This sermon was delivered at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, NC on October 7, 2012, World Communion Sunday. The text was Mark 10:2-9.
When I was a kid, we would sometimes play a game called “Would You Rather?” It’s pretty simple: you just ask the players to choose between two things—but it’s usually two bad things. Sometimes the questions were serious: Would you rather be blind or deaf? Often, they were ridiculous: Would you rather have to always say everything that comes to your mind or never speak again? Sometimes, the goal was to gross each other out, and eating was a common theme: Would you rather eat a stick of butter or a gallon of ice cream? Would you rather eat dog food or cat food?
The thing is, there is no good answer to any of these questions. And although as kids it was always good-natured, in our Scripture for today, the Pharisees have less than good intentions. We might consider their interaction with Jesus an ancient game of “Would You Rather?” It isn’t really a game, of course. They are testing Jesus by asking a question that has no good answer.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
This is a loaded question. There was a simple answer, because the law of Moses did allow for divorce. However, there was disagreement within Judaism about when it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The book of Deuteronomy says that if a man finds “something objectionable” (Deuteronomy 24:1) about his wife, he may write her a certificate of divorce.
But what qualified as “something objectionable”? Did that refer only to infidelity, or could a man divorce his wife for any reason? The Pharisees are trying to get Jesus to take a side and offend people. When we were kids, it would sometimes be weeks before Brandon or Emily stopped getting teased for saying they would eat cat food, even though the alternative was to eat dog food. In the same way, the Pharisees wanted to pin Jesus down.
Would you rather?
Instead of playing the game, Jesus does what he usually does: he turns the question on its head. First, he puts the question back on the Pharisees—they know the answer, they know that Moses allowed for divorce. But then Jesus goes one step further and changes the conversation.
“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Suddenly, we aren’t talking about divorce anymore. We’re talking about marriage. The Pharisees’ question assumes the end of a marriage. Jesus’ answer assumes its continuance. This isn’t a conversation about breaking up. It’s a conversation about staying together.
Even so, the church has struggled with how to talk about divorce for centuries. Most Protestant churches have accepted divorce as just part of life in a broken world, but this passage still bothers us. When we hear Jesus say, “what God has joined together, let no one separate,” we get warm fuzzy feelings if we’re imagining a wedding—but then we might start to feel a little awkward. We try not to look at our recently divorced friend, our happily remarried neighbor, or the couple whose marriage we know is secretly a disaster but who for reasons of social pressure or the children or maybe even this Bible verse are staying together.
There is a standup comedian named Louis CK, and a lot of his material some might find offensive, but here’s one bit that’s relevant to our topic today:
He says, “Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce. If two people were married and they were really happy and they just had a great thing, and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.”
He is making a joke, but the point is clear: when marriages end, they end for a reason. Sometimes a bad marriage is more destructive to the institution of marriage than ending it would be. A bad marriage distorts the truth of what God intended for human relationships. In a commentary on our passage from Mark, James Thompson says this: “…most Protestant churches have concluded that respect for marriage and the institution of marriage means that some particular marriages should end.”
No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.
Of course, we all know, and our comedian friend knows, that even when divorce is the better option, it is still painful. Even when divorce is an escape from abuse, the separation can still be agonizing. Sometimes there is no good answer. Would you rather?
As I prepared for this sermon, a friend of mine wrote an article advising pastors on how to approach preaching about divorce on World Communion Sunday. Sarah is herself divorced and remarried, and she has spent a lot of time grappling with her situation theologically. Sarah’s first marriage was a bad one; there was abuse involved. Her second marriage is clearly blessed by God. In thinking back, Sarah says this: “The truth about my divorce is that it was a sin. But the marriage itself had become such a sin that it would have been a greater sin to stay.”
Would you rather?
Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.” What he means is this: divorce was never part of God’s plan. Marriage was, not necessarily the legal institution as we have it today, but Jesus goes back to Genesis, to a time before sin and death, to a time when man and woman literally came from one flesh in the Garden of Eden after God said it was not good for a person to be alone. They were joined together, and it was very good.
But we know the rest of the story, and so did Jesus. We know that sin came into the world; we know that the wounds of the fall have been passed down through generations; we know that although God made us good, God did not make us unchangeable. We have the law because we need it, because we are broken, because we are not capable of living as God intended this side of heaven. The law is actually a form of God’s grace. This grace prays “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” while recognizing that God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. But this grace also accepts that fact not with judgment, but with compassion.
I mentioned this in passing earlier, but today is World Communion Sunday. When I chose this Scripture from the book of Mark, I immediately thought—I’ve made a huge mistake. What was I thinking? It’s my first sermon in my first church, it’s World Communion Sunday, why on earth would I preach on a passage that talks about divorce?
The Pharisees come to Jesus with an impossible question. “Would you rather?” Jesus acknowledges the reality of the human condition, the necessity of legal measures to protect the vulnerable. But he goes further, he changes the conversation. It isn’t about divorce; it’s about marriage. It isn’t about breaking up; it’s about staying together.
In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, he quotes Genesis chapter 2—“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is not the last time this verse is cited in the New Testament. In the book of Ephesians, Paul takes it up and applies it to Christ and the church. It is here where we find its deeper meaning for us today:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25, 28-32).
The story of creation shows us what God intended. The law admits that we are broken. But Jesus takes us beyond all of that with a promise of profound healing and restoration, and Paul makes all of it about Christ and the church. Becoming one flesh isn’t something we do; it’s something God does.
In a few minutes, we will share a meal together, joining countless Christians in many different denominations around the globe on this World Communion Sunday. Here in this meal, God offers us the grace to become one flesh in the body of Christ. The bread will be broken. The grape juice will be poured out. As Jesus’ body is broken for us, we become the body of Christ. We come to healing through brokenness. This is indeed a holy mystery.
I want to close with a story that Lauren Winner tells in her book Still, which, incidentally, was written after she went through a divorce. She shares the story of when she was a guest preacher at an Episcopal church. In the service, she helped serve communion, and afterward she learned something about an elderly couple that came to the altar. She writes,
“What I learn later is that for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat—he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don’t yet know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say ‘The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,’ and she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise intincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body and Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.”
Come to the table. Become one flesh in the body of Christ. And what God has joined together, let no one separate. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.