Reading: Ephesians 5:21-32
It is rather a long time since I have conducted a wedding — but not that long, a couple of years.
In that time, however, a revolution has threatened. The last time I conducted a wedding, everyone knew what marriage was. Today, it appears they don’t.
I feel rather like Rip Van Winkle, the character invented by the author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, except in my case rather than falling asleep for twenty years, I dozed off for twenty minutes only to wake up in a different world.
I can imagine in some circles if I said I was going off to conduct a marriage this afternoon, people saying, “Well it all depends what you mean by marriage.” And I know, looking at the numbers of you here this afternoon, that if I put the question to you, I’d get a variety of different answers unimagineable just a decade ago.
So let’s remind ourselves that, in the Church at least — or at least in the Church of England — we know what we mean by marriage. In the words I read at the start of this service, “Holy Matrimony ... is an honourable estate, instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”
First, it is ‘an honourable estate’. Given that today the word estate is usually used about ‘estate agents’, it might be helpful to explain that the word ‘estate’ original included a position or condition in life.
However, we all have an ‘estate’ in this sense — everybody is something — so the important word is ‘honourable’. Marriage is an honourable estate — it is worthy of our respect, or honour.
For a long time in the history of the church, married people were looked on as a bit weak-willed. The truly holy people were the ones who didn’t get married. But around the time of the Reformation, when the original version of these words was written, the Church got back to the original understanding of Scripture, that marriage is a good thing.
And incidentally, being holy in marriage can be much more difficult than being holy on your own. There’s a whole industry built up around marriage guidance counselling. There’s very little need for singleness guidance counselling, because single people don’t have anyone to argue with. Of course, singleness has its challenges — I know, I was single until just a few years ago. But marriage has its challenges as well. I know.
Secondly, marriage is instituted of God himself. The older version of this service adds “in the time of man’s innocency”.
Where does marriage come from? You find it all over the world, in every human culture. And you find it in many varieties and forms. There are multiple marriages, usually polygamous, there are temporary marriages (in some branches of Islam), there are serial marriages, where people marry and divorce and remarry and divorce again.
But you don’t find marriages in the animal world. Animals mate, but they don’t marry. Marriage requires rationality and reason, it requires at least the idea of society social relationships — this person is married to that person and not to someone else.
Above all, marriage requires the idea of commitment, and for that, you have to have a concept of time and the future.
Mating is for the moment, and the moment lasts as long as the feeling is there. Marriage says, “Not just for now, but for the future. In fact, Christian marriage says, ‘for life’, whatever it may bring.”
And the Christian understanding says this idea of a commitment for life — a binding covenant — comes from God himself. Human covenants will always be temporary and breakable. They will have safety clauses and get-outs. They will have pre-nuptial agreements, which are really just pre-divorce agreements.
But if God treated you and me like that, our relationship with him wouldn’t last five minutes. He commits himself to us by a covenant — what used to be called a Testament, as in ‘will and testament’. And God’s commitment to us in Jesus, what we know as the ‘New Testament’, is permanent and unbreakable, as marriage should be.
And then thirdly, and finally, marriage signifies to us the mystical union that is between Christ and his church.
Marriage is a model, or as we might say, a ‘simulation’. It is not the real thing, but it allows us to get a taste of the real thing.
The real thing is Jesus, the saviour who died for the sake of others, and the church — the people for whom he died and who now live their lives trusting in him. That’s the real thing.
The model — the simulation — is Simon and Sophie, or their parents, or me and my wife Alison, or anyone else who is married. If marriage is going to work, therefore, we must model it on the real thing: Christ and the Church.
That is why we had the word ‘obey’ in the marriage service earlier. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul says to wives, to Sophie, “Submit to your husband as the Church does to Christ.”
The day I became a Christian, it was simply a matter of saying to Christ, “I am yours. My life is no longer my own. It is in your hands.” That is the meaning of submission in this context.
And Paul says to husbands, to Simon, “Love your wife as Christ loved the Church.” But how did Christ love the Church? He gave himself for her. He went all the way to the cross, and he did it to make her — the Bible uses the word ‘glorious’: endoxon.
Men — husbands — is that how you view your wife, as something glorious? Until it is, your work is not yet done.
That is marriage, let us remind ourselves. An honourable condition to be in, insituted by God himself, consisting, as in the beginning, of one man with one woman for life, living together as a sign of Christ and the Church, so that all may see the greatness of God and the great things has done for his people.
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