What is a Christian marriage? Is a Christian marriage one where the man and woman both attend a Christian church, are members, or were baptized once? Is it where the individuals in the family try to be good and kind and follow the teachings of Jesus?
Many marriages and families participate in churches and perhaps even aim for Christian morals – which are not actually distinctively Christian. In fact, even though true Christians do worship regularly, are baptized, and seek to be good and kind and follow the teachings of Jesus – those things are actually all secondary. They aren’t the first thing, the primary thing.
The first thing, the fundamental thing is Jesus Himself. You don’t have a Christian marriage, a Christian family, or even a Christian church unless Jesus is there, unless Jesus is present with you. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Apart from Jesus, you can do nothing. You cannot love your wife as you ought. You cannot respect your husband as you ought – without Jesus.
Of course unbelievers try all the time. There are plenty of secular counselors and marriage books. And there’s decent, human advice found in many of them. But the problem is that we are not decent human beings. If we are honest, which is actually one of the fundamental problems we have (we don’t like being honest), we are constantly doing things we aren’t proud of, regret, and feel ashamed of. We try to be kind, and it comes out rude. We try to tell the truth, and we spin it and lie. We say we forgive, but we’re still festering full of bitterness inside. Jesus wasn’t just speaking in some of kind spiritual sense. He literally meant that we can’t be good and kind or follow His teachings without Him. It turns out that all the good advice in the world is about as helpful as giving a corpse tennis lessons. No matter how hard you try, they just can’t get it.
There’s a word in the Bible for the presence of Jesus in someone’s life. It’s the word “grace.” Grace is one of those words we use so frequently we can easily miss what it actually means. Grace can mean favor or mercy or kindness. But all of these words are still begging for definition. Who determines what favor is? Who defines mercy? What do we mean by kindness? Sometimes people define mercy as killing elderly people or aborting children with disabilities. Or maybe kindness is defined as letting people do whatever makes them happy despite the great harm it can do to themselves or others.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to the young virgin Mary, he greeted her and said she was highly favored or full of grace. This isn’t because Mary was special on her own. Gabriel said that it was because the Lord was with her, and He explained that the Holy Spirit would very shortly overshadow her and conceive in her womb the Son of the Most High. Mary was full of grace because she was to be full of Jesus literally developing inside of her. Gabriel says that with God all things are possible. And a short while later, Mary entered her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and the baby in her womb leaped and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:42, 45). Elizabeth says that the grace inside of Mary is contagious. And when her baby heard Mary’s greeting, he leaped for joy. And Elizabeth says that all of that blessing is due to Mary believing what was spoken to her from the Lord.
About thirty years later, the young rabbi named Jesus would preach a sermon, and He would proclaim that this same blessing is available to all: Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the sorrowful. And He said this: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. And He said, if you only love those who love you, what grace is that to you? Or if you do good to those who will do good in return what grace is that to you? But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Jesus, the Son of the Most High, says that His grace is available to all. This blessing is available to all who believe in His grace.
Jesus was no pacifist. He sent His disciples to disciple every nation, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all of His commands. Those are either the words of a megalomaniac or the rightful king of the world. But unlike all other world conquerors, Jesus intends to conquer the world by His grace, by loving His enemies to death – quite literally. Which He ultimately did by taking their guilt upon Himself. By being betrayed, mocked, scorned, and convicted of crimes He didn’t commit, and then being stripped naked and nailed to a cross to suffer and die in excruciating pain. And at the very point where we, along with His own disciples, give up all hope, assuming that this must be the triumph of evil, Jesus screamed with His dying breath, “it is finished.” And what He meant is that He had won. He had triumphed. Evil has been overcome by good.
A Christian is someone who has been conquered by that grace – it’s the grace of the God who dies in the place of sinners, in the place of His own enemies in order to win them back into His friendship and fellowship. And this is necessarily what a Christian marriage is, what a Christian home is, what a Christian church is. It’s a place where the former enemies of God gather. It’s a place where forgiven sinners gather. A Christian marriage is the union of two former rebels, two former enemies now pledging to live with and for one another in that grace.
Josiah, Jesus called you to Himself years ago, but He calls you today in the sight of these witnesses to follow Him by taking Elise to be your wife. This calling to love Elise like Jesus loves the Church is not something different from following Jesus. Today it becomes one of the central ways that you follow Jesus. The Lord Jesus is giving you a specific assignment to love this woman with all of your might, to lay your self down for her needs, to sacrifice for her, to bless her, to encourage her, to make her more lovely by your love.
Elise, you are likewise being commissioned by Jesus to follow Him by embracing this man as your husband. Submitting to this man, respecting this man is not something different than your submission to the Lord Jesus. Today, this assignment is becoming one of the central ways you will follow Christ. Jesus is issuing you an order this day to stand by this man, to serve the needs of this man, to encourage and exhort this man so that he might become stronger, bolder, and more honorable every day you minister to him.
But Josiah and Elise, you cannot do this. Apart from Jesus, you can do nothing. Apart from Jesus, all of your efforts will fall flat. All of your good intentions will come out sideways and backwards, full of pride and selfishness and manipulation. When God calls a man to love his wife like Jesus loved the Church, it’s like God calling a virgin to conceive. When God calls a woman to serve her husband, it’s like God calling a virgin to conceive.
Which means, Josiah and Elise, Jesus is assigning you to do something that is utterly impossible unless He is with you. You can’t conceive this love within you. But the gospel, the good news is that the Holy Spirit overshadows those who believe and turns them into sons of the Most High. So we are assembled here to proclaim this blessing over you and your new family, and it’s your job to believe. We proclaim the blessing of the presence of Jesus upon you, the grace of the living God upon you. This is the grace of forgiveness to sinners, the grace of the kindness of God to enemies, the grace of the mercy of God to traitors. May your home be a place where the promises of God are believed, where the Holy Spirit overshadows you, and the presence of Jesus constantly fills you and infects everyone you greet with the joy of the Spirit.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.