True Love

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 22, 1998

Readings

Genesis 1:26-31 Male and female he created them

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food." And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning--the sixth day.



Matthew 19:3-6 What God has joined together

Some Pharisees came to Jesus to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."


Marital Love #457, 458 The precious jewel of marital love

The marriage relationship of one man with one woman is the precious jewel of human life, and the treasure chest of Christianity.... This is because our life is the same as the love that is in us. Our love makes our innermost life, since it is the life of wisdom living together with its love, and the life of love living together with its wisdom--so it is the life of the joys of both of these. In a word, we are living souls through this love within us. This is why the marriage relationship of one man with one woman is called the precious jewel of human life.

Marital love is the treasure chest of Christianity because Christianity becomes one with marital love, and they live together.... Our marital love goes according to our spiritual condition because it goes along with the development of wisdom within us.


Sermon

God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

It looks as if my long-range holiday sensors are just as bad as they have ever been. Three weeks ago I promised you a two-part series of sermons, entirely oblivious of the fact that one of those sermons would fall on the Sunday right before Valentine's day, and the other on the Sunday right after Valentine's day. As a result, last week I had the rare distinction of preaching about Satan on the Sunday closest to Valentine's day!

This week I am attempting to redeem myself by celebrating Valentine's day a little late--but still before we move into the introspective period of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday this coming Wednesday. Perhaps Providence was at work after all, since I am pleased that we are holding this special service on the same day that our teenagers have joined us for their Youth League and Confirmation Class (held during Sunday School), so that their parents can easily attend this service, too.

It does seem especially appropriate to focus on marriage as we begin together a brand new venture for our church: a wedding ministry in which we will serve to join many couples in the holy and, we hope, happy union of marriage. It is a ministry that our church is especially well suited for. Yes, our church building is a beautiful place to get married. But when I say that our church is especially well suited to provide a wedding ministry, I am referring primarily to the strong and deep insights and ideas that we find in the teachings of our church about the union of man and woman--of male and female--in marriage.

Over the ages in which humanity has existed on this earth, marriage has most often been considered a mere mating or coupling for purposes of childbearing, political and social advantage, sexual pleasure, or some other worldly purpose. One of the most common of these purposes has been--for men--to secure a woman, or several women, much like property, so that her labor and her body will belong to him exclusively. A few women have managed to turn the tables and bend their mates to their will, so that their husbands labor for them and wait on their beck and call. But this has been by far the less frequent situation in a world whose affairs have been largely dominated by men throughout recorded history.

This certainly was the case in the times of Jesus--and in the times of Moses that Jesus referred to in our New Testament reading. As we find out if we read further in Matthew, when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason, they were referring to a law given by Moses and recorded in the Old Testament that if a man found his wife to be unsatisfactory for some reason, he should write her a bill of divorcement and send her away. There is, of course, no mention in the Old Testament of a wife writing her husband a bill of divorcement. This would not have even occurred to the Old Testament writers, since for all practical purposes, a wife belonged to her husband, and it was simply taken for granted that he held the primary power in the relationship.

Jesus rejected this attitude toward marriage. In fact, in another place, speaking to the people of that culture, he says, "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels" (Luke 20:34-36). Did he mean that in heaven there is no marriage as we conceive of it in our culture's best ideals of marriage? I think not. Rather, I believe that on the literal level of meaning, he was saying in essence, "In the spiritual world, marriage as you know it does not exist. Women are not married off nor given in marriage to men as property to be owned, controlled, and sent away at will. That is not how things are with the angels."

Some people may think this is stretching Jesus' words. But if some deeper form of marriage were not a part of God's will, why did Jesus say what he did say in our reading from Matthew? Why did he refer those Pharisees back to how things were in the beginning, when God created human beings male and female, both in the image of God? Why did he say that a man should leave his father and mother and be united to his wife? And why did Jesus refer to the marriage of a man and a woman as something that God has joined together, and that no human being should separate?

If we try to interpret Jesus' words as meaning that there is no such thing as heavenly, spiritual marriage, we create many contradictions in his own words. But once we realize that he was referring (in the literal sense) to an unspiritual form of marriage--that he was attacking social and religious customs of marriage as property and as a means to worldly ends--the contradictions disappear. If we put together all his statements about love and marriage, we can understand and appreciate that Jesus was trying to break those traditional, worldly views of marriage and point us toward a deeper, more spiritual, God-given ideal of marriage.

This spiritual ideal of marriage is what we both celebrate and strive for today. We as a church and as individual people, as couples, as families, do not want to be stuck in old, materialistic, and ultimately depressing and destructive forms of marriage--forms in which one partner tries to dominate and control the other for his or her own advantage and pleasure. No! We wish to build relationships and marriages based on a deeper ideal--an ideal of mutual love and service, in which there is no thought of dominance or ownership, but only of a deep, passionately heartfelt desire to do everything to make each other happy.

This is the ideal. And as Jesus points out, this ideal of marriage is based on nothing other than the origin of marriage in the very being of God. In the beginning, God created us in God's own image--and that image of God is expressed in the two modes or polarities of human existence: male and female. We are not male and female simply because this is a method of biological reproduction that has proven effective for complex species. We are male and female because both our maleness and our femaleness express the nature of God. And when male and female unite in marriage, this also expresses the nature of God.

This is a truly radical view of marriage! That the union of man and woman, from the union of our souls and spirits, our minds and hearts, right down to the physical union of our bodies, is an expression of the union of the male and female essences of God. Yet this radical view of marriage is present in the very first chapter of the Bible--the Western world's most sacred text. It was right there, undiscovered or ignored, through all those ages in which women were considered the virtual property of men.

Now that we are beginning the long and arduous process of shaking those old, destructive patterns of marriage, this spiritually inspiring view of marriage is still with us in our sacred text, calling us forward to work towards and experience a form of marriage that is much more deeply rooted in the human heart and spirit. After all, as Swedenborg points out in our reading from Marital Love, the real, innermost life within us is the life of our love.

We can all recognize this if we think about it. Oh, we do many things that don't seem to have anything to do with love. There are many things we do each day that we don't especially love to do. But what is it that moves us most? When do we feel the most alive? Isn't when we are doing the things we love? When we are with someone we love, and the relationship is flowing along smoothly, effectively, joyfully, as we each find joy in discovering the joys and pleasures of the one we love, and entering into those joys and pleasures with him or her? Isn't it when we are with the people we love, working together, playing together, getting to know each other in a closer and deeper way than we have before?

Yes, for all our outward pretensions to other drives and motivations, we human beings are, at our core, beings of love. And we are beings of love because we are created in the image and likeness of God--and God is love. God is true love. God is pure love. And this love that forms the heart of God is the same love that flows into us, through us, among us, between us and the ones we love.

True love is not a physical urge based on hormones and biology and instinctual reproductive drives. True love is not based some outward attraction, or a realization that this person fits well into my plans for social and financial advancement. True love is not even the discovery of common interests and talents. All of these things do have subordinate roles in the complex relationship we call love and marriage.

But true love is a presence, a force, a substance that comes to us from God and forms the deepest core of our existence. It is an inner, living, moving reality that motivates us in everything that we do. And if it is true love, it is a desire that is focused on discovering what makes other people--and what makes that special other person--truly and deeply happy, and devoting our lives to helping the ones we love to find and experience their happiness.

In doing so, we find our own happiness as well. For when we are using our God-given knowledge and wisdom and talents toward the happiness of others, then we are also expressing our own deepest self--a self that is formed of true love flowing into our souls from God. Amen.

 


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Music: Heart to Heart
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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