I was once responsible for putting together a week-long course for a group of students training for Anglican ministry, on the theme of marriage and human relationships. And I was somewhat taken aback when, seeing it on the programme, one of the aforementioned students stormed up to me, objecting that such a course was even on offer: ‘You shouldn’t be running courses about marriage’, he complained bitterly. People should just go and read their Bibles – if only people would stick to the Biblical model of marriage, then there wouldn’t be a problem.’
At which point, a colleague who happened to be standing at my elbow, chipped in, and replied to the student: ‘The Biblical model of marriage? Presumably you mean polygamy. I think you’ll find it’s illegal.’ The student paused; went very red in the face; opened his mouth to say something; changed his mind; and then stomped off with the distinct air of a man who has been seriously wrong-footed. It was not the response that he was expecting. At all.
But, of course, my colleague had deftly drawn attention to a fact that is frequently overlooked, especially by those who want to present an over-simplified version of the Christian faith: namely that the Bible depicts marriage, and married relationships, in a whole range of different ways. If you look at the stories of the Old Testament Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the first kings of Israel, David and Solomon, their domestic lives were a jumble of multiple wives, concubines, and slave girls giving birth to their children. The law of Moses permitted divorce – yet, as we heard in our reading from St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus apparently ruled it out altogether – although in St Matthew’s version of the same passage, Jesus is quoted as permitting divorce in certain circumstances. St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians is of the view that in cases where a Christian is married to a non-Christian and the non-Christian wishes to separate from his or her spouse, then the couple are not bound to each other – although more generally, since Paul was convinced that the advent of the Second Coming was imminent, he encouraged people not to marry at all.
In other words, far from giving a simple, clear, and straightforward account of what marriage is, or indeed, where we are to draw the boundaries of legitimate sexual relationships, the Bible in fact has a whole host of different things to say about marriage and family life, some of them apparently contradictory. It all depends on which biblical texts you consult, which questions you ask of them, and which answers you are wanting to find.
I do find it very interesting, though, that whoever was responsible for choosing the set readings for this Sunday, chose to include alongside our Gospel reading, the passage we heard from the Creation story in Genesis Chapter 2, which tells of the origin of Adam and Eve. Because it seems to me that that is a passage that really does give us some useful tools to think with when reflecting on the whole area of human relationships.
And there are two things in particular that I would single out. The first is the whole idea of companionship: as God declares in our passage from Genesis, back at the dawn of time, having created the first human being, ‘It is not good that man should be alone.’ In other words, we are creatures who are fundamentally designed for human relationship – whatever form that relationship might take.
Secondly, it has always struck me as very interesting that in Genesis 2, the first man to be created by God is formed from the dust of the earth – which, if you think about it, is a singularly unpromising material. You cannot get much lower than dust. So, how remarkable it is that we human beings, who (in symbolic terms at least) are made of dust, should be transformed by the wonder of God’s love into the extraordinary and wonderful creatures that we are: capable of acts of courage, and kindness, and generosity, and nobility; capable of producing great works of art, and profound works of literature, and sublime pieces of music, which have the power to move and to inspire. The fact that dust should be capable of all that really is truly remarkable.
But because we are made of the dust of the earth, and made of the most base of materials, we are also easily led astray; our relationships can prove to be far more fragile than we realise. A song by Joni Mitchell features the line, ‘I have seen some hot, hot blazes come down to smoke and ash.’ Which is why it is so very important that we treasure, and honour, and protect the relationships that we have.
Because the terrible irony is that it is sometimes the people to whom we are closest that we come to take most easily for granted – so much so that we may even find ourselves treating them badly, or inconsiderately, or even unkindly.
Going back to that course on Marriage that I was organising, all those years ago, I can remember a very interesting discussion taking place at some stage within it about what was distinctive about specifically Christian marriage. It was alarming to hear the naïve assumption, voiced particularly by some of the younger, unmarried candidates, that Christian marriage was, by definition, successful. Because I suspect most of us here today can think of at least one couple known to us, who were, by all accounts, good churchgoing Christians, whose marriages have come adrift.
Christians can be every bit as frail and as fallen as everyone else. Indeed, the very expectation that Christian marriage is always, by definition, going to be successful, can, if we are not careful, prove to be burdensome and guilt-inducing. If a distinctive difference is to be found, perhaps it is in the simple but paradoxical fact that those of us who strive to follow Christ are possibly more aware of our sheer fallenness, and so recognise our need of God’s help in strengthening and supporting our relationships, and in shaping our own conduct towards those with whom we are close.
Conversely, on the positive side, one of the truths that is celebrated in our marriage service, is the recognition that marriage is not only a gift of God in Creation, but also a means of his grace. Or to put it another way, a marriage that is sealed by the love of God will always be more than the sum of the two people within it. Sometimes in the literal sense when the relationship between a couple becomes also a relationship of parenthood. But even when that is not the case, the love between two people that is blessed and honoured by God has the power not only to flow outwards, but to touch and transform the lives of others.
One of the first books on Christian spirituality that I ever purchased was a book published in 1971 by the Methodist, Neville Ward. In it he makes some very wise observations about Christian family life that echo much of what I have been saying this morning, particularly the assumption that real Christian family life ought to be what he caricatures as ‘a realm of frictionless loving’ – and the unrealistic or inappropriately high expectations that can go with that. But he has some positive things to say as well. Let me read you an extract. He wrote this:
Family happiness is always liable to founder on the hidden rocks and reefs of the unconscious life of its members. Christian acceptance of this involves the abandonment of all the extravagant expectations set up by the assumption that Christian family life ought to be a realm of frictionless loving. This in turn means that there will be less surprise and resentment and guilt when trouble comes, and more chance of success in straightening things out. There is generally some straightening out to be done, human beings being what they are – creatures who do not as a rule do much harm except to those within range and most cruelly to those within closest range, brother, sister, parent, child, wife, husband, wife. We all live hurt and hurting lives.
… but our lives are also the kind that are shaken periodically by beauty and other intensity of happiness, and again and again we are saved by love. The presence of love in family life is often unacknowledged, even unrecognised, because its nature is so much more akin to the air we breathe than to thoughts we articulate.
The presence of love in family life is often unacknowledged, even unrecognised, because its nature is so much more akin to the air we breathe than to thoughts we articulate.
Life-giving relationships, whatever form they take, are always gifts from God, and should be honoured and treasured as such – whether we live with our families, or in community, or alone. And it is when we are on familiar home territory that we must remain most aware of this, frail creatures that we are. As a rather beautiful little prayer from New Zealand puts it:
grant that at home where we are most truly ourselves,
where we are known at our best and our worst,
we may learn to forgive and be forgiven.