12 August 2007
My wife and I were married forty years ago today – on August 12, 1967. Here is what we looked like then. Isn’t she a beautiful bride? I think she still is.
At our wedding forty years ago we asked the minister to read for us and the congregation a sermon which we had selected. It was written by a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a great Christian and was imprisoned and killed in Nazi Germany for plotting to overthrow Adolf Hitler. He was imprisoned for three years, during which he wrote a Wedding Sermon for his cousin. Bonhoeffer himself was engaged to be married, but the wedding never occurred before he died.
Anyway, Peggy and I chose this sermon because we thought it said what we believed about marriage, and our marriage in particular. So I am going to lead you through several pieces of this sermon, and tell you how it has worked out for us. I am going to preface each section with a Bible passage that fits the overall theme.
Leaving and Cleaving
The first Bible passage comes from Genesis and is quoted by our Lord Jesus himself when speaking about marriage. It says: Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).
Now I met my wife, not forty years ago, but fifty years ago, when we were in P-5. We did not get on very well. First of all, she was a lot taller than I and had eyeglasses and pigtails. One early memory she has of me was when I tossed her pencil up onto a light fixture so she could not get it. Not a great beginning. However, six years later in S-5, we were again in class together, and things had changed. I had grown about a foot in height, she had had her and eyes and hair fixed. I don’t know what it was, but suddenly we saw each other very differently.
In his sermon, Bonhoeffer comments on a mysterious element of love and marriage: the free choice to love a particular individual. Here is what he says:
It is right and proper for a bride and bridegroom to welcome and celebrate their wedding day with a unique sense of triumph…. With the “Yes” that they have said to each other, they have by their free choice given a new direction to their lives; they have cheerfully and confidently defied all the uncertainties and hesitations with which, as they know, a lifelong partnership between two people is faced; and by their own free and responsible action they have conquered a new land to live in. Every wedding must be an occasion of joy that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such immense freedom and power to take the helm in their life’s journey. The children of the earth are rightly proud of being allowed to take a hand in shaping their own destinies, and something of this pride must contribute to the happiness of a bride and bridegroom.
Peggy and I had that sense of mysterious liberation when we fell in love with each other. There is a Greek word “Eureka!” which means “I have found it!” And that is the way it happened to us. Within the first four months that we began dating each other (and we were only 17 years old at that time), Peggy told me that an old woman – her jaja you might say – had said to her: “Peggy, you are a one-man woman.” So, she said, I shall say “I love you” to only one man in my life and that will be forever. She kept me in suspense about who this one man was for a couple weeks, but when she finally said the magic words, I was not at all fazed, because I too had come to the same conclusion. From that time on, we never wavered in our sense that we had found it!
Now I know that it does not happen that way for many people. There are even cultures where the parents choose the partner for their child. But I still think there is something mysterious in the way two people come to love this particular person and not that one. Ducklings, they say, have an “imprinting” mechanism so that they will follow their mother – or in some cases some other figure – no matter what. I think humans also have such an imprinting mechanism. That is why at weddings the bride always seems the most beautiful lady present and the groom the handsomest gent. That is why at weddings the parents “give away” the bride and the groom to each other. Peggy describes a point in our wedding ceremony where she was to greet her parents, and when she looked in her father’s eyes, she realized this was a kind of goodbye – a goodbye to childhood and the parental home.
Of course, there is another force as well which can kick in later. Husbands and wives also get used to each other and tired with each other and bored with each and then the “Wanderlust” comes into play. Wanderlust means the desire for something different, someone different, and sometimes it is literally lust for someone else. And this Wanderlust can overcome the Eureka feeling, unless we have help from beyond. The Bible says that marriage involves “leaving” and “cleaving.” But the cleaving, the joining together is not merely a physical act, or a social event; it is a supernatural act. Bonhoeffer describes it this way:
As God today adds his “Yes” to your “Yes,” as he confirms your will with his will, and as he allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, he makes you at the same time instruments of his will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In his unfathomable condescension God does add his “Yes” to yours; but by doing so, he creates out of your love something quite new – the holy estate of matrimony.
To some people today, this phrase “the holy estate of Matrimony” sounds quaint. Some people cannot see the difference between “living together” and being wed, or between customary marriage and Christian marriage. Bonhoeffer continues:
Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race until the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.
My young friends, we Christians have a different understanding of marriage from those who do not know Christ. It is a burden and a blessing. It is a burden because we are upholding marriage not only for our own sake but for God’s. He made it and he is glorified when we live according to his plan. And when we fail – and this happens in the West with divorce and in Uganda with polygamy – we dishonour Him and his love for His people. This burden is also a blessing, because it gives a foundation for trust and long-term love between husband and wife. Bonhoeffer goes on to say:
“What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). God joins you together in marriage; it is his act, not yours. Do not confound your love for one another with God. God makes your marriage indissoluble, and protects it from every danger that may threaten it from within and without; he wills to be the guarantor of its indissolubility. It is a blessed thing to know that no power on earth, no temptation, no human frailty can dissolve what God holds together; indeed, anyone who knows that may say confidently: What God has joined together, can no man put asunder. Free from all the anxiety that is always a characteristic of love, you can now say to each other with complete and confident assurance: We can never lose each other now; by the will of God we belong to each other till death.
Now I need to tell you that women in particular need to know that their husbands are committed to them. Even with these words ringing in her ears, my wife Peggy took quite some time to really come to trust that I would stay faithful. And this despite all the years we had known each other, and my repeated assurances (men, you need to keep repeating it to the ladies). Jealousy can enter into even the best of marriages, and both partners need to be aware that friendships or working relationships with members of the opposite sex can become a source of discord. St. Paul says in one place, “Flee fornication,” i.e., sexual immorality. I would suggest you extend this to “Flee temptation.” Don’t let yourself get emotionally involved with another man or another woman such that your loyalty to God and your wife or your husband would be cause for jealousy.
God Establishes a Rule of Life in Marriage
Let me now move on to a second text referred to by Bonhoeffer when he says: God establishes a rule of life by which you can live together in wedlock. Here is the passage:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "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 mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33)
I have spoken of God’s order for marriage and family in creation. God also has an order within the family: the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…” This idea of men being head of the family is fairly normal in traditional societies in Africa, in what they call “patriarchal” societies. However, many people in the West see this order as the root of all evil and to be abolished. Indeed, one can see both here in Uganda and in the West how many husbands have abused their authority and ruled like a tyrant over their wives and children. The idea that a man might demand that his wife have unprotected sex with him after he has contracted HIV/AIDS, thus infecting her, is abhorrent. The Bible itself paints a realistic picture of many chaotic and destructive patriarchal families. St. Paul, in the passage quoted, seeks to redeem God’s order for the family in several ways:
- He puts the husband-wife relationship under the larger category of submission to God and mutual submission to each other.
- He makes the wife’s submission and the husband’s authority a matter of freely given love, “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” Both husband and wife are called on to make sacrifices: the wife by submitting to her husband, the husband by sacrificing his own well-being or sometimes his life for the good of the family.
- He makes clear that marriage is part of a wider nexus of social relationships, the home and the Church.
Bonhoeffer makes much the same points. In particular, he mentions the centrality of the home.
With your marriage you are founding a home. That needs a rule of life, and this rule of life is so important that God establishes it himself, because without it everything would get out of joint. You may order your home as you like, except in one thing: the wife is to be subject to her husband, and the husband is to love his wife…. Most people have forgotten nowadays what a home can mean, though some of us have come to realize it as never before. It is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary. It is not founded on the shifting sands of outward or public life, but it has its peace in God, for it is God who gives it its special meaning and value, its own nature and privilege, its own destiny and dignity. It is an ordinance of God in the world, the place in which – whatever may happen in the world – peace, quietness, joy, love, purity, discipline, respect, obedience, tradition, and, with it all, happiness may dwell. It is the wife’s calling, and her happiness, to build up for her husband this world within the world, and to do her life’s work there. How happy she is if she realizes how great and rich a task and destiny she has. Not novelty, but permanence; not change, but constancy,; not noisiness, but peace; not words, but deeds; not commands, but persuasion; not desire, but possession – and all these things inspired and sustained by her love for her husband - , that is the wife’s kingdom.
I find these words - Most people have forgotten nowadays what a home can mean, though some of us have come to realize it as never before – incredibly moving. Here was Bonhoeffer, engaged to a young woman but imprisoned and never to see her again, remembering the home. The Anglican wedding service has a phrase which I have always cherished. We pray that the husband and wife may so live together in harmony that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace. Marriage abides in the sanctuary of the home, which led one writer to speak of it as a Haven in a Heartless World.
Of course, a home is not primarily a place but a society of people. In the case of marriage that natural society includes children. God ordered marriage so that a man and woman would leave their parents and cleave to each other – but with a purpose that they would “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Again the Marriage Service has a nice prayer in accordance with the biblical command: “Bestow on them, if it is your will, the gift and heritage of children, and the grace to bring them up to know you, to love you, and to serve you.” Children, we are taught, are a gift and a heritage, that is, they come from God (through sex, of course) and they remind us that our time on earth is limited and we go to God. (Hence the deep sadness when a child precedes his father and mother to the grave, out of time.)
Now I need to tell you that many people in the West admire and even envy the extended family here in Africa. We in the West no longer have the network of fathers/uncles and mothers/aunts which keeps you busy going to weddings, burials and other family gatherings. We no longer have our home village, where everyone knows us and our parents and our children and other relatives. Let me warn you, especially you educated folks here in Uganda: you must think through how to maintain the high value you have placed on children and families. The cultural tide that flows in from the West – its media, its money, its education – will swamp your traditions unless they are based on a firmer foundation – that foundation is God and His Word and His way.
Let me tell you a secret. When Peggy and I got married, we were still in University and she graduated with higher honours than I did. She had been editor of a university newspaper and gave that up to marry me. She worked one year in an unpleasant job to help me get through my postgraduate degree. Fifteen years after we had married, she was accepted for a Ph.D. program in literature about the same time we had our surprise fifth child Hannah. At that point, she and I decided that she could not fairly devote the kind of time needed for doctoral research with the time and emotional energy of raising a family. So she submitted to the greater good of the home we had founded on our wedding day. I honour her for that, and many of you know she contributes in her own way to our life and work here as much as I do. As head, I get the glory of sitting in the high seat, but you are right in asking her to sit beside me, because I could not do what I do without her.
“Forgive One Another Every Day from the Bottom of Your Heart”
Now I turn to my third and final point about marriage, with a quote from Bonhoeffer.
God gives you Christ as the foundation of your marriage. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.
We have talked about God’s creation of marriage, we have spoken of God’s ordering of marriage and family, and now we come to the heart of the Gospel when we speak of Christ’s forgiveness as the power of marriage. Twice I have spoken of the burden and blessing of marriage. The practice of daily forgiveness fuses together burden and blessing. It is because we are sinful human beings that we need someone to love and forgive us, and God has graciously given us that person in our husband or wife. But at the same time, you cannot assume that you are welcomed by your partner just because you are married. Just the opposite: you must continually seek forgiveness “every day from the bottom of your hearts.”
Forgiveness is a matter of being accountable for your own actions; but sometimes it is also a matter of accepting something in another we would not accept or should not accept in ourselves. Husbands and wives have a unique insight into each other’s character and actions. At times, the wife or the husband is called on to “cover” her or his spouse’s failings for the sake of the family. This is a burden. At times there is no excuse for partners not to level with each other; at other times, one must bite the lip and swallow hard at the spouse’s behaviour.
There is perhaps even a deeper level than the explicit forgiveness of day-to-day errors, a sense in which each partner is called on to accept the whole person they married, not only for who they are but for who they are not. The American novelist William Faulkner described an elderly couple this way:
…husband and wife did not need to speak words to one another, not just from the old habit of living together but because in that one long-ago instant at least out of the long and shabby stretch of their human lives, even though they knew at the time it wouldn’t and couldn’t last, they had touched and become as God when they voluntarily and in advance forgave one another for all that each knew the other could never be.William Faulkner, “The Fire and the Hearth,” in Go Down, Moses (1940), pp. 107-108.
“For all that each knew the other could never be.” There is a fine line between accepting someone just the way he is, and coddling him in his laziness or stubbornness. But it is nevertheless true that we who are married are called to a kind of intimate knowledge of the other – as they say “warts and all” – which no others have, and accepting that reality is part of extending Christ’s forgiveness to others.
Jesus Christ gave himself up for us to present us as a pure bride to the Father. Isn’t it glorious how brides look on their wedding day, all clean and white and pure. And the bridegrooms also look smart and straight. But the truth is, in ourselves we are dressed in dirty rags like the poorest peasant. That’s the truth. But we are told that Christ looks on us and sees not the rags but the glory of a perfect bride prepared for her wedding day.
Bonhoeffer concludes his sermon on this powerful note:
From the first day of your wedding till the last the rule must be: “Welcome one another for the glory of God.” That is God’s word for your marriage. Thank him for it; thank him for leading you thus far; ask him to establish your marriage, to confirm it, sanctify it, and preserve it. So your marriage will be “for the praise of his glory.” Amen.
When we go back to the States each year, we meet up with our extended family at the seashore. We want to thank God for them – for Sarah, Peter, Abigail, Patrick and Hannah – for Mark and Berenize, and, oh yes, for Sterling, who is engaged to our daughter Hannah – and for our grandchildren Daniel and Natasha and a new one on the way.
My young friends, and older friends, today Mama Peggy and I want to publicly thank God for the time he has given us together. We have been married forty years. I am ready to sign up for forty more! That is not likely to be granted. But however many years ahead God gives us, I want to live out the text of this sermon, which is to live for the praise of his glory. Amen