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Two gentlemen were talking and one said to the other, "You're having an anniversary soon, right?" The other replied, "Yes, a big one. 20 years." "Wow," said the other, "what are you going to get your wife for your anniversary?" The other replied, "A trip to Australia." "Wow, Australia, that's some gift!" said the other man. "That's going to be hard to beat. What are you going to do for your 25th anniversary?" "Go back and get her."

There must be millions of jokes about marriage, but it’s normal to take a humorous dig at those things that are most important to us. Whilst we’re not holding a full blown anniversary service for Liz and Robin, I thought it would be a good opportunity to preach about Christian marriage. Liz and Robin asked me if we could pray with them on their anniversary which we are glad to do. Apart from weddings we don’t often get the opportunity to consider what Christians think and believe about marriage. Whilst the Bible has plenty to say about marriage it’s not really possible to construct a whole system of doctrine about marriage from the Scriptures alone. I asked Liz to choose a couple of passages from the selection that the CofE wedding service suggests. I think she decided to give me a challenge in choosing one that says wives should be subject to their husbands and another which doesn’t even mention marriage!

A Covenant of Faithfulness and Love
Children’s perspectives on marriage are often humorous but wise. When asked “What exactly is Marriage? Eric, 6 said: "Marriage is when you get to keep your girl and don't have to give her back to her parents." The Anglican doctrines about marriage are encapsulated in the long introduction to the marriage service known as the Preface, that the priest reads out in the wedding ceremony. One question which I’ve often pondered is whether there is a difference between Christian marriage and ordinary marriage. In other words, is there something substantially different about the marriage of Christians as opposed to other kinds of marriage? That may be the wrong way to frame the question. What I’d prefer to say is that the Christian perspective on marriage is not completely different, but it is distinctive. What do I mean by that? The Preface says that marriage is “a gift of God in creation”. In other words, to use technical jargon, a creation ordinance – just as God said to Adam and Eve – be fruitful and multiply! Marriage is something which is open to and entered into by humans regardless of their religion, beliefs or values. But when Christians marry or think about what their marriages mean they have a distinctive approach. I think that is the same as life in general. We all live our lives, but when someone is a follower of Christ, they understand the meaning of their life in a distinctively Christian way.

So what is the meaning that Christians see in marriage? Well, not like the following little anecdote: A cartoon in a national magazine recently showed a couple standing before a minister during their wedding. The minister, looking at the bride, says, "The correct response is 'I will' - not 'It's worth a try.'" The Ephesians reading, whilst talking about being subject to one another, is actually holding up the relationship between Christ and the Church as a model of the way in which the partners in a marriage relate to each other. The bit about wives being subject to their husbands is possibly a cultural thing – that’s what was assumed in the days of the NT. But our contemporary approach which emphasizes the equality of the sexes doesn’t invalidate the point Paul was making: that the bond of faithfulness between Christ and the Church is a model of the same bond between the partners in a marriage. Of course, the key way of understanding that bond for Christians is the idea of “covenant”. God binds himself to his people in a contract of love, protection and blessing. Christians enter into the new covenant with God through Christ. Life-long faithfulness, renewing the relationship of love through countless acts of love and daily remembrance of what it’s all about, are part of that relationship. Put simply, God says to his people: I will always be there for you. That’s essentially what a couple say to each other, too. Christian couples reinforce their human intentions towards their beloved partner by participating in God’s utter “being thereness”. They draw on divine strength to support and uphold their fallible human love for a special other. This is symbolised by the ring which couples give each other.

A Calling or Vocation from God
That’s the ideal! We’ve already introduced the idea of human weakness.
Even the best of intentions can go horribly wrong and motives are sometimes misunderstood. John began to think about how blessed he was to have such a wonderful wife, and he decided to show his appreciation. So one day at work he went out and bought a box of chocolates and a dozen roses to take back to Mary. When he got home, he decided to ring the bell and surprise her at the door. When she answered the bell and saw him with the chocolates and roses, she burst into tears. "What's wrong?" he asked, somewhat shocked at her reaction. "It's been a horrible day," she cried out. "The baby's been sick, the washing machine broke down -- and now you come home drunk!"

The second point we can emphasise is that marriage is a choice. Whilst it is a gift of God in creation – ie something we believe God gave to humanity, it is nevertheless something those who participate in marriage are free to choose. That immediately builds in two important considerations: first, that marriage is not for everyone; second, that Christian marriage is entered into freely by each partner. Let me try and draw out the implications of those two points. The first implication again brings us to something distinctive about a Christian approach to marriage. When we say that marriage is something that is chosen, a matter of choice, we can associate that idea with the concept of vocation or calling. In other words, we can see marriage as something which God calls us into. Now the idea of vocation may not be very appealing when a couple meet and fall in love! That’s certainly not what I have I mind – “God called me to marry you!” is not the best of chat-up lines in the night-club! But I think, as with so much of our Christian experience – we see things in a deeper way when we look back over our lives. We see how, unbeknown to us, God has indeed, been at work, providentially bringing things together in ways that make sense only in retrospect. So when we think we have chosen God, for instance, later in life we can see how God was in fact choosing us, too! Vocation also means a way of life that is chosen. The married way of life, in that sense, is a vocation, a way of life that we are called into. When I prepare couples for marriage, I put it to them that we perhaps realize this thing called love is bigger than just the two of us: it is a gift, and Christians believe it is a gift that God gives us. So marriage is a vocation. Just as a rider, Protestants believe that it is possible to have more than one vocation. It is possible to be called into the ordained ministry, for instance, as well as to the vocation that is marriage. The second implication of seeing marriage as a choice/ vocation, is also that it is not for everyone. In our relationship-crazed society, singletons can often feel very left out. Bridget Jones’ Diary told the story of countless lonely 30-somethings. Christians also see ways of living singly as a vocation. Sometimes this vocation is taken up in an organized way, such as in monastic communities with their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But for any in the Church who choose not to be married the Christian faith says that they are of equal value, equal standing before God, and their way of life can also be seen as sacred and fulfilling. Free choice is expressed in the giving of consent: when the minister asks if the couple take each other and the answer is: “I will!” and the vows which begin “I take you to be my wife/husband.”

A Provisional Arrangement
Sometimes couples say to me that they want to get married because they want to be together for ever. I tell them that, sadly, the Church can only marry them for life. It is partly meant in jest, but there is a truth there, too. I am beginning to explore the idea that Christians see marriage as provisional. I mean that in both senses of the word: it is provisional in that it is temporary – for the rest of earthly life, sure, but only that long. In heaven our relationships will transcend sexuality – and that’s what Jesus’ meant when he responded to the ridiculous story the Sadducees told to try and disprove the resurrection. So a couple in a Christian marriage service make their vows “till death us do part”. But I also see marriage as a provision that God gives to us as human beings – as creatures who are sexual and who are made for love, intimacy and procreation. Our romantic heritage has made human love the be all and end all into eternity and I think we don’t realize it has given us an unhelpful perspective. Marriage is only a provisional arrangement, even if it is meant for life and is to be kept sacred. Marriage is a journey that leads a couple to the end of earthly life, but only so far. Those who are widowed or divorced may realize this more readily than those fortunate enough to remain married for life. There is not room to develop these ideas more fully now, but I wonder whether that might help us in the moral dilemmas with which we struggle nowadays. Can we sanction remarriage after divorce; do we believe gay marriage can be solemnized in Church, and so on.

Jesus’ parable of the two house builders was about building your life on the firm foundations of his teaching. When we think about Christian marriage, we need to find the foundations on which an enduring doctrine of marriage may withstand the storms that real life can beat against it. The ideas of covenant, vocation and provision may help us do that.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith.