Saturday, October 17, 2015

October 18, Proper 24, You Can Do This #7: Practicing Fidelity

Heidelberg Catechism 108-9, Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

“Don’t commit adultery.” 

Last year ago I was asked by a respectable colleague how I could be orthodox and yet justify same-sex marriages. I told him I had a number of reasons, but my clincher was the old Reformed Church liturgy for matrimony.

It’s a very simple service. It’s basically the vows, scripture, and the prayers. In the Reformed Church, marriage is not a sacrament, but a free covenant which gets celebrated by the church and blessed by God. In the Reformed liturgy, I actually don’t marry the couple. I just “pronounce” them married and bless them. They marry each other, and that by means of their vows.

There are two sets of vows, the legal and the sacred. The first set are the “I do” vows, the legal vows of consent. The second set are the sacred vows of marriage: “I X take you Y to be my wedded wife / husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part. And thereto I pledge myself, truly with all my heart.”

It is making those vows that forges the marriage, and it is living those vows that carries the marriage through the years. So what I told my colleague was that I realized that those exact vows could be said by two men to each other, or by two women, and since it’s those vows that make marriages, those vows and marriages I could celebrate and bless.

I’m not so compelled by "traditional" marriage. Traditional marriage is an exchange of a woman as a possession between two men, often for compensation, and on behalf of the clan. “Who gives this woman to be married to this man!” For centuries now marriage has been evolving among us, driven by our desire for freedom and equality. The more freedom and equality we have, the weaker the strictures of clan, or social class, or gender, and so the more important are the vows.

I tell you all this by way of illustration. Because for gospel people, especially, marriage is not about clan, or class, or property, or even really about sex. Marriage is about two people looking each other in the eye and making vows, and those vows are pledged by the whole of yourself. What that requires most of all is fidelity. And what fidelity gets expressed by is practicing chastity.

The Heidelberg Catechism is right, but only so far as it goes, and it doesn’t go far enough. It says that what the Seventh Commandment means for us is chastity, which it does, but I’m saying that even more it means fidelity. Faithfulness. Trust. Mind to mind, soul to soul.

So yes, committing adultery is unchastity, but more important is that it’s infidelity. Because it’s living your vow that makes your marriage. The sex you have is the illustration and celebration of your vow. Sex is very powerful and what makes sex safe is the safety and security of your vow. If you break your vow, you are being unfaithful in many ways, not only to your spouse in body and in soul, but also unfaithful to your children, and unfaithful to the public that witnessed your vow, and unfaithful to God, in whose name you made your vow, and unfaithful even to yourself.

Chastity is the physical expression of fidelity. Chastity in marriage expresses fidelity to your spouse. And chastity in singleness is fidelity to yourself. You can be single. You can be single and whole and complete. You can be single and have your physical integrity. You don’t need to lose yourself or try to find yourself in somebody else’s body. You can be faithful to yourself.

St. Paul wrote in First Corinthians that he wished we all were single. This was remarkable for a Jew. In Genesis, at creation, the male and female couple was the image and likeness of God. But in the new creation, in Christ, the image of God is Jesus, a single man. His being a male was for the sake of his royal inheritance. His maleness was not for the sake of his sexual expression. This is big.

If you are in Christ, your married state is temporary, “till death do you part.” Your eternal state will be as single. And this carries through into our lives now. For Christians, to be good at being married you need to be good at being single.

Those of us who got married young have had to learn this along the way. If you are not able to be single, to be by yourself, to be able to be alone, then your marriage is co-dependent. To stand on your own is to be free, and it’s from freedom that the best vows come. When you vow to your spouse out of your freedom and not of your neediness, then you can be the best helpmeet for your spouse. So this seventh commandment is for couples, but even more it’s for you as individuals.

If we’d had this commandment two weeks ago, the gospel lesson for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost would have steered this sermon toward the issues of divorce and remarriage. But our lessons for today are taking us towards how to keep faithful in relationships in general, especially when we fall in our relationships.

Jesus says to his two disciples, do you think you can drink from the same cup that I do, and take the same bath I have to take? They say, “Oh yes we can.” And of course they don’t, they will desert him, they fail the relationship, they are unfaithful. And yet Jesus promises that they will drink from his cup and bathe with him, but he means the cup of his blood and reconciliation and the baptism of his death and resurrection. He means that his faithfulness will reclaim them and restore them. Time and again. Against our failures and infidelities is the promise of God’s grace. You can live in that. And living in that, you can share that. You can do that.

The practice of fidelity means practicing putting trust in other people. It means relationships of trust. As you engage the world, as you walk your way through time, as you deal in all your relationships, you deal in trust. With some relationships fidelity, but with all relationships some trust. And what comes with trust is risk. Not only because other people are free, and they have the right to their own interests, but also because other people are as fallen as you are, and you all fall short of your best intentions and you all have your own little infidelities.

You will betray the trust of others and others will betray your trust. Now some people are so damaged or so bent that you had better not trust them at all. But your default desire is restore your trust and rebuild relationships. So it’s not so much that you’re always having to forgive each other. It’s more that you offer each other a constant state of grace. You trust each other precisely in your weaknesses and failures and disappointments. You are there for each other at your worst as much as at your best. For better, for worse is as much for your relationships in general as it is for marriages.

It’s a good thing that Christian perfection is not static but dynamic and restorative. We see this in the Lord Jesus. Our epistle lesson says that he learned perfection through his obedience. Because the obedience of Jesus was never a legal obedience of toeing the line, but an obedience of relationship, his relationship of loving his Father and serving his God.

That included risk, and silences, and God not rescuing him, and at the cross his Father turning away from him. He was tempted and tested in the relationship, and it cost him loud cries and tears and agonies. Like at times in marriage. Yet he stayed faithful.

And this is hope for your marriages and for your interpersonal relationships. You are constantly perfecting your relationships like works of art, building into their final beauty all your failures and scars and your mutual disappointments and how you rebuild your trust.

It’s a work of the Holy Spirit. In the last third of the Apostles Creed you will say that you believe in the communion of saints. And with that comes the forgiveness of sins. To have communion with each other means to practice forgiveness. But communion precedes forgiveness because the practice comes out of the reality already given to you by the Holy Spirit, the state of grace in which you stand and the habit of grace that you share with those whom you want to love.

So then, the physical and emotional expression is chastity, the discipline is fidelity, the state you are in and the space you share is grace, and the energy and goal is love, the love that the Holy Spirit brings to you from God.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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