On Saturday 11th October 2014 I was privileged to be invited to preach at a wedding at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore…
Genesis 2:18-24 | 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 | Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
When I received an email a few weeks ago telling me the Bible readings that Mark and Claire had selected to have read at their wedding I was delighted to see that they had chosen three very different passages of scripture. For our scriptures, our sacred story, has many things to say to us about the miracle and gift of marriage that Claire and Mark enter into today, and there is no single passage that could even come close to saying all that we would want to say.
But instead we have three readings, each capturing a different facet of marriage: that marriage is based in the nature of creation; shaped by the humility and self giving of love; and sustained by supporting and strengthening presence of God.
So where better to begin than at the beginning, in the story of creation as celebrated in Genesis chapter 2, and in the words of God that “it is not good for the man to be alone”?
And of course we know that. We know that it is not good to be alone. And perhaps that makes the words seem a little bland, a little obvious. But as a Christian preacher the thing that takes my breath away is that these words are spoken, in the story, to Adam – to the one created by God, unfallen, living in unblemished fellowship with God.
Here in the opening words of the story we hear an astonishing truth: God was not enough for Adam. Even for one who walks with God “it is not good, for he is alone”. God was not enough for Adam. God is not enough for us. We are not made to live as individuals, isolated, self sufficient: neither man nor woman is an island, entire of itself. We are not even created simply for communion with God. We are made to be together; we are created to live in community with one another.
We are not created to be alone.
It is, I’m sure, no coincidence that this creation story is echoed in the greatest commandments – love God, with all you heart and soul and mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.
The story of creation tells us that we are created to be with God and we are created to be with others.
And for many of us, the most intense and committed expression of the creation need to be with another, is found in marriage – in the commitment made by two that they will live as one. That they will become one flesh.
For many of us, I say, not all. There are others for whom the call to live in community will find another form – some will remain single, by choice or simply because that’s the way things work out – and that is a calling and a way of life that is much praised in the pages of the New Testament. Some will find another way to answer the question implicit in God’s words: “it is not good to be alone”.
But today, we are here to celebrate the answer that is marriage. The answer of those who are called to live in close community as two, becoming one. Claire and Mark, whose choice, and calling, is to marriage, give this response: “it is indeed not good for man or woman to be alone – so we two will commit ourselves to one another”. In doing so they enter into this covenant of marriage, a covenant based in the nature of creation.
So Eve is created as a suitable helper for Adam. Now that word ‘helper’ is a little unfortunate, for in English it often carries the sense of a subordinate role: Adam is the real thing, Eve is just his helper. But the Hebrew word – ezer – is used throughout the Old Testament, and on almost every occasion it refers, not to a subservient assistant, but to God. In the story of the Exodus, “My Father’s God was my helper (ezer)”; in the Psalms “God is our help and shield” – ezer, again. There is nothing here that even hints at a subordinate role.
A better word, perhaps, would be partner, or complement; the other part that enables the two to together form something new, something that is greater than the sum of their parts. The two sides of an arch, balanced against one another, the lever and the fulcrum, each given meaning only by the presence of the other. So, in partnership, we are created to be.
So our Genesis reading tells us that the partnership of marriage is based in the nature of creation – our reading from 1 Corinthians teaches us that marriage – and indeed, all our relationships – is shaped by the character of love.
Now there is always a bit of a danger in speaking from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great hymn of love, at a wedding. For at a wedding we gather to celebrate the pinnacle, the climax of the romantic story. Whether your taste in romantic literature runs to Mills and Boon or to Pride and Prejudice, the wedding is the finale of romance. And Paul’s letter was not written to young lovers – it was written to a Church divided and squabbling. And so I have been told, by preachers far more experienced than me, that you should never speak from this passage at a wedding.
But with that wisdom I will respectfully disagree. For it is the very fact that this passage is not about romantic love that makes it so very, very suitable for a wedding: for a wedding is not just the finale of the story of romance, much more it is the beginning of the story of marriage.
And if anyone here would doubt that the opening words of our reading from 1 Corinthians: “love is patient” are worth hearing at the start of marriage – if any would doubt that, then I have to assume that they are not themselves married – and not very observant, either.
Marriage may be based in our creation calling to live in community; but it is only love that makes it possible for us to do so. For without love we are too selfish, too self absorbed, too ready to take and too unwilling to give, to ever live with another even for a day, let along a lifetime. We have, each of us too many sharp edges, too many rough corners.
Love makes it possible for us to live with one another. For love is patient, bearing with one another’s faults and failings; it does not insist on its own way, but allows space for the other.
And love rejoices in the truth. Here perhaps is the clearest sign that the apostle is writing not of the romance of star-crossed lovers; those Shakespeare described in The Merchant of Venice:
.. love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit…
This may be true of romantic love: but enduring love is not blind; it knows that the other is not perfect. It does not deny the shortcomings of the beloved. But nor does it allow those failings to define and destroy the relationship, for it believes and hopes and bears all things. Love knows the imperfections of the other, but reaches out to embrace them nonetheless.
For this is the character of our God, whose love for us is offered without precondition or reservation; the God who loves us before we return that love; who continues to love us even if we reject that love. It is the self-giving love of God that we seek to imitate in our relationships with one another, and perhaps most of all, in the covenant of marriage.
A covenant founded in creation, and shaped by the character of the love of God.
And sustained by the supporting and strengthening presence of God. Our third reading came from the wisdom literature, the book of Ecclesiastes. And it starts, as much wisdom literature does, with a series of parallel statements, each making much the same point: two is better than one.
If one falls, the other can lift them up again.
One alone is cold at night; two will keep each other warm.
One might be easily defeated by an adversary, two will withstand attack.
So far, so much simple worldly wisdom: wisdom that those entering into marriage would be wise to hear, but not surprised by.
But then the final words of the reading break the pattern, and give us an unexpected punchline: a threefold cord is not easily broken.
For what the writer of wisdom knows, and would have us hear, is that the strength of the two is only truly found in the strength of three. That when Mark and Claire commit to one another in marriage, the true strength of their pledge to each other lies not in the two of them, but in the three: Claire, and Mark, and God, wound together in partnership, as helpers to one another, as that threefold cord, the rope that is so much stronger than the cords that comprise it.
For I may have started today by emphasizing the surprising truth of Genesis chapter 2 – that God is not enough for us, that we are created to need one another; but I end with the other side of that coin; that other people are not enough for us either. That just as we are created to need deep and lasting and loving relationships with others, we also have a profound need to place those relationships into our relationship with the God who created us. For, as the apostle wrote, it is God who is love; we love only because God first loved us.
It is not good to be alone: we are created for loving partnerships with husband and wife, with children and siblings, parents and cousins, friends and family and colleagues and neighbours.
And we are called also into partnership with the God who created us, who in Jesus Christ re-creates us, and who calls us, as individuals, families, and communities into the service of the Kingdom of God; the kingdom in which all, married or single, male or female, friend or stranger or enemy, of all cultures and nations and languages, are welcomed and reconciled to one another, to creation, and to God.
For it is in the Kingdom of God that creation is fulfilled, that we finally find an answer to God’s “it is not good that the man should be alone”: for in the kingdom of God we have God and we have one another. And it is enough.
So our prayer on this wedding day is simply this: that in your married life, Claire and Mark, you will reflect a little of the character of that Kingdom; that in your closeness to one another and your closeness to God you will show a glimpse of that final redemption Christ has won for us, when we will all live in peace with ourselves, each other, creation, and God.