Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sermon at Parish Mass, St Mary’s Somers Town, Trinity 18 2012

Genesis 2:18-24
Hebrews 2:9-11
Mark 10:2-16

The parish where I live in east London has a fete every summer, with cakes, teas, tombola, and all the usual things going on in the churchyard and garden round the church. The sound system and music have been provided for years by a member of the congregation whose repertoire includes Agadoo, the Birdie Song, and all the Country and Western classics of the most pessimistic and despairing variety. 
One year, by co-incidence, a wedding blessing took place in the church at the same time as the fete. And at the end the happy couple emerged from church to be greeted by Dolly Parton blaring out of the loudspeakers with, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”...
Sometimes I think that the Church, when speaking on matters of personal relationships and morality, gets into loudspeaker mode: booming out things that we think we need to say to people without bothering to listen or to get alongside. 
We, as followers of Jesus Christ, carry his good news for the world. But passages like today’s Gospel can seem difficult. Jesus says some quite clear and uncompromising things about divorce. Now that’s not an abstraction. Divorce is a real issue affecting many people both inside and outside the church. Real people, in churches up and down the country, our brothers and sisters, listening to the gospel with us today, and perhaps finding it rather painful. The gospel is not best preached from loudspeakers.
But the gospel is good news nonetheless. And today’s gospel reading is, at least, good news about marriage. But, more deeply, it is good news about being human, about God’s purpose in creating humanity. That is good news for everyone, married or not. But to understand how it is good news, we need to look more closely at the context in which Jesus gives this teaching, and what he is responding to. 
The place where this encounter happens, according to Mark’s Gospel, is “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan”. That is, it is the same place that Jesus went to be tempted by the Devil for forty days. And the same word is used of what the Pharisees do, they ask him a question “to test him”, just as the Devil did. 
Now this testing, the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, is not really an attempt to get to the truth about something. The Pharisees think they already know the answer, they are just trying to catch Jesus out to find some basis of accusing him, as they do on a number of other occasions. 
They ask if it is against the law for a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees think they know the answer to that because the Bible says that men can divorce their wives: Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But Jesus replies that this actually isn’t a commandment from God - although it’s in the Bible - it is just a concession to human weakness. 
Jesus has a radically different approach to the Bible than the Pharisees, and indeed than some Christians of our own day. You can’t simply come up with the answer to difficult questions by quoting isolated Bible texts. You need instead to understand the big picture, the big story that the Bible tells. That means looking at what is true “from the beginning”, as Jesus says, the truth of human beings in creation.
Now, “in the beginning”, in Hebrew thought, doesn’t just mean something that happened a long time ago. It means something that is foundationally true, an underlying principle.
So Jesus reminds the Pharisees that “from the beginning” God made human beings male and female, but not so that they could remain for ever separate. No, human beings are created to seek unity. According to the extract from Genesis that we heard this morning, Adam, who represents the human race, was initially alone. But then, to provide a companion, God performed that operation with the rib, and drew out from Adam a new, separate identity. Adam, humanity, was divided into two individuals, male and female. Divided not to remain alone, but to seek unity. To seek to return into one body which is no longer alone but now a new reality, a true communion of distinct persons. 
Here we are at the heart of what Jesus is teaching. The purpose of marriage is the purpose of being human. It is to seek unity, a return into one body, one new human nature, a true communion in which our individuality is not lost but fulfilled. 
Jesus presents here a high and beautiful ideal of marriage, of unity founded on mutual love. This contrasts with the idea current at the time, when marriage was seen more as a convenient arrangement to do with property. Marriages were arranged by negotiation between families - the men of the families - and the wife was seen as her husband’s property. So divorce was allowed - by men - in much the same way that you might decide to sell your house or other property and move to a new one.
Deeper than this contrast of ideas about marriage, we have a contrast of desire. The Pharisees’ approach to Jesus is motivated by a desire for rivalry, for accusation, for defining themselves over against Jesus. It is a desire for division. Us against him. But Jesus presents a model of desire in marriage which is a desire for unity. And that desire for unity, says Jesus, is what is true “from the beginning”, in God’s purpose in creation. Marriage is about the conversion of desire, from division to unity, through mutual self-giving and belonging. An end which can only really be served by faithfulness and life long commitment.
Now although Jesus holds up marriage as his example, the union of different persons in one body is an idea that runs through the whole of the New Testament, and it is called the Church. 
The Church is a body - the Body of Christ. Those who are baptized into Christ, the New Adam, are united in him in his renewed humanity. In the Church all humanity is being remade by grace in one Body as a communion of distinct persons, the image of God the Holy Trinity. In the Church our desire is being converted from disorder and division into unity. The New Testament teaching about the Church is so close to Jesus’ teaching about marriage that St Paul in Ephesians calls the union of husband and wife “the mystery of Christ and the Church”.
And this perhaps is why marriage is called a sacrament, although it is a way of life common to all religions and none, because for Christians it is a sign pointing to the new reality of the Church which we enter by grace.
Of course, not everyone is married, and marriage isn’t the only way of life for Christians, or the only way of seeking unity in Christ. We enter the Church by baptism, not by marriage. For those who are single - though that is such an inadequate word - friendships, extended families and neighbours are true and valid expressions of human community. Then there is the celibate life lived in community, that of monks and nuns, which is recognised and blessed by the Church because it too is a sign of unity in the Body of Christ, enacted through lives of simplicity and prayer.
Today the church, like Martha, seems to be anxious about many things: the rise in cohabitation, civil partnerships, and what is essential to our understanding of marriage and sexuality. Nevertheless, beyond these things, the foundational reality remains the one new humanity that God has established in Christ, the end that we must keep in view. Marriage stands as a sign of that reality, of the faithfulness and commitment of Christ to his Church. But the Church is for all people, in all kinds of relationships, and the call to all of us is to seek unity in Christ through faithful self giving, mutual belonging, and the conversion of desire from division to unity.
Whatever people’s circumstances and personal relationships, for Christians all boundaries of “singleness” and isolation, all categories of difference, are overcome in the Church, which is the community of the Eucharist, the sacrament of unity in the Body of Christ.
In the Eucharist we receive by grace our belonging together and our unity in Christ.  That is our purpose in creation, and what God has made possible for us in Christ. Our life as a church community should reflect that in the way we welcome all people, of all states of life. We are one in Christ, one body, partakers of one bread, the sacrament and sign of the unity of all things in Christ, which is our good news.

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