Monday, January 18, 2016
The Bond and Covenant of Marriage
In 2011 my wife and I moved to Ambridge, a small town just outside of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, in order for me to attend Trinity School for Ministry. Ambridge looks like any other old factory town in the region, but I soon discovered its fascinating history.
While walking around our new neighborhood for the first time, we noticed that just a couple blocks up the street, the streets changed to cobblestone and the houses were all quaint colonial brick homes. It is the historical section of town called Old Economy, and it contains a museum and tourist destination in some ways similar to the Farmer’s Museum here in Cooperstown. They call it Old Economy Village, and it preserves the home of the original European settlers in that area: a small, utopian, religious sect called the Harmonists.
The Harmonists, or the Harmony Society, lived a simple and austere pietist lifestyle, modeled after the early Christian Church. They shared all things in common and each member contributed to the life and enterprise of the society through their work. Their industriousness and innovation earned the respect of some of the greatest leaders of their day, including Thomas Jefferson.
Despite their early success, the Harmonists no longer exist. The last surviving members sold their land to the newly formed American Bridge company who founded the town of Ambridge as a home for their factory workers. The reason for the dissolving of the sect was in large part due to the fact that their leader, George Rapp, instituted a rule of celibacy for all members. He expected the imminent return of Christ and a Millennial kingdom. In anticipation, the harmonists sought to live a purely spiritual life like the angels in heaven. They believed husbands and wives should live together as brother and sister. Jesus was celibate, they argued, and so if his followers want to live a life like his they should be celibate too. Needless to say, Rapp’s expectation was misguided and membership dwindled through lack of procreation.
The error of the Harmonists is as old as the Church itself. Already in the New Testament Saint Paul speaks of false teachers who, “forbid people to marry” (1 Tim 4:3). In contrast the Church has always taught that marriage is a worthy vocation for Christians. It has taught that Marriage is a Sacrament and a means of grace. This conviction is based in part on our Gospel reading for today. Listen to what our Prayer Book says in the beginning of our marriage rite,
“The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people” (BCP, 423).
This morning I would like to unpack this teaching for you a bit.
First, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation.” The foundation of marriage is in God’s creation of human beings as male and female. Marriage is part of God’s original created order. In the beginning God declared his creation to be “good” and marriage is no exception. In fact it isn’t until God’s creation of man and woman in his image that he declares that creation is not only “good” but “very good.”
God made human beings male and female in order that they might be brought together in this special union. After creating man and woman, Holy Scripture tells us that, “God blessed them” (Genesis 1:28). This is the first marriage! The priest reenacts this act at every wedding, pronouncing God’s special blessing on the couple.
After blessing them God tells them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth. The unique relationship of marriage is the basic building block of civilization. Our prayer book declares,
“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.”
Next, let us turn to the statement, “Our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” At first look one might be forgiven for thinking marriage to be an inferior state to celibacy, because Jesus after all was celibate. Getting married was not part of Jesus’ divine mission, but we would be mistaken to conclude that he held it in less esteem. Not only did Jesus confirm the goodness of marriage in his teaching, but he also honored marriage through his presence at the wedding of Cana, and the miracle he performed there.
When a couple invite Christ into their relationship through the Blessing of Holy Matrimony, their bond becomes raised to the level of a sacrament and a means of grace. Although God declared marriage very good and blessed it at the beginning of creation, the relationship between man and woman has been weakened and corrupted through the introduction of sin. Without God’s grace and mercy, couples far too easily fail to live up to his intended purposes for marriage. I believe this is what the scarcity of wine suggests at the wedding at Cana. Left to our own resources human beings cannot know the full joy of what God intends for marriage, but through his presence, Christ is able to transform our marriages and fulfill what is lacking. He changes our water into wine.
Just as in baptism, ordinary water is infused with grace by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God; just as in the Eucharist, ordinary bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ; so in marriage is the ordinary union of man and woman transformed into a sacrament through the presence of Christ.
If marriage is a sacrament what does it signify? Our prayer book answers, “It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” In saying this our liturgy merely repeats the words of Saint Paul in Holy Scripture. When writing to the Ephesians about the meaning and purpose of marriage he says, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32).
What this means is that in marriage, each partner is meant to be Christ to the other. Just as Christ took the form of a servant for our sake, couples should submit to one another in love. Just as Christ died for us, couples should lay down their lives for their spouses. Just as Christ shed his blood to make us holy, so couples should spur each other on to holiness and love. Just as we are Christ’s body through the unbreakable covenant of baptism, couples are one flesh with each other through the unbreakable covenant of marriage.
The wedding supper at Cana should point us forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb, in which we celebrate our union with Christ. This Wedding Supper of the Lamb is anticipated by the Church in the Holy Eucharist.
Just as Christ transformed water into wine, he is able to change wine into his blood and bread into his flesh. Christ gives to us his Body and Blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. We are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet we all shall share in the age to come. Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after, but Christ has saved the best for last.
Finally, our Prayer Book teaches us “Holy Scripture commands that [marriage] should be commended by all people.” Christians should regard marriage as a holy and noble vocation. We should treat it with reverence and seriousness. Our prayer book also teaches, “it is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”
Moreover, it is the responsibility of all Christians to give prayer and support to all who are called to this holy vocation. When they have children, it is also our responsibility to support and assist them in bringing up their children in the knowledge and love of the Lord.
Unless I be misunderstood, I feel I also need to add that singleness is, with marriage, equally a noble and holy vocation for a Christian. Not all are called to be married. As Christians we also have a responsibility to assist those called the single life, but that is a topic for another sermon.