A Sermon on Revelation 21:1-5
When you set down to read a play by Shakespeare, you can guess the ending if you know what kind of play you;re reading. The old rule is, if it's a tragedy, it'll end with a death. If it's comedy, it ends with a wedding. I don't know if that rule applies to to the visions of 1st century apostles, but if it does, that kind of puts a new spin on the book of Revelation. Most of us have been trained by movies from the 70s to read Revelation as a horror film - the Greek name for this book - Apocalypse - has even come to mean disaster in our modern vernacular. But here we are at the end, and there's a wedding. "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven, made beautiful as a bride for her husband." Last week, I mentioned that the Bible has many more examples of good friendships than it does of good marriages, but then, here at the end, we have the revelation that the whole big story of God's relationship to humanity is preparation for is in fact one big romance that ends in a wedding.
Well, I say surprise; it's no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. In parables and in his teachings, some of Jesus's favorite images have to do with marriage. The kingdom of heaven is described often as a wedding feast. Once Jesus elaborates further, describing a wedding feast to which all the wealthy and powerful were invited, and when they declined, it became a wedding feast to which the poor and the outcast were welcomed. Another time, Jesus described his followers as people who were waiting like bridesmaids for a procession to pass thru the streets. Some of the watchers prepared their lamps and kept watch, others were caught sleeping and were missed out. Jesus' first miracle was performed at a wedding, for no apparent purpose than to make sure that the celebration continued and the hosts would not be embarrassed. The apostle Paul would later make the connection between God's purpose and marriage more explicit it when he said that the church is the bride of Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul says that the church is Christ's body in the same way that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage, Paul goes all they way back go Genesis to draw this connection. “This this is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two of them will be one body.” Paul then goes on to say that there is something in this uniting of man and wife that almost indefinable, but that transferrable to the church. He says ”Marriage is a significant mystery, and I am applying it to the church.” That's where everything is headed, for all the church - One day, there's going to be a wedding and a feast - the complete Union of heaven and earth, Christ and church, creation and the creator. The grand narrative of the scriptures is a comedy, not because it's all laughs and giggles, but because it ends in a wedding.
Which is all well and good, but it's also a lot to live up to. . Shakespeare himself noted in the best of his comedies that the course of true love never did run smooth - and if the church is somehow engaged to Christ, we've never been the most perfect match. Jesus called Peter "the Rock on which I'll build my church" but Peter is the one who denied Jesus, and fought with Paul over whether to eat with Gentiles. Throughout the New Testament, there is this ongoing theme that Jesus' expectations for the church might just be too high. And that the same might be true for marriage. In the books of Matthew and Mark, when Jesus told his disciples that the divorce laws of the Law of Moses were a compromise that God allowed, but that God's true will was for lifelong without an escape clause, the disciples could barely believe their ears. "If that's the way things are between a man and his wife, then it's better not to marry" they said. ANd Jesus deosn't go out of his way to put their worries at ease: "Not everybody can accept this... Those who can, should." And indeed, for all the high value that Jesus put on marriage for his own relationship to the church, he also seems to put an equally high value on a life of singleness. For one thing, no matter what Dan Brown says, Jesus himself never had any bride except the church. If the disciples ever married, we never hear a word of it, except for Peter. Paul, the same one who proclaimed the beauty of Christ's marriage to the church, was equally insistent that it was a good thing, and maybe even the best thing to live without marriage. "I tell your those who are single that it's good so stay single like me" (1 Corinthians 7:8). The scriptures know nothing of our modern idea of soul mates - the idea that that there is one person in this world who exists to complete you, except to say that Christ is the soul mate of the world. When we live in him through the church, we do not look to someone else to "complete us." In fact, it's rather the opposite. When I was in training for pre-marital counseling, one of the key ideas the leader provided is that in every marriage time and circumstance are working on us so that we are different people five years in, 20 years in, 40 years in. And one of the mysterious callings of marriage is that it calls us to love the person we are married to right now - a person who may have the same name and height of the person we married, but may also be very different. One contemporary Christian teacher puts it more provocatively by saying "You always marry the wrong person. To which, we might add, you always choose the wrong church. God always chooses the wrong kinds of people.
So what, then is the point? What on earth do we hope to see accomplished in such a demanding, mysterious kind of love? Two weeks ago I said that the power and purpose of loving our neighbors is that it creates common ground where there is none - it allows a Samaritan to see a foreigner on the side of the road and begin establishing a bond. And last week, we said that friendship is the love that does great things - it inspires warriors to risk their lives, it unites communities. But the kind of love we see at work in Christ's love for the church, and in the picture of marriage that it gives us, is less focused on transforming the world around us, and more directed on transforming us, ourselves.
A pastor I know tells the story of two college kids he overheard, a baptist and a Catholic. They were comparing and contrasting their respective faiths, and at some point the baptist shrugged his shoulders and said "well, the important thing is that you've found a faith that works for you, and I've found one that works for me. " to which his buddy replied, "you really don't get being Catholic." My faith isn't working for me! It's driving me crazy. It working on me." To apply the same principle to marriage, I want to submit that the primary gift of knowing Christ through the church, and the primary gift of loving someone in marriage, is that both are working on us. Both the church and marriage to remind us that don't know what love means.
That's a little abstract. Let me make it real.
The best example in my own family history is the story of my parents first Christmas - a story that I believe I've shared before. As the winter months came around for the first time in their marriage, my dad did as he always had and has generally done since. He went hunting. My mom, likewise did then as she generally has ever since. She talked to him about it. She asked question about how and why and why my dad enjoyed it so much. She showed such interest that dad decided he knew the perfect Christmas gift for her. And he couldn't understand at all why her face looked so disappointed on that first Christmas morning, when she unwrapped the beautiful little 20 gauge over and under shotgun he had bought her. . I wasn't there, but having heard the story enough times in my life, I can easily imagine the two of them, staring at each other across the wrapping paper, each of them mystified and discovering that they still had something to learn about each other. For all their good intentions, they didn't know how to love each other. But mom kept him anyway.
That is a light and comic example of a truth that all too often turns tragic. Love is not simply about offering each other our best intentions, or even the best version of ourselves. Love is a discovery. Love is attentiveness that puts someone else 's self above your own. Desire is instinctive, but true love is a practice.
Which, let me add, is one of the reasons that the church has consistently taught that God's will revealed in scripture is that particular desires and intentions - sexual desires - which should only be physically expressed within marriage. To make our bodies entirely available to someone without promising to practice love with equally availability in all the rest of your life - your finances, your future, your home - is to misuse these desires. It's a commonplace now to complain that the church is somehow obsessed or fixated on sexuality - and indeed we can be. However, from the very beginning, the church has expected to have a say in such matters. Jesus had plenty to say about marriage and desire, sexual practice was a repeated theme of Pauls letters. Apparently, this has always made Christians seem a little strange to others. About 100 years after most of the New Testament events, a famous Roman physician wrote that the two most distinctive traits of Christians were that they did not fear death, and they were incredibly "restrained in their cohabitation." Think of it another way, we were known for not fearing for our bodies, but also for believing that our bodies matter. In resurrection, God unites our body and our soul - to give one without the other to a person is to try and separate them all over again. And, it should be obvious, to go beyond that, to demand someone else's body for your pleasure - through illicit images, through force, through shame - is to deny their humanity, and your own. It is, simply, evil. On the other hand, ever since Paul, Christians have discovered that a holy understanding of sexuality is not simply about limiting. It is a kind of freedom. Paul understood his own singleness as a gift that allowed him to focus undivided attention on God. And it can even free us to love others more faithfully. One Christian teacher, long practiced in chastity says that it is a spiritual practice that creates safety: “When people know that your’e committed to loving them in a way that will not use them, manipulate them, or spend time with them simply as a means to an end, they finally have the space to relax. We make others feel freer by letting God discipline our desires.
This all sounds topsy turvy to us at times. Before Jesus came, we might have convinced ourselves that we didn't love God enough. We might have thought it was simply a lack of passion. But then Jesus came, and we were ever so passionate for God that we were willing to kill Jesus for it. It turns out that we don't even know how to love if we are not attending to the example of Christ. By dying for us, forgiving us even as we killed him, Jesus redefines love for us, and shows us how much we have to learn. No wonder Gary Smalley has a bestseller called the five love languages. Again, no wonder so many of the early church leaders took a pass on marriage. Loving Jesus was perplexing enough.
And while we are talking about human frailty this seems as good a time as any to mention that some times that human frailty goes so far down that it breaks relationships, even some that were begun with the strongest commitment to loving as Christ loves. In every church I've ever served, the most common reason someone joined the church was that Methdism was the middle way they could agree on with a spouse. But the second most common reason given has been that after the divorce, or after the second marriage, the Methodist church was the one that would give me welcome. The social principles of our church put it as well as I can: God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness." And "divorce does not preclude a new marriage."
I would never do a wedding that didn't include the vows "as long as you both shall live" I believe that is what god wants for every marriage. And yet. We are not yet at the end of the story, we haven't yet reached the day when God will get everything God wants. We are in the mean time, when sin still gets its way in our hearts, and evil inflicts wounds on us that neither we nor God asked for. We live in a time that depends upon mercy and grace. Mercy says that no one must endure abuse, cruelty, or abandonment in a marriage. And Grace means that even something God did not want can be reimagined and transformed by God into something good and holy and beautiful.
After all, the story isn't finished yet.
Several years ago, I got to do the wedding of two beloved friends. Zach and Dana have many unusual quirks, but one of their most distinctive was their fondness for calling other people clowns. It didn't take much for them to call someone a clown. If I was the last one to get my shoes tied when we are all trying to get out the door - c'mon clown.Take the last roll from the basket - your'e such a clown. There isn't a person that Zach and Dan love that they haven't called a clown. And there's quite a few more people that they don't especially love, but they also call them clowns.
For their wedding, Z & D chose a scripture from the book of Ephesians, but it wasn't any of those that directly addresses marriage. Instead, it was a passage from Ephesians. 4, Pauls instructions to the church at large, that includes these words "Don't let any foul words come out of your mouth, only say what is helpful, when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say... Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other in the same way God forgave you. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us, and gave himself for us."
When it came time for me to preach the wedding, I honed in on that first bit - that part about building up the community. I pointed at everyone gathered and I told them, don't you ever believe that this thing we are doing is to that it can be the two of you against the clowns. No. We need you to be the two of you, for the rest of the clowns. We need you to imitate God, to follow the example of Christ, to love each other and give yourself up for each other. Because we need to see what love looks like.
I wonder what difference it makes to you, to think that your loves - whether in marriage or singleness - can change you, but aren’t for you. What difference would it make for you to know that your loves are for something much bigger. If you’re puzzling over what it would me for you, or your relationship to be for something bigger than yourself, I would love to talk to you more about that. Because we need you. We need your love in all its grace, so that we can keep learning what real love looks like.
And this is something the world needs from every one of us. In singleness and marriage, we each have our unique callings in which we are learning to give and receive the particular love that belongs to God's church. We practice with each other, and we practice forgiveness because Christ like love does not come naturally. Especially not next week, when we talk about loving our enemies.
In these callings, we practice love so that we can give love - freely, selflessly, with nothing false about it. And we learn to recognize true love by its overflow and its abundance. Soon after the passage that we read in Revelation, after the bridal feast, God says that "all who thirst will receive life-giving water, and they will be my sons and daughters." Which reminds us that even in our most intimate relationships, we are practicing love that we end up sharing with others. We share that love with the children of God, who may come into our lives by birth, or adoption, or by the life-giving waters of baptism. It turns out that in singleness and in marriage, the calling of the church is the same - we practice the sacrificial love of Christ, so that we can give the sacrificial love of Christ to even more. We are part of a story that's bigger than any of Shakespeare's. It's more than a comedy, it's a mystery. It has a wedding, but it doesn't have an end.