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Christian Marriage

A Sermon on Hymn 214 and Ephesians 5:21-33 - Rev'd Elijah White

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

They asked for a sermon, so here’s one on a text that you all know because we just sang it as a hymn:  “O perfect love…” Some take this as a romantic plea that the marrying couple will love one another perfectly forever: they won’t – they can’t.  The only perfect love is God’s – the on ly forever love is God’s – but with His help and their humility they can have a very good marriage indeed.

The basic Christian teaching on marriage is in Ephesians 5 verse 21 through 33, fourteen verses that are grossly distorted if one cherry-picks a single verse out of context, verse 22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord,” historically a rationale for wife-beaters, legislators,  and other morons.  We Westerners today don’t realize that our very idea of marriage as a complementary rather than an authoritarian relationship is uniquely a product of Christian teaching.  Paul’s message here was revolutionary in its time, when Greek, Roman, and Hebrew laws and culture made wives chattels fit only to stay home out of sight  producing children and meals – wives could be divorced quickly at the husband’s whim, but wives could hardly divorce husbands.

Christian teaching on the marriage relationship was astonishingly different, placing God’s love in Christ as the standard to make it a human, a humane, relationship much more than that age’s male-rule and much more than our ‘modern’ society’s model of two competing egos each feeling entitled to feel (and to be made to feel) ‘happy’ … or else! 

Over against both ancient and contemporary societies Paul places the whole discussion of marriage within Christian context, subject to the overarching principle addressed to all Christians in verse 21, “Be subject to one another (male and female, each subject to the other) out of reverence for Christ.” In this context of mutual submission he says that the wife should be ‘led’ by the husband and [very next verse, too often overlooked] that the husband should love, cherish, and nourish the wife, do all he can for her well-being.  Note that the husband is given the more difficult task: in verse 24 wives are to ‘be subject to’ their husbands but immediately next in verse 25 husbands are commanded to ‘love your wives.’  In my life I’ve been ‘subject’ to many bosses, some of whom I didn’t much like or respect, but to follow orders is basically an ex-ternal activity, going through the motions… whereas to love is an in-ternal life, a disposition of heart, mind, feelings, soul, an obligation much more difficult, much more demanding than just taking instructions.

If each spouse strives to put the other first, verse 21, “be subject to one another,” then things will go well; but when either or both are more concerned about his/her own wishes, about “rights,” about winning, things will go badly.  We all know that – we need to appreciate that in Christian marriage we’re offered God’s help in working toward that very difficult ideal.  Unique among the world’s religions, the key to Christian marriage is love, not control: our model to follow is Christ’s self-giving love, not Pontius Pilate’s power.  Love is about giving, not getting. When we love someone we don’t want ‘power’ over them: the marriage itself has great power.  How often has a couple told me “that was a rough time for us both, but in the long run our marriage was stronger for it.” The strength of the marriage got the individuals through the stresses.

And we are individually stronger, individually encouraged, individually empowered, when we realize that God loves and blesses our marriage as well as each of us individually – that God wants our marriage to flourish and grow strong, not only for our own enjoyment and for children, step-children, grandchildren, but also as a sign of Christ’s love (as Paul says here) and a beacon of hope in a troubled world.  As a Sacrament Christian marriage is (and is to be understood and shown forth as) “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” a union holy to and blessed by God. In the marriage hymn 214 which is itself a prayer ending in an Amen, the “perfect love” we pray for isn’t some wishful thinking about bride and groom’s feelings but about the love of God in Christ Jesus which alone is the “perfect” love for which we hope and to which we aspire always and for always.

This is why Paul introduces and frames this whole discussion in the context of verse 21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He’s teaching that Christian marriage requires humility, not just ‘taking orders’ but true humility in both parties, that humility which we self-centered and prideful humans can best find through loving Jesus Christ first of all above all else in this world, and then  accurately (and therefore humbly) comparing our worth and accomplishments to His.  Such awareness of our own small merit enables us to bear with and give our selves to and for one another in marriage – strengthens us to endure the other’s weaknesses as well as our own – focuses us on giving rather than winning in the relationship – and above all gives us the context of God’s love for our marital enterprise, and assurance of God’s help in our marital efforts.  And this isn’t just theory, I speak from experience: I had 13 years in a disastrous marriage and 30 years in a glorious one and, believe me, God is the key, His worship our guide, His love our power.

Humbly remember and accept that even with God’s help we will still fall short of loving one another properly “as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it,” verse 25 – there’s our model to follow, a goal to which to aspire! We need God’s Grace to help not only our selves, but our marriages.  A Christian marriage is a miracle, which must be prayed for, worked toward, and accepted as a gift from God if we’re to partake thereof.   The Christian doctrine of marriage honors both husband and wife – calls both to high service, mutual submission, complementary rôles, and self-giving – and has as its goal the fullest, the richest possible life for both parties in this world, and finally-perfected love forever in the next… which is only to be had in God who alone can bless us with the perfect love…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.