John 14: 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
When do we usually hear these words? Right, at memorial services. Do these words work for funerals? If so, why? Personally, I also think they work for funerals and memorial services, for the hope they express of eternal life with Christ.
But Jesus did not speak these words for anyone’s funeral. The only death with any connection to these words is his own impending death on the cross, in just a day to come. Yet these are not sad, sorrowing words. They’re surprisingly happy-sounding words. Because this is the language of courtship, for a marriage, a wedding coming up. And strangely enough, Jesus speaks of his coming death, and departure as part of the preparation for this upcoming wedding.
These words of Jesus reflect the wedding customs of the day, especially the words, “I am going there [meaning, to his Father] to prepare a place for you?3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Those words bring to mind the very important job that a bridegroom had in those days before the wedding, besides just showing up in a tuxedo, on the right day, in the right place to say, “I do.” A First Century Palestinian Jewish groom had a very important job. He would spend the engagement period building a home for his bride and the family they might have. Usually, it was a room built onto his parents’ house, where he grew up. When the groom’s father determined that his son had done a good job, and had a fitting space and livelihood to support his wife and future family, then the groom could come claim his bride, maybe in the middle of the night, often in the company of a wedding party, made up of friends and a band of musicians, singers and dancers. The bride had better be ready, too, along with some friends who would accompany her to the groom’s house, for all the celebrations and the ceremonies that would follow. Then they would live in the space that the groom had prepared, in his father’s compound.
That courtship custom explains the story of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25, about the groom and his wedding party who came late one night to find five of the bride’s attendants ready to greet the party, with their oil lamps full, while the other five were caught off guard, sleeping, with their oil lamps empty. The point is to be ready for Christ’s coming, which will be like a First Century bridegroom coming for his bride, with no wedding invitation sent to guests months ahead of time.
John’s Revelation picks up this same wedding theme, when we read in Revelation 19: “6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”
The Apostle Paul also makes use of this wedding language in Ephesians 5, when he likens Christian marriage to the relationship between Christ and the church: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
The New Testament connection between Christ and the church and human marriage finds its roots in the Old Testament. Among the prophets, Israel is often described as God’s bride, and God as one who has come courting Israel, for an eternal covenant relationship of faithfulness with himself. Whenever Israel forsakes God for other gods, and the covenant with God for injustice, idolatry and immorality, the prophets often speak of that as “adultery” toward God. A prime example are these words of Hosea, chapter 2: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. 20 I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.”
Life is born from Israel’s union and intimacy of spirit with God, life in the form of faith, virtue, justice, peace and integrity. That’s how Jeremiah saw it, when he took King Jehoiakim to task: 15 “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.
The word, “know” that Jeremiah and Hosea use is the same as the one the Old Testament also uses to describe Adam and Eve and other spouses “knowing” each other in physical, sexual intimacy, sometimes with children as a result. We could say that the Bible begins with a marriage in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve, and ends with a marriage, in the New Jerusalem, Christ and God’s people, when we read, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” in chapter 21, and again, as John’s Revelation closes with this invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’”
Now, all this talk about the old and new covenants being like human marriage in all its energy, fidelity and intimacy may strike us as embarrassing, ticklish, overly romantic, mushy, racy, even a touch erotic. Some say that it’s demeaning to women. That would be true if we interpreted this marriage theme to mean that women are like faithless people and men are like our faithful God. But most of the spiritual and political leaders and servants whom the Biblical prophets accuse of adultery and infidelity toward God are men. In this Biblical theme, men constitute the Bride of Christ, along with women, and women are joint heirs with Jesus the Son, along with men. So, there’s good news and bad news in this marriage and courtship language for both genders.
There’s also good news for all of us, whether we are married, single, divorced, widowed, whatever our calling or situation. God’s courtship of us extends dignity and value for all of us, single or married. For, God invites all of us into this intimacy of spirit that no human, nor any human relationship, can match, and which God alone can give.
But if I just say that the Bible compares the relationship between God and God’s people to marriage, I have it backwards. Marriage among us mortals is meant to reflect the nature of God, especially in God’s steadfast covenant faithfulness, in his passionate love for us, in the mutually exclusive loyalty, commitment and intimacy, one to another and to God. The most romantic, passionate, exciting and compatible marriage among us mortals can never be but a pale reflection of the deep, passionate, longing love of God for people. The love that brought each one of us here into the world is but a dim picture of the even greater longing, love and passion of God for persons and for a people. That passion is so great that it took a cross to express it.
Now am I going from the romantic to the overly dramatic, when I say that the cross expresses, among other things, something of God’s passion and the pain of human rejection? I didn’t make that up. There’s a reason why we call the events of Christ’s death, “The Passion.” And there’s a long history of Christian interpretation that says that when Christ first slept the sleep of death on the cross, when the soldier’s spear pierced his side, and blood and water flowed out, it symbolized two things: 1) the birth of the church, because we all come into the world in a rush of blood and water; and 2) Eve being taken from the side of Adam while he slept, to complete the image of God in male and female persons.
From the Fourth Century come these words of St. John Chrysostom, a pastor and a martyr: “…it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!” As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death.”
There we have another answer to the question I have been asking over the length of this preaching series: Why Church? Over the past few weeks, other reasons we have explored for Why Church? have included: 1) to carry forward into every corner of the world the confession, the causes and the combat of Christ in this world against the gates of hell; 2) To be Christ’s Body on earth—and not just distinct, separate bodies—through whom Christ still serves and ministers and teaches in this world; 3) to be the home of our homeless God on his homeward journey, and ours; 4) to be God’s demonstration plot of the New Creation, to give the world and all the powers of heaven and hell and everywhere in between a preview of the reconciling, recreating wisdom of God. We have also heard from Lynn Miller, Pastor Jana, and Frank Howard about how the church exists to demonstrate God’s love, our unity in diversity, and liberty, accountability and mutual support through the Holy Spirit within us and among us.
But if I stopped there, with those reasons and lessons, I risk leaving us with this false impression: that the church exists only because of what we can do for God, and how well we do it. Doesn’t that make God sound like nothing but a taskmaster, rather than a lover and a passionate suitor, who courts us with the offer of a fruitful, endless, joyful and loving life together? We and the church exist first because of God’s passionate love and desire for us, like that of a smitten suitor courting his bride-to-be. Receive that love, say “Yes” and “I do” to God’s courtship, and God will make of us: 1) the people who carry on the cause and the confession of Christ; 2) the body through which Christ still ministers to the world; 3) the home, for our homeless God; 4) and God’s demonstration pilot project for his renewing, reconciling wisdom.
I saved the fifth, and probably the most arresting and striking reason in the Bible for the church of Jesus Christ, for the last Sunday in this preaching series: the Church is the Bride of Christ; Son of God courts us as his bride, to be persons and a people with whom to live and love in intimate, eternal and joyous union. The fruits of God’s Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and more— do not come from our wisdom and goodness alone, but are born from the union of God’s Spirit with us, within us, and among us.
So, what difference does this fifth reason for the church make? Doesn’t it say something about how we should view and treat ourselves and each other? We spend a lot of time and energy wondering and worrying about how we look to the world, and how the world looks at us. Such worry is all the more intense and all-consuming in this day and age of Twitter, Facebook, and more. It seems that we can’t escape being under the social media spotlight, and that light is not getting any more friendly nor flattering.
But what if we could look at ourselves and each other through the passionate, love-smitten eyes of the Divine Suitor, who, as the Psalm says, “delights in his handiwork?” We would see the infinite worth of ourselves and of everyone we meet. And we would stop worrying about how we rate in the ever-evaluating eyes of others, and think more about how we respond to the enamored eyes of our heavenly Bridegroom.
As for the church, doesn’t God’s vision, hope and desire for us make all the more tragic and terrible all the self-inflicted scars of the church’s jealousies, adulteries, abuses and infidelities toward God and others? Like the church’s scandals around sexual abuse, cover-ups, and partisan power politics? Just as excruciating (and that word “excruciating” contains the root word, “cross”) to the Bridegroom is the church’s indifference and distraction toward him and each other. And yet, if God has not given up on his runaway bride, why should we?
And what does this divine courtship say about the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? From beginning to end, the Bible is a romance, a love story of God courting persons and a people. Neither Hollywood, Hallmark, nor any Harlequin Romance novel can ever match the biblical story of courtship, passion, pain, betrayal, rescue and reconciliation for drama, pathos and poignancy, as it builds to the cross, the resurrection and the return of Christ for his runaway bride. The Bible is not just a collection of rules and regulations, nor just dry, dusty doctrine and dogma. As the theologian Dorothy Sayers often said, “The dogma is the drama.”
And when you read in the Bible about God’s wrath, or even of God as “jealous,” don’t be too quick to dismiss that as primitive Bronze Age savagery and un-enlightened vindictiveness beyond which we have allegedly evolved. Think instead of passion, and of the pain of passion spurned, betrayed, ignored, abused or taken advantage of by God’s Beloved, his people. The pain and hurt we may suffer and inflict in even our most important relationships are bad enough. God’s passion and pain over his runaway bride found expression in nothing less than a cry from a cross. Because it’s a cry of love.
I hope that this preaching series about the church has done something to renew our understanding of the church’s importance to God and to each other. That’s an easy thing to lose sight of when the church of Jesus Christ is in such danger today both from within and without. My prayer is that this time of testing is a time of purification for us. For all the other reasons and supports that propped up the church are falling away, props like social respectability, family, culture, prosperity and political power. My hope then is that our attachment, accountability and support for one another grow through this time of trial and testing, because none of us can remain a disciple of Jesus on our own. But for that to happen, we must experience and rely on the attachment of Christ toward us. Fortunately, he comes to us not just as a lawgiver, nor just as a prophet and advocate of justice, nor even just as a sacrifice for our sins, though he is all of those things, and more. Christ is also the bridegroom courting the beloved bride-to-be with whom he is enchanted and enamored. I hope that this preaching series helps us to return such love to him, and to each other. For it is only as we draw closer to Christ that we truly draw closer to one another.
Perhaps an annual membership renewal ceremony, like we have talked about, will help us remember, renew and sustain such attachment and enchantment to Christ and each other. Maybe we’ll decide that it doesn’t. If so, I hope it’s because we find a better way to experience and to know who Christ is to us, who we are to him, and who we are to each other, as his Bride. To the divine Suitor be all our longing, love and loyalty, for all the longing, love and loyalty he shows to us.