Homily: Renewal of Marriage Covenant
John and Clare Roop
2 September 2007
(Tobit 8:5b-8, Psalm 128/John 2:1-11/Revelation 21:1-7)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(This homily is offered in celebration of my 30th wedding anniversary and in preparation for the Renewal of Marriage Covenant to follow.)
My friend Gary introduced me to the Internet Monk. He’s not a real monk, mind you; that’s just his blogging persona. His real name is Michael Spencer and he’s not even Roman Catholic or Orthodox; he’s a Post-Evangelical Reformed Protestant, a Southern Baptist, a husband and father, an English and Bible teacher at a southeastern Kentucky secondary boarding school dead center of nowhere – all in all about as far from being a monk as you can imagine. And he’s a blogger – one of the most well-known and respected in the Christian blogosphere. “A voice of sanity in the post-evangelical wilderness,” is how he describes himself. “Man, I’m tired of being right,” is the opening verbal assault of his companion podcast. A little arrogant, maybe, be he’s well worth reading and listening to.
Blogs are the internet cousins of radio talk shows, written instead of oral, but similar nonetheless; they are hosted by opinionated people – why bother otherwise? – and they deal with hot topics. The posts are often provocative: sometimes – and often in the case of the Internet Monk – provocative in the best sense of provoking deeper thought and good conversation. A recent post is a case in point. It was titled There Is No Such “Thing” As Grace. There’s a certain intended shock value to the title for the serious Protestant. After all, one of the most fundamental principles of the Reformation was salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Grace is really the heart and soul of Protestant theology. Deny grace and the Reformation crumbles. Well, it turns out that the writer Michael Spencer was quoting in the article believes in grace just as much as any Protestant. His point was that grace is not a “thing” – not a substance or spiritual quantity that is bestowed upon or transferred from one person to another– but rather is a description of a relationship with Christ. To have Christ is to have grace; grace is nothing – no such thing – apart from Christ himself. Really a very Protestant idea cleverly presented. The article contrasts this understanding to the doctrine of the Medieval Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church did – and I think still does – conceive of grace as a thing, as a stockpile or repository of merits won by Christ through his obedient life, death, and resurrection. This grace is distributed to the faithful as the basis of their salvation; even in Catholic thought we are saved by grace. And how do we receive this saving grace? Well, this was the point of contention that spurred the Reformation. In Catholic doctrine it is the Church that doles out grace, specifically through the sacraments. The faithful receive grace through baptism, Holy Communion, confession, ordination and the like. There were seven means of grace in the Church, seven sacraments. To separate yourself from the Church – or to be forcefully severed from it by excommunication – deprived you of the grace of Christ, and led toward eternal damnation. It was this stranglehold on grace – this “power play” of the Church – that the Protestant Reformers could no longer tolerate. “There is no such ‘thing’ as grace,” is not a bad summary of their complaint.
But, as with many reactionary responses, the Reformers went overboard in some important areas. In denying the Church’s power to dispense grace through the sacraments, many of the Reformers and their followers simply dispensed with the sacraments themselves. They may have retained their forms – baptism and the Lord’s Supper most prominently – but they denied their power. The sacraments became symbols only, ordinances to be observed , acts of devotions or commitment, but not vehicles of grace. And that’s a shame, a real loss. I think there’s a much better way, a way the Internet Monk article hints at but fails to develop sufficiently. It rightly views grace not as a “thing” but as a relationship with Christ; to have Christ is to have grace. Why not take the next step and consider the sacraments to be those actions of God’s faithful people that make Christ present among us, that make visible Christ’s presence among us, that deepen our relationship with Christ so that grace may abound? The sacraments are not containers or channels of some “thing” called grace, but rather the visible expressions of Christ’s presence with us, which is grace itself.
Take the two most “common” sacraments (though I hate to use the word “common” to describe sacraments): baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Paul says that we are baptized into Christ, that spiritually we put on Christ through baptism so that we no longer live, but Christ lives within us. Of course we do still live; it’s just that the intimacy engendered by baptism is so complete that it becomes difficult to tell where we leave off and Christ begins. The two have become one. After baptism comes the Lord’s Supper where we feast on the Christ who is present with us in body and blood, in bread and wine. We take Christ into ourselves. He nourishes us, sustains us, becomes the most vital part of our lives. These are sacraments as the visible expression of Christ’s presence with us, and they are grace themselves.
In this scheme how many sacraments are there? Roman Catholics have seven and those Protestants that speak of sacraments generally have two. But if the sacraments are acts that make visible Christ’s presence among us, then we are awash in sacraments, immersed in them. The world becomes sacramental. What about the assembly of the saints – otherwise known as “going to church?” Well, Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in his name he would be present. That seems to make the assembly sacramental. What about acts of mercy – feeding the hungry, caring for the orphans and widows, visiting the sick and imprisoned? In those moments, the least of these our brothers and sisters encounter Christ in our words and hands and feet, and we encounter Christ where he promised to be – in the disguise of the hungry, the naked, the prisoner; Christ is present to both groups. That seems to make acts of mercy sacramental. So, how many sacraments are there – seven? No. Seventy times seven.
Earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes.
-- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Let those with eyes see and know themselves to be on holy ground. Christ is present within us and without. The world is his and he is not absent from it. In fact, he is present in some of the most ordinary places, some of the most “earthy” experiences in our lives, and his presence makes them extraordinary and heavenly. His presence makes them sacramental. It was in sacrament that our story began.
26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Gen 1:26-28, NIV).
I believe – I do not know, but I believe generally – that the image of God is not perfectly reflected in the individual man or women, but in the union of man of woman: “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In the union of the complements – male and female – God’s image is manifest and his presence uniquely known. The rest of the story strongly hints at this.
18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. 23 The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man."
24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Gen 2:18-24, NIV).
God ordained the union of man and woman for the benefit of his creation – all his creation, for we are its stewards, its caretakers, and our role is to make all creation fruitful. God ordained the union of man and woman in order to make his image clearly seen and known in his creation. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – give themselves to each other without reservation, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – sacrifice for the welfare of each other, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – keep covenant faithfulness with each other in spite of hurts and doubts and anger, God is present and known. When a man and woman – a husband and wife – forgive each other time and time again, God is present and known. And that is sacramental.
St Paul – who was himself apparently without wife and even counseled celibacy under some conditions – nonetheless insisted that Christian marriage is sacramental; the mutual subjection of husband and wife for the sake of Christ is a visible expression of Christ that makes his presence known and ministers grace to his people.
21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30because we are members of his body. 31‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband (Eph 5:21-33, NRSV).
For Christ’s sake – literally for Christ’s sake – let’s be done with all the foolish, politically correct arguments about who’s in charge in the family. Husband, lay down your life in sacrificial service of your wife – as Christ did for the church – in order to present her holy and blameless before Christ on the great day of his appearing. If you want to be head of the family, that’s how you do it. The one who is greatest is the servant of all. Wife, love your husband as the church loves Christ – as she loves the one who lived and died and rose again – who went to hell and back – to redeem her. Surely, that kind of sacrifice is worthy of your respect. And if all this be truly done – in the name of Christ – then the two will become one flesh and the marriage will be a visible expression of Christ’s presence among us. It is a great mystery, this relationship between husband and wife, this relationship between Christ and the church. The word we use for mystery is sacrament.
For thirty years I’ve lived this mystery, this sacrament. What have I learned? That it is all very mysterious. That God truly can make of two, one flesh – one heart and mind – so that you can no longer tell where one leaves off and the other begins. That love is the way – the only way – and that such love must come from God himself because I’m not capable of it. That God is love, and that those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. And that all this is sacramental.
I’ve learned that thirty years or thirty lifetimes is not nearly enough to plumb the depths of this great mystery that is marriage, this great mystery that makes visible Christ’s presence among us and nourishes us with his grace. And I’ve learned that I’d like to do it all over again. Which is why at this moment I ask my wife if she would like to do it all over again, if she would renew with me our marriage covenant, this great mystery of husband and wife, of Christ and the church.
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