For Lent at Old Saint Paul’s, we are doing a sermon series on the sacraments. Here’s the sermon I preached on marriage this morning. I must give some credit both to Fr Ian who initially got me thinking about the sacrament of friendship, and to Kelvin, who wrote beautifully and movingly about it a few years ago (and who is probably wondering why that post got so many hits over the past few days!).
+ In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This morning we continue our sermon series on the Sacraments by looking at the sacrament of marriage.
When we were working out the preaching rota and it was decided that I would preach this Sunday, Fr Ian’s words of consolation were: ‘Well at least marriage is the sacrament that lends itself most easily to jokes…’
Why is marriage is like a violin?
After all the beautiful music is over, the strings are still attached.
Marriages are made in heaven. Then again, so are thunder, lightning, tornados and hail.
Two husbands were having a conversation. The first one says proudly, ‘My wife’s an angel!’ The second one replies, ‘You’re lucky, mine’s still alive’.
The problem is that most jokes seem to make marriage sound like an imprisonment rather than a sacrament, an image of hell rather than an icon of God’s love.
Now, you don’t need me to tell you how divisive an issue marriage is in church, society and politics. It’s an institution whose aim historically was primarily financial security, physical protection and the continuation of the family line. Romantic love was secondary, even tertiary to these concerns.
The Book of Common Prayer’s marriage liturgy wasn’t much better, stating that marriage firstly ‘was ordained for the procreation of children’, secondly ‘for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication’. Only then does it acknowledge that marriage might also be ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’.
Even today, our marriage liturgy is both a legal procedure and a sacramental rite, an odd mix of the sacred and secular.
Marriage is such a freighted term, laden with historical, cultural, religious and legal baggage, and therefore when we say the simple sentence, ‘Marriage is a sacrament’, we get stuck on the first word — defining it, laying the boundaries, arguing over meaning and consequences.
We need only look to our own Code of Canons, the church law of the Scottish Episcopal Church which states: ‘The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God’.
What stands out in recent debates? Not ‘spiritual and mystical union’ or ‘mutual consent of heart, mind and will’ or ‘holy estate instituted by God’. No, we get caught up instead on ‘physical union’, ‘one man and one woman’, and to an admittedly lesser extent these days, ’lifelong estate’. Instantly, we place on the outside those who are single not by choice, those who are divorced, those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
And so when we say ‘Marriage is a sacrament’, before we know it, we discover that we have defined ‘sacrament’ through the lens of a specific cultural, religious, historical definition of ‘marriage’, thereby limiting our view of God’s love, reducing the boundaries of God’s grace.
And so let us remind ourselves again what a sacrament is. It is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. A material reality — that which can be seen and touched — which expresses a deeper hidden mystery. A sign which nourishes and strengthens our faith, and which sanctifies, which makes holy.
Sacraments are a gift from God to us, and in turn, our response to God.
If we then look back at marriage through this lens, if we use God’s love, God’s relationship with us and Christ’s relationship with the church, as our starting point, what do we see?
We see relationships of tenderness and trust. Intimacy and embrace. Creativity and challenge. Self-sacrifice and service. Flaws and forgiveness.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I returned to some of the words we said at Tom and Ron’s civil partnership blessing last year. They articulate so beautifully what lies at the heart of the sacrament we call marriage:
Ahead of them is a life of joy and sorrow, of blessing and struggle, of gain and loss, demanding of them the kind of self-giving love made manifest to us in the life of Jesus.
Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his own life for the sake of the world, a life in which Christ calls us to share.
The church is sometimes referred to as the bride of Christ. But let’s take one step back and look at Christ’s relationship with his disciples. The disciples leave all they know and begin a new life with him. They journey together, eat together, pray together. He serves them and teaches them to serve others. He is their friend. He loves them. and commands them to love one another. And he not only tells them but shows them: ‘there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15.13). Out of that friendship grew the church and its mystical union with Christ.
And I can’t help but think of another passage, one which is often used at weddings and which expresses something of this sacramental love:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried. (Ruth 1.16b-17)
These are indeed words of a faithfulness which should be modelled within marriage. But they are also words of friendship, spoken not between a man and a woman, but by a daughter-in-law Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi.
Of all the sacraments, marriage is the one that the priest doesn’t administer. The priest is there on behalf of the state to serve a legal function and on behalf of the church to bless the union. The couple are the ones who perform the sacrament. They are the ones who face one another, make promises and enter into a holy covenant. The couple do the holy work. And the community vows to nurture them in their life together.
And I wonder what would happen if the church were more focused simply on encouraging and nurturing all relationships which reflect God’s transformative creativity, love, forgiveness and fidelity. If we spent more time celebrating and blessing the mystical and spiritual union of two people rather than getting ourselves into knots over physical unions.
How might our view of relationships change if we placed more emphasis on the sacramental nature of friendship, the kind of friendship which points to Christ’s own love for his disciples?
Because is it not true that Christ stands among us today, calling us always to witness in our life together to the generosity of his own life for the sake of the world, a life in which Christ calls us to share?