Sermon: XIX Pentecost (22b)

Patrick Allen on October 9, 2012


XIX Pentecost (22b)

Gn 2.18-24; Mk 10.2-9

7 October 2012

Fr. Patrick Allen

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In the Holy Scriptures and throughout the Christian tradition, there is a great deal of talk about the freedom of Christian faith.  So we might immediately think of Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” and then declaring that he himself is that truth in person.  St. Paul becomes so enamored of the theme that in his epistle to the Galatians he goes rhetorically overboard, stating “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.”

The notion of Christian freedom has layers of meaning.  There is the freedom from the fear of death’s dark dominion given us in the resurrection of Jesus.  There is the freedom that comes from living in accord with, rather than against the grain of, God’s will and our God-created natures - this is the sort of thing intended by the wonderful paradox in the Collect for Peace at Morning Prayer, when we commit ourselves to the God “whose service is perfect freedom.”   And again, united to Christ by faith and baptism, we are freed from the burden of the law as a means to our justification and now live under grace, so that, as St. Paul says, “sin will longer have any dominion over you.”

Free from fear, free from falsehood, free from sin.

And we could go on.  Our freedom in Christ is a rich and varied theme, but maybe this morning we can begin with one very simple aspect of that freedom: if Christ died for our trespasses and in risen for our justification, if he is our righteousness and our hope and our salvation, then we are free to be honest - honest about ourselves, honest about our struggles, honest about our failings.  We are freed from pretense and rationalization and even - maybe especially - from the hard labor of denial.  We are free to hear the upward call of God in Christ - to hear it, to think about it, to talk about it, preach about it if we must, and to see it in its truth and beauty.

We need this freedom, especially when, as so often in this fallen world, God’s truth and beauty and conjoined to pain and difficulty.

So, speaking of pain and difficulty:  Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

Working our way through St. Mark's Gospel, we come this morning to our Lord's teaching on marriage – at least some of it.  For the benefit, I suppose, of preachers like me, the Prayer Book lectionary leaves out the next three verses, which include Jesus' teaching on remarriage after divorce. Which, taken together with what Deacon Michael has just read for us, causes this passage often to be referred to as one of Jesus' "hard sayings."  Not because it is mysterious or unclear or strange.  Not at all.  Jesus is limpid and plain to the point of being blunt.  If it is a hard saying, it is so because it exposes so plainly the brokenness of our culture, of our church, of our own lives and hearts.  And we are all, every one of us, touched by this brokenness – none of us is aloof or apart; and indeed - let us be honest - we are all implicated.  We have all sinned and, to be sure, some of us have been terribly sinned against.

In its practicalities, Jesus has this to say:  Marriage is a lifetime bond between one man and one woman; divorce is contrary to God's will for marriage; remarriage after divorcing one's spouse is a point along the continuum of adultery.

The Pharisees ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife.  Now, they’re not interested in a deeper understanding or a new way of thinking about the aboriginal human institution of marriage, nor are they interested in some insightful or novel exegesis of the Mosaic law.  As St. Mark tells us, they ask their question in order to test him.  And test, in this context means something more like “trap.”  It’s a trap because they are in Judea, Jesus has come down from Galilee, and Herod Antipas is the Tetrarch - the Rome-appointed ruler - in Judea.  And Herod Antipas had recently divorced his wife in order to marry his brother’s wife, a woman named Herodias.  John the Baptist had publicly condemned Herod and Herodias, and he paid for it with his head.  So with this question about divorce, these Pharisees are simply offering Jesus the opportunity to place his own head on the chopping block.

Which, turns out, he is glad to do.  Glad to do because he intends to vindicate cousin John, but also because he intends to teach us about the beauty and truth of marriage, because marriage is intended to teach us about and to prepare us for the beauty and truth ofGod.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?  Jesus asks a question in return, What did Moses command you?  To which they reply, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.  “To put her away.

Notice that Jesus asks for a positive command and they reply with a provision, a concession.  But they have a point, even if they overstate it somewhat.  They're referring to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy which dictated that if a man were to put away his wife (and it was always the man putting away his wife), he must give her a certificate of divorce so that she would be free legally to remarry and thus have some hope of avoiding almost certain poverty that would come to an unmarried woman with zero economic clout.  There is nothing in the Torah that encourages, endorses, or even condones divorce, but there is this provision to mitigate the evil effects of an evil act.

But Jesus points us beyond the concession to the original intent; beyond the mitigation of evil, to the renovation of good:

For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.

They are no longer two but one... What God has joined together let not man put asunder.

Jesus is insisting on, calling men and women united in marriage to, permanence - or, to use the language of St. Benedict, stability. 

Jesus’ instruction, God’s commands, are never arbitrary dictates but the expressions of his character, which is, in its essence, love.  “God is love.”  So what he requires, what he calls us to, what he promises, is for our good - for our flourishing and finally for our union with him.  Which means that this call to permanence has meaning; it is a love letter; it is a gift.  It will do something for us and in us which will bring us, finally, home to the Father, having played its part in conforming us to the image of the Son.

So how does permanence in marriage lead us home? 

We might begin by asking what marriage is for.  There’s a lot to say about that, but it’s clear that for Jesus the matter is rooted in the creation of God’s image bearers as male and female.  The two are different.  The spouse is always “other,” always to some degree mysterious.  Marriage is the union of - or we might say it is the process of uniting - two who are different from one another, and the task, the project of marriage, even the goal of marriage, is to shape a union in which we may learn the meaning of faithfulness to one who is other than ourself.  In it, we may begin to learn the meaning, to live into the meaning, of our differentiated, male-and-female, in-the-image-of-God humanity. [i]

Our creation as male and female points us to life in community, to an exchange of gifts that happens between those who are different from but corresponding to one another.  Now, not all are called to marriage, and for different reasons - for instance, Jesus, in whom we see the fullness of humanity revealed.  So marriage is the typical, but not the necessary, community for this exchange, and we need not hesitate to recognize and praise the faithful love we see in other situations.  But for most of us, it is within the marriage bond that we will learn this kind of faithful love.

This seems to be the season at Holy Communion for referencing Protestant theologians.  Last Sunday Fr. Sanderson quoted two Lutherans.  Well, I’d like to match those two Lutherans and raise him a Methodist.

“Faithfulness,” the Lutheran Robert Jenson has said, “is the theological heart of the Bible.”  And marriage, he went on to say, “is the paradigm case of an ethic of faithfulness.”  Marriage is the paradigm of faithfulness.  And another Lutheran, Gilbert Meilaender, has said that in marriage, “God asks us - and invites us - to learn also to be as faithful and steadfast as he is... Here we learn what a price permanent, faithful commitment to just one person who is completely other may exact.” 

“One person who is completely other.” For us, at times that “other” may mean “strangely alluring,” and then at times it may mean something more like “oddly repellent,” but always different. 

There are times I look wondering at my wife beside me, and I think to myself, “What in the world?”  And I suppose there are times she looks wondering at me and thinks to herself, “What the hell?” 

In any case, when we understand the permanence, the stability of marriage, and understand (as the the Methodist Will Willimon has said) “that this other person is not just the one you fell in love with, but ‘the one you’re stuck with,’ then very gradually we may learn, very slowly God draws us into his own steadfast, faithful, permanent, stable love.

Marriage is a school for faithfulness to one who is other, and faithfulness only has meaning across time, over the long haul, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.”  It’s just not faithfulness otherwise.  Permanence, stability, is integral, is of the essence of marriage, because marriage is for faithfulness.  Which is to say it is for love, and love never ends.  Love abides. 

Which makes Therefore what God has joined together let no man put asunder sound less like threat and warning and danger and more like a plea, like an invitation, to follow the path that leads home - home to our Lord, the Bridegroom, the faithful and true Lover, who has gone before us to prepare a place for us, the Church, his own beloved Bride.

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[i] This discussion is based upon and borrows freely (with and without attribution) from two pieces by Gilbert Meilaender: “Marriage in Counterpoint and Harmony”, in First Things, June/July 1992; “Love Abides” in Love Taking Shape, 2002.