Sunday, October 04, 2009

Semper Fidelis

1 Corinthians 7:10-16
Mark 10:2-26

Jesus’ lesson to His disciples about divorce is almost as uncomfortable a topic to address as money. The pastor struggles to say the right things, and the congregation squirms in anticipation of hearing a wrong thing. No matter what the pastor says, however, someone is going to get stung, maybe the pastor. What cannot be ignored, however, is that each of these issues (divorce and money) shares something in common with the other: “infidelity” in either can be destructive, sometimes irreparably so. And the One who is betrayed in one is the same One betrayed in the other. I think that is what we believers fail to fully understand or appreciate because we think of marriage primarily in terms of human relationships. These two issues are both so intimately interconnected and intertwined in our daily living and thought processes that it is often impossible to tell who or what is the center and focal point of our lives.

It is not made any easier to deal with when we live in a society that values money, status, and above all else, the personal freedom to do as we please when we please (that never-ending yet illusive pursuit of “personal happiness”). And what I have also discovered along life’s very strange path is that whenever something good happens to us, it is the will of God but if something bad happens, Satan is out to get us. So we take it upon ourselves to change things around and manipulate our environment – and even compromise our personal beliefs - so that God is pleased yet again (and He must be, because we are). Isn’t that how American Christianity has come to understand the relationship between man and Lord? That if man is happy, it is reasonable that the Lord is happy? We go about ensuring our own personal happiness, sort of like human sacrifices of the past – because in our quest for “personal happiness”, we disregard how someone else may be adversely affected. We are going to hurt someone – and He will ultimately be the one betrayed.

Too many believers also think that “fate” somehow holds the key to happy marriages and financial success and if we feel cheated somehow on either, “fate” has played a dirty trick on us if wealth escapes us – OR - it just was not “meant to be” if we suddenly find ourselves less than happy with our marriages and become tempted to abandon, again in search of “personal happiness”. Then as if life were not cruel enough, we turn to Mark’s Gospel and find our Lord and Savior holding our feet to the fire in a very uncomfortable and conflicting way; conflicting because our culture obviously does not buy into what Jesus says, even more conflicting because the Church sometimes does not seem to believe Him, either.

Historically, the Church has not been kind to those who have suffered the pain of divorce. Over the years, however, the Church has tried to make amends to be in ministry to those who need the support of the Church almost to the point of an open invitation to “do it if it feels good”. Evidence of such a thing was shown a few years ago at a church in Arkansas I was familiar with. It involved a man who left his family and took up residence with another woman before he had even filed for divorce. Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the divorce papers, he and his new woman had a wedding … IN CHURCH! What was clearly a hard-and-fast case of a completely inappropriate – adulterous – relationship, that church legitimized the relationship, at least in the eyes of those two persons … and the children who were involved in the previous marriages. They were first-hand witnesses of the church’s act of “infidelity”.

So throughout her history, the pendulum of the Church’s integrity has swung widely from one extreme to the other. In this particular case, that church betrayed the abandoned wife and immediately surrendered its own moral authority. There are, of course, a few more details, but that is pretty much the gist of what that particular church has done in a vain effort to be “culturally relevant” in a society that is begging – actually, insisting - for the Church as a whole to surrender itself to a society that values “personal”, a society which reasons that if one is not experiencing “personal” happiness and “personal” satisfaction, something is amiss, someone is at fault, and serious adjustments need to be made in order to ensure our “personal” happiness. In the midst of all this chaos, young people have been lied to and have bought into the lie because the Church, as a whole, is conflicted and has, in many cases, perpetuated the lie.

Those broad statements are where the squirming begins both for the congregation and for the pastor. The statements need to be made, and Jesus cannot be ignored or written off simply because His words seem to be in direct conflict with our own contemporary society or our own personal lives. A closer look, however, will reveal much more than what simply appears on the surface. Something has to be known about Moses’ “certificate of divorce”, especially since Jesus forces us to go there. Paul’s words to the Corinthians must also be examined very carefully. It is utterly unfair to read Jesus’ words and then judge and dismiss an entire segment of our society, many of whom have been genuinely victimized not only by a careless and godless society but also, in some cases, by the Church. The honest examination will not be easy because it pits contemporary society, the only society and culture we’ve ever known, against a society – ancient though it may be - whose very existence and identity was intimately connected to YHWH.

Paul distinguishes between what he considered a “commandment” of the Lord and his own personal, yet considered, opinion, but what he offers has gone largely unnoticed by Protestant Christianity over the years because Jesus’ words seemed clear enough. A marriage cannot be “annulled” by the Church, as is the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in rare cases, if the Lord joined man and woman to create “one flesh”, inseparable by man. The more detailed consideration, such as what Matthew offers in 5:32, goes a little further and a little deeper. Varying translations go from “adultery” to “sexual immorality” to “unchastity”; what we call, simply, “cheating”, to justify a separation. What is involved in “cheating”, however, goes much deeper than a single incident or a purely physical act. Going deep determines exactly Who is being betrayed.

Maybe the question is purely theological rather than social if the Lord creates one flesh from two, but can there be a Holy Union if one party is not a believer? What about those who have no ties to the Church whatsoever but prefer a church wedding? Can there be a Holy Union between these two if the Lord is not even a small part of who they think they are? According to Paul, the believer is bound to the marriage regardless of the unbelieving partner … as long as the unbeliever stays. The believer is presumably being sincere in promising not the partner but the Holy Father Himself to love that partner until death parts them. So a covenant with the Lord has been entered into in good faith. This is where it gets tricky because we can reasonably say that a promise we make to the Lord cannot be declared void by an action by another person, regardless of the circumstances.

Even under the best of circumstances and high hopes, there is always the unexpected. Suddenly a partner is revealed as the snake he or she was all along, very adept at deception, not unlike the serpent in the Garden. Suddenly this person is revealed as a cheater, a gambler, a drinker, a drug user. Unexpectedly this person turns violent or is verbally abusive. Or just simply walks out. Of course there were likely tell-tale signs, but how can a person who is blinded by love be convinced that such signs exist? Or perhaps worst of all, this person is revealed as one who perhaps liked the idea of marrying a good Christian but lacks any sort of faith on any level and is incapable and unwilling to enter into a covenant with the Lord, those who make that blanket, “Yes, I believe in God,” statement but devote no time to worship and live as if there is no God. What then?

In the end, however, I’m not even sure Jesus and Paul are talking exclusively about human relationships in marriage in the first place, though the words seem clear enough. It is primarily about the covenant one enters into with the Lord God, and it is evidenced by the love that is primarily directed at Him. It has to be because you and I know that after a few years, it is imminent that there will be signs of stress within the marriage between two human beings so much to the point that they cannot stand the sight of one another! Mature and devoted persons will work through it, of course, and many do. Too many, however, read too much into the stress and the conflict and, over time, decide for themselves this must not be the Holy Union the Lord had in mind for them. Fate. So they walk. And because the Church has been unclear throughout the years about exactly what is involved, even Christians feel free to do so, justified in some way, failing to realize that the primary covenant was with the Lord, not with the other person.

The love we have for the Holy Father is manifest in many different ways, and sometimes expressing that First Love (as pointed out in the Revelation) is uncomfortable and seems to bring on conflict mainly because we are caught up in our own “personal” lives within a clearly secular culture. Above all else, however, our love for the Father is expressed in our willingness to be faithful, first, to Him by caring for and loving those whom we promised Him we would love – even when they become unlovable. And like Jesus, though we may wish for ourselves an “out” such as He at Gethsemane, we nevertheless persevere as we must - not according to what the world expects or demands or reasons but, rather, according to what brings glory to the Father, the same Father who “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16) because of the inevitable damage and destruction and unnecessary pain that comes with it. The Lord is not about “brokenness”; He is all about wholeness. And fidelity. To Him first.

There are two things we can be sure of in this life. One: with some exceptions, of course, man can usually be depended on to do what is in man’s own best interests. Two: the Lord is not man. He is “Semper Fidelis” – “always faithful”. And we are called to His life, and not our own.

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