Easter 6a, Wedding of Jeff Herman and Rhonda Menze Rev. Charles Schulz
Jesus says, “If you love you me, you will keep my commandments.” We say, “If you love me, you’ll do what I want.” His words and our words may sound alike but they are as far from each other as righteousness is from sin and as distant as God is from Satan.
When we say that people love me when they do what I want, we are confusing true love with our own selfish desires. You’d think that the difference between these things would be obvious, but this is the kind of blindness which sin inflicts upon us. Some relationships even appear to work this way. One person gives and another takes. One demands and the other acquiesces and complies; one barks and the other jumps. You can call this sort of relationship a lot of things, but you cannot call it love. This is a sort of conditional, contractual deal between people: You can be in my life as long as I get what I want. But I do not want to be inconvenienced. I will not sacrifice for you. I will not suffer for you. In every matter it’s you or me, a winner and a loser, and I’m voting for me. That’s our old Adam, our fallen sinful nature talking. Such a relationship is really no relationship—for there is no true relating, only demanding and all our attention is focused only on our own needs and our own wants.
When we put our own wants above others, we rob them of the dignity God has given them as human beings, made in His image, fully equal to ourselves. We are thinking of other people only as objects, tools to use for our own purposes and to satisfy ourselves. We are breaking the very first commandment. We are putting ourselves in the place of God. We are having no other gods before “me.” And if we ask ourselves whether we are living to get what we want for ourselves out of life or whether we are living purely to serve others in the love of God, each of us can recognize that this sin has a grown up on the sinful soil of our own hearts. In a wicked kind of springtime, the seeds sown by Adam’s fall have grown into the weeds of our particular sins of selfishness and callousness toward others.
Our Lord Jesus doesn’t say, “If you love you me, you’ll do what I want.” He says, “If you love you me, you will keep my commandments.” What makes the difference is that Jesus speaks in love. He Himself is the love of God, poured out for the life of the world, giving Himself completely and offering Himself wholly so that we may be His own. His love rescues us from all evil and bestows us on us the highest good. His love takes us in our selfish sinfulness, not to give us what we want for ourselves but to give us what we most desperately need. His love takes our death – and Jesus takes that very death upon Himself – and He gives us His life in exchange. His love takes our distance from God and bridges that gap, laying Him down on the cross.
Loving us so, our Lord can command and expect our love for Him. All of us who know Christ by faith love Him. We have both heard of His divine love for us and we have believed what He has done for us and how He cares for us daily. We have taken an accounting of what we are without Him – and what would become of us without Him – and we give Him all thanks and praise that He has made us forgiven, beloved, children of God. We recognize that we have not been loving or kind or good but that He has been all those things to us and more: gracious and compassionate, merciful and gentle, tender and welcoming. By His saving love, He joins Himself to us; He unites us with Himself and brings us to the Father. Those who do not love the Lord do not know Him. In His instance, it truly is the case that to know Him is to love Him, not simply because He is so loving but because He is Love come in the flesh. And when He comes into our lives with His Holy Spirit, He kindles in us true faith in Him and from that faith true love for Him, weak and faltering though it be.
Loving us so, our Lord can command and expect our obedience. He who is love come in the flesh for us teaches us His way of flesh-and-blood, do-till-you-die, give-it-your-all, no-holds-barred love. Indeed, speaking in love for us, this is the command that He gives: Love one another as I have loved you. It is an impossible command—impossible for us, fallen, sinful and selfish human creatures—yet it is the work of His Spirit in our lives. And so to know the Lord is to love the Lord and to love the Lord is to obey the Lord.
And so today we have this impossible thing demonstrated right before us in the rite of Christian marriage. One man takes a woman and vows to be her man, cherishing her as Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her, loving and honoring her, keeping her in sickness and health and, forsaking all others, remaining united to her alone as long as they both shall live. We have wonderful examples of such love in our congregation – with couples who have been married 50, 60 and even 70 years. But who does this anymore? It will mean being the father of her children and never again living simply for what you want and what you can do for yourself? And what about this woman? Who does this any more, “submit to Him as the Church submits to Christ, loving, honoring, keeping, remaining united as long as they both shall live?” Who does such a thing? Disciples of Jesus, that’s who. Disciples of Jesus loving the Lord and following the Lord’s command.
The commandment which applies most directly here is the 6th. In its prohibition, it forbids adultery and all forms of sexual immorality, whether within or outside or in opposition to the marriage vows. And in its positive command, as Luther articulates its explanation, it states: “We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do and husband and wife love and honor each other.” The Lord commanded that people express their physical love by joining together in life-long monogamous marriage – and to make this explicitly clear, He commanded that one man and one woman join together in marriage to make a family. That’s how He makes families, after all. His command is love and He has structured marital love in the biological nature of His creation. Here is love which follows in His way of service. By His grace, it is holy love, sanctified by His Spirit, blessed by His presence within them and among them, consecrated by His Word.
And you, Jeff and Rhonda, you can only come to this moment to take such solemn vows to give yourselves completely – body and soul, for all of life, exclusively to one another and without reservation – because this is how you have been loved by Jesus Christ. They know that their love is not perfect, but His is. Their own love will not sustain them, but His will. They come together, each with a past, each with particular challenges for the present, each with a future unknown, fraught with risks and dangers. But this is the certain truth: Jesus Christ is God’s love come into the flesh for you and by His Spirit His love will prevail. It is His grace which will bring forgiveness when, inevitably, one sins against the other. It is His truth which will restore them to His way when, inevitably, you lose you course and go astray. And so they are bold to make these audacious vows today because the Lord’s love is greater than their sins, greater than their love, and stronger than their doubts. Such vows are an act of faith in God, a stepping forward to live in forgiveness, to live by His grace; such vows are an answer to the call to walk in the way of Christ, to know you will fall and to rejoice that He will be the one who will pick you up again and again, restoring you to God and to one another.
Of course, such love of Christ’s disciples is not limited to the love between a man and a woman in marriage. You don’t have to be married to know and exercise Christian love. It is found among Christian friends who are ready to help in time of need. They’re there with a listening ear and time to share. Such love is found among family members who care for the elderly as they age and patiently guide the young along Christ’s way. It is found among congregation members who pray for one another, cry on each other’s shoulders, and rejoice in each other’s victories. It is found in the Body of Christ when disaster strikes some far-off land and Christians open their wallets to contribute and even go in person to visit strangers in order to rebuild and to comfort and to encourage.
The life of every disciple of Christ will be a life of love – love for God who sent us His Son, love for the Son who gave Himself up for us, love by the Spirit who teaches us to love one another. It is a life of love because and only because we are so fully and completely loved. St. John the Apostle wrote, “We love because He first loved us.” And with what love! Our love falters. We are novices at this, just beginners in the way of love. Our love is like a flickering bulb, on and off. Seeking to go the way of Christ’s love we stand, we start, then stumbling, then falling again, walking once more, a bit of a run perhaps, then, before you know it, prostrate on our faces. But the love of Jesus is the reason we live, it is the reason we love, and – best of all—the reason we too, each and every one of us, are beloved of God, cherished by God, not just till death do us part, but for all time and for all eternity. For His love has conquered death and this is His vow – that nothing, nothing will ever separate us from His love.
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