Benediction Online

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Marriage and the Reign of God

Those of you who follow national affairs more closely than I, will know that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has just published a new book, 567 pages long. Part of this new book is a polemic explaining why textualism is the only way to interpret the Constitution. By textualism Scalia means applying the Constitution in the way its writers understood it. So, for example, Scalia argues that same-gender marriage is unconstitutional. The framers of the Constitution didn't agree with it so, he says, and so neither does he.  Scalia argues that to read the Constitution any other way is to make the Constitution mean exactly what you think it ought to mean.

The problem with textualism is that we no longer live in the 18th century and so things which were normal then are no longer so today and things we take for granted simply didn’t exist when the Constitution was written. Same-gender marriage, as we know it, was unheard of back then.

Similar problems exist when we interpret the Bible. Except that parts of the Bible may have originated as long as 4,000 years ago and we can’t possibly know exactly what it meant to the people who wrote the words down. Like it or not, we do have to bring use an interpretative lens. This is especially true when we talk about something which is as socially conditioned as marriage.

Marriage has changed through the ages. It looks very different today than it did even fifty years ago. Several of you are living in marriages that have lasted more than fifty years (raise a hand - congratulations). If we were to get you together with a couple of newly-weds, say Breanna Hammerlund and her new husband, I think we’d find that though there are many similarities there are some real differences. And if we look back at one, two, three hundred years ago the differences would be much more obvious.

Just as there are different patterns of marriage among those of us here today, so there are different patterns of marriage in the Bible. At one extreme Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, at the other Paul recommends that Christians don’t marry unless they can’t control their sexual desires. So when we hear today that from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' And "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." We have to think carefully about the historic and social context.

But, this is the Word of God that we’re considering, so that we need to resist any impulse to dismiss it on contextual grounds without allowing ourselves to be challenged by it. Justice Scalia believes that failing to interpret the text as it was intended by its writers is to make it mean whatever we wish. In Biblical interpretation that is not always the case. When we interpret a specific passage, especially one which comes out of a particular cultural reality, we do so in alignment with the broad sweep of Biblical witness. So understanding God as a gracious being of infinite love, any interpretation which is not loving will be inaccurate. But God also has standards for God’s people – we are called to love and, like Job, to live with integrity. So a loving interpretation is not necessarily an easy and comfortable one.

So when we hear that from the beginning of time God made humans male and female, we have to read that in the context of contemporary medicine which knows that some people are born of indeterminate sex – late in 2009, a South African runner was found to have both male and female characteristics. It’s not as uncommon as we might think. We also know that gender – what it means to be male or female- varies a greater deal from culture to culture. And Paul said “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Yes we have different sexual characteristics so that we can produce children, but in Christ that is not our primary identification. We belong to the reign of God first and foremost and our gender and sexuality are secondary.

Which is why Paul thought it was better not to marry. The work of God’s reign was so important and so pressing that marriage was a distraction. Marriage is a vocation, just like celibacy. Some of us are called to live in a covenanted relationship with one other person in lifelong faithfulness. Most of us live much of our lives alone. In fact 44% of Americans over 18 are single.

Whether we are single or married there are two Biblical themes which can underpin our understanding of our calling. One is covenant, the other the reign of God. God calls each one of us into relationship with Godself, into not just any kind of relationship but a covenanted relationship – one in which we promise to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As we enroll in the reign of God – as we respond to God’s call – so we venture into this covenanted relationship.

Marriage is a particular expression of this. As we live intimately with one other person, our best and our worst characteristics are mirrored to us and we are given the opportunity to transform them as we grow more Christ-like. Marriage is a particular manifestation of the reign of God. As we practice expressing God’s unconditional love for our partner so we are changed and become as a couple more than we can be separately, one flesh which is able to express God’s love more fully in the community and the world in which we live.

Whether we are married or not, our primary allegiance is to God and to living out God’s reign of peace and healing in the world. God’s love can be demonstrated in our love for our companion animals, in our love for our friends and chosen family just as much as in our love for spouse and given family.

Jesus’ teaching about adultery was an advance for his time – Jesus sees both man and woman as being equally bound by their marriage- at a time when men could divorce women for little or no cause but women could only divorce for adultery. But I think we can see adultery as something more than just sex outside marriage. The Bible often uses adultery to mean something akin to idolatory – putting something or someone before God. So adultery is breaking our primary covenant with God. This may be in sexual infidelity to the one who we have covenanted to have as a special partner for living out our covenant with God, but it does not have to be.
I wonder if that is why Mark immediately jumps to children. Children have a capacity for open hearted wonder and passionate love which we often lose as we age. But it is precisely that quality of open-hearted passion which we experience at our best moments in our intimate relationships. It is open-hearted passion which God longs to receive from us, because that is how God loves each one of us.

The reign of God is like the love of a child, like Job’s love for God before he was tested in the ups and downs of human misfortune. Whether or not you have a marriage partner to knock your ego day after day, the process of human maturing and of spiritual transformation is challenging. Even in difficult times, God’s love is always constant, always there, even though sometimes we can’t feel it.

Our challenge is to allow life to open us up more and more, to break our hearts open so that we can love God not out of duty but with open hearted passion. And then we can experience God’s love flowing in and through us and touching all around us with peace and healing. Then our eyes will be opened to the reign of God all around us and we will see it with the wonder of a small child.


Post a Comment

<< Home