by Bill Carroll
And God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18)
Dearly beloved, it’s not good for us to be alone. We are made for community and relationships with other people. Marriages, friendships, and other relationships are intended to create communities. God wants our communities to be characterized by equality, mutuality, and Christ-like love—so that each partner has a stake in the relationship. When Adam sees Eve, he rejoices and recognizes her as his equal: This at last, he says, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.
Too often, the human story has been one of inequality and the various forms of violence we use to subjugate and oppress each other. This despite the Genesis story and our baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” True, some have sought to justify male domination with this story, but that relies on a misreading. Even the man’s power of naming (problematic as it is), is not absolute. God (who is neither male nor female) speaks first, and God defines the woman as equal: “I will make him a helper as his partner.” This is a mutual relationship: he will be her helper and partner too.
Even the teachings of Jesus on divorce, harsh though they seem, are meant to preserve God’s gift of equality. When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, they ask whether it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. In reply, Jesus cites the story from Genesis. In marriage, he says, the two become one flesh. What God has joined, let no one separate. He goes on to tell them that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives only because of their hardness of heart.
Working within the limitations of his time and culture, Jesus seeks to protect women from their husbands’ arbitrary decisions to put them away. In Jesus’ day, divorce rendered women economically vulnerable, since it put them outside family and tribal networks necessary for survival. Seen in this light, Jesus is not so much teaching against divorce, as he is teaching in favor of vulnerable women. One might ask what Jesus would say to us today, about those divorces that end not in poverty and social exclusion but in liberation from relationships (some of them violent) that diminish the women, children, and men involved.
In any event, the Church’s teaching has evolved (not without a fight), so we now admit exceptions to the teaching of Jesus on marriage and divorce. In so doing, we continue the liberating process initiated by Jesus himself. We see it starting in the New Testament. In Mark, Jesus is against divorce—no exceptions. Just a decade later, in Matthew, Jesus allows for divorce in cases of adultery. Here, we can see the Church’s teaching evolving, in response to the Holy Spirit and messy, human reality. Today, many churches (ours among them), recognize additional complexities, without denying the intentions of Jesus.
Making pastoral provision for the real needs of real people is not the same as giving up the norm. In the marriage liturgy, we aren’t allowed to hedge our bets. It’s for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.
Sometimes, couples break up too easily. Sometimes, we deprive ourselves of the benefits of community, where we have to live with another person and his or her flaws, in a genuine give-and-take—and let our chosen commitments shape us over time. To give up on these commitments would be as big a mistake as keeping a couple together no matter what the cost. (The canons of the Episcopal Church are clear, by the way, about acting first to secure the safety and well being of the partners, when a marriage is imperiled.) Sometimes—especially in cases of adultery, abuse, or abandonment—we need to admit brokenness, seek healing, and move on.
Beloved, we are partners in God’s creative work. Unlike any merely human partnership, the community between God and creation can’t be broken. In Scripture, God’s People break the covenant again and again, but God never does. In the Scriptures, marriage is held up as a sacred mystery which points to the faithful union between Jesus and the Church.
This, incidentally, is the heart of the matter when it comes to same-sex marriage, as well as the additional complexities that people who are transgender, non-binary, etc. bring to the table. After all, how much of any marriage is really about sex? If marriage is about a lifelong commitment and a partnership of equals, does it really make any sense to restrict it to opposite sex couples, once we admit the full equality of men and women, as well as other gender identities and expressions? Many arguments against same-sex marriage presuppose a hierarchical or complimentary view of the sexes. But it becomes much harder to see why marriage should be only between a man and a woman, once we admit that roles in a marriage are defined not by sex and gender but by the particular gifts and inclinations of the partners.
Two different people freely offer their vows to each other, intending to be joined together for life with Jesus in their midst. The community that God brings about in a marriage should reflect the faithfulness, justice, and self-giving love at the heart of Jesus. I, for one, think that’s one of the real blessings that same-sex couples and other “non-traditional” couples bring to the Church—inviting us to do real discernment about the meaning of marriage, and to reclaim the Christian meaning of a sacrament that has too often been debased and disconnected from Jesus and the Gospel.
The lessons of the Genesis story are not just about marriage. They are about human relationships more broadly. Single people and unmarried couples also participate in God’s gift of community. The Church itself, like any family, is a kind of community. That’s certainly true in the parishes I have served. From the beginning, God makes us for community with other people. Friendship and other human relationships point us in the same direction. Human beings are made to give ourselves freely and faithfully to each other—to work side by side as the stewards of creation, to follow Jesus in the way of love, and collaborate with God’s coming Kingdom. The fact that we often hurt and betray each other does nothing to annul God’s call to live in relationships of equality and mutual love.
Despite our violence, which cost him his life, Jesus was not afraid to become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. For our sake, he became human and showed us God’s ways. He became our brother and shared our humanity. In our flesh, Jesus is the expression of God’s very nature: perfect, faithful love.
Because Jesus became one with us and gave us his Spirit of love, our flesh (with all its complexities and manifold differences) has become the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. We are God’s partners, the ones with whom God will work to change the world. We bear the name of Christ. We have been baptized into his Body. And we have become a holy community of friends, who live out his love in the world. His priorities have become our priorities—and his ways, our very own. And the Spirit continues to urge us onward in all the ways of love.
Throughout history, God has been searching for a faithful partner. In Jesus, God finds one. In Jesus, God finds a human being who says “Yes” to the blessings of covenant relationship. What he gives as God, Jesus keeps as one of us. Through Jesus, we also have been caught up his own powerful “yes” to God.
God is perfect community, perfect mercy, perfect love. God is utterly, totally free. And God is generous without measure or price. Because God is generous, God wants partners to share the divine abundance. God wants to share all that God is and all that God has with US. God makes us in God’s own image and likeness. God calls us into partnership, friendship, and community. God shares our flesh and lives and dies as one of us.
And so, we are never alone.