A Sermon Preached on January 19, 2008
at the Wedding of Sally Yuan-Ting Kao and Sean McClaren Jackson
in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Stamford, Connecticut
by The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
There has been an argument in the churches since the time of the Reformation about the number of sacraments. Traditional Roman Catholic theology had said there were seven — the Reformers, only two: Baptism and Eucharist. If a sacrament is something commanded by the Lord Himself, then there are two. If a sacrament is a liturgical rite performed by the church as an outer and effectual sign of God’s gift of an inner and transforming grace, there are at least the traditional seven. Anglicans have spoken of two dominical sacraments and five sacramental rites. I am an unabashed proponent of understanding Holy Matrimony sacramentally. There are other understandings that are possible. Perhaps the one that is most common in contemporary society is that marriage is a contract between two consenting adults for their mutual benefit and fulfillment, including the fulfilling experience of getting and raising children. The corollary is that when the marriage is perceived by one of the parties to be no longer beneficial and fulfilling, the terms of the contract have not been honored and it is permissible and even in a way necessary to withdraw. Hence the culture of divorce, which, humanly speaking, in terms of the span of human history and cultures, is not unusual.
Against the backdrop of the world’s way of organizing sexuality and family life, it is the Christian view and practice that is distinctive, unusual — even strange. Flannery O’Connor, the great American Catholic author, famously said, “You shall know the truth and it shall make you strange.” So here is one way of thinking about what we are doing here today. Today by their vows to each other and to God and by the blessing of the church, Sally and Sean will be made irrevocably strange, and their strangeness will be an outer sign of an ongoing inner struggle with God’s transforming grace. At times they will surrender to this grace and there will be a beautiful coherence between the sign and the thing signified. At times they will rebel — one or the other or both together (and it tends to be contagious) — against this grace and there will be a contradiction between the sign and the thing signified. But from henceforth and irrevocably, they live under this sign, which will be a sign of both hope and contradiction for those in both the church and the world.
What does it take to make this sign, and what is the nature of its strangeness?
It takes first of all — a man and a woman — a man and a woman because in the beginning God made the human race in His image and it is the man and woman together who are humanity and the image of God. And it is the well-known war of the sexes that is a sign of humanity’s loss of its original vocation to be image bearers of the divine love.
All the sacraments are sacraments of creation and redemption. They point backward to God’s original intention and forward to the consummation of all things in Christ. In Holy Matrimony, Adam and Eve become again what they were originally meant to be before they betrayed each other and became enemies. We are tempted to say that what is really required to make a marriage, the indispensable ingredient, is love, and by this we usually mean erotic infatuation — which is not at all a bad thing to have and which can get you going on the road to matrimony, and get you going on the road out of it if you are not careful. But for this strange thing called Holy Matrimony what is needed is a man and a woman as naturally found, and as naturally found, they are enemies. (My late colleague at Trinity School for Ministry, the Rev. Martha Giltinan, makes this point.)
Holy Matrimony points us back to the Creation and God’s original plan for us, and to the loss of the life for which we were made and for which we long. Holy Matrimony points us forward to the life of the world to come — points us to heaven. Heaven, it must be remembered, in the Christian scheme is not some other world, but this world as it is meant to be and shall be when at the end all things are gathered up by the Son and offered to the Father in the power of the Spirit. In heaven — in the life of the world to come — humanity will be completely redeemed and restored — among other things, the sexes will be reconciled.
It takes a man and it takes a woman and it takes reconciliation — it therefore takes redemption and therefore it takes the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because we are enemies of God and have turned away from Him, we have turned away from each other and in on ourselves, and because we cannot break out of this prison of sin, this living death, on our own, we need a Saviour who died our death that we might live His Life — the life for which we were made and which we lost and which He has come to give us at great cost. It takes a man and a woman, and Christ and His redemption. One at least of the parties must be baptized, and thus have died with Christ and been raised with Him, grateful to Him for having reconciled them to the Father, for making it possible for a lost sheep to return to the flock, and for a prodigal to return home, and hence able to offer to an other — an opposite — to the natural enemy — a love and reconciliation which is not natural — but supernatural.
It takes the man and the woman to make vows to each other — till death us do part — to take up again, God being their helper, the original human vocation — to become again Adam and Eve as God meant them to be. This means an open-ness to procreation and child-rearing and to the raising of children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. This is a vocation of fulfillment, but fulfillment through sacrifice.
It takes these exclusive “till death do us part” vows — these strange promises made not only to each other but to God — because Holy Matrimony is a sacramental sign of God’s redemption in Christ who reconciles us to each other by reconciling us to the Father, and the way He does this is by being faithful to us even to death — even when there is no mutual benefit — even when there is hatred and rejection. So these two, Sally and Sean, and all of us who have taken these vows, must be committed irrevocably to each other — even when one or the other fails (or both) in the vocation of reconciliation — when there is misunderstanding — even hostility. We must persevere in love, be witnesses to the persevering love of the Saviour and by God’s grace be agents of salvation for each other. Married people become a sign in the church and to the world of the secret of sacrificial, persevering love, the secret of the Cross and the Resurrection by which we are to die to self and become alive to each other in Christ.
Marriage takes a man and a woman and the Saviour and irrevocable vows and it takes the church and the priest of the church who gives the blessing of the church in the presence of Christian witnesses.
In a way we have already said this when we said it takes a man and a woman and Christ — for Christ cannot be separated from His people: the whole Christ — the Head and Body together are required.
Sacraments look back and they look forward toward the end — the one Bridegroom Christ will come to His one Bride — His Church, and humanity redeemed as the Bride of Christ will be presented without spot and blemish to the Father, having been made clean by the overflowing sacrifice of the Son’s persevering love.
Christ acting in and through His church, in the vows this man and woman exchange, in the blessing pronounced by the priest, makes this matrimony holy and a sign of His irrevocable commitment to redeem and make new the whole human race.
All the sacraments point to what should have been and to what shall be, and they all give us a down payment, a foretaste (the Greek word is arabon), earnest money, a good faith installment with more to come.
So, Sally and Sean, may God bless you that your marriage may have great coherence between outer sign and inner reality. May you be a sign of reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and persevering love, and of the death and resurrection of the Lord — a first installment of more to come between you and among us of the life of the world to come. May you know the truth and may it make you strange, and may many be made curious by this strangeness and led to inquire about the God who gives life to you and to your marriage. Amen.