Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The woman had two children, the offspring of a failing marriage to a man who spent most of his time at bars drinking beer and playing pool. She put up with it until he almost killed their eldest child in a DUI accident. After the divorce, she met and fell in love with a man enlisted in the Navy. They married and had two children.


At first the transition into a blended family went smoothly enough. But soon the arguments started. They became more frequent, and then turned violent. He began to abuse her. One night it got so bad that the woman suffered a back injury that affects her to this day. After life at home became intolerable for her and her children, she left her husband. Later she met a single dad online and temporarily moved in with him.  


The toll that her ordeal took on her mental and physical health, however, made it impossible for her to care for her children. One day she went to her brother’s house. She pleaded with him to receive the children into his household and raise them as his own. He hesitated. Having been only recently married with one child and another on the way, he felt unable to consent to his sister’s request.


And yet her situation continued to trouble him; he couldn’t let it go. Deeply concerned about his sister, he spoke with his pastor about her request. After prayerful deliberation, he then decided to receive her children into his household and raise them together with his own.


That woman’s brother happens to be a man I met three weeks ago. His name is J.P. Formerly a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., J.P. has since dedicated his life to marriage and family ministry. To this end he founded an organization called Communio. It conducts seminars and workshops in churches on dating, marriage and parenting. It is already in several major cities. Recently, J.P. has received calls from countries overseas. Communio will soon be international.


J.P. told me that he made this career shift when he realized that his sister’s experience is becoming less and less the exception than the norm in the United States. J.P. and his team at Communio compile data that show that marriage in our culture today is in crisis. Social researcher Bradley Wilcox points out that one of the central ironies in American life today is this: marriage and family have hit record lows in 2020 even as the science continues to mount telling us how essential they are to the well-being of men, women and children.


All of us here have lived long enough to witness the shifting norms of how people date, marry and enter parenthood. We have watched the intact family unravel. Once the stable and dominant building block of church and society, it is becoming an anomaly, only one among several family constellations that are arguably riskier and less secure for children and adults alike.


In our gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day, the pharisees come to ask Jesus about divorce. Jesus’ reply is controversial–in our time and place, obviously, but perhaps in all times and places. In any event, let us not be mistaken. His reply is motivated not by a stern moralism, but by love.


In the gospels, the love of Jesus sometimes takes the form of compassion for the most vulnerable members of society. Women and children can certainly be included among them, not only but perhaps especially in Jesus’ day. There were no divorce courts then. All a man had to do was write on a piece of paper that he wanted to divorce his wife and give that piece of paper to her and perhaps to a priest, and he was free to marry another. Nor are we to imagine that there were social services or welfare or food stamps to support the deserted wife once on her own. Apart from the temple tax and almsgiving, which never went far enough, no such institutions existed.


Divorce no doubt left most women and their children in a place of deep insecurity, leaving them to struggle to survive. But this is not so different from what we see now, especially in poor communities. Single parent households are common, as we have already observed. And the social science tells us how the disturbances in marriage and family life constitute a source of real hardship and misery, which has been objectively measured. 


Jesus’ words and actions tell us that hardship and misery do not correspond to God’s intention. Rather, God’s intention is for human flourishing. That is why Jesus restates God’s intention for marriage as it is reflected in the creation story in Genesis, from which we read in our first lesson for this Lord’s Day. And that is why Jesus takes up the little children in his arms, lays his hands on them, and blesses them.


Marriage, Jesus reminds us, is inscribed in our very creation as male and female. It is encoded in our very make up. That is to say, who we are as men and women cannot be understood apart from the marriage relationship.


In our Old Testament lesson, God saw the man he had made–and did not like what he saw. “It is not good that man should be alone.”


Parenthetically, when we read the creation story in Genesis 1, we find that after successive acts of creation, there is a refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” And in a summary statement, we read: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (1:31). That is why it is all the more remarkable when we read here: “It is not good that man should be alone.” God then goes to work to make a helper suitable for him.


God’s construction of the woman brings the man joy. After God presents her to him, he exclaims “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”


In his reply to the pharisees, Jesus refers to this Genesis story. He interprets it as the warrant for marriage. “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”


Marriage is God’s good intention. In a world that is becoming more and more divided, this has been increasingly obscured. But we have only to read the Bible to see the priority that God gives to marriage.


Marriage is the pre-eminent human relationship, affording the possibility, even in a sinful world, of the deepest communion between two persons who become husband and wife. Mysteriously, it points to the love of God. The authors of the Bible use marriage as an image to portray God’s covenant love for his people.


For example, the prophet Hosea was told to marry a woman named Gomer, who would be unfaithful to him. He was told not to divorce her, but to persevere in his love, and continue to provide for her even after she deserted him for other men. When she reached rock bock bottom, and was sold into slavery, Hosea was told to purchase her, take her back into his home, lead her out of her shame and back into his heart.


Hosea’s relationship, of course, is an illustration of God’s covenant relationship with his wayward people. God would not give up on his people, even though they were unfaithful to him. Marriage here exemplifies God’s intimate relationship with his people, his unwavering commitment to them.


The image recurs in the prophet Isaiah, where we read: “Your maker is your husband, the Lord almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger, I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you” (54:5-7).


At that time, Israel’s land will be said to be married, and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will Israel’s God rejoice over her (62:4).


In the New Testament the prophet John the Baptist describes Jesus Christ as the bridegroom and himself as the best man. John’s role is to wait and listen for him. He is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice (John 3:29).


If Christ is the bridegroom, then his people, the church, is the bride. The apostle Paul tells the church at Corinth that he promised them to one husband, to Christ, that he might present them to him as a pure virgin (1 Cor. 11:2).


The image of Christ as bridegroom and the church as the bride is most explicitly developed in the Letter to the Ephesians. Husbands are to love their wives, and give themselves for them, just as Christ does the church. They are to treat their wives as they do their own bodies, just as Christ feeds and cares for his own body, the church (5: 25-29).


The language of bodies suggests to the author what we read in our Scripture lessons today: “for this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” But the author sees the deeper meaning. He says that it is talking about Christ and the church (Eph. 5: 32)! Christ’s union with the church is so close, that the one-flesh union of marriage is the only image capable of describing it.


John Calvin sees in these verses in Ephesians 5 a reference to the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ’s members, through the Holy Spirit, are joined with Christ, as well as with one another. In the old Calvinist liturgies for the Lord’s Supper, the people say that as members of Christ’s own body they are “flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone.” In his commentary on Ephesians, Calvin asks: “Do we wonder then that in the Lord’s Supper Christ holds out his body to be enjoyed by us and to nourish us unto eternal life?”


As if to emphasize that this will be a joyful feast, the seer in Revelation, the very last book of the Bible, writes: “Blessed are they who are called to the wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9). The lamb of course refers to Jesus Christ. It is his marriage that is in view here. And in that famous chapter, which we often hear at funeral services, the seer communicates his climactic vision: “Then I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (21:2). Later an angel summons the seer: “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb” (21:9).


So marriage is in the Bible from beginning to end. It begins in a garden and ends in a city. In the final analysis, its message to us is that whether single, married, divorced, or widowed, we are destined to be embraced in the spousal love of Christ.


Let us then approach the table on this World Communion Sunday with our minds and hearts filled with this theme. Let us not take for granted the love that God offers to us in Christ. Many in our divided world today feel incapable of moving out of their isolation into intimate communion with another human being, let alone a spouse. But God in Christ draws us out of isolation into communion with him and with one another, together with whom we form one body, the body of Christ. In this community we can and should become very different from the people in this divided world: we become the kind of human beings God intends for us to be.


The prospect of becoming this kind of human being in the body of Christ is reason enough to feel joy, or at least feel encouraged. But it will pale in comparison with what we will feel when God’s work of redemption in Christ is complete. Then we will exclaim: Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! “For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). Even so, come Lord Jesus (22:20). Amen.

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