Several weeks ago, I commented that the supreme court and its decision regarding the legal status of gay marriage were not going to deflect us from hearing God’s Word and the assigned readings for that Sunday. One thing about life in the church is that we are not tyrannized by what the world deems “important” and the news media calls “urgent.” Late-breaking news does not define our family conversation. Our focus is on things eternal not things temporal.
Yet there is a time and a place to discuss marriage matters, and not simply at weddings where everyone is waiting for the preacher to shut up so they can get on with the party. Today is one such time. Our assigned reading from Ephesians draws our attention to husbands and wives: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands as the church is to Christ.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.”
Marriage belongs in the first article as God’s gift of creation. It’s part of the “house, home, spouse, and children” blessing that God gives us to support this body and life. It’s a celebration of our being made “male and female” by our Creator. Marriage is not a means of grace but in need of grace. We’re talking sinners living in close quarters here. Marriage isn’t eternal, it’s temporal, just like our clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse, children, fields, and whatever else is part of this temporal life. It’s part of the temporal kingdom, not the eternal kingdom. “In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” says Jesus, who happens to be the expert on the subject of resurrections and eternity. So our Mormon friends notwithstanding, there are no eternal, celestial marriages, just temporal, earthly ones with both feet grounded in the stuff of this life.
As a temporal kingdom thing, marriage falls under the three temporal orders of home, government, and church. Marriage begins in the home, in view of father and mother, when a man leaves father and mother and is joined to his wife in a wonderful, intimate union that is closer than any other bond we have in this life, except for our eternal union in Christ. At the heart of marriage is a covenant promise between a man and a woman that says, “It’s you and me, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we drop dead.” There’s the temporal part. Death ends the covenant. It is “until death us do part.”
Marriage is a kind of covenental fence built around a profound mystery: the union of man and woman in an ancient dance that goes back to our first parents. “The two become one flesh.” There is much more going on here than meets the eye of the biologist or the supreme court. This is a celebration of being male and female, of counterparts coming together in intimate union as “one flesh.” This elevates our humanity above and beyond our biology. While the birds do it, the bees do it, and the monkeys do it, only male and female humans can become “one flesh.” Geese may mate for life, as do many other animals. but man unique becomes “one flesh” with woman. And it’s this one-flesh-ness that the covenant of marriage protects from any form of adulteration. “You shall not commit adultery.
The marriage covenant is based on fidelity not feelings. Marital love comes as close as we get to that kind of love of which the Bible speaks most often: Agape. This is love as an act of will, voluntary love. Not romantic love or erotic love or warm, tender feelings about someone. This is love as a deliberate act. It’s to say “I love you” when you don’t feel like it. It’s do act lovingly when the other person is being unloving and unlovely. It’s “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” It’s the love that the apostle Paul describes in that famous chapter thirteen of First Corinthians, love that is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude; love that doesn’t insist on its own way; love that isn’t irritable or resentful; love that rejoices in the right and not the wrong; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is the love of God for the world in Christ. It’s the love of Christ for His Church. It’s the love that lays down one’s own life for the sake of the other. This is the kind of love that marriage approximates and exercises, albeit imperfectly, in us. It transcends feelings and circumstances. It sticks to it for better or worse, richer or poorer, heathy or sick. It stays when you want to leave, embraces when you want to push away. As one wise old woman put it, “If you want to stay married, don’t get a divorce.” And when you stay with it, when you will to love the other, you begin to catch a gilmpse of agape, God’s love for you in Jesus.
Marriage is an ordering. It puts our being male and female back into order again. Sin brought disorder and chaos into the creation and into every aspect of our humanity including our sexuality. Nothing so illustrates how deep the condition of Sin is than how distorted and perverse the desire of the sexes for each other has become. Marriage puts order back into our being male and female.
“Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.” The wife is second in rank to her husband. This isn’t a power thing. He’s not the boss, he’s the head. She’s not a slave, she’s the body. The two work together, like a dance. He leads, she follows. But in leading, he doesn’t force her to steps she can’t take or to rhythms that are foreign to her. Instead, he’s completely attuned to her moods and needs, and he conforms his steps to her gait. He leads, but never with power or force or coercion but always gently and wisely, moving in conformity with her graces.
She follows. Old Eve wants to lead, but that won’t work. Eve follows Adam. Being subordinate does not mean she’s inferior. The Son is subordinate to the Father, after all. She follows his lead, trusting him, letting him watch out for the traffic on the dance floor so that she can enjoy the dance. If two lead, they will stumble. If no one leads, they’re not dancing. The subtlety of order is that you never get the glory, the other one does. When the husband leads, his wife gets the glory. When the wife follows, her husband gets the glory. It’s never about you, always about the other. That’s the way of agape.
Of course, old Adam and old Eve, still at work in us, don’t want it that way. We want things “my way.” It’s all about “my needs, my wants, my satisfaction.” We want to control with power, subdue the will of the other, tear each other down, belittle and nibble away at one another until marriage becomes, as one man put it, “a long simmering hostility with occasional moments of love.” Certainly not the way to dance, not even the tango, and certainly not the way of “two become one flesh.”
For the Christian, the “two become one-flesh” holds an even greater, higher, and deeper mystery than our own union as man and woman. It is the union of Christ and the Church. He leaves His Father at the throne of heaven and His mother at the foot of the cross, and He is joined as one flesh to His Eve, His Bride, the Church, drawn out of His wounded side in the water and the blood. The pattern of marriage is the blueprint for Christ and His Church.
For the Christian, whose eyes are fixed on Jesus, there is a pattern for marriage in Jesus’ self-giving and the Church’s subordinate receiving. Christ the Head, the Church His Body, “one flesh” indissoluble. This is a “profound mystery” as the apostle Paul said. We’d never have known this had God not revealed it to us.
Of course, the world knows nothing of it. It deals only with the “outside” of holy things. Rights, benefits, privileges, tax breaks, social security benefits, equality, equal protection under the law. If that’s all that marriage is about, then define it however you wish for whomever you wish. But that’s just the outside of the house, the paint and the siding. Legal rights and privileges have nothing to do with the essence, the core, the mystery that is marriage. That’s for the church to talk about and to proclaim. We don’t need court rulings and petitions and changes in the political winds. We have the Word of God telling us what is going on “in, with, and under” this thing called marriage.
There are two profound mysteries going on here. Under all this legal mumbo jumbo of wedding licenses and marriage certificates and all the ceremonies and impractical dresses and guys in suits they haven’t worn since their proms and lavish dinners and disk jockeys, under all that “stuff” there lies a profound creative mystery of God – male and female in intimate communion with one another as “one flesh.” There is nothing else in this world like it. We may have close, loving, committed friendship, fellowships, kinships, relationships, but nothing is like the union of man and woman, Adam and Eve, as “one flesh.” The love that David had for his dear friend Jonathan, which according to the Scriptures “exceeded that of the love of a man for a woman,” could not be this “one flesh.” This is the first mystery of marriage, the temporal mystery.
The second mystery is the eternal mystery, the one that transcends time and place. found in Christ Himself. He is the Head, the Church is His Body. He layed on His life for her. He sanctifies her, cleanses her, washes her, speaks well of her, justifies her, presents her to Himself and to His Father spotless, blameless, sinless, holy. That’s what Christ has done and does for you out of your Baptism. He loved you to death on a cross that He might cleanse you, forgive you, raise you, glorify you, join you to Himself and all believers.
And in view of that marriage between Christ and His Church, with faith firmly fixed on Jesus, receiving every good and perfect gift from Him by grace, it seems almost an afterthought, a trivial thing, to say, “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
In the name of Jesus,