On Divorce & Remarriage

October 4, 2015

Bible Text: Mark 10:2-16 |

As the preacher, my heart dropped when I read today’s lectionary readings: the suffering of Job and the apparent deal that Satan struck with God that allowed all his suffering to happen; then Jesus’ hardline prohibition on divorce and remarriage.

These are hard things to speak of. For many of us, these passages trigger deep memories of pain. They fuel our deepest fears about who God is and how God is at work in this world and our lives.

The teaching on divorce is particularly painful because most of us have been affected by it. We’ve been divorced ourselves, or were raised in a broken home, or watched our children’s marriages fail, or you’re a child yourself whose friends talk about their “mom’s house” and their “dad’s house” and every time your parents argue, you fear they’ve begun the same path. There may be some of you – at this moment – who are considering divorce, or living a secret life that you know will one day erupt and destroy your marriage.

Divorce is all around us, and for those who have suffered it, the trauma has stained our souls.

So when we come to church and hear this gospel read, it stabs us in a very tender place. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.”

Clearly, the most straight-forward interpretation of this teaching is “divorce is wrong, and remarriage is worse. So don’t do it.” And consequently, for centuries the church has disallowed divorce and remarriage.

The problem is, creating laws to prohibit divorce and remarriage does nothing to heal a marriage. In most cases, it simply prolongs the dysfunction. Legislation, be it that of the government or of the church, has the power only to prohibit. It has no power unto itself to create wholeness or life.

At its worst, the prohibition on divorce has perpetrated ongoing abuse. But even where no abuse is happening, it can foster a kind of lifelessness.

A couple sat facing each other in the therapist’s office. After years of a “Christian marriage” that failed to thrive, the wife has finally decided to end it and to leave her husband. Distraught, the husband demands accusingly, “Will leaving me honor God?” And after a prolonged silence, the wife replies with a wearied sadness in her eyes, “Is God being honored by the marriage we’re living?”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is not one of legislation. It is not about rules, about what can and cannot be done. For that is not the way of God. Certainly rules have their place. Rules help to create and sustain society. But no rules exist for their own sake. They only exist to support the ideals behind them.

And the ideal behind Jesus’ teaching here is the theological essence of what a marriage is:

The two shall become one flesh….Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Mark 10:8-9).

It is this notion of “one flesh” – one indivisible flesh – that stands at the heart of Christ’s teaching. He is quoting here from the creation story, a story that is essentially an exploration of what it means to be human in relationship with God. And at the center of that story is this mind-boggling language that we are created in the image of God – that something of our humanity is a reflection on – a participation in – the very nature of God’s own self. And upon that teaching comes this secondary teaching of two people joining together to become one.

And here is the mystery of it all: Just as God is one God, God is also revealed as many: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And in this life, the closest that we-image-bearers-of-God will come to entering into that aspect of the divine mystery, is the marriage of two people. Two people will always remain themselves, yet also become a union. Marriage, then, becomes a hint of God, a foretaste of God…inasmuch as two people are striving to give themselves to one another in love: to serve the other, to honor the other, to choose the other’s good, to work peaceably towards the same common good, and – when it is possible – to create and foster new life from their union. It is this kind of love that reflects Godliness, and when that is happening – year upon year – their “one-fleshness” is indeed a sacrament of God, a living participation in, and discovery of, the divine life.

This is the ideal. This is the essence of marriage. This is the theological core of what we are doing as husbands and as wives. And if you come to my office, with your marriage in distress, this is what I would desire for you before all else.

Our marriages ought to be a reflection and participation in God – not as some hardline rule, but as our flourishing into that life for which we were born.

However, in this life we often stumble and sometimes we will fall. Marriages end. And when they do it is a terrible grief. But when this happens, and when the blaming is over and the self-justification has run its course, there comes that point when you must simply admit that you have failed: failed to live out your vows, failed to be the one flesh reflecting the divine nature.

And there, in the dust and ashes, will Christ be waiting for you. Have you failed his ideal? Yes, and there will be no hiding that fact. But it is in the face of that failure that Christ will also extend his mercy. And it will be no paltry bit of charity. The mercy that Christ extends will be the marriage for which you have longed for your entire life. And I’m not talking about your trophy bride. I’m talking about the marriage between heaven and earth. We are the bride, and Christ the bridegroom. With Christ we become the “one flesh” that God has joined together, and no man can rend asunder.

This is the deep hope of our gospel. God will never divorce us, no matter how much and how often we may fail.

But what of remarriage in this life? Our union with Christ may be the ultimate truth, the marriage that extends from today into forever. And I do believe it is our growing faith in this union that informs everything of who we know ourselves to be now, in this life. But what about remarriage? If marriage is a sacrament that helps us to know something of our godlikeness, of two become one, isn’t it also possible that remarriage can become a sacrament of our redemption? Can a second marriage reveal for us the hope of our forgiveness? of our maturing? of our better self discovered and lived into?

I sincerely hope so.

When I was three my mother had an affair with a married man – a friend of the family. What began as a little fling quickly snowballed into chaos and as soon as it was discovered they ran off together. Within a few months the divorces were final. My father was left with two little boys. The other man’s wife was also left with two children and overnight their lives were in shambles.

I really only have two memories of that time.

The first was being left at “Shirley’s”, the day care run out of a neighbor’s house where Dad had to leave us each day when he went off to work. Shirley was probably a fine woman. But all I remember is the absolute aloneness of being in that place, and of my utter bewilderment. The safety and familiarity of being home with my mother suddenly vanished, and in its place was a dimly lit family room and a backyard coated in cement. I can still feel the aloneness of those days. As I’ve had children of my own, I’m still bewildered by what my mother did.

But there is a second memory from that time, and that is of going to Roddie’s house. Roddie was the woman who’d been abandoned by the man my mother left with. Because these two couples had been friends before the affair, my father knew her; it was the most natural thing in the world for them to meet – to try to make sense out of what was happening to them. Well…they kept on meeting. My brother and I, along with her two children, would run off to play together. Her yard was lovely. I remember nasturtiums and yellow flowers and playing on the hill in her backyard beneath the pine trees.

Over time she and my dad fell in love and chose to get married. It was scandalous, I suppose, for those who enjoy being scandalized. But for us, it was redemption. My mother had left, but this woman opened her heart to me and said that she would be my mother. We had a new life, a new home, a new marriage. And it was also a new faith, for through this crisis my father and step-mother discovered the church and felt Christ extending his hand to them in mercy and love.

And I’m here today, a priest in Christ’s church, and in a marriage that has now exceed my parents’ first marriage by several years.

So when I read Jesus teaching on divorce and remarriage, I can only read it through the lens of my experience in which remarriage was my salvation, in every sense of the word. Although my parents’ first marriage failed to be the sacrament that would teach me about the nature of one flesh, the second marriage invited me into a sacrament of redemption and resurrection.

Christ came teaching and living out the holiness of the Kingdom of God. He revealed for us a perfect humanity and invites us to follow him on that journey.

Sometimes, though, being confronted by these ideals is very painful because they reveal what we have failed to be. Be it this teaching on divorce or the entire Sermon on the Mount, we feel exposed and rightly hang our head in shame before God.

But it is this same God who lifts our heads and says, “I know, I know… I know your sorrow and I know your shame. I know your heart, and hold it tenderly. Come, my beloved, you shall be mine this day and forever.”

And so the prayer that began our service remains our prayer forever:

Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (Collect for Proper 22, BCP, p. 234).

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