It's a great honor to be here to celebrate my friends Matt and Emily. I'm glad that we are all here to share in the witness of their union under God and the beginning of their ministry together as husband and wife. I want to be up front about the fact that I am not, myself, married. So, what might usually be shared from where I'm standing isn't necessarily what will be said today. I'm not going to presume that I can speak into the experience of married life, or hope to give advice with any sense of authority on the matter. After many conversations with Matt and Emily, we came to an understanding about what should be said today. What we want to walk away with is an understanding of their purpose as a married couple. We want to have a deeper grasp on the biblical foundation of their union, and how it will hopefully reflect the greater, mysterious union we have with God. To do this, we will turn to the passage from Paul's letter to the Ephesians.
The passage starts off with a call to be “imitators of God, as beloved children.” This might be the most important part of the passage. Not because of its command to imitate God, but because it outlines the why behind our imitation of him. In his letter to the Romans, Paul goes deeper into this subject, saying that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba, Father!'”
God does not give us his Spirit so we can do more good things or be a better person. He gives us his Spirit to adopt us into his family as heirs of his Kingdom alongside his First Son, Jesus Christ. Before we dig into what it means to follow Jesus or how to be imitators of God, we must understand what it means when we say “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Every act of love, every sacrifice of compassion, and every good thing in our hearts flows out of this love. Not the love that we have, but the love that God has for us. The love that he has poured out from his side over the whole world in the death of Jesus Christ so that we can share in the life of love that he gave as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Without first resting in this love, the call to be imitators of God and followers of Christ becomes a burden of stress on our lives. If our walk with Christ brings more worry than joy, we need to re-examine our spirit to determine why. Jesus says, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It's in response to God's love that the psalmist cries, “let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for [God judges] the peoples with equity and guide[s] the nations upon earth.” God's compassion in how he relates to us-- how he relates to the whole world-- and willingly guides us toward the truth of his love, brings forth joy and celebration. Reflecting on and resting in the love of God draws out worship. That draw to worship should be the driving force behind everything we do. God's love should be the centerpiece of our actions and relationships.
If we accept the Spirit of God, we are children of God. In that Spirit we can continue to walk alongside Jesus by the power of the Spirit to love as he has loved and “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
I want to pause here and share two stories from Matt's life. These stories are both situations that happened in the last four months and are both stories that involve police officers. In November, Matt had agreed to pick me up from the airport. When I came out to the car, I saw a police officer standing beside it with his ticketing book out, but no Matt. After a very brief information gathering conversation, I pulled out my phone to find out where Matt had gone. He and Emily had recently rented a car at the airport and Emily thought she might have left her journal in the rental car. Matt had stopped at the gate to pick me up, and since my plane was just landing, he decided to run in and check if the rental company had found it. So Matt comes running out, and the police officer confronts him immediately, “You do know you're not supposed to park here. That's a hundred and fifty dollar ticket.” Matt explains his situation, which the officer dismissed, “I don't care why you parked here,” he says, “If you're going to park, you need to park in the garage.” Now, I should note, it's at this point, I notice the officer is no longer holding his pen to the ticketing book, but has the book closed. He says something to the effect of, “you better not do this again,” to which Matt replied, pointing to the line of cars behind his own, “well, people are essentially parked here for fifteen minutes, and you don't have a problem with them!” The officer gets defensive, “whoa, whoa, I'm letting you out of a ticket here, and you're going to attack me like that?” Before Matt could say anything else, I decided to jump in, “let's say thank you and get going,” and the conversation did end without a ticket being issue.
The second story actually happened very recently. Matt was out driving and got pulled over. This is a very odd thing, since Matt is probably the most law abiding driver I've ever met. But, it turns out, Matt's registration had expired, and the officer had noticed. Unlike the previous officer, this one did not threaten a ticket or to tow Matt's car away. He was very gracious and kind. Likewise, Matt responding with thankfulness, and even texted me afterward about how great his interaction was with this officer.
When we talk about responding to God's love, grace, and mercy, we need to be clear. Both officers were merciful to Matt. Matt deserved a ticket in both cases, but only one brought Matt to tell others about the good news of that officer's graciousness. The first, though he showed mercy, used his power to belittle Matt and tried to frighten him into obeying the rules. The second, acted in graciousness, giving Matt the chance to respond likewise. God's mercy comes with grace and love. And I think it is no mistake that Paul writes to “[submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ” before writing about the marriage relationship of husbands and wives. Without understanding the love of God in Jesus Christ, we can't really know what it means to submit to one another or why husbands and wives are called to relate to one another in this way:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior … Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her … in the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.”
Marriage is a mysterious thing. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is an earthly representation of the heavenly truth regarding the relationship between Jesus Christ and his Church. Marital submission shows the disposition we as Christians are to hold in our relationship with Christ, and because of that, how we should interact with one another, since we all are also part of his Body. There is a lot of important imagery here that needs to be broken down. First, because Christians have received the Spirit of God, we are connected by his Spirit to one another. Because it is one Spirit that unites us, we are one by sharing in that Spirit. Our one-ness unites us to form one body by the Spirit of God. So, in relation to the world, or those outside of the uniting Spirit, we are the Body of Christ, his real presence on earth.
The second image is the Church as the Bride of Christ. Sharing in the Spirit of God, which is also the Spirit of Christ, is a deep and intimate unity. The image of marriage is two becoming one flesh. The intimate spiritual bond which makes us the Body of Christ is the same intimate bond which unites us as one with him to be his Bride. In relation to the world, we are his body. In relation to Christ, we are his Bride. In the context of a marriage, these images are brought together.
Matt and Emily are to be bound together as one. There will be no one without the other. From this point on, for all of us here, they will be regarded as one. But there is also a new dynamic to their relationship with each other. As a heavenly image, their marriage represents Christ and his church. As fellow Christians, they are to submit to one another, but as husband and wife, they are to be as Christ and his Church. And while the Church is called to submit to Christ, Christ did not exalt himself, but “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The call to submission for wives comes alongside the call to self-sacrifice for husbands. Submission for Christians should always be inspired by this kind of love. The reason we submit ourselves to Christ is because he has proven to love us to the extent that he would die in our place. We submit ourselves because we know he has our best interest, and because he knows our needs more than we do ourselves. I'm not going to claim that husbands have this same knowledge or this same understanding. But they are called to this same love. They are called to lay down their own interests, and even their own lives, for their wives. Submission means to appeal to the authority of another. The wife is called to submit to the husband as a representation of the Church. The husband is called to imitate Christ's love for the Church, who “emptied himself” of his Godly authority and humbled himself to be on the same level as those he loves. The husband's authority is given so that he can lay it down for the sake of his wife.
Jesus understood this call to sacrificial love, and said as much. In the Gospel of John, he says “as the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love … This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Again, the foundation for following his commandment is that we first abide in his love. Following the commandments of Jesus, loving one another, is really just a practice in learning what it means to be loved by Jesus. When Jesus says that keeping his commandments is abiding in his love, it's because following his commandments helps us to understand how he loves, and how difficult it is to love as purely and unconditionally as he does. In the song of Solomon, we get a reflection on love through the eyes of a young couple. The woman recites that “love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.”
Just as we cannot escape the grip of death once it has taken hold, in the same way, the true and powerful love of God is inescapable and unavoidable. We spend our lives running from death, and many spend just as long fleeing from the love of God. The fierceness of God's love is frightening because it's radical nature calls us to similar levels of reckless abandon. Responding to God's love in his death is to accept that death as our own. Accepting that death means giving our lives over into his hands. To love another person is to give our lives over to that person. It is to lay down our lives for them because our lives are no longer our own.
But there is one thing we can trust when we give our lives over to God. His love doesn't end in his death. Love doesn't only die, but it brings new life. By giving over our lives to God in his death, we are also taking on the new life that he offers in its place by the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Love, as strong as death, is the only power that overcomes the grave.
Matt and Emily are laying down their lives today. They are no longer their own, and their individual lives as they each know it will end. But there is a new life being formed right before our eyes. It is the new life of total union. A physical, visible, tangible manifestation of the spiritual truth that we cling to in Jesus as the Bride of Christ. This marriage is a sign pointing toward the hope that we lay down our lives to obtain every time that we turn our eyes to the love of God. And being the Bride, we still wait for the full manifestation of that love in the wedding celebration that will come on the day he returns to claim us as his own in the full redemption of the world. Today we get a glimpse of what that day will look like. We see the love of God in the love shared between Matt and Emily. The hope to live into that love can only be achieved by abiding in that love. Abide in that love. Find rest for your souls. Put on the seal of Christ, as his own, and find the love within you manifested through the Spirit into joy, made full in him.