Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Do you ever feel like the one thing religion is especially good at is making people feel guilty? We might like to blame someone else’s tradition – Catholicism and fundamentalism are popular targets – but as someone from a tradition we all seem to like, I have to say that I can hardly open my mouth without making someone feel like I disapprove of them. Similarly, while it may be fun to cast the Pharisees as the guilt-mongers of the gospels, my discomfort with this passage comes from Jesus’ own mouth (and the church’s history). Jesus’ words on divorce have been used to club women and men over the head for centuries with prohibitions, consequences, and guilt. On all topics, the church has long tended to require behavioral standards from people in order for them to receive grace. We’ve done this by our own design and by default because of our role in society. For that, on behalf of the church, I apologize. I apologize especially to you for whom these words about divorce are salt in a deep and painful wound.

I want to quit that habit of casting guilt everywhere the church goes. We’re not here to make the world feel guilty. Instead, I want to reclaim what we know: that Jesus came with grace and hope first of all. The Hebrews reading knows Christ to be perfect, but what comes to perfection in Jesus is not behavior, power, or status. What comes to perfection in Jesus is love. So let’s spend a little time with Jesus’ words on divorce. Let’s grapple with that reality. I hope to reclaim these words as hopeful, gracious, and loving – because that’s who Jesus actually is. Jesus is perfect hope, grace, and love in human flesh.

When Jesus speaks, his point of reference is perfection. Hearing from that perspective does and should make us stumble, but remember who’s speaking here: Jesus who suffers death for us. The Pharisees ask an intentionally hard question about divorce, and Jesus responds with a harder teaching about adultery (about which he has even harder words elsewhere). The question was about what’s permissible under the law, but Jesus goes deeper, to our pervasive inability to be faithful. We’re “hard to teach,” as he says – hard to teach how to love. In Jesus’ eyes, this question is not about complying with the law, it’s about fulfilling relational loyalty. It’s not a question about contractual economics, it’s about the spiritual depth of relationship between two people.

It always helps to understand the historical context in which Jesus says these things. Let’s read the question again: “Does our law allow a man to divorce his wife?” is literally, “Is it lawful for a man to dismiss his wife?” The simple answer is yes. According to the law in question, a husband could write a certificate releasing his claim on his wife and send her away. Then, anyone else could marry her, although in reality, she would probably live in her father’s house forever. This law is one step up from sending her into the desert to die – in fact, it probably developed precisely to protect women from men’s failure to care for them. We needed this law because it’s hard to teach us to love. So Jesus’ answer fits. He says yes, dismissal is legal, but don’t do it. Be as faithful to each other as you can be, and never simply dismiss one another. That’s wisdom, not prohibition.

What’s ultimately at stake is not whether and how to hurt each other, it’s how to avoid hurting each other in the first place. It is to remember that we belong to each other. For Jesus, the question is ultimately about having regard for others, about treating each other as full members of the human family, about ensuring security and blessing for all people. No wonder then that Jesus punctuates this conversation with a teaching about welcoming children: in a culture where women and children were generally undervalued and vulnerable, this is all about caring for others.

Of course I can’t just stand here and say to be nice. You already knew that, and none of us truly pulls it off. Life is more than just holding ourselves to high ideals. We all pretty much have great ideals, we know the rules, and we also know that having ideals isn’t the whole story. Again, this is all about more than divorce, but while we’re on the subject: take, for example, my parents. They are good, genuine, and earnest people – and that didn’t save their marriage. There came a time when divorce was their least bad option. It’s not that they (or any of us) are bad people – it’s just that none of us is quite perfect. So the appropriate response is not blame, it’s sadness and understanding. The hope is that there’s more to the story than our failure and pain.

We don’t see the world as perfect now, lined up just as it should be, but we do see Christ crowned with glory. We don’t just see standards to reach for as if we must attain them, we see Christ in glory. Not the glory of power and status – though he has those – the glory of the one who died in love for us. That’s the key to understanding the book of Hebrews, this book called the Bible, this story of our lives. Jesus is not perfect because he’s all-powerful, fantastically well-behaved, or what have you (though he is). He’s perfect in love, and that’s what truly matters. Life is not ideal now. We have broken marriages, sour relationships, and hopes we can’t quite make happen. But we’re loved. We’re loved by someone more perfect than any love we could imagine. And because of that love, we’re free to love all over again. So the world is becoming something new in Christ’s self-giving love.

One place we start to learn what we mean by Christ’s perfect love is at this table, here at the focal point of this building that embodies all our ideals. This table can still symbolize exclusion, separation, and disconnect, as it has for years, for many people. Many people outside our church still fear that they’re not welcome here. But this table means that they are – we are – all are welcome here. This table of God’s love welcomes us and everyone by the grace of Christ.

On World Communion Sunday, we try to live out what Jesus did in making us all brothers and sisters, partakers in the one source of life. Today we try to practice what we know to be true. World Communion Sunday developed when nationalism and Christian denominational pride threatened the life of the church, and one Presbyterian pastor insisted that can’t be. He suggested one Sunday to say no to division and yes to unity in Christ. We sometimes observe today as if this was the only day our Communion was truly held in common with the whole church, and so we confess again that we’re not there yet. But we know what it should look like. We see it crowned in glory. So we gather at this table that none of us owns, that Christ owns. We don’t decide who gets to come here, because Jesus calls us all in, here and at every table. Today we proclaim again what we see in glory, that we and all God’s people are welcomed into life in Christ. May it come into reality among us.

Amen.

 

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