“As It Is and As It Should Be”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 7, 2018: World Communion Sunday
This text from the gospel of Mark is one that preachers tend to avoid. Congregations avoid it, too. We avoid it because we tend to hear it in a very personal way. All of us—all of us—have been touched in some way by divorce. Whether you have been divorced, or someone close to you has gone through a divorce, the end result of hearing Jesus talk this way is shame or anger or hurt or embarrassment. Now, if Jesus had addressed these words to individuals, those feelings would be completely understandable. But as my Lutheran friend and New Testament scholar David Lose has recently written, Jesus is not talking to individuals here. Rather, he was speaking to a community, and when we think about how these words are heard in community, they take on a whole new, beautiful meaning.
Mark says, “Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’” Did you catch that? This isn’t a conversation about love, marriage, or even divorce. This is a test. Even more than that, it is not a test about divorce…it is a test about the law. In Jesus’ time there were two competing schools of thoughts about the legality of divorce. Both schools believed that divorce was illegal, but they wondered if there were any circumstance under which divorce could be legal. Each school of thought had developed different parameters that would allow a man to divorce his wife. Things like how the wife cooked and cleaned were on the table, no joke. When the Pharisees come to Jesus, they test him to see where he will land. If they get their way, and Jesus takes one side or the other, this will be handy information for when he is tried later for treason.
But Jesus won’t have any of it, as usual. He deflects their question. Questions about whether divorce is legal or not are too narrow for Jesus, too specific, too clear-cut and clean. The real thing we should have in mind, Jesus says, is the purpose to which God calls us when we are joined together. Jesus quotes Genesis here not because it is the be-all, end-all picture of Biblical marriage, but because it paints a picture of mutual dependence and health. This is God’s vision for human relationships. God knows that we can’t survive on our own. God’s desire for us is that we bond together, cling to one another and become one flesh, because, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, a multi-strand cord cannot be easily broken. Without each other, we are broken, incomplete, not whole. With each other, we are whole and complete and we have a better chance of being healed from the brokenness that touches us all.
Jesus takes it even a step further. “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” That is a threat. And Jesus meant it to be a threat. In his day, similar to ours, divorce was simply too easy. The husband, and only the husband, had the ability to file for divorce. Just like Xerxes and Vashti from the Scripture lesson last week, the man had all the power and he could decide in a night of drunken revelry, like Xerxes did, to toss his wife out on her ear. When a woman was divorced, she lost everything: status, reputation, economic security. Divorce was death for women, and so Jesus cannot, will not, allow his followers, his community, to act is such a despicable way. This law, as with all law, is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting. When the law is used for purposes other than that, like how the Pharisees use it to try and trap Jesus, we violate not only spirit and letter of the law, we violate God.
Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals. He is making a statement to the community about what type of community God has called it to be. Will it be a community where people up and leave however and whenever they chose? Will it be a place where folks pick up their toys and go home when they don’t get their way? Or will be a place where the complexity of life and faith will be embraced? Will it be a place where all are truly welcome, all types of people, of every political persuasion, from every walk of life, in every circumstance of life? I believe that Christ desires these last two. Jesus invites the disciples, and you and me, to imagine Christian community as a place where everything is centered on real relationships. Within these relationships, all the other things—politics, ideologies, the past—they really lose their power to divide and separate.
So yes, if divorce breaks down the community by giving the uncommitted an easy out, then yes, it is against God’s law. Anything that does that should be illegal. If divorce is necessary to preserve the integrity of the community and the integrity of life, then it may be the thing that is necessary. The same is true for anything that leads to the abundant life Christ came to give us.
Now, that’s a lot to take in. But there is even more here. After the disciples and Jesus huddle in the house to talk some more, they adjourn to a different place and people bring little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them and bless them. Mark says the disciples spoke sternly to them. But Jesus, indignantly, says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” This tells us something important about how Christ’s community should actually look.
Shortly before Jesus teaches about the law and divorce, he announced to the disciples his intention to go to Jerusalem where he will be handed over to sinners, be killed, and rise again on the third day. In response to this shocking announcement, the disciples get to arguing about who is the greatest among them. Maybe they wanted to establish an order of succession for when Jesus was gone. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve. He tells them that the very heart of God’s Kingdom is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honor a child—the most powerless and vulnerable—you actually welcome and honor God. Jesus’ community, in other words, isn’t about strength or wealth or power or independence. There is nothing wrong with those things, though. Jesus is simply saying that those things will not determine who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of his community.
Jesus’ community is one where the broken, the vulnerable, and those at risk find a place of health and wholeness. And let’s be honest, that’s tremendously good news for every one of us here today. Jesus’ community is a place where folks know their needs and know that those needs can be met through relationships with other people who are just as needy. Jesus’ community isn’t a place where weakness and vulnerability are matters to be ashamed of. No, Jesus’ community is a place where the sheer commonality of weakness and vulnerability strengthens and makes people whole. Jesus’ community is a place where, by being in honest and open relationship with others, we enter more deeply into the presence and power of God.
My friends, this is what the Church was originally about, though it often misses the mark. The Church born to be a place where relationships are built and strengthened, where all those who had been broken by life or rejected by the world could come and experience the resurrection of God. This community of broken people enrobed by the grace and mercy of God is not impervious to harm; these walls don’t protect us from the trials and temptations of life. But within them we do become open, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more like Jesus. He couldn’t, didn’t, dodge the terrible sin and darkness of the world. He faced it head on and then he gave us power to face it head on, too. The exceedingly good news is that just on the other side of whatever the world might throw at us is eternal life where there is no more pain, no more sorrow, and no more tears.
So, let’s bring this home a little bit. You and me, my brothers and sisters, stand on the ‘and’ between as it is and as it should be. I’ll say that again: we stand on the ‘and’ between as it is and as it should be. Each and every week we gather in this place and we hear from God’s Word about the wonders and miracles of the world and Christ’s community as it should be. We hear about healing and wholeness. We hear about welcome for the vulnerable, a place for the outcast, and the ultimate end to labels and prejudice. We hear about multitudes being fed, of sinners and prostitutes being affirmed, of how the love of God really changes things. We hear these things, but just as soon as our feet hit the pavement outside the church doors, we are confronted with the world as it is. And its rough. More so for many than most of us here today. We stand on the and, and depending on the day, we sway closer to God or closer to things that are not God.
Can we ever meet the high values of God? Will we ever experience the riches God has in store for us? Will we ever put down the pens and checklists that we think make us righteous in God’s eyes, and take up the life that God gives us through grace and through each other? Will there ever be a time when all of this—the world, the church, the life we have been given—is as it should be?
Yes. A thousand times ‘yes.’ I thought that preaching on a passage in which Jesus talks about divorce would be difficult today, but its actually perfect. It is perfect because today is World Communion Sunday and Christians throughout the world are gathering at tables like this one to live out Christ’s vision for his community and the world. This very day is a confirmation that while we might not see it very clearly, the world as God desires for it to be is possible, is real, is actually happening. Even if it is just for a day, today is a day where the laws and the barriers we place between different parts of Christ’s body are taken down. Even if it is for a day, we put aside our difference in theology and doctrine and practice to recognize that Jesus is the reason we’re all here. Even it is for just a day, there is peace. And that’s how it starts, one day at a time, one person at a time, one meal at a time. God gives us hope and courage in this meal that we can be the people Christ wants us to be. At this table God confirms his presence with us as, together, we take the good news of the gospel to the world.
As you come to the table today remember that you are welcome here. As you come to this table today remember that God asks you to come as you are and not as you think you should be. As you come to this table today remember your sins and the grace of God that covers and washes it away. As you come to this table today remember the ways you have contributed to the separation of God’s people from one another and from God, and remember that this, too, have been forgiven. As you come to this table today remember that Christ isn’t interested in whether or not you have followed the law, but in whether or not you have used his Word and commandments to bring life to others. As you come to this table today remember that Jesus wants nothing more for you than for you to feel welcome, secure, whole, and healed, and for you to extend that to every person you meet.
And as you come to this table today, do so in gratitude for the community into which God has called us, and remember. Remember that what God has joined together— that’s you and me and every other member of Christ’s body—neither death nor life, nor angels or rulers, nor anything present nor anything to come, no power or height or depth, and certainly no power of hell, can ever separate us from each other or from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Thanks be God. Amen.