“The Mystery of Marriage” (Ephesians 5:22-32)
Marriage is a mystery. How so? This is the mystery of marriage: How two unique individuals – with all of their personality flaws, with all their sinful foibles, not to mention the basic differences between men and women – how two unique individuals can live “happily ever after” as a married couple.
St. Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” That always causes women to squirm in the pew. Whenever I read that passage at a wedding, I hear the inevitable snickers coming from the gathered crowd, chuckling how out-dated the Bible is. But submission in Christian marriage is not a bad thing. Submission in Christian marriage simply means that God has established an order within marriage where the husband is the leader and head of the household. It does not mean that the wife is inferior. In fact, in many ways she is probably superior to her husband—in things such as beauty, grace, tenderness, nurturing, and in some cases, even intelligence.
I heard a story once about two lines for husbands when they get to heaven. One line is for the dominant husbands. The other is for the passive, submissive husbands. The submissive husband line extended almost out of sight. In the dominant husband line, there was only one man. He was small, timid, and appeared to be anything but a dominant husband. When the angel at the Pearly Gates inquired as to why he was in this line, the man said, “My wife told me to stand here.”
Wives have a hard time submitting to their husbands. Why? Because the husbands do not always do what Paul says husbands should do: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. When God’s plan is not followed, troubles ensue. There is strife within the home. If things get bad enough, it might lead to an affair, then a divorce.
A woman in Reader’s Digest a few years back wrote: The speaker at our woman’s club was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of us wanted to “mother” our husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand.
“You do want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked.
“Mother?” the woman echoed. “I thought you said smother.”
(Quoted at www.christianglobe.com/Illustrations under “Marriage.”)
Why is God’s plan not followed? It seems pretty simple. Two simple instructions: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord … husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church. Selfishness, pride, the feministic spirit of the age, the insecurities of a man trying to assert his authority in unhealthy and abusive ways … these are just some of the things that mess up the mystery of marriage.
It’s really all about breaking the sixth commandment: You shall not commit adultery. And this is about more than just adultery. Luther’s explanation of the Sixth Commandment in the Small Catechism includes sexual purity, but also the importance of husband and wife “loving and honoring each other.”
Adultery is seen as a big sin in our eyes. Jesus even said that looking at a woman with lust in your hearts is the same as committing adultery. But how many of us consider that to be a sin that condemns us? “Hey, I’m a typical man, right?” becomes our excuse. But even when a husband and wife are at each other’s throats all the time … not loving nor honoring each other as the God-given gifts that they are to each other … that, too, is a sin, and deserves God’s punishment.
The answer to all of this is another “mystery.” In fact, the answer lies right in our text, because the “mystery” that Paul above all else is talking about is the mystery of Christ’s “marriage” to the church. In Ephesians 5, he is describing the ideal relationship between husbands and wives, and this is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church.
Christ loves the church like a true husband. He gave his life for the church. His life was one of self-denial for the church, all the way to the cross, where he died for the sins of the world. It was his intense to desire to save and preserve the church. Like a true, faithful husband, He is our natural protector. He anticipates our needs and provides for our needs. He comforts us in our trials and troubles. He saved us and even promotes our salvation today, as He connects us to His saving grace in Word and Sacrament. He is our head who leads and guides us, not by bullying and bossing, but by caring and cherishing.
Christ Jesus also makes us holy, cleansing us by the washing of water with the word. Immediately you should be thinking about baptism here. John 3:5 says, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. And Titus 3:5 says that God saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. Part of the marriage ritual in those days was the bride would undergo a purifying bath before the wedding. That’s not all that different than today, is it? Think of the big preparations for the big day … getting all dolled up, the right hair style, the right make-up, the beautiful white dress. Then, the bride marches down the aisle, all perfectly prepared for the moment when she and her groom promise to be faithful to each other “til death us do part.”
Likewise, in Baptism and by faith in his saving death and resurrection, Christ washes us clean of our sins … our sins of adultery in reality, our sins of adultery in our minds, our sins of divorce, our sins of lust, our sins of not submitting to our husbands and not loving our wives like Christ loves the church. Christ washes us clean of all of these sins to prepare us for the wedding. Remember, heaven is described as a big wedding feast. Isaiah says, “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Is. 62:5) In chapter 19 of the Revelation to St. John, the great “Hallelujah Chorus” of heaven shouts, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” (Rev. 19:7) In chapter 21, the apostle sees a vision of the new heaven and the new earth, and he writes, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And in one of our post-communion collects we pray: “Keep us firm in the true faith throughout our days of pilgrimage, so that, on the Day of His coming, we may, together, with all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.”
Christ has washed you clean. You are clean, so that He might “to present [you] to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
God’s Word for you today brings healing to our marriages. Repent of your past sins in your marriage. Receive the forgiveness of your Crucified and Risen Savior. Now you can put the needs of your spouse before our own. Husbands, you can love your wives as Christ loved the church. You can love them with a sacrificial love … not looking for ways in which your wife can serve you, but for ways in which you can serve your wife. Listen to what the 4th century church father John Chrysostom had to say about this: “ … if it be necessary to give thy life for her, or to be cut in ten thousand pieces, or to endure any other suffering whatever, do not refuse it; and if you suffer thus, not even so do you do what Christ has done; for you indeed do so being already united to her, but He did so for one that treated Him with aversion and hatred. As, therefore, He brought to His feet one that so treated Him, and that even wantonly spurned Him, by much tenderness of regard, not by threats, insults, and terror: so also do you act towards your wife … For one may constrain a servant by fear, though not even he is so to be bound to you; for he may readily run away. But the companion of your life, the mother of your children, the basis of all your joy, you ought to bind to you, not by fear and threats, but by love and attachment.”
And wives, you can submit to your husbands as the church submits to Christ. As your husband loves you as Christ loves the church, loving and serving you unselfishly, you can willingly respond to him in love and service.
God’s Word today brings healing to hurting marriages and strengthens marriages that are already good partnerships. But God’s Word today also brings healing even to those of you who are not married. Through His holy Word today, God brings healing to hearts that have been hurt by divorce. He brings healing to hearts that have been hurt by abuse. He brings healing to hearts that have been hurt by adultery and other sexual sins. He brings healing to those who have been abused. He brings healing to single hearts that are lonely. He brings healing because He tells you that that you have a groom who loves you with an everlasting love: Jesus Christ. In Baptism, you have become a member of his body. He nourishes you and cherishes you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.
“A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery,” Paul writes. Indeed, it is a mystery how two sinful people can join their lives together “til death us do part.” Living in the forgiveness of Christ, it is not so much a mystery. Besides, Paul says, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”