When I first preached this lesson on Marriage as a Mystery of God, it fell on the Sunday after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in favor of extending marriage to gay couples. I began by giving the familiar command of the Lord: “Be not afraid.” But I did encourage the congregation to be aware. In particular I would want my brethren to remember that this is the inevitable conclusion of divorcing religion from the “secular,” the demystifying of a sacrament.
A Rant on Secularization
The Obergefell ruling is not the result of an overnight reversal of American values. It is the inevitable consequence of a particular false premise in American culture that has its fountainhead in the secular strand of the Enlightenment. Many of the Enlightenment philosophers believed that power could and should be wrenched away from religious influence in Europe. The tools of this power grab were the myth of religious violence1 and the creation of the secular state. Since then, certainly in America, the wedge between church and state has broadened. This is not a recent development.
Once God had been put into a limited sphere, that fence designating the realm of religion began to shrink and the newly created “secular” world began to increase. Ethics, economics, education – all were placed beyond the reach of religious influence, and of course marriage would be added to this secular realm. Marriage once was the domain of the church not the state. The most decisive act challenging that relationship was the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the separation of the Church of England from Papal authority. However, this early blow was only partial. Henry VIII’s ambitious maneuver still did not dare to suggest that marriage did not pertain to the church, only that the state could meddle in the church.
Still, in early American culture, marriage remained the provenance of the church. The only “marriage license” a family needed was the handwritten note of the preacher in a family Bible. It has been less than 150 years since the state began intervening directly in marriage issues. It was a poor reaction to the issue of interracial marriage and polygamy that led the secular state to claim that territory as its own. Now, unmoored from Christian Scripture, tradition, and theology, the secular state has declared that what was once the sacrament of the church is now a right of the citizen. Since all citizens regardless of sexuality are privileged with the same rights, marriage must be and now is extended to homosexual partners. What did we expect?
A Mystery of the Church
So I continue to claim that marriage is a sacrament of the church. It is a mystery, explicitly called such in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
In Ephesians 5:18-21, Paul outlines the premises that will make sensible this institution called marriage.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21)
Marriage is one of many arrangements of God that require submission. Submission is a persistent theme in God’s order, often taking place in overlapping ways: “submitting to one another.” Submission is one of many activities of the life filled with the Spirit. Marriage, because it is one sort of submission to God’s arrangement, is a tool for the Spirit to more significantly fill our lives.
Many others have commented on the familiar passage that follows in verses 22-33. I want to notice the sacramental language included.
Like all Sacraments, marriage reenacts the story of God and his people. Marriage reenacts the creation, the merger of heaven and earth. Marriage reenacts the gospel, the merger of God and man. Marriage foreshadows the new creation, the merger of heaven and earth again! Marriage models the relationship between Christ and his church. Marriage teaches us selflessness, the virtue that inundates the gospel.
Like all Sacraments, it brings us into the presence of God. It imitates Christ (v. 23-29), fills with the Spirit (v. 18), and is created by the Father (v. 31).
In case we weren’t sure, Paul then spells it out. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (v. 32). Or from the Latin Vulgate translation,
Sacramentum hoc magnum est, ego autem dico in Christo et in Ecclesia.
Great is the mystery, the sacramentum, that is marriage. May it remain tied to Christ and his Church.