Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Church as Bride of Christ

In biblical times, wedding customs differed somewhat from what they are in our culture, but not so much that we cannot relate to the language Scripture uses. It would help if we were as familiar with arranged marriages as some of our Christian brothers and sisters are in other cultures, such as in Central Asia. But since we probably aren't, let's just review a few things.

A marriage contract in biblical times was signed by the parents of the bride and the groom and the parents of the groom (or the groom himself) would pay a dowry to the bride or her parents. This began what was called the betrothal period—what we would today call the engagement. This period was the one Joseph and Mary were in when she was found to be with child (Matthew 1:18; Luke 2:5).

Arranged marriages were regarded as very sensible on several levels. Parents of both parties involved would take great care to ensure that there was the strongest possible support structure for the marriage, common world-views, shared cultural and religious backgrounds, and many other things that would serve to make for a strong marriage – things that many today neglect in favour of weaker grounds for marriage, with consequent bad results that are all around us.

One of the reasons why traditional marriage is being abandoned by so many today is the high rate of divorce in our culture. The more marriages fail, the more people despair of the institution of marriage itself, but that is a different subject.

The biblical understanding of what marriage is goes together with the biblical ideal of a bride. A woman who was betrothed to a man in a first marriage was to be someone who had never been united sexually to any man. In a similar way, her union with her husband would be as his only woman. She would be uniquely his - until their marriage ended in the death of either one of them.

You might be thinking at this point – ah! But what about polygamy in the Bible. Yes. It is true some men in the Bible did have more than one wife, but the Bride in each case was held to a separate standard. No biblical women could have more than one husband at a time. In that way there would never be any doubt as to the paternity of any children she might have.

Women might think that this arrangement was unbalanced, but remember – in those days, long before DNA-based paternity tests, only such an arrangement for brides would ensure that the Messiah would be born in fulfillment of God's promise that He would be a descendant of Abraham. In any other arrangement a child's ancestry would be in doubt making it impossible to prove that God had kept His promise.

So the imagery of purity and consecration were part of the character of a Bride and therefore useful as a depiction of the Church to readers of the Bible.

But, hang on, you may be saying; how can the Church be a pure and consecrated virgin to God when the Church is made up of sinners like you and me? This is where today's second reading comes in. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish'.

You and I, by our sins, are indeed not qualified to be a bride dressed in white and worthy of being presented to a holy and righteous God as His beloved, are we? If God were to describe us sinners in a song that depicted us in all our corruption, covered in the iniquity that besmirches our faces, the song would sound quite different from what we heard this evening in the first reading (!)

They say, 'love is blind', but God would have to be deaf, blind and stupid not to see how unworthy we are of any association with Him. As Isaiah wrote, '(God's ears are not dull that He cannot hear)... your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.
3For your hands are defiled with blood
and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
your tongue mutters wickedness.
4No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
5They hatch adders’ eggs;
they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
6Their webs will not serve as clothing;
men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
and deeds of violence are in their hands.
7Their feet run to evil,
and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
8The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
no one who treads on them knows peace.

So how can God stand to be anywhere near us? Only through Jesus Christ! He, as our Redeemer, has made us His worthy bride. 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish'.

This is how God demonstrate His love for us. Not by waiting for us to be His holy bride by our works or waiting for us to somehow atone for our sins and cleanse ourselves from all our unrighteousness. No. Remember, my friend, we are talking about an arranged marriage and God our Father made this arrangement.

In the words of Luther: 'God beheld our wretched state before the world's foundation, and mindful of His mercies great, He planned for our salvation. He turned to us a father's heart; He did not choose the easy part but gave His dearest treasure. God said to His beloved Son: 'It's time to have compassion. Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation. From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them that they may live with you forever'. 'The Son obeyed His Father's will, was born of virgin mother; and God's good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother' (or, to return to the marriage metaphor – my bridegroom).

This was the arranged marriage. 'while we were yet sinners Christ died for us' (Rom. 5.8). First He took on human flesh and blood as man. Then, to make the only successful atonement for human sin, He shed His human, yet holy blood and sacrificed Himself for human salvation. And then, to give us certainty that we are saved as individuals, He gave us the 'water and the word' of the Sacrament of Baptism.

In that washing of renewal, my friends, we are truly made new before God. We can enter into the presence of God, in a white wedding gown as a worthy Bride – but only because God Himself, in His grace and mercy for Christ's sake, has made us worthy to wear white. Just as He has done for those who are with Him in Heaven now, who have 'come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb' (Rev. 7.14).

'Hasten, as a bride to meet Him, and with loving rev'rence greet Him. For with words of life immortal He is knocking at your portal. Open wide the gates before Him, Saying, as you there adore Him; Grant, Lord, that I now receive You, that I nevermore will leave You'.* Amen.

*Schmuke dich, o liebe Seele (LSB 636) stanza 2.

No comments: