THE WAY OF THE GROOM
Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, the 21st January 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Genesis 14: 17-20 Revelation 19:6-10 S. John 2: 1-11
Revelation 19:7 "Let us rejoice and exult, and we will give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His Bride has made herself ready."
THE FIRST SIGN
The marriage at Cana in Galilee and our Lord's turning of water into wine there, is one of the great and ancient Epiphany themes. As the account itself says, it was a sign that manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. It has been argued that the very position of this event in St. John's Gospel indicates the high regard with which our Lord held the institution of matrimony. The New Testament as a whole teaches not merely of a high regard for it humanly speaking but that marriage itself is one of God's special signs.
Moving quickly from the sublime to the ridiculous, I received a few days ago a call from Pinnacle Media, aka The Cayman Compass, asking me what I thought about the fact that this year Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine's Day, and Easter Day falls on April Fools' Day. Perhaps, the woman on the line suggested, when we administered the ashes on Ash Wednesday this year it should leave a red mark rather than black? What was I preparing for a theme of the service? Biting my tongue slightly I pointed out that there was an ongoing attempt by the churches to steer Valentine's Day every year towards an emphasis on marriage faithfulness, and this indeed could be connected with our Lenten preparations.
THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Discussions among theologically minded people develop from time to time about whether the marriage of the Blessed Mother and Joseph her husband was consummated, bearing in mind that the early Church Fathers and the early conciliar statements all spoke of the Blessed Mother as "Mary Ever-Virgin", and considered that the Mother of Jesus remained a virgin even after Jesus' birth. The apparent unanimity of the testimony of the Church of the First Millennium on this point has to be a very strong point in favour of the proposition and has always been regarded by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well as many Anglo-Catholic Anglicans as overwhelming evidence. Yet set against that conclusion is the fact that in the early centuries of the Church's life marriage itself was often not held in high regard. The Church seemed to maintain the mindset of Greek culture about the body and sexuality long after the originally Jewish New Testament Church had baptised Gentiles and taken the best of Gentile culture into itself. However, Greek and therefore Gentile culture classically presented an unbridgeable gap between spiritual things and material things, and for centuries the combination of Christian faith and Gentile culture resulted in the exaltation of the celibate lifestyle, but a regard for marriage that treated it as little or no better than legitimised fornication. Accordingly it may have been unthinkable to them that the womb that had been specially prepared for the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God might ever have also nurtured any other baby, one whose beginning was in natural procreation.
THE JEWISH CONTEXT
The Jewish cultural view, on the other hand, of New Testament times, although it had undoubtedly for years been penetrated by Hellenic (or Greek) ideas, did not in general consider that sexuality itself or marriage were inherently tainted. Consistently with this, though indeed not with much of Pharisaism, Jesus taught that it was not what went into the stomach that made a person unclean, but what came out from his heart. The seriousness with which Jesus taught that it was God Himself who joined a man and a woman together in marriage seems to leave no room for the view that the institution or its procreative purpose has any fundamental taint. From this point of view it is difficult to see why any further child-bearing of the Blessed Mother might be unthinkable or why that should be thought to detract from the divine and human perfections of the incarnate Son of God, or indeed from the blessedness of His Mother.
CELIBACY AND MARRIAGE ARE "ADORNED AND BEAUTIFIED"
Our Lord often spoke of the Kingdom of God under the figure of a joyous marriage-feast, which it is difficult to think He would have done if marriage were an inherently tainted or even second-best thing. The words of Jesus and His own lifestyle reveal that both celibacy and marriage should be honoured among all men, just as all counterfeit lifestyles are to be abhorred and avoided. There is certainly a hugely important battle and controversy in our day between the mind set of the spirit and the mind set of the flesh, between the mind set of the Faith and the mind set of media and political correctness. Celibacy was "adorned and beautified" (in the Prayer Book phrase) by Jesus' own partaking of this lifestyle; and the estate of Holy Matrimony is, as the Prayer Book says, an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and His Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified (as we have seen in our Gospel reading today) with His presence, and first miracle that He wrought, in Cana of Galilee. No such adornment and beautification is remotely accorded to any sexual option or accommodation other than genuine matrimony or genuine celibacy.
THE MARRIAGE OF THE LAMB
In our second lesson from the book of Revelation we read of the marriage of the Lamb to a Bride that has prepared herself (19:7). New Testament Scripture does not hesitate to present "the mystical union between Christ and His Church" that the Prayer Book speaks of, in a variety of images. I want to interpret this "marriage" in Revelation 19 as a fulfilment of the Incarnation. The Son of God came to earth, and suffered as Lamb of God, so that in the eternal age He might unite His human Bride to Himself, thus consummating the gracious faith-relationship He has with the Church on earth, and by this means uniting once again earth and heaven. But this union necessitated the suffering and perfect offering of the Lamb.
THE CALL TO RECONCILIATION
There are many lesser unions and reconciliations that it is our task, as those who are invited to the Lamb's marriage-supper, to effect. In S. John the Divine’s vision, those who are invited to the marriage-supper are identified with the Bride herself. That marriage, that cosmic reconciliation, is to be our model and example in every field. If heaven and earth can be reconciled, and that after all is what Jesus came to effect, if such a marriage can be made, if such a gulf caused by our sin can be closed, then it is incumbent upon us to be reconcilers and conquerors over the lesser gulfs that confront us here on earth. They confront us at work. They confront us in our homes. They confront us day by day. But to do this we must follow the way of the Lamb who conquered. Cosy, cross-less reconciliations have no power to effect what they pretend to. The Lamb did not conquer without the Cross, and if we would truly conquer, we must not shrink from the particular cross that beckons us, each one. To be a guest at the marriage-supper of the Lamb we must have answered the invitation in the same Cross-language, at least, of the Groom that invited us in the first place. To learn that language requires discipline, endurance, and a sticking to the task. The character of our response in our every earthly contest will reveal to us whether we have begun to speak and think in the language and in the way of the Groom, in union with Whom we must trust and hope to find our privileged destiny.
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. Compare our time's regard for celibacy, marriage and unmarried "partnership" with those of Greek culture and with the Christian ethic. (Have we ever got it right?)
2. What features of the "marriage-feast" do you think made it an appropriate image for the Lord's teaching about the Kingdom of God?
3. What are some "lesser gaps" that the cosmic reconciliation effected by Christ calls us to work to close?