Like it or not, the news this week has been all about Harry and Meghan, and their interview with Oprah Winfrey. Their interview has opened a can of worms for the House of Windsor, and put the whole Royal Family under the spotlight. It must grieve the Queen to see her family gaining attention for all the wrong reasons.
Because, at their best, families are a wonderful thing – whether royal or otherwise. At their best, families are places of love, mutual support, fun, care, education and affection. On Mothering Sunday, of course, we particularly give thanks for the essential contribution of every caring mother to a happy family.
I think the purpose and value of family life is well summed-up in the introduction to the Church of England marriage service. It says God has given us families “for the birth and nurture of children… for strength, companionship and comfort in good times and bad, …and for our growth in love”. Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel also helps us appreciate God’s intentions for family life. In particular, it teaches us about the meaning of marriage, and the value of children.
The Meaning of Marriage
The subject of marriage has been a social and political football over the years. It has been a topic of intense debate and controversy, not least because it’s a subject that touches on our deepest human relationships and emotions. Marriage is an institution the encompasses ethics, law and theology – all rolled into one!
Things were no different 2,000 years ago. Because in our Gospel reading Jesus was asked for his opinion on the great marital controversy of his day – was it acceptable for a man to divorce his wife? Moses had permitted divorce, but the Pharisees wanted to know what Jesus thought. So they put him on the spot!
Its striking that Jesus grounds his answer to their question in Genesis chapter 2 – from the blueprint for marriage established right back at the beginning of the Bible. Jesus quotes this Genesis definition of marriage in verses 6 and 7 today, so let me read it again: “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’
That brief definition cited by Christ sets out the key elements of marriage. It describes the essential characteristics of marriage as God intended it:
• Firstly, marriage is an exclusive relationship – Genesis says marriage is between one man and one woman, and no more.
• Secondly, marriage is a public relationship – every wedding has implications for other people, especially on the happy couple’s parents. Marriage means that the new husband and wife “leave” their parents and “unite” with one another. Of course this doesn’t mean that newlyweds should abandon and ignore their parents. But it does mean that from now on they should turn first to one another for emotional and practical support.
• Lastly, the ideal marriage is a permanent relationship – That’s what Genesis means when it says husband and wife “become one flesh”. In God’s mind, marriage is meant to be a union so strong, so tight, that its as if husband and wife have one body, one flesh. A union so tight that it should last a lifetime.
As Jesus recognises in our reading, Moses allowed divorce some situations, but only because of human hard-heartedness and sin – it was never part of God’s original plan for mankind. The Church has always recognised that there are some sad circumstances when divorce may be necessary, but every Christian couple ought to enter marriage with the intention that it is permanent – ‘until death us do part’!
But there is one even more important reason why every husband and wife should take their relationship seriously. Because our reading from Ephesians today tells us that every marriage is meant to be a visual representation of the relationship between Christ and his Church.
The weddings that take place in this church each year are meant to be a foretaste, a sneak preview of the wedding that will take place between Christ and his Church in the world to come. Heaven will be like a wedding feast, the celebration of the marriage of Christ and his church, when the Lord and his people will be united forevermore. A perfect relationship without the stresses, strains and sadnesses that sometimes characterise married life today.
So if you are a Christian here this morning – whether married or single – remember that you are engaged to Christ. One day we will all have a perfect spouse. One day every Christian will celebrating their permanent union with Christ. One day we will all enjoy a wedding feast with our Saviour!
The Value of Children
As well as all its other benefits, marriage provides the God-given context for the birth and nurture of children. Kids benefit from a committed relationship between Mum and Dad, and that’s another reason why Scripture says divorce should only be a last resort.
In the second half of our passage today we see some parents bring their young children to Christ – or at least try to, because Jesus’ disciples kept getting in the way! The disciples were “rebuking” these parents and obstructing their kids’ path to Christ. Jesus’ disciples clearly believed their Master was too busy, too important or simply too tired to give time to these ‘insignificant’ little children.
But the disciples were seriously mistaken. Verse 14 of our passage tells us that Jesus was “indignant” when he saw what his disciples’ were doing. Indignant is a strong word – a word that expresses anger and frustration. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them” Jesus said, before taking “the children in his arms”, placing his hands on them and blessing them.
By these words and actions Jesus was very visibly demonstrating that he values children and wants them to meet with him. And I believe Christ wants us to have the same attitude to children in our own family and our own congregation. He wants our children to grow up knowing and loving him.
Whether we are mothers or fathers, grandparents or godparent, I do hope our greatest ambition for our children is that they come to know Christ. I hope our most heartfelt desire is that they grow up as faithful followers of Jesus. So at home the challenge is for us to spend time with our children in prayer and reading an age-appropriate Bible version, as well as being well-prepared to answer their tricky questions about what we believe.
Its also why we should make sure our Sunday services at St John’s are child-friendly and accessible for families. And its why investing in our relationship with the school is so important for the future.
Before I finish, did you spot Jesus’ challenge to adults at end of our reading? Christ clearly states that even grown-ups need to be childlike to enter God’s kingdom. We need to be childlike to receive God’s forgiveness and enjoy his saving grace.
Being childlike doesn’t mean being immature or infantile, of course. But it does mean that we recognise our utter dependence upon God, just as children depend on their parents. Young children depend on their families for everything – for food, clothing, shelter, entertainment – you name it!
So children can teach us adults something about humility and dependence. Just as children depend on their mother and father for everything, we adults need to be reminded our utter reliance on God for all good things we enjoy – from every breath we take, to the great gift of everlasting life. Only someone with a child-like sense of their dependence on God will humbly acknowledge him as their Saviour, Lord and King.
So as I finish, I hope we’ve been reminded this morning of the meaning of marriage and the value of children. Marriage should model to us all the relationship between Christ and his Church – it should be a visual representation of the love of Jesus for his people. And children should be treated with the same value, love and concern that Christ himself showed them when he walked the earth. Indeed, we adults can even learn from them what true humility really looks like!