June 20, 2015
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Almost everything about a wedding is positive and beautiful–colorful flowers, good music, nice clothing. The bride is pretty, the groom is handsome, the bridesmaids look lovely, the groomsmen look . . . more or less presentable. Everything about a wedding looks good. And of course, believing that marriage is a divine institution, that's as it should be; it is fitting to adorn God’s gift in this way and in this place.
But then, there's one part of the marriage liturgy that is the fly in the punchbowl of all the beauty, that breaks the bubble, that won't let us drift into fairy tale lala land with its happily ever-afters. It’s right there in the vows: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. And to top it all off, here’s the kicker: you pledge to love and to cherish "until death parts us."
Why do we have to mention death at a marriage ceremony at all? In our hymnal the funeral liturgy does immediately follow the marriage liturgy. But I don’t think that’s meant to be a commentary on anything going on today.
When you say “until death parts us,” that’s a reminder first of all, that contrary to popular opinion, marriage isn’t forever. It is for your whole life in this world, to be sure; I certainly wouldn’t want you to miss that point. But it isn’t forever; we’re not Mormons. Jesus made it quite clear that there is no marriage in the life of the world to come. It may sound like heresy to point that out on a wedding day, but there is some perspective in this, that we don’t make an idol out of God’s good gift of marriage and family.
“Until death parts us” is also important because it speaks honestly about who it is that you’re marrying. Only sinners die. I know you both recognize that while the two of you may be perfect for each other, neither of you are perfect. The parting of death creeps backwards into marriage–in little fights and unkind words, in selfishness and impatience and unforgiveness–whatever threatens the unity and the beauty and the life that God has given in marriage.
But there is actually something good in the phrase “until death parts us.” For especially here in church, it calls to mind another death which changes everything. If it is true that by means of death we are parted, it is also true that by means of Christ's death we are rejoined and raised up in Him who is the Church’s Groom, never to be parted from His side.
Jesus’ side was opened for you on the cross. He who is the New Adam has taken the mortal curse of the Old Adam and made it a source of immortal blessing for you. Jesus was put into the sleep of death so that the New Eve, the Church, might be given life. The blood and the water that poured forth from His spear-pierced side is what enlivens her and sanctifies her, so that she truly is without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. And so you are holy and without blemish in Him, for that scarlet water flowed over you in holy baptism, and your robes were made white in the blood of the Lamb, like a white wedding gown. That holy blood continues to flow into the chalice for you in the Sacrament of the Altar. The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.
Only sinners die; and that’s why Jesus died. He who knew no sin became sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. Now there is a husbandly action if there ever was one. Jesus made His bride’s sin His own, covered it, and took it away from her by His sacrifice. There’s the love of the True Groom that makes her beautiful, that she may share in His bodily resurrection and life. We are members of His body, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.
This is a great mystery, Paul says. This is what the marriage of man and woman–and only man and woman–is an image and picture of: the man Christ Jesus and His elect Lady, the Church. And beginning today you two are given to walk in this truth by faith as husband and wife. Luke, you have a holy and radiant bride. Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it. Always look at her in that way, for that is what she is in Christ. Treat her in that way for Jesus’ sake. Hannah, you have a holy, Christ-like husband. Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it. Always look to him in that way, for that is what he is in Christ. Treat him in that way for Jesus’ sake.
Or to use that helpful metaphor: Hannah, look to Luke to lead the dance of your marriage, even if you think at times that you know the steps better than he does. And Luke, lead the dance, even when she doesn’t seem particularly eager to follow your lead. For you are ever in the role of Christ, drawing His bride to Himself. Jesus didn’t stop with us at the baptismal font, but continuously calls us to Himself by His Word and Spirit. So also your days of wooing and drawing her to yourself have only just begun.
Perhaps above all else, the best way that you will image Christ and the Church in your marriage is by extending His forgiveness to one another when you fail and when you fall short. “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another...” As in all your vocations, your calling in marriage is to die to yourselves in love for the other. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The deeper beauty of Christian marriage is made known with the cross in view, as the husband lays down his life for his bride, and the bride lives her life for him.
The forgiveness of Christ, the self-giving of His holy cross is where we find the greatest beauty today. And so not even the mention of death dampens our joy, for it points us to Jesus and His lovingkindness; it directs us to His self-sacrifice as our holy Groom. The Lord is faithful; He will never leave you or forsake you. He is there for you in sickness and in health, for better or worse, to love and to cherish, even beyond the parting of death to the resurrection of the body. There in the new creation we shall delight in His presence. There He shall dwell with us and we shall be His people, His Church, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared, Scripture says, as a bride adorned for her husband. And so despite my earlier comments, you two will, of course, be together forever as the people of God in the presence of your Redeemer Jesus.
The last time I was in this pulpit was for a home schooling gathering many years ago, at our opening Vespers. Who would have thought, when we were gathered back then for science and geography presentations and talent shows–when you, Luke, were doing Victor Borge routines with your brother, and Hannah was casually impressing with her piano skills–that we would come to this day of joy and music at your marriage? We give thanks to God for His providence and for His gracious will in bringing the two of you together.
And remember that you are receiving a twofold gift today. Not only are you being granted a husband or wife; you are being given a spouse who confesses the Christian faith together with you. What a gift that is! This is a great happiness to us. Always remember that the person you are seated next to, whom you have just committed yourself to, is a chosen one of God in baptism, declared righteous and beautiful in His sight. Always see each other as God sees you: one redeemed by Christ the crucified, one who is a forgiven and beloved child of God. Don’t let the world lure you away from the goodness and truth and beauty of this Gospel that is at the heart of your lives. Christ is everything for you, and you are everything to Him.
So Luke, we are glad to welcome you to the family, even as our Hannah has been graciously received by your family. All of us here rejoice with you both. We give thanks to God for what He is doing for you today; you are His good gifts to each other. On this last day of spring, as you now enter a new season of your life, may the Lord richly bless your marriage and the new home you are establishing in His name.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠