This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Matthew 22:15-33.
We had a couple renewing their vows on their golden wedding anniversary this morning, so the sermon is written with that in mind.
“In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
What do you reckon? Are you looking forward to your wings and halo? And would that somehow compensate for being single?
At first blush, this reading might look as if it has quite a low view of marriage; as if it’s fine for something for us to do, you know, to pass the time in this life; but that when this life is over and we go to glory, it won’t really matter any more. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying, exactly, although that might take some unpacking.
The first thing to note is that this discussion really isn’t about marriage at all. The issue here is about what happens after we die, and whether resurrection is really a possibility. The Sadducees argue that it is not; and they make that argument because, if we see resurrection simply as picking up where we left off, a kind of continuation of this life, there are significant logical problems with that. So, seeing the logical absurdity of having to choose between several spouses, or other problems of a resurrected life that is just “more of the same,” they reject the possibility.
Jesus’ response is to challenge their limited imagination. Resurrection – he tells them – isn’t “more of the same,” it’s a radical transformation of our very nature. Paul put more words around the same idea when he wrote about the resurrected body: “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
I guess what Paul talks about as a “spiritual body” is his way of describing what Jesus means when he says we’ll be like the angels in heaven.
But what does that mean? To be honest, I don’t know the details; and I suspect it’s something we can’t really understand from this part of our existence. But it follows that if our bodies undergo radical change, that so will our human relationships. The cycle of life, with the particular demands of growing and aging, of pair-bonding and parenting, and all of that, will clearly not function in the same way. I don’t think that means we will lose the potential for meaningful relationships, but trying to describe them in terms of what we know now clearly isn’t going to work.
But – and this is the thing I really want to focus on today – that doesn’t rob our family relationships, or specifically our marriages, of eternal significance. Human relationships are the context in which we learn, change and grow; and marriages, as the most intimate and enduring (at least ideally) of those relationships give us a particularly intensified opportunity for that change and growth. They can be a crucible for holiness.
Marriage is an all-embracing experience. We bring to it all that we are, in giving ourselves to each other, and in turn it is the foundation on which all of our later life experiences are built.
And being married is not, and never has been, a fixed state of happy-ever-after (after 50 years how well I’m sure you know that!). There are troubled times, times when you’re divided, or there are power struggles, or it seems like you don’t know the way forward. It’s in facing up to those struggles and learning from them that our own personal growth comes (as well as increasing depth and intimacy in the marriage).
This growth comes about because in all the ups and downs of a marriage, we find ourselves at our best and worst, our most loving and joyful and generous, and our most fearful, vicious and selfish. If we’re paying attention, the way we treat our spouse and our family holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and sins, and shows us where we still need grace.
I can remember, for example, when my daughter was a newborn, and we were having a rough night, and were up for what felt like the umpteenth time, and she was screaming and I was in tears and nothing was going right, and my poor husband looked at me in lost bewilderment and said, “I didn’t think it would be like this!” And it took all my strength not to throw something at him – he was lucky I was holding the baby! – and yell, “Well, what did you think it would be like?!”
Love is patient, apparently, and it seems marriage is designed to gradually teach me that!
But even this sort of personal growth, too, while good and healthy, is not an end in itself. As marriage helps us grow and mature, it also helps become able to form generous and open-hearted relationships with others, beyond the marriage. This is part of what having children is about, but even for people who never have children, growth in personal maturity turns us outward towards community, secure in ourselves and able to support others without anxiety or feeling threatened. When two adults commit themselves to life and growth together, their relationship reaches far beyond them to transform and create other relationships; what I’ve seen described as “an energy to embrace newness.”
Ultimately, I’d describe that “energy to embrace newness” as hope. If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” as the writer of the Hebrews put it, then having the energy to imagine that things might be different, to welcome and even collaborate in that newness, and to be assured that God is at work in that, bringing about what is good and true and just… is one possible end result of being attentive to what marriage can work in us.
Of course all of this takes work. It takes commitment. It takes time and making the relationship between the two of you actually a priority. This is easier in some phases of life than others; and maybe easier after the children have moved out, than when they are little. The golden years, rather than being about fading or declining (which some people might fear) can be a time of deepening and enrichment, if you’re clear that that’s what you want them to be.
Or, to put that the way Pope Paul VI put it, married love is an impulse towards the Infinite.
Now, I do want to add a disclaimer. Not everyone is able to marry, not even all those who wish to; and in talking about the potential of marriage in this way, I don’t want to suggest that this crucible of holiness that we find in relationships, isn’t available to single people in different ways. Intentional and intimate relationships of all kinds can afford us the same opportunities. But marriage is, for most of us, our most committed, most enduring and most intimate relationship, so it’s worth stopping to reflect on it specifically on an occasion like this.
So if I’d dare to offer you any suggestions, on this special day, it would be to be open to the potential of your marriage; to help each of you continue to grow; to support each of you to be your best selves in the world; and to be a relationship which cultivates hope and openness to what God might be up to. And may God continue to bless you richly.