Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce

Three years ago, when I was a seminarian, I remember listening to Luis preach a sermon about these lessons.  I don’t remember the whole sermon, but I do remember Luis beginning by summoning all of that theological heft we’ve been missing during his sabbatical, all of that gravitas Luis has when he preaches.  So three years ago Luis stands up here and summons all his gravitas and he says, “when I speak about marriage, I’m speaking about gay marriage and straight marriage.  I think our society, and our church, need to get with it.  We’ve been behind the boat.”  Just a few months later same sex-marriage would be legal in the District.  Since that time a number of same-sex couples have been married here at St. John’s.  For the purposes of this sermon, I also make no distinction.  Same-sex or opposite sex, marriage is marriage.

So, maybe you have heard about this little piece of papyrus.  A piece of papyrus that has been all over the news because it says, “and Jesus said to his disciples, my wife.”  Of course the question is: Jesus said to them, “my wife.”  My wife what?  My wife cooks the most amazing cous-cous , you wouldn’t believe?  Jesus said to them, “my wife” and my mother-in-law really don’t get along?  Jesus said to them, “my wife” writes all my material?
I don’t actually think that the papyrus makes any difference to our faith, and I don’t think if Jesus was married, it would make much difference to us either, but it helps us to remember that marriage is always a cultural construct.  In Jesus’ time, if you weren’t married and having kids by the time you were twenty years old, they actually could sentence you in religious court, and the legalese was that by being unmarried, un-procreating, you were “killing your descendants.”  (I hope I’m not giving any ammo to some hopeful grandparents out there.  Don’t go call your kids and tell them your priest said it was sinful not to give you grand-babies.)  In Jesus time, in first century Jewish society, marriage was still, largely, a process of buying and selling a bride to produce offspring for the tribe.

The Bible’s narrative moves through several different nuanced cultural-historical understandings of marriage.  Think about Jacob marrying Leah first, so that he can marry Rachel, the woman he really wants, later.  Solomon had how many wives?  The concept of marriage changes over time, even in the time of the writing of the Bible.  Which is why I think we have to be very careful with what Jesus says to us today.  (Incidentally, I wrote a few pages of sermon about the argument going through the first century argument between rabbis Hillel and Shammai about divorce, and how what Jesus says is really a feminist commentary on that argument over divorce, but I decided to spare you.  To sum it up, it is a BIG deal that Jesus says that a woman could divorce her husband.) Anyway, trying to take Jesus’ statement out of its context, and apply it to divorces today would be disaster.  Ask the Catholic Church.  The absurdity of annulments just irks me, which probably makes me a good Episcopalian.

Today we think of marriage very differently.  No one is bought and sold.  We hold up an idea of two equal partners, standing before one another, their family, friends, and their God, and pledging to love, comfort, honor, and keep one another.  Both people make those promises.  We have in our marriage service what I think is a beautiful statement about two equal partners, choosing to create life together.
I chose that phrase carefully, “to create life together.”  Jesus quotes Genesis when asked about marriage, and surprisingly, I think he quotes Genesis on purpose.  Jesus actually quotes only part of a verse from chapter one when he says God created them male and female.  The whole verse is: “God created humankind in his image.  In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Jesus assumes the pharisees know this crucial introduction, this story of Genesis.  Jesus knows that the repetition in the first part of the verse places the emphasis there.  The verse primarily tells us something about the nature of humanity.  We are made, all of us, each of us, in the image of God.  Women and men, in the image of God.  Specifically, in the image of the God who creates, the Creator.  We are made in the image of the creator, which makes us co-creators.  We are beings who are given, in our creation, the gift of creativity.

Creation Window, Chester Cathedral

Humans are alone in creation as made in the image of the creator, with God given creativity.  Notice in the second chapter of Genesis, God has Adam name all of the animals, using his creativity to take an active part in creation.  This is the creativity that scientists use when the come up with theorems which change how we live life and imagine the universe.  This is the creativity that poets use when they use words to express emotions we did not know they had inside of us.  We are made creative, in the image of the creator God.
Anyone who has been married for a good long time can tell you, marriage takes creativity.  Every few years you are faced with a new situation, a job loss, an unexpected child (let’s be real), every few years couples face crisis or joys that change the nature of a relationship.  It takes creativity to respond to the new situations of life.  It takes creativity to respond to the person your spouse becomes over time.  Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian writer and lover of music, likened her music to a piece by J.S. Bach.  In one of her books, she called her marriage a “Two-Part Invention.”  Marriage takes a lot of creativity.
Creativity is not just reserved for married couples, or to couples at all for that matter.   I don’t think that all people are called to be married.  Some people are called to live in marriage, others are not.  I think that all of those stories of princesses and princes finding one another that we hear as children in fairy tales put some crazy ideas in our head.  I don’t think that all people are meant to be married, and I think we do a disservice to a lot of people when we norm marriage, when we make marriage a norm.  I think a lot of people would be happier if they weren’t married, and we would save a lot of anguish if we realized that not all people are called to be married. We’d probably save a lot of money on dating websites as well.  Life outside of marriage takes creativity, takes God given creativity as well.  Creating a network of friends and companions that becomes a family to care for and be cared for by, takes loving creativity.
Similarly we have to face, in our society, the reality of divorce.  Sometimes marriages do not work.  These words about divorce from Jesus are often quoted, and they are tough.  But the Jesus I know is a Jesus whose love and forgiveness is bigger than any single law or commandment.  I think sometimes divorce can be a creative way to respond to a really bad situation, and I mean creative in the literal sense.  Sometimes, sometimes, I think, divorce can be life-giving.  Sometimes it takes an end to a situation which is stifling, to allow new life to be born.  I don’t think that any couple I known came up to an altar expecting to get divorced.  I think that people make their vows with all of the best intentions, but sometimes we can’t fulfill even our best intentions.  That does not mean we don’t try.  I have known some very good marriages, and I have known some very good divorces.

What is important, as Christians, who believe we are made in the image of God, is that we seek to live our lives in a way that creates life, for ourselves, for our spouses, for our children, for our families, and friends, and community.  Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.”  We live life creatively for the sake of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, for all of those people out there who are made in the image and likeness of God.

These are hard lessons.  When Luis preached three years ago, he finished his sermon by pointing out that these are hard lessons.  Then he said that in three years he would be wiser about his scheduling.  He wouldn’t preach. Whichever assistant was being unruly, he said, would get to tackle these lessons.  I don’t know what you’ve been hearing while you’ve been away. (Whatever it is Gini did it.) Whatever motivated this act of creative scheduling, I appreciate a good challenge.
I think the readings we have before us challenge us.  They challenge us to live with creativity, in the image and likeness of the God who creates us and who loves us.  They challenged those of us who are married to bring that loving creativity to our marriages.  These scriptures challenge those of us who are not yet married, and those of us who are perhaps never supposed to be married to live lives creatively as well, to gather a community of friends and loved ones.  Because we are not meant to live life alone, but to live life out of love creatively.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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