Once in a while, as a preacher, I get a sermon topic that makes me groan as I open the Bible to prepare. I confess that this is one of those Sundays!
We have in front of us a text which - unless we read it very carefully - is one which could send people running screaming from the church!
On the surface, there's no getting away from Jesus' primary message here. Consider verses 10 and 11: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"! That's a very tough line to take, isn't it?
Jesus' foundation for this very stern line is the book of Genesis. He approves of the ancient notion that when a man leaves his father and mother he becomes joined to his wife. The two become one flesh. "So", says Jesus in verse 8, "they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore," he goes on, "what God has joined together, let no one separate" (or 'put assunder' as the King James Bible puts it so poetically!)
So, on the face of it, there appears to be no good news here for anyone who has been divorced. A plain reading of this text seems to brand anyone who has been divorced as acting contrary to the very will of God. Even harder, anyone who has re-married is branded as an adulterer!
And there's an even more uncomfortable truth about Jesus that we preachers have to confront. The fact is that Jesus sets the bar very high on every aspect of human behaviour. "Love your enemies - and pray for your persecutors". "Sell all you have, and give the money to the poor". "Love God with all your heart, soul, body, mind and strength." And as we saw last week - "pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin". "Cut off your hand if it causes you to stumble". The list is endless. In fact if any of us - married, single, divorced - if any of us try to hold ourselves up against the high standards that Jesus set, then there is, apparently, no good news for any of us.
But before we all despair, and run from the Church screaming - let's relax. Let's dig a little deeper into what's going on here.
We need, first of all, to see Jesus' teachings in the light of Jesus' actions. Let's first consider what Jesus' reaction so often is to those he encounters who are in living in sinful ways. Time and time again, his reaction is one of open-handed forgiveness. Despite his clear opposition to the principal of adultery, when he actually encounters the woman who has been caught in the actual act, he ends up saying "neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more". To Matthew, the greedy tax-collector, he says "Come, follow me". Consider the woman at the well, who has had many husbands; he freely converses with her and teaches her. Consider Peter, who denied his Lord three times; Jesus forgives him and restores him to a leadership position. The sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears; she finds acceptance and forgiveness.
We need then to see Jesus the one who sets a standard. His standards are high. The kind of perfection he describes is difficult to attain. But then, what's the point of a standard unless it requires something from us...something to aspire to.
On the other hand, though, Jesus is also the one who freely offers forgiveness to those who fail to meet the standard. Jesus knows that his standards are high - even too high for us to meet in our own strength, and by our own resources. To anyone who shows even a glimmer of understanding that their lives fall short of the standard, Jesus opens his arms and welcomes them in. To those who turn to him, he offers his own living spirit - the Holy Spirit of God - to dwell within us...drawing us on ever closer to the heavenly standards of the Kingdom of God. That's why we in this church continue to marry people who have been divorced. We draw from Jesus' example of not condemning those who, like the rest of us in so many respects, have missed the mark. We offer loving forgiveness - and we hope that it is offered to us in return. We forgive others their sins, and pray that we might be forgiven ours too. "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us" The only people whom Jesus continually criticises and rails at are the chief priests and pharisees...who simply refuse to see that they, too, fall short of the high standards of God.
So, there is good news, after all. The good news is that forgiveness, healing, wholeness and new life are all freely available to anyone who trusts in Jesus, and in Jesus' way of living. Anyone who looks at the standards he sets, recognises them for what they are...Godly standards...anyone who turns away from their way of living, and turns towards God's way of living...to such people there is utter forgiveness, and the chance to start over again. All of that is summed up in the ancient phrase..."Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand". The word 'repent' comes from a Greek word that meant 'turn around' or 'turn away'. So, literally, 'turn around' and point yourself towards God's standards - God's way of living...or 'the Kingdom of Heaven'.
Another ancient word that we ought to understand is the word 'sin'. Like so many words we use in Christianity, it comes out of an ancient Greek concept. A 'sin' to the ancient Greeks was in fact a term used in archery-training. To sin was 'to miss the target'. So for us too, to sin is to miss the mark, or to fall short of the high standards of God.
That is, of course the heart of the Gospel. Those of you who think I'm sometimes a bit too liberal need to hear that that is where I stand. Forgiveness, healing and new life are freely available to anyone who recognises that they have sinned...that they have missed the mark. Forgiveness and healing are available to anyone who will turn around, repent, and turn towards Jesus', and who will receive his gift of new life. We can all be 'born again' - given the chance to start over - and receive the free gift of God's Holy Spirit living within us, changing us from glory to glory. We can all live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven - the way of being that embraces God's standards, and which flows on into eternity.
But there's more. There's something even deeper going on just under the surface of these texts we are considering. In both last week and this week's readings there is a unifying concept at work - unifying in the sense of the notion of one-ness. Let me explain...
In this week's reading, from Mark 10, we see Jesus refering to the Genesis notion of one-ness. Two, separate human beings come together - and become one. "So", says Jesus, "they are no longer two but one".
In the the previous chapter - Mark 9.42-49 which I read last week - we heard Jesus successively working his way through most of the things we have two of - and suggesting that one be got rid of. Hands, feet, eyes - all reduced to one-ness.
This is a theme that echoes through all the Gospels, and into the New Testament in general. In John Chapter 17, for example, we are given a front-row seat as Jesus prays to his Father in heaven. What does he pray? He prays for his followers, "that they may all be one, just as you and I are one". He goes on to pray in John 17.23: "I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one."
The concept of One-ness, then, seems to be a key Gospel principle. And it's one that a branch of early Christianity took up with relish. They were called 'Gnostic' Christians - from the Greek word 'gnosis' which meant 'knowledge'. The Gnostics took the notion of one-ness that pervades the Gospel and extended it to a new and radical thought. What if, they argued, we were all not just children of God, but actually aspects of God ourselves? What if I am a part of God which, for the brief span of a human life, is being 'Tom' for a while? What if you and I are infact all parts of the same God...each of us experiencing and delighting in what it means to be human for a while. What if Jesus - whom we believe to have been fully God as well as fully human - is a pointer to a deeper truth...the idea that we are all both human and divine?
Personally, I don't go as far as the Gnostics did. I think that their idea tends to confuse the Creator with the Creation. But I don't claim to be wise in all things. I don't think I've understood even a tiny bit of the depths and wonder of God. I remain open, as I hope you do, to what God yet wants to teach us about God's self. There is plenty of Scripture that points us in the Gnostics' direction of thought. There is the idea of God as the Vine, and us as connected branches. There is Paul's metaphor of all the people of God being one body.
If the Gnostics were right, or even half-right, then the notion of one-ness becomes even more crucial. True one-ness would mean living and acting in ways that truly understood just how connected we all truly are. No longer would we see ourselves as separate autonomous beings - who can callously inflict pain and suffering on each other. Instead we would learn that to inflict pain on someone else, or to stand by while another person suffers, is to inflict that suffering on ourselves. An understanding of true one-ness would allow us to make sense of St Paul's notion that when one member of the body hurts, then all hurt. When one celebrates, we all celebrate.
Further than that, a full understanding of one-ness - whether Gnostic or not - would enable us to see God in a completely new way. No longer would God be the old man on a cloud, looking down on us, waiting to give out rewards or punishments. Instead we would begin to see God as the creative, life-giving force at our very centre. Instead of looking outwards for our salvation, we would begin to look inwards...tapping the very source of life that is at the centre of all our lives.
In that context, the idea of two people becoming one through marriage - or indeed any close, personal, faithful relationship - begins to make even more sense. Those of us who are happily married know what it is to discover the connections which build and grow over a life-time of togetherness. We begin to recognise the Divine Spark in each other...and to recognise that we share the same Divine Spark. When one of us hurts, the other is wounded too. When one of us is happy, the other shares their joy. Marriage, and other kinds of close personal relationship, become something to which we can all aspire...because in togetherness we begin to discover the truth of one-ness. Sometimes it takes hard work. Sometimes we have to give up something of our own needs and wants in order to discover what we need and want together. Some people are simply unable to make that transition...they remain stuck in their own desires...and it is in those circumstances that infidelity, adultery and ultimately divorce often occur.
That is why, ultimately, I think that Jesus sets committed faithful marriage as such a high standard - and why he discourages separation and infidelity in such strident terms. It's not because he's stuck with some outdated notion of the 'way things should be'. It's because he speaks out of his unique sense of one-ness with God, and recognises that committed, faithful, loving marriage can open our eyes to the connection we all share in God.
So marriage then is a picture, a holy picture, of one-ness...the one-ness that lies at the heart of the Gospel. In much the same way that two become one in marriage, so we who are separated from God by the way we live our separate lives, can become joined to God.
That's a standard worth aspiring to I think.