The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Southampton on Sunday July 9, 2017.

RCL Texts: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“And they called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will’…Then Rebekah and her maids rose up…and the followed the man” (Gen. 24.58, 61a)

Who doesn’t love weddings? Even those who are cynical about ‘love at first sight’ or uncomfortable with the more ‘mushy’ aspects of romantic love have to admit that there is something special about weddings. Despite cultural variations in how weddings are celebrated, weddings remain a universal human phenomenon, a practice with historical roots as far back as recorded history. We need only consider the total amount spent on weddings in Canada per year to see the centrality of weddings in the human experience. Anyone care to guess the amount? (over 4 billion dollars) Over four billion dollars was spent on weddings in Canada in 2015, with the average wedding costing almost $31,000. Can those of you who’ve been married for 30+ years imagine spending $31,000 in today’s money on your wedding?

Nevertheless, weddings still occupy ‘top spot’ in the list of human celebrations. In 2011, over 2 billion people – or nearly 30% of the global population – tuned in to watch the royal wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. Perhaps this number is largely comprised of residents of Commonwealth nations; however, it is a significant number of people watching a wedding on television, which, even with all the pomp and ceremony of a royal wedding, still boils down to a rather common occurrence. After all, the average number of marriages performed in Canada on a daily basis is 405. Even in a culture where nearly 40% of modern marriages end in divorce (which can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $50,000 in legal fees) and where the number of weddings per year is steadily falling, weddings remain a significant rite of passage and celebration.

So, why do weddings continue to be such a big deal? Part of the reason behind the exorbitant amount of money spent on weddings in Canada and other Western cultures is a direct reflection of our consumerist and individualist culture and the desire for the perfect ‘fairy-tale wedding’: I will get the wedding I want, tailor made to make my dreams a reality, and I don’t care how much it will cost. This mentality explains the popularity of such reality television shows as ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ and ‘Bridezillas’; the drama is palpable!

The wedding business and reality television aside, weddings continue to be such a big deal because marriage is a big deal. Weddings are not meant to be celebrated as a means to their own end. Rather, weddings are a public celebration of marriage: two consenting adults making a public promise to, in the immortal words of the Book of Common Prayer, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part” (566). Properly celebrated, weddings are about two people making a covenant of fidelity and commitment within the context of a monogamous sexual relationship. And this remains something worth celebrating, especially in a hyper-sexualised culture awash with high divorce rates, and cynicism about the very institution of marriage. Whether our culture wants to admit it or not, there remains a lingering sense and hope that there is an inherent goodness to marriage. This is precisely because marriage is reflective of who we are as embodied creatures created in God’s very image.

The Church knows this all too well, which is why it has continued to uphold the goodness of marriage. To be clear, this does not mean that those who are unmarried or are divorced are lacking fulfilment or are morally deficient. It is precisely because the Church maintains the goodness of marriage, that it also upholds the goodness of singleness and celibacy. Moreover, the fragility of human relationships and the heartbreak and trauma involved when they end calls and requires the Church to exercise careful and gentle care for all affected by divorce as it offers God’s healing touch.

But why does the Church place such an emphasis on weddings and marriage? Given the contentious and divisive discussions that took place around divorce and re-marriage in the 1960s in the Anglican Church of Canada and the equally, if not more so, contentious and potentially divisive discussions occurring around the proposed change to the Marriage Canon, wouldn’t it be best if the Church simply got out of the marriage game altogether in order to avoid controversy and discord? Wouldn’t it be better to let the State become the sole administrant of marriages?

The reason the Church continues to emphasize the importance of marriage, even when it means entering into contentious discussions and debates is precisely because God loves weddings. Marriage is the “primordial sacrament”.[1] Although it does not look like modern marriages, the Bible begins with a wedding: that of Adam and Eve. One of the most enduring tropes of our age is that of romantic partners being ‘made for each other’. Well, in the case of Adam and Eve, this is literally the case. Upon awakening and seeing Eve for the first time, Adam rejoices with delight: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23a). It was truly love at first sight. However, as we know, trouble in paradise was soon to follow; the harmony and balance of Adam and Eve’s partnership quickly became one of self-righteous blaming. Marital relationships, it would seem, are almost destined to turmoil, if not failure.

And yet, God loves weddings. It is not because God has a soft spot for blushing brides or enjoys ripping yarns told by the best man. Rather, God loves weddings because human marriage “foreshadows God’s own incarnation, a union of two natures, within the person of Christ Jesus”.[2] In other words, marriage offers us a picture of who Jesus is: fully God and fully human, God-in-the-flesh. Through the primordial sacrament of human marriage, “God orders the destiny of humankind along the axis of Jesus Christ”.[3] In marriage we see a glimpse of Christ’s other-centred, self-sacrificial love being reciprocated by those being wed.

Furthermore, “human marriage anticipates the final historical union of Christ and his Church’s people at the end of time”.[4] Just as the Bible begins with a wedding, the Bible ends with a wedding: the wedding of Christ, the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church. In the final chapters of the book of Revelation, we are given a poetic description of the final consummation of the new heavens and new earth. The poetic imagery is rich and multifaceted, drawing on deep resonances throughout Scripture.[5] Suffice it to say, this apocalyptic marriage is but the beginning of an eternal wedding banquet, a feast we anticipate and participate every time we celebrate the Eucharist. This is probably why Jesus was a frequent guest at weddings and parties – He is looking forward to that final day of eternal feasting with His beloved bride, the one for whom He came to earth, the one for whom He will move heaven itself in order to be united to her.

Marriage remains, therefore, the central image or figure of God’s relationship with His people. Human marriage is, according to St. Paul, “a great mystery” that applies to “Christ and the church” (Eph. 5.32). Throughout the Scriptures, perhaps most memorably in the book of Hosea, we seek God using the nuptial metaphor to describe His desire for His people, calling them to renewed faithfulness. From beginning to end, Holy Scripture is one long love story between God and humanity that culminates in a wedding of cosmic proportions. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: coincidences do not exist in the Bible. God has providentially ordered Scripture so that what might appear to be coincidences are actually intentional connections reverberating and pulsating with gospel truth. The key to making and understanding these connections is through Jesus. Jesus is, therefore, all over today’s Old Testament reading.

Simply put, Isaac, the promised and long-awaited son, is a figure of Jesus. He is seeking a Bride so that covenant promises God made to Abraham may be continued though his family until their fulfilment, a fulfilment embodied in Jesus Christ. While the details of Ancient Near Eastern marriage practices seem strange and perhaps regressive to our modern ears, Rebekah, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, remains a figure of the Church. Rebekah is given the choice whether or not to go with Isaac. Like the “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” (Lk. 2.38a) uttered by her descendant Mary, Rebekah’s simple ‘I will’ is a profound statement of faith, a willingness to entrust herself to the loving care of God.

St. Paul makes our predicament quite clear; we want to say ‘yes’ to Christ’s wedding proposal, and yet inner conflict remains. And so, we find ourselves following the well-trod path of unfaithfulness, spurning God’s patient love in favor of fleeting infatuation with temporal things and the pursuit of satisfying our selfish desires. But Jesus refuses to leave us captive; rather, He comes to rescue us by destroying the power of sin and death. The words Jesus uttered on the cross – “It is finished” (Jn. 19.30) – are translated into Latin as consummatum est: it is consummated. The marriage of Christ and the Church is consummated on the cross. From his pierced side from which flowed water and blood are given to us the gifts of baptism and the Eucharist.

The fruit of this consummation is Christ being born in us through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Marriages devoid of passion are dull and life-draining. However, marriages that are able to keep a fire kindled, a fire not of mere sexual gratification, but of mutual delight, give birth to life and joy. The passion of the Church’s marriage to Christ begins with His passion, for it is on the Cross that we witness the extent of Christ’s love for us.  As a Church, we are called to respond in faith like Rebekah, thereby opening ourselves to work of the Holy Spirit. We are called to bear the living water of Christ to a thirsty world. The consummation of Christ and His Church gives birth to new life in all its fullness – forgiveness and reconciliation, healing and restoration, joy and renewed hope. The mission of the Church is to bear witness to this new life made possible by Jesus Christ.

So the question is: Are we feeling the passion? Are we ready for a life of faithfulness to Christ?

Are we ready to say ‘I do’?

If so, then let the wedding feast begin!

Amen.

[1] John Paul II in numerous places throughout his magisterial Theology of the Body refers to marriage in as the primordial sacrament.

[2] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132,

[3] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132.

[4] Ephraim Rader, Hope among the Fragments, 132.

[5] Cf. Brant Pitre, Jesus the Bridegroom

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