One challenge in studying scripture is to avoid oversimplification, to see the variety of experiences of th...
In 2002, fresh off my mission & after working a summer job for some time, I bought a software tool that contained nearly all of Deseret Book’s catalog to date. It has over 3,000 titles by various Latter-day Saint authors going back to the beginning of the restoration, conference talks, periodicals, and many classic and ancient texts - all cross-referenced and searchable. It is a treasure that I’ve preserved now 20 years later in virtual machines as operating systems today cannot run it.
Very rarely can I search for something and not find results. It was interesting when researching the topic today that searching through this library for the phrase “covenant path” returned exactly zero results.
What does that mean?
Well, not much. But it does speak to two things:
- The phrase “covenant path” is pretty new in our culture and teachings.
- This is one example of a living, breathing, and changing church. As we reflect on the same principles restored centuries ago, we give those truths new expressions today.
“Covenants” have been an important part of our faith since early in its restoration - connecting us to God & each other. When we think of “covenant path” we can rightly describe a set of ordinances or religious rites which serve as thresholds or pointers for us. But I must warn that I’m not going to describe exactly what our covenants are. What I want to focus on today is how we might understand and live our covenants. After going through the rites and ordinances offered by the Church making covenants, we may then rightly ask the question, “Now what?” If you have found yourself asking this question, perhaps after recently being sealed in the temple, in middle age after decades of trying out that “enduring to the end” bit, in older age after reflecting on a lifetime of covenant living, or if you are newly embarking on this “covenant path”, I hope some of what I say can lift and edify.
Covenants as Pointers
Lance B. Wickman wrote an article in the June 1996 Ensign titled “Of Compasses and Covenants”. He begins to give an answer to this question of, “Now what?”. He says,
“Making covenants is important. But it is the keeping of covenants, even more than making them, that holds us on the correct course heading through mortality and leads us home to God.”
He then goes on quoting Moroni 8:25-26 as Moroni describes the nature of the covenant of baptism and the fruits it points us to:
“the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;
“And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until … all the saints shall dwell with God.”
In Buddhism, there is a proverb of a hand pointing to a moon. Vietnamese monk Tich Nhat Hanh described it this way in his book “Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha”:
“A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.”
Mistaking the hand for the moon in what Moroni was describing would be to think the covenant path is about baptism and confirmation rather than it being about repentance, forgiveness, meekness, lowliness of heart, hope, and perfect love.
Jesus taught about the symbolic or pointing nature of covenants and His teachings when He described being “born again” or likened the Kingdom of God in His parables. And just like how those who could not see what the symbolism in Jesus’ teachings was pointing at, we too can miss the point of covenants if we make the “covenant path” the object of our worship rather than what or who it points to.
While covenants point us to salvation, they cannot produce salvation any more than notes printed on a sheet of paper can produce music. Covenants are meant to be lived, not worshiped.
So, which way do covenants point us?
Jesus as “The Way”
“The Way” is referenced several times in the Gospels.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3)
“strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matthew 7:14)
“John came unto you in the way of righteousness” (Matthew 21:32)
“Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth” (Matthew 22:16)
“And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.” (Mark 10:52)
“how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:5-6)
In fact, early Jewish Christians referred to themselves as followers of “The Way” (source). It wasn’t until the disciples began establishing the Church in Antioch that the term “Christian” began to be used by Romans to describe followers of Christ - later adopted by followers of Christ themselves.
So, what is this “Way”? Well, that is the ultimate question in Christianity. I am by no means going to definitively answer that question. But what I wanted to do in the time I have is pick just one principle, peacemaking, that Jesus taught and describe how it can give our covenant living vibrancy and life.
Anytime we are trying to understand what Jesus was getting at The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapters 5-7, should be our starting point. The whole premise of the sermon is describing the nature of and entry into the kingdom of heaven - the path of “The Way”. If the covenants and ordinances in the Church are waypoints or pointers on this path, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the map.
Peacemaking is an interesting word. It states, in a single word, that 1) peace should be sought after and 2) that it requires our creativity, effort, and sacrifice to “make” it happen. As an engineer I spend much of my career carefully planning how something will be made. Whole teams of engineers, architects, managers, quality, executives and others coordinate in the sole task of making something. I wonder sometimes whether I consider working towards peace with that same vigor.
How can we all bring our gifts, talents, and covenants to the way of peacemaking? If you are an artist, how can you create peace? If you are a teacher, how can you teach peace? If you are a landscaper, how can spaces you create invite peace? If you are a friend or loved one, how can you invite peace into your relationships? If you are a parent, how can you raise a child to love and seek peace?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns that these principles are not cheap and that they call us to rise above petty or even serious divisions, in-groups/out-groups, and include all in how we live His teachings:
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
This is one example of why I believe Jesus wasn’t giving mere platitudes. Jesus was describing the way to heal the world. If our covenant living leads us to only bless the lives of our neighbors, allies, co-religionists, or friends then we have work to do to get back on the path of Jesus. Our understanding and interpretation of our covenants, along with the actions and lives those covenants lead us to choose, must be able to seek and make peace in every area of our lives and for all those impacted - the evil and good.
One explanation that helped me understand the depth and power of peacemaking is from a book titled “A Common Prayer: Liturgy for an Ordinary Radicals” - think of Jesus’ response to Peter after Peter attacked Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane:
“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free. Peacemaking is about being able to recognize in the face of the oppressed our own faces, and in the hands of the oppressors our own hands.”
An example from early in the restoration (perhaps this is something we could restore again) is the covenant associated with the school of prophets. This covenant, made by all who gathered together, has in it this spirit of peacemaking. Imagine the strength of our wards, our families, and our communities if our relationships (even strained ones) had this commitment:
“I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token, or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship in a determination that is fixed, immovable and unchangeable, to be your friend… through the grace of God, in the bonds of love.”
In the epistle written to the Ephesians, a community struggling with unity, chapter 2 verses 13-16 points to how our covenant commitment to Christ can motivate us to be peacemakers:
13 … in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
15 …that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
Can we extend this love and peacemaking to those around us - even those estranged from us or those the world teaches we should see as others or enemies? How can our covenants point us to this way of peacemaking? And what courage may be required of us to take that first step?
We could spend hours going through principle by principle in the Sermon on the Mount asking ourselves how we can understand and live our covenants in a way that embodies them. Meekness, mourning, seeking righteousness, mercy, purity in heart, endurance, etc. Is the way we are living our covenants leading us towards or away from this path that Jesus taught? Is there room for us to improve, rethink, and return to these covenants anew in this light? And how can we support each other as we seek to do so?
Nobody can answer these questions for you. Answering these questions is the walk we all must take on a covenant path in “The Way” Jesus taught. But this is the call that Jesus gives to all of us to “Come, Follow Him”.
Elder Uchtdorf, in the October 2019 General Conference, described this call in his talk titled “Your Great Adventure”:
“there remains something undeniable, deep within our hearts, that hungers for a higher and nobler purpose. This hunger is one reason why people are drawn to the gospel and Church of Jesus Christ. The restored gospel is, in a sense, a renewal of the call to adventure we accepted so long ago. The Savior invites us, each day, to set aside our comforts and securities and join Him on the journey of discipleship.
There are many bends in this road. There are hills, valleys, and detours. There may even be metaphorical spiders, trolls, and even a dragon or two. But if you stay on the path and trust in God, you will eventually find the way to your glorious destiny and back to your heavenly home.”
May we have courage as we walk the path Jesus did, and may we help one another as fellow travelers on the way. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.