Sunday, 16 November 2008

On the wearing of robes

To judge by what I've managed to glean so far, I'm quite glad I couldn't make NEAC 5 at All Soul's today. It seems it has taken us just forty years from the first NEAC, where a united front of Evangelicals decided to stay in the Church of England for its good, to what I suspect will be the last NEAC as Open and Conservative factions fought amongst themselves.

I may be in a better mood after a bit of holiday, but right now I'm not sure the 'unity' amongst Evangelicals which many have spoken about is either achievable or particularly desirable.

However, the reason for my absence was to be present at the wedding of my good friend Richard Wood to Sherry Newman and to preach on their chosen Bible readings. Here, then, is what I said.

Sermon for Richard and Sherry’s Wedding, 15 November 2008, Genesis 2:15-25; Ephesians 5:22-33


In the Book of Revelation, chapter 19 vv6-8 we read these words,

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; 8 to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And then in chapter 21, vv1-2 we read this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

The bride of the Lamb has made herself ready, clothed with fine linen, bright and pure. The holy city comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband..

False Equality

Ours is not a society much given to wearing costumes. Or rather, we wear costumes for ceremonies such as at Halloween, but we are giving up on wearing robes for more solemn occasions. And that, I think, is a pity

The reasons for this aversion to robes are simple, and, on the face of it, appealing. Robes set the wearer apart. Robes suggest the wearer is not like everyone else. Robes set the wearer above other people. But the spirit of our age likes equality, and so robes must go.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it was motivated by a conviction that everyone was equally great. Unfortunately, it is more often motivated by the conviction that everyone is equally insignificant.

Thus judges and Lords, lawyers and officials must be made to dress like everyone else, to reassure us and to remind them that they are no different from what we are. Why should they wear special clothes, goes the argument, when there is nothing special about them?

Wedding garments

But that is to miss the whole point! We wear robes not because we are special, but because we are not special. We wear robes because without them the world would see that we have knobbly knees, or a pot belly, or a scrawny chest.

Understood properly, robes are not there to show off what we’ve got, but to give us something we haven’t got. That’s why the Bible says there are some occasions when robes must be worn, and the most important is for a wedding.

One of the parables Jesus told mentions a wedding guest who turned up to a royal wedding without the proper clothes:

When the king came in to see the guests [it says], he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. 13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I wonder what his hearers made of that. I wonder what you make of that.

The bride and the groom

Dressing for the occasion can sometimes be very important. We would have thought it most odd, I’m sure, if Sherry had turned up this afternoon dressed to look like everyone else.

I am equally sure that if Richard had turned up in his everyday clothes this would certainly be a day he would never forget, but for all the wrong reasons, most of which I’m sure Sherry would never tire of reminding him about.

But who in their right mind would have looked at Sherry as she came down the aisle and said to themselves, “Who does she think she is, dressed up like that?”

Sherry is dressed the way she is, and Richard is dressed the way he is, not because of who they are normally. They dress like this because of what they are today — a bride and a groom.

Clothed as Christ and the Church

When today is over, of course, they will put aside these outfits — these robes. Sherry’s dress will probably go into a cupboard. Richard’s suit will go back to Oxfam. And it would be easy to think that they themselves will go back to being just Richard and Sherry. But that would be a big mistake!

For the marriage ceremony itself has clothed them with an even more dramatic change of costume: a set of robes which makes them even less like they are as normal people in daily life — robes they can never be worthy of, and yet robes they can never take off.

Let me explain what I mean. Our reading from Ephesians 5 may have sounded odd to modern ears, trained as they are in equality:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church ... 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ... so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind, but so that she may be holy and without blemish.

The Modern Mind

The modern mind finds this very difficult to accept — I rather suspect the ancient mind did to some extent as well, otherwise why would the Apostle have had to write it?

The modern mind says men and women are equal. So how can a husband be the head of his wife? And why should a wife submit to her husband? The husband is no better than his wife — who does he think he is? And of course the wife is no better than her husband — but she is his equal in everything.

And that is true when we think of people as individuals — as just you and me, or as just Richard and Sherry. But in getting married, Richard and Sherry cease to be ‘just Richard and Sherry’ to one another. Instead, they become husband and wife.

And when you become a husband or a wife you put on a new costume — a new set of robes — which you wear for one another. They are invisible robes — you cannot see them — but the effect of them can be seen in the way you live towards one another.

Richard puts on the robes of Christ, the one who sacrifices himself to save another and to make her the most beautiful thing possible. Sherry puts on the robes of the Church, who loves what is being done for her and loves the one who is doing it.

He is her head, she is his body. She submits to him, he gives up himself for her.

The Modern Mistake

Now the modern mind finds this very difficult. Who does Richard think he is, thinking he can behave like Christ? And come to that, who does Sherry think she is, thinking she can acting like the Church? Aren’t we the Church? What makes her think she knows how we think or she can act how we should act?

But that misses the whole point about marriage. Of course, Richard and Sherry are no different from anyone else, where everyone else is concerned. But in marriage they become as Christ and the Church to one another, not because they are worthy, but because being a husband and being a wife is a high calling and a holy office.

The question is not whether they are worthy of the robes. The question is whether they will live up to them. Will they wear them with care and dignity? Or will they wear them carelessly and casually?

Worst of all, will they refuse to recognize the robes each is wearing because Richard is just an ordinary man and Sherry is just an ordinary woman?

There is no guarantee they will live up to their calling, but that is the calling they have received, and that is what they have been given to do.

Beginning and End

As we heard in our first reading, the Bible begins with a husband and wife naked in a garden. The picture is very familiar — Adam and Eve, the serpent and the apple. But before the serpent puts in an appearance, we are told, the man and his wife were both naked and yet they felt no shame.

It is only when God has been disobeyed and sin has come into the world that they feel the need for clothes. And they dress, not to give themselves dignity but to hide their shame. There are no robes in Eden, only figleaves as a result of sin.

But the Bible ends with a Bride beautifully dressed in the righteous acts — we might say the ‘righteousnesses’ — of God’s people. And where did she get this wonderful dress? Revelation 7:14 tells us: “These are they who have ... washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Jesus’ death gives us the robes we need to stand in the presence of God, to be guests at the wedding supper of the king, to be the bride of Christ. Not because we are worthy, but because he is.

In the end, every earthly marriage is meant to be a picture of that heavenly marriage. And so almost the last words in the Bible are an invitation to take part in this marriage:

The Spirit and the bride say come. And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

“Amen,” we reply, “come Lord Jesus.”

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  1. John,

    Thanks for such an enlightening exposition on clothes and marriage.

    And here was I thinking that the bride always wore white as it goes with the appliances...

    Chris Bishop

  2. This has given a new thought as well as defence in the area of clergy Robes & I believe this is all Denominations, not just Anglicans!

  3. Great wedding sermon. I really never thought about the clothing that way. Excellent.

  4. Goes with the appliances - a joke - yes - but rather captures the spirit of what is stretched to a CBMW type of definition of marriage if the 'headship' guys get their hands on this sermon - ahhh! So glad I chose my church carefully.

    love Rachel

  5. Rachel,

    There were two Conservative Evangelicals talking after a Reform conference about how much their wives submitted to them while a third remained quiet.
    After a while, one of the first two turns to the third and says" Well, how does your wife submit to you? Are you the head of your household?"
    The third Conservative Evangelical says 'I'll tell you. Just the other night my wife came to me on her hands and knees.'
    Wow! What happened then? they asked.
    The third Conservative Evangelical looked at his feet and muttered,
    'She said,"Get out from under the bed and fight like a man."'

    Conservatively yours

    Chris Bishop


  6. Funny - thanks Iconoclast

    egalitarian 'ly' yours