There once was a pastor named Thomas. (Well, there wasn’t really – this is a made-up story.)
Fresh out of seminary, he was excited to learn that his first appointment would be at Friendship United Methodist Church – his grandparents’ church! He had visited there each summer as a child. He had gone to Vacation Bible School and jumped into summer youth programs there. Thomas had fond memories of Friendship UMC.
In particular, there was a man named John who had especially looked out for Thomas. At United Methodist Men breakfasts, John invited Thomas to help cook the eggs. During his teenage years, when Thomas had serious questions about his faith, John would take him on fishing trips where they would catch few fish but talk a lot about what it meant to follow Christ. John even had a special nickname for Thomas: “Tommy-boy.”
Thomas loved the people of Friendship UMC, and they loved him. Everyone was very happy that Thomas’ first appointment would be at Friendship.
Things were great right from the beginning. Because he knew the people so well, Thomas could quickly see where they were strong and where they needed to grow. Because the people knew him so well, they trusted him to lead them and forgave him when he made those “rookie” mistakes. Pastor and congregation grew together.
For Thomas, the best part was working with John. Now retired, John had plenty of time to work on projects with Thomas. Fridays became fishing days where they continued their talks about how to follow Christ and dreamt about the future of the church together. And yes, John still called him “Tommy-boy,” except now with a laugh in his voice knowing that this big, grown man wasn’t a boy anymore.
Attendance started to grow. More children were in Sunday School. During Tom’s entire 5-year stay at Friendship UMC, things just seemed to click. Everything was wonderful.
Except, after about 3 years, Thomas’ relationship with John got rocky. The young pastor was never very good with numbers, and he didn’t always do well sticking to the budget or turning in all of his receipts. At first, John offered patient, gentle reminders: “Now Tommy-boy, that’s going to get you in trouble one day…” But over time they turned into stern warnings, and eventually into the dreaded EMAILS SENT IN ALL CAPS. They stopped fishing together. Thomas began dreading John’s calls.
Thomas loved John. It broke his heart to feel this way. So Thomas resolved to do everything he could to make it right. He took a class on budgeting. He made a better system for keeping his receipts. He read books on church administration. And although he would have told you that he was doing all this to be a better pastor, the truth was, he was doing all this to earn John’s approval back.
But it seemed to be too late to turn it around.
It felt like a Shakespearean tragicomedy: The harder Thomas worked, the more John disapproved. The one receipt Thomas misplaced out of 100 would be the one connected with John’s area of the church. Thomas’ visits to John always came at bad times. Eventually, Thomas had to let go and admit that maybe this relationship was beyond repair.
Otherwise, things continued to go well at Friendship. When it came time for Thomas to leave, they marked the occasion with a potluck dinner. Thomas’ heart was full to breaking as he hugged goodbye to the people he loved.
Then he noticed, across the room: John was there. John had stayed after worship for the potluck.
Thomas couldn’t help but hope: Maybe this would be the moment. Maybe, in some kind of magical man-hug, their relationship would be repaired, just a little. As John walked his way Thomas’s stomach was full of nerves. But when he arrived, all John had to offer was a cold handshake and the use of his given name: “Goodbye, Thomas.”
Relationships are hard.
God makes a covenant with Israel: “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). But Israel keeping breaking commandments and breaking the covenant, over and over and over. A relationship seemingly beyond repair.
God could have given up and ended it all with the divine version of a cold handshake.
But instead: A new covenant. One with the law written on our hearts. One with a deep knowledge of God. One based on forgiveness. (See Jeremiah 31:31-34.)
But instead: “This is my blood of the new covenant.” (See Luke 22:20.)
Instead of a cold handshake, a permanent embrace.
Us as God’s people. God as our God.
A relationship repaired.