Flesh of my flesh: a fresh look at Christian marriage
October 19, 2012
One of the highlights of my ministering year was celebrating the marriage of Rose and Andy in July – the first wedding in my three years here in Crosspool.
For me, weddings are one of the real joys of ministry: there’s a sense of sharing with people one of the most important moments of their lives and helping them to meet with God in that.
My last parish was on a housing estate in North Sheffield, and there a romance developed at the lunch club. To start with Tom and Jean were convinced that they were too old to get married. She was in her late seventies, he was eighty -five. They made each other laugh, and their delight one another was a joy to behold. When we talked about it, it became clear that they were utterly committed to sharing their lives in love together. It was a service in which the words “till death us to part” came with a special tenderness and poignancy.
A very different wedding was that of Emily and George, whose marriage I took while I was a curate. They were beautiful young things who both came from millionaire families, and initially I was probably rather dismissive of them thinking that getting married in church was more about image and appearances rather than engaging with God. As we came to marriage preparation I was humbled to realise how wrong my assumptions about them were. They longed for a service which would enable them to share the ideas and insights that had been most important to them in their lives. George had a letter written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta to one of his relatives, and we included a quotation from it in the order of service.
In the C of E marriage service, at the point at which the rings are given, both bride and groom use the words “All I am I give to you and all I have I share with you.” I was touched by the way that Emily and George were so intent on sharing with one another the deep places in their lives at which they had been touched by grace.
Our readings this morning – the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib in Genesis, Jesus’s teachings about divorce in Mark – prompt us to reflect on marriage. It is an important subject for us, and especially so since gay marriage has been in the news recently, with the government conducting a rather rushed consultation exercise with the churches. Now before we jump to any conclusion on the issue of gay marriage we should refresh our thinking about Christian marriage in general: what it is, and what makes it distinctive. I want to preface my remarks with a health warning: in the complex world of human relationships all of us have very different experiences, we all carry our individual histories with us. It’s important to recognise that marriage is not for everyone and arguably the New Testament has rather more to say about the virtues of being celibate and single than it does than about the virtues of being married.
In Genesis 2 we find this beautiful story of the creation of woman, formed from Adam’s rib while he is sleeping. This poetic story seems to suggest that the desire for sexual intimacy is something like a longing for a primitive state of union. Adam says of Eve, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Eve and Adam belong together with a physical, visceral belonging. Their union with one another changes them fundamentally. This Genesis passage is important for how Christians have understood marriage, and indeed Jesus quotes from it in his repartee with the Pharisees:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh.”
This one flesh idea, this sense of marriage as being a union, is quite different from a secular view of marriage as essentially a contractual agreement between two parties. Marriage is not exclusive to Christian societies but has a part in every culture, every world religion, in non-religious societies. What Christianity does offer is a distinctive take on marriage and part of that is an understanding of marriage as union, a belonging together at a profound level. If we put ourselves in the mindset of Jesus and envisage marriage as spiritual union, as communion, rather than as a contract, then we can understand how divorce does not easily fit with this way of thinking. What God has joined together, he says, let man not separate: words that we use in our marriage service.
Faithfulness, fidelity is another key emphasis of Christian marriage. God is faithful: God never gives up on us. Divine love is faithful love, and this is expressed in the Bible by God’s covenant with his people. You are my people: I am your God, and nothing can ever change that. It’s an unbreakable promise, and unchangeable commitment. That’s what the covenant is about , and God’s covenant with his people is wonderfully renewed in the person of Jesus, who shares with us the bread and wine of the new covenant. There’s an unshakeable quality about covenant love: it makes me thing of the psalmist who speaks of God as “my rock”. There is a rock-like stability in the faithfulness of God’s love to us in Christ, and this is mirrored in small way by the faithfulness expressed in the commitment of Christian marriage, a faithfulness that sees other choices, other potential relationships and consciously says no to them.
If we’re thinking about marriage we have to ask ourselves what marriage is for. The church has had two answers to that: firstly, the procreation of children, and secondly, for loving communion between husband and wife. Over the last century these purposes have come to be seen as equally important, and the lessening of the emphasis on children was what enabled the Church of England to give its assent to the use of contraception which it did in the 30s and again in the 1950s. This was a significant change in the way in which the Church has understood marriage. Another important change has been an openness to the possibility of re-marriage after divorce in church since 2002.
This is a such a sensitive matter. I’ve met people who have been refused marriage in church after divorce, and who carry the wounds from that rejection with them for decades, and I’m glad that the church has developed its thinking on this issue. If the Holy Spirit is leading us into all truth we should not expect the church’s pastoral teaching to be static: we should look for new insights in response to changing needs.
But a really important question arises. If Jesus in our Mark passage is forbidding divorce, how can we now claim that remarriage after divorce is scriptural? As Linda reminded us in her sermon a fortnight ago scripture is authoritative for us as Christians. The word of God in scripture is living and active. In permitting remarriage after divorce, is the church ignoring the plain teaching of Jesus? Or is there more to it than that?
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Think for a moment about the core message of Jesus teaching. What are the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel? “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus is the Son of Man who has authority on earth to forgive sins. Jesus shares meals to demonstrate God’s love for sinners. The prayer he gives his friends centres on the imperative of receiving and offering forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness stand at the very heart of the good news. So an approach to divorce and re-marriage which takes as its starting point the need for repentance, forgiveness and a new beginning with God can indeed be said to be thoroughly scriptural.
So do you see what we’re doing here? We’re paying attention to Jesus words in Mark but holding them up against the whole direction of travel of the gospel message. This is the work of biblical interpretation undertaken in the light of the Holy Spirit. When we interpret the Bible, we take one text and check it against another text, we take a part and check it against the whole. When we’re using the Bible to frame important ethical questions, taking single verses out of their context simply won’t do.
The church’s use of the Bible in response to gay people has been a case in point. Random disconnected verses from Leviticus and Paul’s letters have been used to vilify and exclude gay people. We need to find a more responsible scriptural response which takes account of the whole direction of travel of the Good News of Jesus, the one who comes to free the captives and liberate the oppressed, who steps across the barrier of prejudice and taboo.
Jesus said that anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. Unlike adults, children are not rigid and fixed in their views, but are open to the possibility that there is something new for us to learn. As we seek to live our relationships with integrity, whether single, married, divorced, gay, straight, whoever we are: may we seek to life in greater openness to the God who by his Spirit will lead us into all truth.
Frances Eccleston, October 2012.