For some reason this hasn’t been a very popular Scripture for wedding homilies. But I want to argue that it is a wonderful verse for a wedding. Jesus, in His typical way, draws with big, scrawling letters because we are blind. We immediately want to pull Jesus aside and explain to Him that the word “hate” was probably a bit too strong, and that some folks might get the wrong idea. But Jesus knows our hearts, and the hearts of men, and He knows what He’s doing. He knows that we already have the wrong idea, and that unless He says it this way, we will carry on with the wrong idea, assuring ourselves all along that we have got the right idea.
So what does Jesus mean exactly? Well, He means that we must truly hate our families and ourselves in order to be His disciples. There, I’ve said it again, and we’re all secretly hoping I can explain it away quickly before it sinks in and we’re stuck with it. How must we hate our families? Here are several ways: First, we must hate the sin in our families. We must hate sin and all evil. “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!” (Ps. 97:10) “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Prov. 8:13). It’s so hard to hate evil, especially in the ones we love the most. We are so tempted to make peace with it for the sake of peace, for the sake of unity, for the sake of friendship – we are tempted to sign treaties with sin and evil. We do this with ourselves because we love ourselves, and we do this with those we claim to love. But true love makes no peace with evil. Unless we hate the evil in ourselves and in those that we love, unless we hate their sins and our sins, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.
Second, we must hate our families and friends compared to our love for Christ. This explanation is often the best evasion of Christ’s words. It’s certainly true, but it often works overtime to mitigate what Jesus says. Instead, we really must work the other way: can we truly see how our love for Christ really must come out as a kind of hatred of those closest to us? There’s something of this sentiment in the great Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen – in the final stanza of the original text it says, “This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface.” It’s always so jarring to sing those words. But the sense is that this celebration leaves all others in the dust, looking, seeming for all the world not only ignored but positively robbed. In Sheldon Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy, he describes how he felt when his wife named “Davy” became a Christian before him: “I was back in the camp of the non-believers. And now I began to resent her conversion. I did not, I thought, resent her being a Christian; I resented her acting like one. Going to church without me – practically unfaithfulness. Going with all the other Christians, leaving me alone. I even resented her little special goodnesses, even goodness to me. I suspected she was doing it for God.” And even later after Sheldon himself had accepted Christ, he continued to struggle with the same resentment. He writes, “I wanted – what did I want? I wanted the fine keen bow of a schooner cutting the waves with Davy and me – just Davy and me… Well, there was nothing unchristian about that, as long as God was there too… But, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free… I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a love poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God… But for Davy, to live was Christ. She didn’t want to be a saint… She simply wanted God – almost totally. His service was her freedom, her joy. She loved me, she loved our sharing; but, ultimately, all there was to share was Christ and His service…”
And this leads to a third way in which we must hate our families and friends: we must hate them for how we allow them to draw us away from Christ. All of the best things in this world are meant to draw us toward Christ. But we are stubborn rebels, and we are so easily distracted. God gives us all the best things. He created the world. All the best things were His idea. Watermelons, candy, elephants, giraffes, waterfalls, helicopters, iPhones, Moms and Dads, husbands, wives, children, friends. All God’s idea, all meant to awaken in us delight and joy and longings to love and be loved, to be happy and fulfilled. And yet, they don’t fully fulfill us. They leave us always hungry for more, but instead of realizing that they were never meant to fully satisfy us, we become disgruntled and discontent and carry on demanding that they must. I deserve to be loved. I deserve to have my needs understood, appreciated, and met. I deserve to be happy – we insist. And Jesus Christ comes into the middle of this selfishness and says no. And instead, He demands that He be our highest love, our greatest treasure, our fullest devotion.
Now, this exclusivity that Jesus demands seems absurd. There are names we have for people who make demands like this: narcissist, megalomaniac, passive-aggressive, creep. It simply is not possible to say that Jesus was a nice man who taught people how to be nice. No ordinary man has the right to make those kinds of claims. Any other man who says that to you, “You can only be my friend if you hate all your other friends and family,” is either insane or a creepy conman. Or else Jesus was no ordinary man. And this is actually what He claimed. He claimed to be able to forgive sins. Not just sins you committed against Him. He would forgive you of sins you committed against other people. What kind of man does that? He seemed to insist that every time anyone sinned, they were in some way sinning against Him. The only kind of man who could do that is a man who believed that everything and everyone was somehow accountable to Him, which is to say that He believed He was God. And this is exactly who Jesus claimed to be. Before Abraham was, I Am, Jesus claimed. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. I and the Father are one. I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me. He walked on water and made bread and fish multiply and spoke to the wind and the waves like He was their Creator, their Author, their Maker, their Lord. He could spit in the dirt and rub it into the eyes of a blind man and restore his sight. He spoke to a dead man, a man who had been in the grave for four days, and He commanded him to come out of the grave. And he did. But not only all of that, but He also insisted that He take full responsibility for all of the darkness and sin and brokenness in the world and even death itself. He said He came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. And so He did. He was betrayed into the hands of wicked men, convicted of crimes He did not commit, and was crucified on a Roman cross for the sins of the world, so that all men might be reconciled to Him.
You see this is why it is not only permissible for Jesus to insist on our exclusive allegiance; it’s actually the most wonderfully good news in all the world that He does. Jesus says, look at me, keep your eyes on me, follow me, turn away from everything else, everyone else. Despise it. Hate it. Because if you don’t you’re refusing the One in whom all things exist. You must hate the world, despise all the offers of love, friendship, peace, prosperity. Because none of those things are heavy enough, strong enough, solid enough to hold you, to keep you, to never let you down. Fathers will fail you. Mothers will fail you. Husbands, wives, children, dear friends will let you down. But Christ will never fail you. A good man might perhaps die for another good man, but God shows his love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Mike and Grace, in the Christian vision of marriage, a man and woman truly are brother and sister before they are husband and wife. Their relationship to Jesus is more fundamental, more essential than their relationship to one another. Mike, there are true duties set before you as a man becoming a husband today. You must love your wife the way Christ loves His bride the Church, and you must lead her. You must lead her straight to Christ. And Grace, there are true corresponding duties set before you as a Christian woman becoming a wife today. You must respect your husband and submit to him in the Lord. You are to be his glory, his crown. And you are to do all of these things in order to win Mike more and more fully to Christ. And so these duties only make sense and your love and friendship will only find their fullest blessing and fulfillment when they are framed by and anchored to your exclusive love and devotion to Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure there have been many wedding homilies in which the minister has exhorted the bride and groom that they must hate one another in order to love one another rightly. But that’s just what I’ve done, and it’s absolutely true and I pray that by the power and blessing of God Almighty, it is and remains wonderfully true and wonderfully good news for you now, and for your many (tall) children, and their children, all your days, and to a thousand generations.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.