230512 Easter 6 A EN
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
‘“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.’ (John 14.15).
In our Easter cycle, leading up to the day of Pentecost, we continue to hear passages from the Gospel in which Jesus is promising his disciples the coming of an Advocate, the Holy Spirit. It is this gift which will spur on the disciples to continue the tasks they will have known and lived for three years with their leader, as they will know that through that Spirit, Jesus – invisible to their eyes – will continue to be present, part of the dynamic interplay of the Trinity in their lives.
Jesus explains to them that this gift is, however, predicated on them continuing to embody their love for him by keeping his commandments. We remember that Jesus’s succinct version ‘Love God, and Love your neighbour as yourself’ is one from which our whole faith flows, because there cannot be love for a God we have not seen unless we show love to others whom we see.
Jesus therefore invites us to live out our lives in a way that expresses those three intentions. Love of neighbour, which means acting with all those whom we encounter as equal children of God, a task that is often not easy.
Likewise, loving ourselves and being at peace with who we are – also not something to which many of us are naturally inclined to as we find it easy to home in on our shortcomings and failings, rather than see within ourselves the sparkle of divinity which vibrates in unison with God.
Divine love is what we are called to connect with, to embody, to spread around us and also within us.
Love as understood in Christian terms is therefore wider than perhaps our current culture would understand, not simply romantic or utopian, but instead grounded in a shared common human reality in which we can so often fail, yet also so often pick ourselves up by God’s grace and try again to be better.
Still, our biblical texts can often superficially be used to extol a kind of romantic love which was far from the mind of Jesus, even if of course it is also a kind of love deeply embedded in the human condition.
Today, in our series on the sacraments which we started after Easter, we are briefly considering Holy Matrimony, or the sacrament of marriage – one of the five sacraments not specifically given to us by Jesus in his time.
A sacrament over which Anglicans hold a range of views, and indeed sometimes violently so as the Anglican communion continues to debate the validity of same-sex marriage in the church, and some provinces around the world are already allowing it, including the Anglican Church of Canada.
A sacrament about which Jesus said little save miraculously providing the best wine at a wedding at Cana in Galilee and providing forgiveness in the case of adultery.
A sacrament which, in the way it is performed in Christian churches today, is a relatively new incarnation, dating back to the Victorian era.
In the story of creation in the book Genesis, God created Adam and Eve, placed them in the garden of Eden, and told them to go forth and multiply. This was the beginning of the world, and there are three protagonists. God, a man and a woman. At that stage of the story, it was clear that producing descendants would be essential, we would not be there if it had not been the case.
Still, throughout the Bible, examples of marriages are many and varied, not all are wholesome, many are polygamous, and they are often based on a particular patriarchal view of the world where women were the property of men, a view which hope might be a view of the past though looking at the world and some of the social movements in many countries today, there would appear to be still a yearning for this outdated and inhumane view.
When St Augustine wrote about the goods of marriage in the fourth century, he focused on three aspects: children and procreation, fidelity and chastity within marriage, and the sacramental aspect of marriage as an image of the relationship between Christ and the church, in this order.
In the underpopulated 4th century, having children was essential for survival, and having stable social structures through which the legitimity of children could be known was also desirable. Committed relationships could provide a structure through which the family unit could thrive, look after one another and hopefully ensure each other’s wellbeing.
In that expression of family, one could recognise the commitment of Christ for the welfare of the Church, pooling of resources together, looking after the weak and the needy, all in a virtuous circle of generous love.
The initial 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England very much followed this order in its preface: marriage being for procreation, a remedy against sin in providing a wholesome framework for sex and an assurance of the paternity of the children, and for the mutual society, help and comfort that the couple would have of one another.
And this was the pattern for centuries until the middle of the 20th century.
Life changed in extraordinary ways since in the last fifty years, with the impact of the emancipation of women, the sexual revolution, effective ways of birth control, divorce and generally the advance of sciences and a greater understanding of human relationships.
In our cultures, romantic love became a paramount factor in the decision to marry in a way that it had not been in the past – and with people getting married older, sometimes at an age when they would no longer be able to conceive, the Church has had to look at its theology of marriage. It is not congruent to pray for the blessing of children if their conception is impossible. And in a well over-populated world, procreation is no longer the assurance of survival that it was for individuals.
And so, the Augustinian goods of marriage, while they remained the same, shifted in their order of priority, with the mutual comfort of the spouses to one another moving to the top, and procreation last, while the same commitment of faithfulness to the end remains a core principle, one which speaks to us of the commitment of Christ to his church.
For Christians, the outward and visible sign of an inward grace found in marriage is not that a couple walks out of a church into the sunset where everything will be well for ever. We know that this is the stuff of fairy tales.
Instead, it is that – in finding a companion for life, Christ made present on the day of marriage provides us with the assurance that God is here in the midst of our relationships in times of joy, of course, but also and most importantly in the times of challenge, difficulty and sorrow.
It is the strength of God’s presence in our married relationships that allows us to forgive or be forgiven, when forgiveness is needed, to heal when we need healing, and to continue to work towards the kingdom of God in microcosm with those that God has placed within our immediate care, that we find the strength and patterns to work for the greater good.
In his address to the Athenians, the apostle Paul said: ‘The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.’ (Act 17.24)
Like baptism and ordination, marriage is a sacrament given to us that signifies a commitment and setting apart to a particular life, with vows that require of us dedication, perseverance and steadfastness. The outpouring of this sacrament in the daily presence of God with us is eventually known by the fruit we bear – whether in harmonious relationships that build community, whether through the birth of children, or in the building of that world that Jesus came to prefigure, where joy, love and peace prevail.
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; and ‘For we too are his offspring.’