September 6, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today our reading from Ephesians calls us to honor marriage. Whether we’re married or not, we are to praise God for its goodness. And the reason for this goes far deeper than the anthropological conventions that perpetuate marriage worldwide.
The Holy Estate of Matrimony
According to the Bible, marriage is not just a cultural convention or a human contrivance. And because of that, the Church has preferred to call marriage “the holy estate of matrimony” (Luther’s Works 53:113; 28:24; 36:99; 44:13; 46:314). This exact phrase is missing from the Bible but it is still based on the Bible’s revelation to us – if not in so many words. This is because of two teachings.
The first is that marriage is established at creation – so it’s very old. Just as God set the stars in the heaven and divided the great oceans by way of large continents of dry land, so he established marriage at the very beginning of the world. “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), we are told. So marriage is not a recent social invention by patriarchal men to control women. It’s not some religious ploy to ruin our wild, promiscuous sexual fun. It rather is part of the very fabric of creation – built into the nature of things, as it were. As such it’s marked with God’s sanction – the creator of all. Therefore marriage is the holy estate of matrimony – and is “a weighty matter in the sight of God” (LW 44:8).
But even more important than knowing that marriage is built into creation, are the words from Ephesians 5 which compare marriage to the relationship between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:30; LW 36:95). No other relationship is given such high praise in the Bible. No other relationship is compared to Christ and his Church. Not the relationship between mother and daughter or father and son or brother and sister or friendships between guys or girls or that between mothers and sons or fathers and daughters – none of these are as elevated as marriage is in Ephesians 5 by comparing it to Christ and his Church. This is because
marriage by nature is of such a kind that it drives, impels, and forces men to the most inward, highest spiritual state, to faith (LW 28:19).
We therefore are not to denigrate marriage or neglect it or belittle it in any way (1 Timothy 4:1-3). We are not to argue against heterosexual monogamy as some sort of passé human institution (David P. Barash & Judith Eve Lipton, The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, 2001). We instead are to honor marriage. And how shall we do that? Getting all sentimental about marriage isn’t of any lasting value. It’s too insubstantial. Having expensive weddings are also a distraction. Much more is needed than these flimsy efforts.
What is instead needed is deep, abiding mutuality and equality in marriage. This is because the best way to honor marriage is to exalt husbands and wives as an affectionate, caring team – being equal to one another in marriage. Nothing else will honor marriage in the same way. Nothing else will make marriage strong. Nothing else will help marriage live up to its goal.
And how do I know that? This conviction is not based on empirical research nor is it a matter of mere personal opinion. It comes to us instead from a far more reliable and trustworthy source. It comes to us from those ancient words in Ephesians 5:21, which boldly declare to husbands and wives:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Now these are clear words of mutuality – and they honor marriage just as it should be honored. They don’t say that only the wife should subject herself to her husband. No, these holy words instead say that both husband and wife should be subject to each other. This equality and mutuality are at the heart of a true Christian marriage – being based as they are on reverence for Christ.
But this profound teaching is often and unfortunately clouded over by the very same Bible verses that testify to it. For in that same Biblical passage we’re also told that the husband is to be the head of the wife and that she is to respect and honor him, whereas the husband is only to love his wife (Ephesians 5:23, 33). Now this doesn’t sound much like equality. It sounds more like some unfair, ethical asymmetry. So what’s up – have I missed the point? Is Ephesians 5 really about patriarchy – and not equality at all?
No, never! What’s happening here is that these verses have been chopped up with an important part being left out. And that part is that husbands are to die for their wives – just as Christ died for us all (Ephesians 5:25). This is the missing compensating factor that easily and clearly offsets the otherwise unequal charge that wives are to honor their husbands as the head of the marriage.
With this re-established equality and mutuality in hand – what shall we then say about husbands being the head of their wives? Well, that can’t mean that husbands should ruthlessly rule over them, nor that they should make all the decisions in the marriage – on their own, nor that they are even smarter than their wives. No, none of these wayward marital prescriptions are at the heart of the matter. Instead what we have is a call to mutual sacrifice in marriage. The key equality in marriage is just that – that husbands and wives together make sacrifices for each other – sacrifices of time and feelings, interests and money, comfort and ego – with husbands leading the way, setting the example. But these sacrifices will only work if they are done together. If the husband does all the sacrificing – it will be nothing but a waste of time. The marriage will only flounder – in spite of the sacrifices.
Living Together in Harmony
But mutual sacrifices are justified due to the goodness they bring to a
marriage. So Luther argued in his
Large Catechism (1529) that a marriage based on them can be a
wonderful relationship [The Book
Marital chastity... requires [one]... to love... the wife or husband whom God has given,.... [living] together in harmony, cherishing each other wholeheartedly and with perfect fidelity.... Under such conditions chastity always follows spontaneously without any command.... Husbands and wives [are to] honor each other.
Chastity, fidelity and harmony are good – and they’re built upon
mutuality and equality. That’s what it means to say that husbands and
wives are to honor each other. Now while such harmony may seem like a
fantasy world or fit only for
Even so, Luther also knew about how disastrous marriage could become. In spite of the lofty goal of harmony to which all marriages should aspire, marriages can still collapse right before us. In American – as we all know too well – over half those who have married since the early 1960s have been divorced. Now why is this? Could it be that little boys and girls aren’t being properly trained at home anymore on how to be good spouses? Or could it be that certain social restraints which used to buttress marriage, have now fallen away so marriage can’t stand by itself anymore? Or could it be that the whole population is just less mature than it used to be (see Diana West, The Death of the Grown-Up, 2007)?
While all of these explanations help in part, the deeper underlying reason for this increase in the divorce rate is much more sinister. For it actually has to do with the bourgeoning of that cosmic, pre-historic, ancient curse which was leveled against Adam and Eve for their sin – and which has since cascaded down on us all ever since then – and only now has become more evident. At the Fall, you’ll remember, Adam was cursed, Eve was cursed, the snake was cursed, the ground was cursed – but also, do not forgot, marriage was cursed too! Now it is just this curse that explains how it is that in marriage – we always hurt the one we love (Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” §VI, 1897). So we’re told that the wife’s desire will be for her husband, but that he shall rule over her (Genesis 3:16). Now that’s surely not mutuality! So at the Fall, marriage has been un-mistakenly “adulterated” (LW 44:8)!
Now this cursed ruling over wives and their helpless desiring, decimates mutuality, equality, fidelity and harmony. Because of that, marriage is far from being “pure” anymore (LW 44:9). And so we have such books as Women Who Love Too Much (1985, 2008) by Robin Norwood and It Could Happen to Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay (2000) by Alyce D. LaViolette & Ola W. Barnett. Luther also exposes this wreckage in marriage:
In marriage,.... where fear of God and prayer are not added, irritations very easily occur. From these originate hatred, quarrels, enmity, and perpetual dissension... [This makes for] a very sad marriage.... [for] the obstacles and perils in marriage are countless (LW 4:226, 243, 264).
So Luther, who could sing the praises of marriage, also painfully records the sad details in failed marriages. Do you believe this – that the holy estate of matrimony can be so full of irritations? Well it can! I know it because I saw it growing up. My parents were married for 53 years (1943-1998) – but divorced once and remarried three years later, and then separated six times, once for two years and once for 10 years! So I’ve seen it – and at first hand.
Luther, I believe, could be so honest about these irritations because he also knew where to find help. If he didn’t have those assurances, I don’t think he would’ve had the fortitude to spy out these troubles. But he does because he knows, first of all, that the fear of the Lord can help save marriages. Now this fear is no simpering awe or fuzzy reverence [contra Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (1972) p. 66]. No, it rather is the fright grounded in God’s will to strike us down (Matthew 10:28). And it is this fear that can keep us from giving up on marriage. Knowing that God will punish us if we throw in the towel too early, will keep us from slamming the door in a fit and walking out before every avenue has been tried to save our marriages. Knowing that God can and will whack us up the side of the head for walking out too soon is what can give marriage the second chance it often so desperately needs.
I once had a friend who said I was so hopeful about marriage because I had a good one. I conceded his point, but then asked him about his. He said his wife was nuts – a heroin addict and a real witch. So he felt he had to divorce her. I asked him about her addiction. Had she been born that way, I wondered? No, she had become an addict in adulthood, he said. So I asked if she had known him when it all fell apart? It was at that point that the conversation ended – apparently because the question exposed his complicity in her addiction. So we must never imagine too quickly that we’re the victim – having no fault whatsoever in our tottering marriages.
Along with this fear, Luther adds in prayer. Who would think it would matter? Prayer seems so puny. But prayer brings God to bear upon problems that otherwise are intractable (Matthew 17:21). Mountains can be moved by prayer, we’re told (Matthew 17:20)! So when husbands and wives pray together – you better look-out, because harmony and fidelity are on their way.
But many try this and fail because they run out of steam. They don’t have enough force to carry them through the long hours restoring their marriages takes. So they end up giving their marriages short-shrift. But this doesn’t help. Much more is needed to restore harmony again. But where will such strength come from?
What we need is another source of life that doesn’t run out. What we need is a robust life, not of our own making, that will not suffer from fatigue. But where will we find that? Is there anywhere to turn in this temporal stretch of days we call our lives to find such power, force and hope? It seems not, since all that’s there is marked – rightly so – by temporality, which cannot stand up against fatigue. Into this vacuum we hear the words of John 6:68 that only in Christ Jesus is there “eternal life.” Now that’s different. Eternal life is more than the temporal stretch of days lying before us. But what specifically can it do for us – this eternal life?
In the most famous Bible verse of all, John 3:16, we read that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life and will not perish. So what eternality does for us is keep us from perishing. Most obviously this means keeping us from languishing for ever in the fires of hell after our lives on earth are done. Eternal life saves us from hell. But it also means, in smaller measure, that we won’t have to perish now in our smaller hells of sadness and loss. No, with eternal life on our side now, we can prevail and endure against all odds. This is because, as Luther taught, eternal life is
vigorous; its bones are full of marrow; it delivers from eternal death... and... all misery (LW 24:194).
Having our bones filled with eternal marrow, we can fight against whatever ails us and not tire out – even the spiritual leukemia, if you will, that mercilessly weakens our marriages.
A husband once told me he wanted a divorce because he had caught his wife in adultery. I asked him if he shouldn’t give her another chance to try to keep the family together. He thundered back – “Absolutely not! She doesn’t deserve it!” But right there was the Christian moment – loving the undeserving, as Christ loved the ungodly (Romans 5:6). He called us to love as he loved us (John 15:12) – but for that we need the strong bones of eternity.
The Marriage Bed Crucifix
But how does Jesus strengthen us? John 1:29 says it’s by being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But how does that work? As the Lamb of God, Jesus dies on the cross as an abject sinner to save us “from” our sins (Revelation 1:5; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 9:26). And he does this by dying “for” our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 John 2:2, 4:10). That is to say, he pays the penalty for our sins on the cross that we might be freed from having to be punished for our sins ourselves. That makes Jesus our substitute (LW 22:167) – being punished by God in our place.
What Christ’s sacrifice does for us, then, is set us free (John 8:34; Romans 5:9; Galatians 5:1) – free from punishment, condemnation and guilt for what we have done and left undone. This is a huge relief since guilt curses us (Galatians 3:13). It twists us all up inside (LW 25:291) with fear and sadness. It slows us down and wears us out. Unresolved guilt takes from us the “power and love and self-control” needed for discipleship in Christ. So having our guilt taken away through the forgiveness of sins, by way of the suffering and death of Christ, is no small matter. That’s in part why “leaping” follows healing and forgiveness (Luke 6:23; Acts 3:6-21). We’re given a boost – and we leap. Now a larger power of life abides in us, apart from us, but still within us (John 5:26; 6:53). Now we can press on. Now we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 3:12, 4:13).
So the cross of Christ not only saves us from our sins – but it also saves our marriages. This is not as odd as it sounds if husbands and wives are sinners – as they truly are. By having our sin forgiven we can then pray and fear the Lord and, as a result, restore our marriages. To keep us on track, then, why not have a crucifix over the head of your marriage bed? Not very romantic sounding, I know! But think about it. It’s the suffering and death of Jesus that frees us from the guilt that cripples us spiritually – and causes us to give up too soon. So the crucifix reminds us where our hope is. Maybe, then, a way we keep the “marriage bed... undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4) is with the crucifix over it.
But regardless of that, let us rejoice in Jesus, for it is only through faith in him that we have hope. Give thanks to God for his mercy in sending him to die for us. And then come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper. Eat of the bread and drink from the cup, knowing that the very body and blood of Christ are there for you, to assure you that your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.
Enter Into the Fray
And then when you leave this place do good deeds in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17) – knowing that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Psalm 34:19 says that “many are the troubles of the righteous, but the Lord will deliver him out of them all.” That is like 1 Peter 3:13 which says we should “share in the sufferings of Christ,... that we may be glad when his glory is revealed.” What is the good work prescribed in these verses? It is to enter the fray and try to settle disputes. It is to avoid the course of least resistance. It is to eschew conflict avoidance. This doesn’t mean we should stir up the pot, though (1 Peter 4:15). No, all it means is that we should “endure squabbling” as we try to “settle ugly and involved issues” (LW 21:39). Running away from presenting problems and hiding our heads in the sand is not the Christian way. Rather we should work continually with all our might “to promote the general welfare” (LW 21:26) – never growing weary in well-doing (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13). That’s because some things are worth saving – like marriage, which we honor today. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)