This morning we have the privilege of witnessing the baptism of little Naomi Everman. Central to the act of baptism in any tradition are the vows that are taken before the candidate is baptized. They normally take the form two sets of promises. First, there are what we call the renunciations: the solemn forswearing of all evil, whether it originate in the world, the flesh or the devil. These are followed by the affirmations, expressing personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and God, and pledging to follow and obey him through the whole of life.
As it turns out, the Bible passage I want us to focus on this morning, Matthew 5:27-37 (the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel reading) is all about the vows we make. The vow that Jesus focuses on is also one that takes place at the front of the church, in fact almost exactly where Naomi was baptized this morning and Rebecca and Eric made her vows on her behalf.
In this case, however, it is as two people stand before me and promise that, forsaking all others, they will love, honor and cherish each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health throughout the rest of their lives. The vows of marriage are the most solemn and sacred promises that two human beings can make to each other; and we give recognition to that with the dramatic words (from Jesus himself), “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” To which the whole congregation adds its “Amen”.
Why is it that Jesus turns his attention to adultery and divorce? Surely it is because marriage is foundational in God’s design for humankind. Marriage is the most profound relationship that two human beings can enter. Marriage is a sign of God’s faithfulness. Marriage is a foretaste of the heavenly life in which we will be fully united with Christ as his bride and spouse. So we should not be surprised to find that God’s first act after creation was to unite a man and a woman in wedlock, and that Jesus’ first miracle took place at a wedding.
Marriage is for sex
Traditionally the church has taught that marriage has three purposes: to be the appropriate context for sexual union; for the procreation of children to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord; and for lifelong mutual love and faithfulness. Those are the purposes that are laid out in the opening words of the marriage service in our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and they haven’t varied all that much since the first English Prayer Book was published in 1549. In recent years this perspective on marriage has come under increasing challenge, to the point where it appears to have fallen from being regarded as the cornerstone of society to becoming a minority opinion. From some quarters we hear it being branded as behind the times, regressive, even bigoted. And at this point in history the tides against it seem only to be rising.
Bishop Tom Wright expressed the argument for a traditional view of marriage in an op-ed article he wrote for The Times of London a few years ago:
Jewish, Christian and Muslim teachers have always insisted that lifelong man-plus-woman marriage is the proper context for sexual intercourse. This is not (as is frequently suggested) an arbitrary rule, dualistic in overtone and killjoy in intention. It is a deep structural reflection of the belief in a creator God who has entered into covenant both with his creation and with his people (who carry forward his purposes for that creation).
Paganism ancient and modern has always found this ethic, and this belief, ridiculous and incredible. But the biblical witness is scarcely confined … to a few verses in St Paul. Jesus’s own stern denunciation of sexual immorality would certainly have carried, to his hearers, a clear implied rejection of all sexual behavior outside heterosexual monogamy. This isn’t a matter of “private response to Scripture” but of the uniform teaching of the whole Bible, of Jesus himself, and of the entire Christian tradition.
I was impressed by what our Jewish guest, Michael Berde, shared two weeks ago about the kosher laws: that they were not primarily for health, but to recognize that food is God’s gift. Restricting ourselves from eating certain foods is a way of recognizing God’s ownership of all creation—including our appetites. The same may be said for sex. God has created us as sexual beings. And precisely because of that, because they are God’s creation and gift, my sexual organs are not mine to use in whatever way I choose. Sex is a wonderful gift, but it needs to be used in accordance with the way in which God has purposed it.
The book of Proverbs (6:27) warns about what happens when sex slips out of the context for which God created it when it cautions against the temptation of adultery: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” More than one person has drawn the comparison between sex and fire. In a hearth the warm glow of a fire brings comfort to everyone in the room. When it spreads out of the fireplace it becomes destructive. So it is that we believe that the proper context for sex is within the bonds of faithful marriage.
Faithfulness in marriage
Jesus was not one to shy away from controversial issues—and in our passage this morning he moves directly from one to another, from adultery to divorce. I know that there are those present in the congregation this morning who have endured the pain of divorce. I want to observe at the outset that Jesus was not forbidding divorce altogether. In our passage this morning he allows for an exception: unchastity. Other versions of the Bible translate this sexual immorality or promiscuity. In more recent years the church has come to recognize other circumstances where divorce may be the only solution: physical, emotional or other kinds of abuse, for example.
I do not believe that Jesus was talking about situations such as these. In his day there was a certain school of thinking that allowed a very broad interpretation for what might be involved in obtaining a certificate of divorce. William Barclay lists a few of them: if a wife went about with her head uncovered; if she was quarrelsome (here insert, “didn’t do what her husband told her”); if she talked with another man in the streets; or even if she sprinkled too much salt into her husband’s dinner.
Marriages will always have their difficulties. Husbands and wives will inevitably encounter hurdles in their relationships. Yet I do believe that in the great majority of cases if those obstacles are encountered with faith, courage, humility, mutual trust (and sometimes help from family, friends and fellow believers) the marriage can emerge stronger, deeper and healthier as a result.
Later this year Karen’s parents will be celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. Many years ago, not long before our own marriage, I remember meeting her grandparents, who at the time had been married for more than fifty years. Over the course of those years they had encountered numerous challenges together. But I remember as clearly as though it were yesterday, her grandfather saying to me on that occasion, “We are more in love now than we have been at any time in our marriage.” What a challenge and encouragement that was for me with our own marriage just months away!
So it is that the question I ask of brides and grooms at the very outset of their wedding service, before anything else happens, is this: “Will you live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her (him), comfort her (him), honor and keep her (him), in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her (him) as long as you both shall live?” For the most part, brides and grooms have no awareness of what is going to befall them over the years. So much of it is completely unpredictable. At the time of their wedding all they are aware of is each other, as they gaze dreamily into each other’s glistening eyes. Yet it is that basic ingredient of faithfulness that will carry them through both the good times and the bad, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” as they will both promise.
Yet there is still more behind what Jesus is saying. For one of God’s intentions in marriage was that it accomplish a deeper purpose: that it not only bring fulfillment to the couple themselves, but that it be a sign of his own faithfulness to his people. “Husbands, love your wives,” we read in Ephesians (5:25-28), “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands should love their wives.”
Faithfulness in society
While faithfulness may be essential to marriage, its near relative, trustworthiness, is the glue that binds together society as a whole. Societies are built on trust. Where trust erodes, the society itself also will inevitably crumble. Many years ago I remember a high-ranking businessman in the banking world saying to me that he regretted that deals could no longer be sealed with a handshake. There had been such a time at an earlier stage in his career. But sadly that was no longer the case.
The people of Jesus’ day had an interesting way of getting out of deals they didn’t want to keep. It was all a matter of words. As long as you didn’t swear by God’s name directly, you could technically consider your oath as non-binding. So you could swear by Jerusalem or by the earth or even by heaven itself, as long as it was not in the name of God himself, and still wiggle your way out of the deal.
But Jesus says that this is not good enough—in fact that no oath should be necessary, that God’s people should be known as men and women of their word, people who can be trusted, people of integrity. As we read in the letter of James (5:12), “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.”
I believe that there are at least two applications of what Jesus is saying here. The first is that the church be a community of trust, where people’s word can be relied upon. Secondly, we should recognize that there is a broader application—not just to oaths, but to all that we say. And so we need to be careful that what comes out of our mouths is truth, that we are not the spreaders of unsubstantiated rumors, or even of substantiated ones that might better be left unsaid. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” we read in Ephesians (4:29), “but only what is helpful for building others up as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
And so today, as we think of Naomi’s baptismal vows and of our own, may it lead us to be faithful to God and faithful in all our relationships, knowing that in him we have one who will never leave us or forsake us, and who, though heaven and earth will surely pass away, his word will remain.