Preached at The Episcopal Church of the Advocate
It was a good week for love. It was a good week for those of us who think mutual love is a blessing that ought to be named and claimed and upheld as a life-affirming treasure in the life of the community. It was a good week for we here in this place who have for years been naming and claiming the sacred covenant between same-sex couples as not just some vague blessing for the lot of us, but as marriage. And it was a good week for those deprived of secular rights by our state laws that fail to recognize such marriages, as broader marriage equality may be swinging into view.
Everybody just take a moment to soak that in, because today’s readings are about forsaking earthly pleasures and leaving your family.
Sounds fun, right? Let’s see where that takes us!
Our New Testament readings today emphasize the difference between God’s reality and ours, between the spiritual realm and the physical. The physical world, which for Paul stands squarely in opposition to the divine realm, ensnares us in a web of our own desires; desires that inevitably corrupt us and draw us away from participating in God’s goodness. But despair not, because “for freedom Christ has set us free.” That is, Jesus beckons us toward spiritual life, and offers us freedom from the momentum of sin. By following Jesus, we can reach escape velocity and slip sin’s gravitational pull. We are freed from that which holds us down.
So we know what we are freed from, but what are we freed to? Naturally, we are freed to slavery. Paul tells the Galatians“you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Slavery language is always jarring, but you see what he’s getting at. From the narrow perspective of our own immediate desires, we are freed to serve one another. This is a common theme whenever freedom comes up in a theological sense. We are endowed with free will, and it is genuine freedom. We make free decisions. But that freedom is meant as a tool for seeking God, for choosing the good, and for aligning our will with God’s will. We, God’s creatures, are free to seek communion with a God who desires communion with us. So our freedom comes with the hope that we will use it to seek God, and for Paul that means joining in spiritual community with one another. We are free to serve each other.
But to use your freedom in that way is difficult. For Paul it boils down the tension between flesh and the Spirit. While we may be free, we are still embodied, and for Paul that spells trouble. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit,” Paul says, “and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” So you see, awareness of God conditions your freedom. When you are aware of the differences between your desires and God’s desires, you aren’t running on pure instinct anymore, but become more mindful of how your actions can matter. Paul seems here to be suggesting that this is the utility of the law, which helps guide us away from those things which the flesh wants to do, but which do not serve the desires of the Spirit. The law’s value would then be as a tool of mindfulness, of keeping the tension between our desires and God’s desires in our minds, so that we can more consciously aim our freedom at God.
The dualism between flesh and Spirit is spelled out pretty clearly by Paul. The works of the flesh, which obstruct the path to the kingdom of God, are “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” These are the things that the law steers us away from. These are the things which are to be avoided, as they distract us from God’s calling, and keep us from heeding the Spirit. Indeed, according to Paul, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” These rules, these codes, serve to orient us toward God, but the real revelation takes place not in the rules and codes themselves, but in the grace and love of God’s Spirit.
The works of the Spirit, on the other hand, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Paul tells us that there is no law against such things, which is surely a relief. And then he says “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
Now, about that… what Paul seems to be setting up for us is a basic structure for faithful living. We have certain doctrines and laws which help us live that to some degree reflects the divine life, but those doctrines and laws are not the ultimate thing for us. God is the ultimate thing, and so the leadership of the Spirit necessarily transcends the particularities of the law. Putting ultimate faith in the law and not the Spirit is idolatrous, and Paul makes that clear.
OK, that was a bit of heavy lifting, theology-wise. The takeaway here is that Paul’s logic has a mechanism for change built into it. The law does not govern those who follow the Spirit. God can lead us to challenge the religious norms and practices of our age. But we are not called to challenge them out of a fealty to our own convenience or gratification, but because the Spirit calls us to do so. So that will be the bar that we must clear if we want to challenge the inherited codes. We must sincerely be following the Spirit and not our own desires. Or, as we heard from 2 Timothy for yesterday’s feast day, we should take care not to be a people that “will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” The truths we proclaim are to point us toward the fruits of the Spirit. That’s the objective.
So, let’s talk about marriage then, shall we?
For Paul, marriage serves a fairly pragmatic goal, kind of like the law in today’s passage. In First Corinthians, he says that “it is better to marry than to burn,” by which he means that sex within marriage is good, and so it’s better to get married and not be punished for having sex. But he makes it clear that unmarried chastity is his preference. You see, Paul expected the return of Christ very soon, and so his main concern was getting everything lined up in time for that event. The long-term goods of committed partnership don’t appear to be on his radar. Paul prescribes marriage as a concession, not a command. He’s lukewarm on it.
Not a ringing endorsement of the sacrament. But we know that Christianity has developed a richer theology of marriage. Marriage rises to the stature of a sacrament, something we uplift as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The sense of marriage as a covenant between two people, a pledge to mutually uphold one another, and as a recognition of how God has blessed that couple and their community with their partnership, these are celebrated in our marriage rites now. We believe that God calls people into relationship with one another, and that one particularly intense and beautiful form of relationship is marriage. Thinking about marriage with a scope broader than Paul’s expectations of an immanent second coming, we see that it is a way of using our freedom to serve one another through love.
So where Paul may have viewed marriage as a way of keeping the desires of the flesh from harming our soul, we make a stronger proclamation; marriage is a celebration of one way that God’s Spirit leads us into covenant and relationship with one another. We recognize that committed partnership promotes the fruit of the Spirit. That list again was “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
And here’s the real sticking point with sacraments. They are signs that we construct to name what God is already doing. Our wedding rite doesn’t confer God’s blessing on two people. God does that. Our wedding rite names it and lifts it up in our community, and in calling it a sacrament, says that something of the holy can be glimpsed in the love and partnership between two people. The sacraments help us recognize what is sacred in our midst, and help teach us how to live toward the fruits of the Spirit.
But marriage itself isn’t the question these days as it was for Paul. The question is whether marriage ought to be extended to non-heterosexual couples. The major caution against doing so, at least in the biblical witness, is again from Paul, who in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans decries those who shun God’s wisdom and embrace their own, “exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural,” and are accordingly left by God to “their degrading passions.” Now what Paul did not know about sexuality and what is natural, like that sexuality is a varied and natural thing, could fill volumes, and there are lots of ways of nuancing this text, but the more immediate issue here is discerning whether non-heterosexual couples might be called to covenanted partnership in the same way that heterosexual couples are. Because, using Paul’s logic from today’s reading of Galatians, such a calling by the Spirit would transcend whatever legalistic codes religious communities might employ.
Remember that we are naming God’s blessing and celebrating it, not meting it out, when we celebrate a marriage. The theological task is recognizing the presence of God in a partnership, and then to let that recognition help us to live into God’s grace. If God’s blessing is seen in the same degree and manner, and if the fruits of the Spirit are nurtured to the same extent as, then we are, I believe obligated, to name it marriage. From personal experience, I feel very, very strongly that committed same-sex unions bear the same divine imprint as heterosexual ones, but remember, we need to take care not to proclaim the wisdom of our own desires.
The Episcopal Church embraces the classic three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason as modes of revelation. It has, for quite some time now, been using those tools carefully and deliberately to discern God’s will for the sacrament of marriage. And consensus has not emerged, to be clear. But last year’s General Convention adopted a rite for blessing same-sex unions, and I was privileged to be a consulting reviewer for the rite and the theological documents that accompany it. Remember how verifying the movement of the Spirit is a bar to clear when advocating change? How we need to make sure that we are not simply serving our own whims, but are as carefully as we can striving to hear God’s call to us in our world? That, I believe, is what has been happening. The rite adopted last year is not a marriage rite, but it is an unmistakable move toward a marriage rite. Here’s a direct quotation from the theological rationale for it:
“Our covenantal life with God is expressed in relationships of commitment and faithfulness, including those of same-sex couples. It is the Church’s joy to celebrate these relationships as signs of God’s love, to pray for God’s grace to support couples in their life together, and to join with these couples in our shared witness to the gospel in the world.”
“The divine grace that sustains a covenantal relationship bears fruit in countless ways, not only for the couple but for the wider community as well. Covenanted couples manifest this grace in their shared gifts for ministry and in lives of service, generosity, and hospitality.”
Those sound like fruits of the Spirit to me. And moreover, that sounds like marriage to me. I stand here convinced that we have done our homework, and that while we will continue doing it through prayer and study and discernment, we are called to proclaim that the divine vocation to covenanted relationship, to use our freedom to serve one another, is not confined in any degree to heterosexual couples. This is no reactionary fringe, but is a deep and broad movement of the Spirit in our world. In response to Paul’s words in the first chapter of Romans, inasmuch as they amount to a condemnation of same-sex relationships, I believe that the Spirit leads us to say that Paul got it wrong.
Paul is large. He contains multitudes. He can contradict himself. But on the larger—and more important– point, Paul got it right. Today’s Galatians reading suggests a methodology for reverently honoring our tradition and yet keeping our ears open for God’s voice in the world. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Today the Spirit calls us to marriage equality.
Today’s gospel lets us know that the road will not be easy. Indeed it has already been hard. As Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, he sounds every bit a prophet. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he tells the disciples. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” To be a prophet requires courage and resolve. Jesus is preparing his disciples to carry on his teachings after his death. He is preparing them for the work of the kingdom.
The Episcopal Church in general and the Advocate in particular have already drawn copious criticism for our stances on marriage equality. We will draw more, I am sure, and we are called to respond to that criticism with compassion and conviction, a task which will require courage, patience, and faith. Last year, our vestry issued a public statement opposing Amendment 1. We support marriage equality not in spite of our Christian convictions but precisely because of them. When we fail to celebrate God’s blessing on peoples’ lives, our praise and worship stand incomplete, and we have failed to honor that call to use our freedom to be servants of others.
God calls us to celebrate the fruits of the Spirit, and to be prophetic witnesses to the Spirit’s movement in our world. Jesus showed us that we are freed for this work. May we be bold enough to see it through.
Dr. Sam Laurent is Resident Theologian at the Church of the Advocate
The text of th sermon can also be found on the the website of The Center for Theological Engagement: