiate a covenant relationship with his creatures:
Genesis 1:24-31 – Upon creating the first humans, God gives them the task of subduing and managing the earth – great trust in placed upon the relationship from the beginning.
Genesis 8:20-9:17 – After the great flood, God promises to protect Noah and his family – and all the creatures that have been saved on the ark.
Genesis 12:1-3 – God calls Abraham and promises to give him a great land and make his family a great nation.
Genesis 15 – God actually participates in an ancient covenant ritual with Abraham to reiterate his commitment to his earlier promise.
We do not create this relationship with God on our own. Though it seems popular to see our Christian walk as a product of our own efforts (stop and listen to how any times you hear another Christian talk about a “”struggle,” or how we are always “fighting a battle” and ask yourself, “who is really the more powerful party here?”), Wesley explains that claiming the covenant means that “we rely on God’s promise of giving grace and strength, for only through these will you be enabled to perform your promise.”
The covenant we seek to enter relies on God’s faithfulness and not ours. That is some real good news!
Wesley says – “Let go of self-made security and let God bring us home.” This is the “heart of the covenant,” that God is faithful and strong enough to carry us into the future. Just like a real trapeze artist, it’s all based on trust. We, the flier, let go of the bar, and trust that God will catch us!
That “self-made security” is comfortable! It really is safe and secure, because we can control it. We can earn it, invest it, spend it, share it, relax in it. The “self-made security” just might even convince us that we are gods!
The prophet, Micah, considers what God requires of us who choose to enter this covenant with God. In the form of a legal argument, God seeks to define the relationship with his people. Micah asks:
With what should I approach the Lord and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
God creates us and enters into a relationship with us. God empowers us to choose, gives us free will almost as soon as he gives us breath. We must choose to follow. Let go of our own “trapeze” and trust that God will catch us – because he has always been “catching us.” Claiming the covenant makes us into new people with a simple requirement; simple in words, yet challenging beyond our capacity –
“. . . to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”