October 3 2021
When God created man, God said, “it is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” What an odd turn of events this is within the poetic movement of the creation story. The pattern for creation is that God creates, and says, “it is good,” God creates and says, “it is good,” and so it goes. But that is not the case with us. God says, “it is good,” but also “it is not good… that man should be alone.”
God is, within himself, and by his nature, never alone. God is Triune, God lives in a perfect relationship within himself, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we are created in the likeness of God in ways that no other created thing was made, we are created for just that kind of intimate relationship, for community, not to be alone. It is not good for man to be alone, because it is not like God for man to be alone.
So God puts a deep sleep on man, and in the depth of his sleep he opens him up, and takes from him a rib. Unlike every other thing that was made, and fashioned from the earth, woman is made from the rib of man. This is not to suggest that women are somehow inferior to men, or less than men. This is a symbol of our intertwining, our interconnectedness, in the unified relationship that God intends for us. This is actually quite gruesome. Adam is cut open, as the divine surgeon breaks him apart and puts him back together again.
Here I am reminded of the stories of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern author whose picture of God’s grace often takes the form of a gruesome death caused by the in-breaking of a foreign object. In one story, it takes a fugitive’s bullet for an old, judgmental woman to finally understand God’s grace, in another it is the horn of a bull running wild in a field that pierces the heart of a racist, this is the symbol O’Connor chooses to depict God penetrating the heart of a sinner with his grace. So too is Adam cut apart and broken open so that God can make woman.
While we tend to associate grace only with our salvation, here in woman’s creation we see a picture of grace; for man is given a magnificent gift that makes him more like God, all because of the initiative and the work of God, Adam has done nothing to earn or accomplish the gift of woman, he was only sleeping. In response to this great gift of grace, Adam naturally turns to praise for what God has done, “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh!” At last!
But we do not see our spouse every day and shout, “at last!,” do we? Perhaps, if we were lucky, we had a long honeymoon phase before we came to realize that we do not live in this Genesis 2 picture of marriage, but in a Genesis 3 picture of brokenness and sin. Last year I buried a very dear, lovely 90 year old woman, who had been married to her husband for over 60 years. Every time I saw these two, her husband would give me his best marriage advice, “never go to bed angry,” which he would always follow up by saying, “I haven’t slept in 65 years.” I have often heard an unverified joke, one that is even more cynical, about the poet and author John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost after his marriage, and Paradise Regained after his wife’s death. We laugh, but we laugh in part because we know how sick, distorted, and twisted our own experiences of marriage so often are. What else can we do but laugh sometimes?
The first fruit of the sin of Adam and Eve is the loss of their unity. Adam and Eve, God’s mutual gracious gifts to one another, their helpers, living, breathing signs of God’s grace, become one another’s accuser. God asks, “Did you eat of the tree which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam says, “the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Eve is discarded, used as Adam’s scapegoat. God, it was her fault. There are legalistic, cruel traditions within Christian faith who argue that man should never be led by a woman, because Eve led Adam to sin. Let me be very clear, if we reason in this way we commit the same sin as Adam. God did not give so freely and magnificently so that we might accuse and abuse one other.
We know sin is all too real because of broken marriages. There are few miseries worse than a bad marriage, and few deeper, more beautiful signs of God’s grace than a harmonious marriage. And it is worth saying, the focus of the lectionary readings I am preaching about this morning is marriage, but this Word from God is not only for married people, it is for those called to singleness as well, for we are all created for relationship, whether we are called to marriage or to singleness. We are still left with this question, what are we to do in response to the tragic reality of sin in human relationships? We are given two options in reading from St. Mark’s Gospel.
The Pharisees approach Jesus with a question to test him. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” For the Jews of the time, this was not just an academic question. Divorce was a culture war of the time, with significant implications in the lives of Jews, particularly Jewish women. For the Pharisees to ask Jesus this question in this way is like a person approaching a leader in the church with bad intentions, and very publicly asking, “hey, what do you think about vaccines,” or “what do you think about critical race theory?” You pick a side, and someone will be angry with you, and that is the point of the question. But Jesus, as he always does, rejects the false dichotomies that cultural wars rely on. He sees what is behind this question, even seeing beyond the fact that this is a test.
The real question behind the Pharisees’ question is one we have all brought to Jesus when we approach him. “Jesus, what can I get away with? How far can I go until I cross the line? Can I get a divorce, will I lose my salvation?” This sounds harsh.
But the Pharisees are speaking here about a kind of divorce commonly practiced in Jesus’ time, in which a man could legally write a certificate of divorce, for any reason imaginable. It was in a husband’s rights to say to his wife, you know what, I am tired of your complaining, the house is dirty, your food tastes bad, so we are done and you are on your own. It was an incredibly cruel practice, but one which was established in the law, and in the legal definitions created by the religious leadership of Jesus’ time. This practice was legal, this practice was acceptable; but behind it Jesus sees Adam with his finger pointing at Eve, because it is Adam’s hard heart given to us toward our own flesh and blood that leads to such a practice.
Jesus offers another way to the Pharisees and to us. “Moses wrote this commandment because of your hard-heartedness… but in the beginning God created them male and female.” Marriage, relationships, life in community, these are not meant to be grounded or shaped in our hard-heartedness, but by God’s grace; as it was in the beginning, “God created them, male and female.”
So in Christ Jesus, the question we ask is not, “what can I get away with because I want to get to heaven in spite of my hard-heartedness?” The question is, “why Godhas graciously created, and yet more graciously re-created?” Marriage, human relationships, are like our restored relationship with God, they are founded on God’s grace.
As an important aside, nothing in this passage or in Jesus’ teaching prohibits divorce because of abuse, abandonment, or infidelity, and that has long been the position of the church. Divorce because of abuse was just not the kind of divorce Jesus is talking about. Flippant, hard-hearted, manipulative divorces are what Christ has in mind. So telling an abused or wronged person in a relationship that it is their responsibility to forgive and forget something done to them because of grace, so that it continues happening is an unimaginably cruel, and harmful way of interpreting this teaching from Christ. It is a way of putting yet another burden on a victim. What an irony that a teaching given to restore the beauty and health of God-given love for one another has been misused this way.
But grace in marriage and relationships also does not mean that we are free to divorce as we please. It is ironic that the church of the past century has gone running with the idea of “grace” that Jesus applies to the topic of marriage and divorce, and have then found themselves standing in the same place as the Pharisees asking, “what can I get away with because of grace?” Divorce is always a tragedy, even justified divorces, and we are always to approach it with soft, sensitive hearts, for it is heartbreaking.
Why, and how, has God restored marriage, along with all relationships, in the era of new creation that begins with Jesus Christ? Was it to extend the accusatory finger of Adam, to tear one another down, like Adam and Eve in the garden? Was it to place unreasonable, unfair expectations on one another, that we will somehow fulfill our needs through a relationship with another person? I love the way Pastor Tim Keller puts it in a book I always read with couples in premarital counseling called The Meaning of Marriage. Keller compares two people who look to find fulfillment in one another through their marriage: “unsure of their own value and purpose,” to “two vacuums” who together become a “bigger and stronger vacuum, a giant sucking sound.” We find fulfillment in God, not another person.
Did Jesus Christ restore marriage and relationships so that we would compete with another? “I work and work all day to support this family, and have to come home to this!” I see, so “you think I’m not working when I am home with the kids?” “My time is more important than yours, I make money, I put food on the table.” How often do we speak in this way to our own flesh and blood?
And it is so often as Christians that we imagine the solution to our problems, including relational problems, is some good advice, “five tips for a successful marriage,” or something like that. This would be the natural place in a sermon to put such marriage advice, but who am I to give that advice, and would it really help? Is that what we need? Is advice gospel, is it good news? Sometimes it feels like preachers who preach about grace and then give advice are like teachers who promise everyone in the class an “A” on the final exam, and then hands out a study guide. What is it that we need to have strong, Christian marriages, God’s grace, or some good advice?
We need grace. We do not need to know what we need to do, but what God has already done for us. So it is appropriate that, if we want to know what a true marriage, a new creation relationship, looks like, the best place we have to look is to a man who was never married, Jesus Christ. What advice could he give us about marriage when he was called to singleness?
In Jesus Christ, God has married humanity, in all of our unfaithfulness, cruelty, abuse, and manipulation of one another and of God himself. Holy Scripture frequently gives us this image of God as the faithful partner in a one-way covenant relationship, God’s love first moves in one direction to us, as undeserving as we are of it when we first encounter that love; and God’s love continues to move to us, undeserving as we remain. Christ is the bridegroom, we the bride. The image of heaven we are given in Scripture is that of a marriage feast, the marriage feast of the Lamb. Christ alone is the faithful partner of us, he alone redeems and sustains our relationships, whatever form those may take.
When we say “no” to God, God always says “yes” to us in return, in Jesus Christ. Here we find the firm foundation for all relationships, that because of God’s broken body and blood we are a new creation, once dead, now made alive in Jesus Christ, Amen.