Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sermon For Sunday Week: In Christ Alone My Hope Is Found

Tomorrow (Saturday) I begin a week’s leave to spend half term with Debbie and the children. I have just finished writing my sermon for Sunday week, when I return to duty. Here it is.

Revelation 21:1-8

All around me I find people struggling for hope. For some, it is the economic uncertainties of the recession. Will they have a job? Can they pay their mortgage? For others, it is the onset of serious or potentially terminal illness. I think of two families I know where a child has cancer. Or people wonder what legacy we are leaving to our children and grandchildren from the environmental devastation our greed has caused.

And of course, I find it in the church. I think of one church facing an imminent decision about possible closure, and another where the signs are not promising for ten years’ time.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our problem is that we conceive of hope wrongly. This is all hope based on circumstances, or on what people do. It’s an uncertain hope: “I hope that such-and-such will happen.” Such-and-such may or may not happen.

Christian hope is different. Let me introduce it this way. A couple of weeks ago, Debbie and I went to a concert by the worship leader and hymn writer Stuart Townend. We sang his hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, and it’s easy to slip past the profundity of that first line: ‘In Christ alone my hope is found.’ The Christian hope is in God. Our hope is in God in Christ.

So to our passage from Revelation. We’re familiar with it at funerals, where its words bring comfort, and that’s good. But there is so much more it can offer us. Why? Well, if you want a bunch of people who needed Christ-shaped hope, the first readers of Revelation would be good candidates. Facing persecution in the AD 90s under the Roman emperor Domitian, they saw loved ones arrested, tortured and killed. Our troubles look small fry in comparison. The vivid pictures that John gave them form a Christ-shaped hope. I believe we need a Christ-shaped hope to fit a Christ-shaped hole in our lives. Come with me as we explore this. Let it strengthen us for whatever we are facing.

Firstly, there is hope for creation. Whenever we go on holiday, an important item on my check list for packing is books. This year, I packed three but only got through one. Last year, I took a couple and only managed one. You’d have thought I’d have learned my lesson this year, wouldn’t you? But you’ll perhaps remember I never want to be caught short of reading material!

And the book I read on holiday last year was one that has helped a lot of people rethink their understanding of Christian hope. It is called ‘Surprised By Hope’ and was written by Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. One of the most important slogans in the book is this: ‘Heaven is not the end of the world.’

Got that? Heaven is not the end of the world. We frequently speak about the Christian hope after death as being the hope of going to heaven to be with the Lord. That is true as far as it goes. But the Bible talks about so much more. The biblical story doesn’t end with heaven: it ends here with ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. In some way that Revelation doesn’t explain, heaven and earth will be renewed. 2 Peter speaks about the destruction of the earth, but again followed by a new earth where righteousness will reign.

Our hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating somewhere in space, it is physical. God is interested in the physical and the material. He made it and he will redeem it. Just as God will not simply leave the dead in Christ in heaven but will raise them to life with new bodies, as he did with his Son, so he will also bring in a new creation.

What does that mean for us? It gives us hope for creation. Since God cares about his physical creation, so do we. Christians should be at the forefront of concern for the environment. We shouldn’t be like some Christians who say that the human race was put in charge of the earth and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s wrong. It’s God’s world, and we look after it as his stewards. One day he will renew it.

Debbie and I are no experts on green issues, but we see it as our duty to encourage Rebekah and Mark in a responsible attitude to the creation – not in a negative, hectoring way, but by filling them with a sense of wonder. Every now and again, we visit a country park near Basildon and Pitsea called the Wat Tyler Country Park. There are plenty of the usual attractions for children there, but there is one place we always visit when we go there. The RSPB has a place there, and we take the children to that so they may gain more of a sense of wonder about wildlife. It does help that Rebekah fancies herself as a young Doctor Doolittle anyway, but Mark enjoys the activities, too – I recall him coming out once, very proud of the wormery he had made!

As adults, we know this is serious stuff. You may well be aware of the forthcoming Copenhagen Climate Summit. At the time I prepared this sermon, European Union leaders were in deadlock about how to take further steps in reducing climate damage. So I’ve done my little bit of lobbying. Various organisations make it easy to do this, especially if you are online. I use something called Superbadger from TEAR Fund on Facebook. Recently, I have sent a couple of emails to Gordon Brown, asking him to continue his efforts in this area. So have thousands of others.

But let’s remember, this is about hope. The fact that God will replace the current heavens and earth with a new one means that whether we succeed or fail in our efforts, the purposes of God will not be thwarted. We put ourselves in harmony with his purposes when we care for creation. Done with the right spirit, creation care is for Christians an act of worship, and a sign of God’s hope.

Secondly, there is hope for humanity. The holy city, the new (there’s that word again) Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven, like a bride adorned for her husband (verse 2). Mention of the bride makes me think about the Church, the Bride of Christ, rather than a literal city. This speaks of the redeemed community.

The hope for humanity is a simple one: God dwelling in the midst of the redeemed community, for the voice from the throne says,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them …’ (verse 3)

You may think me odd, but this puts me in mind of Magnus Magnusson on old editions of Mastermind. This is one of those “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” moments. Why? Let me render part of verse 3 more literally: ‘See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them …’

Perhaps you remember the tabernacle, the ‘portable sign of God’s presence’ in the Old Testament. Holding that in your mind, go back with me to John chapter 1, where we read of Jesus, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among them’ – or, more literally, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them.’

So here in Revelation 21, God’s purposes in John 1 are fulfilled. What God started in Jesus, he will finish. The mission of Jesus will be fulfilled. God will dwell with ‘his peoples’ – and note it’s ‘peoples’ not ‘people’. The Bride of Christ will be composed from every tribe, tongue and nation under heaven, a vision that must be anathema to Nick Griffin and the British National Party. How distorted is their attempted takeover of Christian language. In Christ, people are reconciled to God and to one another. It’s a sign of hope for a divided and troubled world. Be clear about one thing: the extinction of the Church is not on God’s agenda. Rather, it has a vivid, glorious, multi-coloured future in God’s new creation.

What is our part in this now? If God’s mission to dwell in the midst of reconciled peoples was expressed in Christ dwelling in the midst of the human race, then we are called to something similar. For Jesus said, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. Therefore, just as Jesus dwelt in the midst of those he came to reconcile to the Father and each other, so must we. No religious ghettos. No spiritual escapism, where we run inside our castle, pull up the drawbridge and be relieved that we can worship without the distractions of the world. No more the increasingly futile approaches to mission that wait for ‘them’ to come and meet ‘us’ in our comfort zone. Instead, as the Father sent Jesus, so he sends us. Our sharing in God’s hope for humanity means we choose not to engross ourselves in church-filled lives but live out God’s love in the midst of the world, where we are needed. For now, I’ll limit myself to these words from Henri Nouwen:

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.

Thirdly and finally, our passage has hope for the individual. I want to consider those famous words from verse 4 that make this reading so apposite at a funeral:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

To those who first read Revelation or had it read to them, these words had immense impact. Remember ,they were facing hideous persecution. Tears, death, mourning, crying and pain frequently soundtracked their lives. How they longed for it to pass. How they, the suffering ones, longed for justice – which is surely why Revelation takes delight in the downfall of the wicked.

So this constitutes the good news of God’s hope for individuals. Whatever we struggle with in this life will be abolished in the new creation. Be it sickness or injustice, its days are numbered. One day, God will call time on all that corrupts the beauty of his creation and will restore all things. Indeed, this is so important that when the voice from the throne says in verse 5, ‘See, I am making all things new’, this is at most only the third or fourth time God himself is reported as speaking directly in Revelation[1]. Not only that, God has given an advance sign of his promise to do all this in the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection constituted amongst other things – the healing and transformation of a body traumatised to the point of death, and God’s vindication of his Son in the face of those who condemned and executed him. The Resurrection is healing and justice. We look forward to both of those in full measure when God’s new creation comes. The Resurrection guarantees our hope in God’s healing and justice.

But meanwhile – what do we do? Shall we lie down and allow pain and wickedness to walk all over us and others? By no means! We pray for healing, we campaign for the oppressed and we accompany the suffering – for that is what we must do if, like Jesus, we are to dwell in the midst of the world, with all its pain. Sometimes, we shall see victories and rejoice. At other times, it will seem like evil has won the day. But when it does, with Christian hope we can laugh at the darkness, for whatever battles it wins, God’s hope means the war is lost. Whatever discouragements we have, our certain hope in God means we need never completely lose heart. We have a vision of hope to fortify us, and the Resurrection to guarantee it.

In conclusion, let me take you back to that Stuart Townend concert I mentioned near the beginning. He introduced another of his famous hymns, his version of the Twenty-Third Psalm, ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’. He talked about how loved that psalm is by millions, both inside and outside the Church for its sense of comfort.

However, he said we needed to do something with that comfort, and that was why he wrote the chorus with its words,

And I will trust in You alone.
And I will trust in You alone,
For Your endless mercy follows me,
Your goodness will lead me home.

If we are comforted, then we need to trust, he said. And I think it’s the same with the Christian hope, which we find ‘In Christ alone’. We may be encouraged by the prospect of God’s hope for creation with its new heaven and new earth. We may find succour in the hope for humanity found in the God who dwells in the midst of peoples reconciled to him and to one another. We may be comforted by the thought that one day, sickness and injustice will finally be completely conquered when all – like Christ – are raised from the dead.

But we need to trust. And that means action. Action in creation that is consistent with God’s purposes of renewal. Action in the church, as we dwell in the midst of the world to offer reconciliation in Christ. And action for the sick and oppressed, as we anticipate the fulfilment of their hope in Christ.

Let us be strengthened in God’s hope. And let that hope propel us to trusting action.

[1] Robert H Mounce, The Book of Revelation, p373.

What’s Going On

Sorry I can’t post a new sermon tonight. Hard to be specific, but lots of difficult stuff going on this week. One major painful crisis that I can’t spell out here. Also, the profiles came out near the end of the week for the appointments available for next year. Given our decision to move on, we have to start looking very intently at those.

Normal service (whatever that is lately) will be resumed as soon as possible.

links for 2009-10-17

Google Wave Invitations

I have received an invitation to try out Google Wave. I can give eight invitations out to friends. If you would like one, please leave a comment here or send me an email through my Facebook page. The first eight get it!

UPDATE: I’m afraid all the invitations disappeared very quickly between here and Facebook. I obtained my invitation simply by submitting my email address to Google, and eventually it came after a week or so. You might like to try that.

FURTHER UPDATE, 26TH NOVEMBER 2009: As I’ve mentioned in the frist update above and in some comments below, the invitations went very quickly. However, every few days I am still receiving requests for them. Since I cannot honour these requests, I am now closing comments on this post. Please do not email me about this; I will let you know if I receive any more invitations.

Sermon: Where Is Our Security?

Mark 10:17-31

I hate this passage! Sell all your possessions – is that what it takes to enter eternal life? I remember many years ago hearing Ronald Sider say, “What ninety-nine per cent of Western Christians need to hear ninety-nine per cent of the time is, ‘Sell all your possessions and give to the poor’.” And to read this only two weeks after we bought a new television! Surely that Sony has damned us to hell?

So what do I make of this story? What can I offer you before the flames start licking around my flesh?

I propose to think about it in the three phases of the story: firstly, considering Jesus and the man, secondly thinking about Jesus and the disciples, and thirdly Jesus’ reaction to what Peter says.

Firstly, Jesus and the man. Matthew calls him ‘young’ and Luke calls him a ‘ruler’; all we know from Mark is that he is rich. It would be easy for us to be cynical, especially since we know how the story ends. But he seems to have a genuine question, and Jesus treats him with dignity and respect. No – more than that – we read that Jesus ‘loved him’ (verse 21). That doesn’t suggest Jesus detected any hypocrisy. I think we must take the man’s enquiry as a sincere one.

Well, how many sincere enquirers would we turn away from the church today? Very few if any, I would suggest. Churches are often so desperate for new members that they will soften the entry requirements or rationalise what people say in order to get them in and swell the numbers.

Not Jesus. Far from lowering the bar, he raises the bar for the man. The man has kept this, that and every commandment, even one that isn’t in the Ten Commandments – ‘you shall not defraud’. Surely he has covered all the bases? What more could someone do? Isn’t he better than so many of the people who came to Jesus?

But even this man, with all his lofty moral conduct, still lacks one thing. It’s his attitude to his wealth. He needs to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor before following Jesus (verse 21).

He has kept that extra commandment, ‘You shall not defraud’, with its implication about defrauding the poor, because they are usually the silent victims of wealth accumulation. But while he hasn’t gone out of his way to make life worse for the poor, neither has he shown any real concern.

And it’s ironic to contrast him with those Jesus talked about in the preceding four verses in Mark. He spoke about little, vulnerable children, who in worldly terms owned nothing yet in his eyes lacked nothing for the kingdom of God. Here is a man who has everything the world can give and yet has nothing that the kingdom of God requires.

Why? Because the critical issue for him is one of trust and security. His money and property are what help him to sleep at night. For all Jesus’ words of warning about wealth, he didn’t completely reject all the rich people of his day. He benefitted from the largesse of some rich women who supported his ministry (Luke 8), and his body would be laid in the tomb of a wealthy man.

Furthermore, it’s illuminating that the man asks, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (verse 17). He doesn’t ask about the general conditions for everybody; his question is specific to his own situation. And Jesus picks on the way he trusts in his riches.

The question for people like us, then, is what our attitude to money and possessions is. Do they become the things we rely on? Is my security in the pension I will receive (even in economically uncertain times)? Is it the house we own? Are we free to give to the poor?

A minister I know told me earlier this year that he has thought for many years that the decline of the Methodist Church means it is futile for him to rely on that pension when he retires. So he plans to quit this country in a few years’ time and spend the rest of his ministry working as a Christian in Muslim lands, having the courage to find appropriate ways of sharing the love of Christ there. His security is not in money but in God.

And that is the question Jesus posed to the man: where was his security? It couldn’t be in his moral conduct, because everybody falls short somewhere. In his case, it was his finances and property. But the kingdom  requires that we put our trust in God. So where is our security?

Well, that’s a huge challenge. And when I hear something like that, I’m tempted to respond after the manner of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: “Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed!”

Which isn’t too far from the second conversation, the one between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus tells them it will be hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, harder even than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (verses 23-25). And they respond, “Then who can be saved?” (verse 26). It’s their ‘Doomed, doomed, we’re all doomed’ moment.

We’d like something to break the tension. Something to let us off the hook. Some little indication that Jesus is being mischievous or ironic. So people talk about the ‘eye of the needle’ as describing a gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no record of that until the ninth century AD. Is there any hope in this passage, or are we all doomed? Is God lighting the blue touch paper and retiring while we burn?

Thankfully, Jesus replies with the essence of the Gospel:

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Verse 27)

Discipleship is possible through God. Faith is possible with God. Obedience is possible with God. It is no use relying on our goodness, the Gospel only works because God makes the impossible possible. He makes it possible for selfish, self-centred other-forgetting people who are entirely bound up with themselves (get the message?) to be forgiven, put in the right with him through Christ – and transformed into entirely different people over a period of time, thanks to the Holy Spirit.

We need that sense of inadequacy and desperation that we can’t make it into the kingdom of God. But the story doesn’t stop there. God steps in with the Gospel. He does the impossible.

However, that Gospel does not stop with the forgiveness of sins, as some Christians would have us believe. That is central, but it is not the whole message. A Gospel which then requires us to follow Jesus, with all the challenges that involves, also does the impossible in turning us inside out.

Don’t get me wrong. To hear the Gospel proclaimed as the forgiveness of sins is wonderful. It is exactly what we need to hear. But when that is the limit of the message, it is in danger of becoming ‘cheap grace’. I can be forgiven and just wait for eternal life. In the meantime, I can live however I want.

But Jesus is not recruiting people by simply offering them a ticket to glory, he is calling them to enlist in the cause of God’s kingdom, which means following him. So as well as forgiveness there is transformation. God is making all things new, and he wants to include us in that.

So it may be hopeless for us, but there is always hope with God. He challenges us deeply about our security, but provides all we need in order to be different. We need not walk away, like the rich man did. We can instead walk with Jesus. Good news? I think so.

Which brings us to the third conversation, the one between Jesus and Peter. Because in the light of this, Peter issues a plea: “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (verse 28). In other words: we’ve done what you’ve asked us to do. We haven’t walked away, like the rich man. We’ve sized up the cost and paid it. we’ve made the sacrifices and are depending on God as we follow you, just as you’ve taught us. And it’s quite a sacrifice they’ve all made: home, family, business – all left behind. It’s rather like Peter is saying, “We’ve met the tough conditions you’ve laid down: what’s in it for us?”

And Jesus’ response is broadly to say, don’t just conceive of discipleship as being about what you’ve given up. Sure, there will be persecution, he says, but you will be amply rewarded in this life and in the life to come (verses 29-30). Your heavenly Father knows what you have given up, but there is more to discipleship than sacrifice. Certainly, it requires sacrifice, but God does not overlook that.

I wonder whether you ever feel like your efforts and sacrifices for Christ are not noticed? Do you sometimes wonder whether what you have done at great cost to yourself or your family was a waste of time and effort? Do you ever despair that you have sweated so much in following Jesus and yet you feel there is so little to show for it? Perhaps you feel like Joseph in the Old Testament, languishing in an Egyptian prison having accurately interpreted dreams, but forgotten by the man who was vindicated by what he said? In my experience, plenty of Christians feel like all they do has been forgotten by God.

If you are one of them, then Jesus says something to you that is similar to what he said to Peter. All that you put in for the kingdom will be rewarded, a hundredfold in this life and eternal life in the age to come.

Why can he say this? Ultimately, it’s because of the Resurrection. One of my favourite Bible verses – and also most challenging – comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection. His conclusion is nothing to do with sweetly waiting for the age to come, it’s this: ‘Nothing you do for the Lord is ever in vain.’

Now I frequently feel like what I am doing is in vain. I am seeing no fruit and precious little encouragement. I throw that text back at God sometimes when I’m exercising the spiritual gift of moaning!

Seriously – you might be shocked if you knew the number of ministers who at some point or another had seriously considered quitting the ministry. Put it alongside other Christians who find discouragement, apathy and hostility littered regularly across their way and it really isn’t surprising that many Christians do think their efforts are worthless.

But the text is true. The Resurrection is the promise that God will vindicate what is right, that truth and justice, beauty and love will prevail. It is what drives us on. It is what makes our efforts and sacrifices ‘worth it’.

And in the meantime, while God’s age to come clashes with the present evil age, there will still be some reward, even if it is mingled with suffering and opposition.

So in conclusion, I don’t know who you find yourself identifying with in this story. Sometimes I am with the rich man, struggling to find my security in God rather than in the material blessings of this world. I need to be reminded that in Christ God gives me true and lasting security, and everything else that seems so solid is a dead end. Sometimes when I think all is lost I am with the disciples, who need to know that God makes both the forgiveness of sins and the power to live a radical new life possible. And on other occasions, when I’m tempted to give up the effort needed to keep on keeping on, I’m with Peter, learning from Jesus that God has not forgotten me and will specifically remember what I have done for him and fulfil his purposes.

Who are you? What do you need to hear from God today?

links for 2009-10-10

links for 2009-10-06

  • Forum discussion with ideas on how to (re-)enable wireless devices in an Acer Aspire 5720 under Ubuntu Linux.
    (tags: acer wifi ubuntu)

Old Website About To Disappear

My introduction to personal websites was to design one in a sabbatical in 2003. Since I went over to blogging my sermons and articles, it has not been updated. It has now been dormant since 2006. Occasionally, I know people still visit it. However, it was hosted with my ISP and I have recently heard they will be taking it down because of the particular platform on which it was hosted. So if anyone wants to make any final visits to, please do so before 15th October. Ideally I’d like to transfer some of the material as an archive here or somewhere else, but that will be a big job, and I can’t see that happening in the foreseeable future.

Sermon: Some Basic Christian Convictions About Marriage

Genesis 2:18-25

I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.

The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.

But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.

Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.

So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.

The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?

The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created[1]. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.

Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.

Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.

This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.

Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.

Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was

Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.[2]

As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.

Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.

Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.

But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.

And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.

But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.

It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.

This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.

Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’[3]. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.

This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.

Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.

And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.

Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.

But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’[4]. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.

This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death[5]. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.

In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.

This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.

[2] Cited in Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, p69.

[3] Op. cit., p71.

[4] I’m sure this quote is in his book Money, Sex and Power but I can’t find the page number.

[5] I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.

links for 2009-10-01