Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Our Gospel today is a difficult text. We are in the midst of passages from Mark that are among what are called the difficult sayings of Jesus. This Gospel along with the Hebrews and Genesis readings are the assigned for this Sunday by the Revised Common Lectionary that we follow. I was tempted to just preach on the very beautiful and mystical text in Hebrews But as your pastor and knowing that all of us are touched by divorce, some of us very personally, some of us as children of divorced parents and all of us have friends who are divorced, I could not in good conscience leave each of us all alone with our gospel today. I wish I could tell you that Jesus didn’t mean what he said, or that these aren’t the words of Jesus, or that this reflects Jesus’ culture. Yet none of those things are true. Jesus is clear, although the Law allows for a man to divorce his wife, this does not reflect God’s intention and denies the ultimate truth and reality of marriage, as given in the creation narrative in Genesis. Jesus goes beyond the Law directing us to God’s intention for marriage where there is no way to pull apart, to sever, the one flesh God creates in marriage. Therefore to divorce and remarry is adultery. I say this now at the top of my sermon because this is what we are going to struggle with in this sermon.
Also from the start I want to let you know that I am the oldest child of a second marriage. Facing the bluntness of Jesus’ words caused a mild crisis as I realized that on the face of it if my father had followed the ideal Jesus seems to set down in Mark, he should have never remarried. My mother should have never agreed to marry him and then my younger sister and I would never have been. Here is a mystery that is difficult for me to contemplate knowing also the continuing pain and chaos of my fathers divorce that simply is a reality that continues to bring an awkwardness to relationships that are complex and created out of a painful event. One of the most difficult things I had to face in my family therapy class in seminary was admitting that I have no idea what it is like to grow up in a family that is not wounded by the reality of divorce. My father’s first wife divorced him and married another man quickly there after, but my father and mother and my dad’s ex-wife and her new husband lived within blocks of each other in Glenview. So, I was born into a family of 5 older siblings though three were my half brother and sister’s stepsiblings. Because my half siblings and their step brothers and sisters were always over at our house I grew up with them as my family, until my parents decided to move to California for my dad to go to Seminary, and my dad’s ex-wife sued for complete custody of my brother an sister and suddenly at three I found I was briefly an only child until my sister was born two months latter and then I was the oldest. In a sense if my father had taken Jesus’ words at face value perhaps a little less pain in the world, but yet and here is the mystery also less joy, and clearly to me my parents have lived into the ideal of Christian marriage that Jesus points to in this passage. I do not know that I have answers but hopefully out of my experience and sitting together before this text we may gain some insight into the mystery of marriage.
As we begin to struggle with these words there are several things I wish you to keep in mind. First (And I owe this insight to my father) We need to hear Jesus’ words based on what we know to be the character of Jesus Christ: we know Jesus Christ acts and speaks out of the pure intention of love for humanity and individuals. We know of Jesus Christ is that his opinion is never a matter of simple rules or law, though he is also not a relativist. Jesus directs us to our being., he is concerned with true human being, a reconciled human being that lives according to our true humanity. Second since the fall there is only one true and perfect human being and that person was Jesus Christ, that person was never married, never had children and never had sexual relations. Third, We cannot understand these words isolated from other Scripture and the practice of the Church, so we will wander through the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as well as Deuteronomy and Genesis, and listen to the teaching of the church. Lastly, there is grace, there is forgiveness, there is room for mistakes, but we must be careful how we apply this grace lest we end up with what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.
So how do you hear these words of Jesus? Do you hear condemnation? Do you hear strict law? Do you hear an impossible standard? Can you hear these words as loving words directing us to our true humanity and the true meaning of marriage and love? So some Pharisees, other rabbi’s quite close to Jesus theologically though also in constant debate with him, come to test him. I think in good Jewish fashion to test Jesus’ position and to debate a bit of Torah that as far as we can tell was hotly debated in Jesus’ time. This bit of Torah is Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (read) But they also phrase the debate in terms of the lawfulness of divorce, clearly the question was around what things allowed a man to divorce his wife, what was the meaning of “something objectionable”. Jesus as he usually does refuses to fall into the trap of the debate by asking an obvious question. “What does Moses say?” In asking this question though Jesus reveals the trap that the debate sets for all . As far as Jesus is concerned one is trapped in sin if you ask if divorce is allowed or “lawful”. So the Pharisees paraphrase Deuteronomy 24 1-4, Jesus answers, true but it is because of our hardness of heart that the Law allows for divorce. This is a shocker, isn’t the Law supposed to be harsh and unbending but no the law in this instance according to Jesus is accommodating to human weakness. Jesus though wants to talk about marriage not divorce. So he says the Torah in Genesis is clear, the answer to your question is and was from the beginning when God created Adam and Eve. Jesus says (read Mark 10:6b-8a) Jesus quotes Genesis1: 27 and 2:24. You can see Jesus brushing his hands together and saying and that is that, once you have married you are one with your wife (or husband) and this unity is created by God, so what God had Joined together let no one separate. There is your answer about the legality of divorce, it’s not law but human being, and ontology. The question you should be asking is God’s intention for marriage and what it means for you to be human. This intention has been known from the beginning of creation it’s about what God does in marriage in creating an intimate coequal and mutually supportive union. This is sacred, a sacrament even this question should not even be on your lips. Marriage is not a piece of paper a mere social contract, rather true marriage reveals for us something of who we are as human beings.
Apparently though the disciples are still a bit confused, so they say to Jesus when they are alone with him “So about that question what do you mean?” Jesus then answers with what I think are the really difficult words: (Read mark 10:111-12) Remarriage is out it seems, If one divorces one cannot remarry without sinning. The bond of marriage remains even with a certificate of divorce allowed by the Law. We should also not overlook that Jesus shows that he sees both men and women equally responsible for a marriage and what happens in its dissolution. Jesus in going back behind the Law does not see as Deuteronomy does as the man as being the sole or primary actor.
Is this all? No there are still three things we need to consider: Matthew has a slightly different take on Jesus teaching on marriage and divorce, then we need to consider Paul’s interpretation and application of Jesus’ teaching and lastly we need to understand the Church’s practice surrounding divorce and remarriage.
Matthew 19:1-12 recounts the same or similar interchange. The disciples are aghast at Jesus’ equation of remarriage after divorce with adultery. They say “Well then it is better not to marry!”, to which Jesus using the hyperbole of the image of a eunuch says you are right an appropriate response is to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Another interesting aspect of Mathew’s account is that Jesus mentions an exception, around the issue of “un-chastity” which softens slightly Jesus’ strong statement on divorce. The problem is that scholars are not in agreement about what un-chastity (porneia in the greet, the word from which we get our word pornography) means. However this is interpreted two things come from this passage: 1) Jesus seems to connect marriage and celibacy as means of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and 2) there is an exception clause in Matthew’s version, though it seems to be a somewhat unhelpful one since it is not clarified by Jesus. There is much debate around these two divergences in Matthews’s version of Jesus’ teaching on divorce from Marks. The debate is as useless as the debate over the lawfulness of divorce, as it misses the point. For the disciples still get the point Jesus is saying that under most if not all circumstances it is not God’s ultimate intention and design for marriage to end and remarriage then is not an option for those who seek to live into God’s intention for our human being. However Matthews’s version leads us into the teaching and practice of the church and Paul’s application of Jesus teaching.
In what I say below I am indebted lay orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov’s book The Sacrament of Love and an Orthodox priest Father Zion’s book Eros and Transformation Evdokimov insists that what we find in Jesus’ teaching on marriage in these passages directs us to see an asceticism, that is a discipline in the marriage bond equal to and of the same type as the asceticism of the monk or nun. The point after all of Christian asceticism is not the denial of the human but the opening ourselves to the truly human. Evdokimov then sees two paths available to the Christian sexuality expressed in celibacy, institutionalized in monasticism and sexuality expressed in the loving permanent relationship of a husband and wife expressed in the sacrament of marriage. If Jesus is insistent on the permanence of marriage it is because of what it means for our salvation because of what it means for our human being. Jesus directs us to the creation narrative and removes the question from what is allowed and places marriage in that which is greater then the Law Jesus Christ himself and the eschatological fulfillment and recapitulation of all things in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is so serious about divorce and remarriage because these disorders in our world threaten who we truly are as humans in Christ Jesus, as the new creation, as the Church which is already a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
Jesus by going back to Genesis and highlighting the one flesh and that a man should cling to his wife shows that the foundation of marriage as with all things is Love. Eros is salvific and proclaims the Kingdom of God when taken in the right context, in the permanence of the sacrament of marriage. That is that the love of a married couple is both a manifestation of the Kingdom of God when properly understood and is a grace of God, a gift. Thus marriage is then given within the context of the Gospel, it is to be entered into with the seriousness of the monk or nun or hermit, with the same desire to live a life disciplined by the Gospel and God’s kingdom to show forth God’s love in the world and thus find ourselves and those around us the transformed by the Kingdom of God.
Then what of our failures? What then of the failures we all know too well, perhaps even our own failures. What of for example the failure and success of my father in marriage? There is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus! Unlike many of those who claim to speak for Christ, Jesus does not strike out against those who have sinned. When Jesus meets the woman at the well he does not bring judgment of the society into his encounter. He speaks to her a Samaritan and she was not only married and divorce 4 times but currently she was living with a man to whom she was not married! Jesus doesn’t shun her, Jesus doesn’t say what are you thinking but he does call her to repentance to admit her failings. Jesus call’s her to a new. This is the point of grace to love us into true life, to love us back into who we are to be as human beings, as God intended and as God is recreating us to be in Jesus Christ.
Then a more serious event in which people try to trap Jesus, they have caught a woman who was committing adultery and they bring her to Jesus and say see look what she has done, you know the Law, she is to be stoned to death. Jesus looks around and throws the ball back in their court. “Oh really… well then you who are without sin throw the first stone.” and one by one they all drop their rocks and walk away leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus tenderly takes the woman by the hand and says to her, “My daughter were are your accusers does no one condemn you, then neither do I” and then adds the key to grace that is never cheap, go and sin no more. There is always forgiveness, which also always already entails the call to leave aside our sin.
But in all of this we must keep in mind what Hebrews emphasizes and is found elsewhere in the new the New Testament Jesus Christ is the only perfect human. Jesus Christ not only took on our sins on the cross but in Jesus Christ God has become one with us and our humanity. Jesus is all we are to be as human beings, and he did so as one who was never married never had sex, as a celibate person he shows us our true humanity. This should be freeing to us in so many ways, living in a culture that makes out the romantic, marriage and sex as the be all and end all, the place of our ultimate fulfillment.
We have this very strong saying, emphasizing thatmarriage is supposed to be permanent the making one of man and woman, in a loving mutual relationship. Because of this is God’s intent Jesus says, to remarry after divorce is adultery. Yet we also find that Jesus does not condemn Jesus invites us to new life even after our mistakes. Did my father sin and still find grace, or is there something to Matthew’s version, that Mark in overlooks in lifting up the ideal. Is there something to the break down of some marriages.?
While most early church theologians on this subject simply reiterate Jesus’ teaching, starting with St Basil in the 4th century we begin to see making of allowance for divorce and remarriage in certain cases. This making allowance was based on interpreting Jesus exception clause. In the churches of the eastern Mediterranean the practice that began to emerge was that a second marriage was sometimes allowable especially in cases of adultery, a third marriage was allowable in but only after one had done penance, essentially admitting that the divorce and remarriage was wrong but also allowing for the mistake, and completely disallowed a fourth marriage after another. In the western Mediterranean under the influence of the church at Rome, a stricter line was held but developed a legal notion of annulment in which a marriage was declared invalid, or a non-marriage, thus divorce and remarriage was not permitted in church following Jesus’ teaching but there was an admission that some marriage’s aren’t marriages in the sense Jesus describes. Paul’s discourse on marriage and divorce to the Corinthians (7:10-16) in this passage Paul draws from the words of Jesus that are recorded in Mark 10 and Mathew 19, in which divorce is not allowed and if divorce occurs the parties are not to remarry. Paul like Matthew also has an exception that is often referred to as the Pauline privilege. Paul says that if one has an unbelieving spouse and that spouse wishes a divorce The Christian spouse is to allow it, and then Christian is then no longer bound. Evdokimov sees in this passage an expansion and interpretation of Matthew “except for un-chastity”, his connection is around the notions discord and peace in marriage. Because he sees in the Genesis account and also in his understanding of the Gospel the centrality of God’s being as love, the issue for him is whether there is that love andconcord that is ultimately redemptive in the marriage discipline of permanence allowing for the grace of one flesh. What is occurring here according to Evodokimov is that Paul is recognizing the end of the concord and peace necessary for there to be one flesh. The Christian in the case Paul puts forward is no longer bound because there is no longer the bond of one flesh. Evodokimov interprets the practice of annulment and the allowance of some divorce and remarriage in the eastern churches as a recognition that while it is true that what God binds together in one flesh is not to be broken there are circumstance where in this time, when the old world is still passing away and the fullness of the Kingdom is yet to come, when we find that certain cases either the bond of one flesh has died, or simply was never in there to begin with. The practice of the church both eastern and western shows us that the purpose of marriage is this bond of love, this one flesh, the mutual companionship, this grace of love in the presence of God of two, man and woman, being made one flesh. Yet, not all marriages are in fact true marriages or sometimes tragically what was once a true living and life giving marriage ceases to be, two instances of this would be adultery (and the adulterous spouse remaining unrepentant) and a non-Christian spouse deciding that the discord between the Christian spouse and the non-Christian spouse was too great and divorcing the Christian.
What then does all these interwoven New Testament texts and the practice and teaching of the Church on mutuality and companionship in marriage as God makes the married couple one flesh have to say to us as followers of Christ? In conclusion let me suggest what these things might be saying to us in our various states. So, you are single, yet to be married Jesus’ teaching should present you some question. What is in fact your calling? What are you seeking in marriage? do you see it as a discipline akin to being a Monk or nun? Do you begin understand what it means to be joined to another in one flesh. I scarcely fully understand it. Love, the love of God, the love of others the love of a husband or wife is all serious business, it is about who we are to be, but marriage is not the only way to be human, some are called to be eunuchs for the Kingdom, and Paul (perhaps a bit harshly but all the same still speaking the truth and the word of God), admonishes us in 1 Corinthians to consider that the better path for some of us is the single celibate life, not easy or easier but for some that is perhaps the better way to give witness to Christ. Yet at the same time Evodkimov reminds us lest we elevate the monk and nun that Jesus Christ came to redeem and renew all creation, and Jesus shows that marriage is part of Creation and thus also a way to live into and proclaim the Kingdom of God. There is then both warning and invitation to those of us who are single and yet to be married: marriage is a great mystery a beautiful and lovely thing, but should not be entered lightly. We should never see marriage as our only way to be as Christians, which really is the greater danger in Protestant circles, few of us are in danger of elevating the celibate, rather we have trouble believing Paul that such a life might be preferable.
To the married this says, seek the betterment of the other. Seek God together. Remember you have entered into a permanent relationship. There is no out if your marriage is a true marriage of love companionship and mutuality. God has and is binding you together as one, devote yourself to each other in seeking to proclaim and witness in your relationship the love of God and the Gospel. It may be difficult but this is asceticism no less demanding than that of monk or Nun. And if you stick with it if you allow the grace given to you in the sacrament of marriage to penetrate each one of you, you will enter the great mystery of the incarnation and of our salvation. By your very relationship you will proclaim the Gospel showing the world the relationship of Christ with the new humanity, the Church. Yet if you are married and there is such discord or if there is abuse, a violation of mutuality companionship and love, Scripture and the practice of the church through the centuries suggests that you are not bound to stay, sometimes in extreme circumstances we find that marriages die or never existed in the first place. In circumstances where there is the opposite of one flesh, a deep opposition in a partner to the grace of God which makes one out of two, you are not bound, you are free- there is grace.
For the divorced, you are left to struggle with Jesus’ words, there is no easy way forward for you. But if you take the wisdom of the Church, you are not alone, and the Church in her wisdom has said and says, with Christ after sending all away who would condemn because only one is without sin the perfect human, Jesus Christ, I do not condemn you go and sin no more. This probably means some deep and difficult self-examination, what was your part in the death of you marriage. But also, if you divorced to get away from one who was emotionally or physically abusive, you were no longer in a true marriage, and your only mistake might have been not seeing from the start the inability of your spouse to enter into a true marriage relationship. If this is so, then that this discord existed was indicative of one of two things either there was no marriage, or what was begun in God’s grace was stillborn. Both are to be mourned, but there is freedom to move forward, to say good buy, There might even be the freedom to marry again without sin. However, what ever the exact circumstance of your divorce, know that Christ stands before you saying I do not condemn you go and sin no more.
In whatever state you find yourself, Jesus’ words call us I believe into community into the community of his Son Jesus Christ. Marriage and singleness and permanent celibacy are matters of the Kingdom of God, they are not only our private affairs, and things merely for our individual fulfillment, rather they are grand mysteries, and should be treated with care. Marriage if it is true and good is a means of grace where God reveals our true humanity bring together male and female. However, marriage is not everyone’s call, you do not become a true human being once you are married. Because the perfect human the representative of al humanity, Jesus Christ, was never married. What we are called to always is discernment. I urge us then to seek discernment together. I urge you to allow the church to walk with you in your struggles, in your questions, in your call as married, single (temporary or permanently) or divorced persons. And if divorced don’t’ attempt to stand-alone and sort out the meaning of what has happened or how to move on. Jesus’ words and the practice of the church demand that in the very least you seek out the wisdom of other believers and your pastors. I encourage you to speak to Tripp or I, not that we can tell you what you should do, but we may be able to help you walk through the difficult and painful process of sorting through what happened and then help discern what God calls you to do in moving on. We are also to remember Paul’s advice that there is the strong possibility that the best way to move forward is to remain as you are now. That is the possibility for all of us. It is certainly the ideal for those of us who have already entered into marriage.
We are called to live according our true humanity, which is Christ. Our hope is in this that Jesus Christ is the perfect human and that if we are incorporated into Christ through faith and baptism we have a new life. This life is both the return and the fulfillment of the life God intended for us before the fall. Yet we are still in that time between the renewal of all things in the new heaven and the new earth and the passing way of the old cosmos dominated by sin and death. We will fall, and when we do we are called to repent and move forward. We are called to seek God. Remember there is grace but there will always be the question of discerning how to move on from our failures, and we can only do that in the company of the church. Jesus Christ reminds us there are some mistakes that have permanent consequences, that are not easily erased. Grace and forgiveness do not means living as if there was no mistake no hurt, but living into the ideals of our faith even when there is failure. Go and sin no more. In those words and there is a call to the community in Chris. Know you are not alone, know there is no condemnation, know there is a call to perfection, know that this is not law, but our true humanity, Jesus Christ.