27th of the Year, 3rd Oct 21
Are there particular marriages that inspire you? I have vague memory of having a warm glow when thinking of the marriage in the soap opera Neighbours of Madge and Harold Bishop: but don’t ask me why! We might think of others, like Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in a Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Lucie has to stay faithful to Charles even when he has been imprisoned falsely during the French Revolution. Think another: when Prince Philip died many, whether they’re particularly royalist or not, were moved by the thought of how long the Queen and he had been married. In my own life my grandparents were great influences on me of how wonderful married life is and in both cases - unusually - the man dying after the woman and ensuring she was cared for properly through illness and then given noble Christian funerals. I can also think of examples in our church family of couples who have taught me what the Christian understanding of marriage truly is and I won’t embarrass them now but I’m privately grateful for them.
It’s not easy in public life though and in our society to see many good examples of married life and this should worry us as Christians whether we ourselves are married or not. Obviously our Bible readings today point us to this Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Remember the definition of a sacrament which should trip off our lips: a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The outward and visible sign of marriage is the love between husband and wife, their joining of hands and giving rings, their making of vows publicly. The interior grace is the faithfulness given to each and the reminder of Christ’s love for His Church See (Ephesians 5:32).
All the Sacraments were begun by Christ’s ministry on earth. All, that is, except marriage. As Pope Benedict observed a few years ago, marriage is a “sacrament of creation,” its origins going back to the beginning of time, as we heard in our first reading from Genesis 2. This is the second account of how man and woman were created: it seems at one level to go back over ground already covered in the previous chapter where we’re told how man and woman were created at the same time “male and female He made them, in the image of God He created them,” (Genesis 1:27).
The Bible can never contradict itself though; it can never be at odds with itself. What the Bible doesn’t necessarily encourage is some clever dick saying, “Well, how can these two accounts be true: one where man and woman are created at the same time, another where they are created sequentially?” The opening chapters of the Book of Genesis is not meant to be a photograph of the moment when God created everything. It is meant to be a reflection on the moment when God created everything. It’s not about which account is true, it’s saying they’re both to impart truth to us: teaching us that man and woman are complementary and equal while different in role and biology. We need to be confident in our reading of Scripture and do so propped up by the teaching of the Church so these occurrences do not throw us off course in our faith. Those who try to catch us out by throwing at us bits of the Bible which might seem contradictory are just like the Pharisees’ treatment of our Lord: whatever the answer we give they want us to be crucified. We need to be ready to speak when we have to give an account of our faith.
Our Lord’s teaching on marriage and His taking of a child in His arms, which builds on the Gospel we heard last week from the previous chapter, these have something in common in speaking to us of perseverance and faithfulness. One of the amazing things about young children is how trusting they are. This is one of many reasons why we need to protect our children both within our Churches and in our wider society. This is not just the responsibility of parents or those who run our Sunday Schools or Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Association but a concern we all share.
This links in with what I was saying a few minutes ago about the beauty of longevity and perseverance in the marital bond, indeed in all our relationships. This is also true when we think of our friendships and other bonds of love which must also be a participation in the love of God. Love cannot chop and change or come and go. Love can only endure. “God is love,” St John tells us (I John 4:16). St Paul concludes his beautiful discourse on charity (as it was rendered in the old translations): “These three abide, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love,” (I Corinthians 13:13). There’s even the strange phenomenon isn’t there of some people who get divorced and find themselves still friends - perhaps this is at root an indication of the eternity of all love.
We are called to be faithful in our relationships with each other. We do this in part in humility as we realise God’s faithfulness to us. Jeremiah reflects on the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering he’s seen and despite all that, he is comforted, as we hear in the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end,” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Time and time again in the parables, Jesus presents to us a radical and forgiving love: the shepherd who leaves the ninety nine so as to find the one lost sheep (St Matthew 19:10-14); the master who forgives the servant who in turns fails to forgive others (St Matthew 18:23-35); the person who sells everything they have to buy the field in which they have discovered treasure (St Matthew 13:44).
In stark contrast we see the poverty of our own discipleship and worse than that it’s an impoverished discipleship which because it’s so much better than many people’s, we expect God to be grateful for! St Augustine of Hippo as he looked back on his desolate past where he turned from God and embraced worldly thinking, could say and I think we can hear him sigh as he does so, “Late have I loved thee, beauty so ancient and so new,” (Confessions 10.27). Let’s have before us the example of the Syro-Phoenician woman who in humility, knowing herself not to be a Jew went to the Messiah and asked for her daughter to be healed. Jesus replies, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs,” and He must have one of those unrecorded smiles on His face as He mocks those who had such prejudices as this. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” (St Mark 7:24-27). She comes not with a sense of entitlement, but realising only God in His graciousness will receive her into His presence.
[At St Mary’s: Today we celebrate our Patronal Festival, an opportunity to appreciate what we sometimes take for granted, that we have a beautiful Church in which to worship God and that people have been doing so here for over 130 years. Part of our humility when it comes to our worship of God is to acknowledge that we don’t just worship God in our own homes, where we are in control and where we’ve organised everything to our own desire, but that we come to worship God in a space that belongs to all of us but isn’t controlled by any of us individually. This Church is only here because generations have supported its work and this is also a chance to pray for those who have looked after St Mary’s in the past so we can enjoy encountering God here today.]
St Paul talks about marriage in Ephesians 5 and reflects on the verse we heard from Genesis 2 which our Lord also quoted: ”For this reason a man will leave father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” St Paul continues: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and His Church.” God sends His Son to us to save us from our sins. He does this for we, God’s people, the Church, are His Bride. To put it slightly flippantly we are all princesses rescued by a knight in shining armour (yes, you can tell I’ve been reading children’s stories!). We are rescued, however, not by a man in armour with a joust and horse, but by the Son of God, beaten, bruised and forsaken on the wood of the Cross. He doesn’t just do this for anyone, He does this for His Church.
So, know yourselves to be loved, my friends; know the privilege of being a Christian, God’s chosen, and build one another up into a spiritual dwelling, pleasing in the sight of almighty God. Amen.