What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder
Two friends of mine were getting married. They had just made their vows and the minister held their hands aloft to present them, united, to the congregation. He was about to read these words from Matthew 19 as the prayer book stipulates:
“What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:6)
But before he said those words, he glared at the assembled friends and family and offered his own translation of the verse:
“Do NOT mess with this!”
God has joined them! Let no-one come between them! It was a stern reminder about the seriousness of this union.
I wonder what advice you have heard concerning a healthy marriage?
Sense of humour.
Keeping the passion alive.
Never going to bed angry.
Never trying to change the other person.
While some advice seems to be geared at letting the partners live out separate existences, at least most modern marriage counsel still recognizes the vital importance of one-ness.
And so advice abounds on how to create such oneness: Couples are counselled on the importance of communication, a good sex life, conflict resolution, quality time, etc.
No doubt these things can be helpful. But our verse for today declares that something decisive has already happened to a married couple: ”God hath joined [them] together.”
God has united the married couple. The union is not primarily in the couple’s hands. The union is in God’s hands. The quality of union does not depend on the partners. It’s not down to their compatibility, their communication, their commitment. It’s not about their ability to unite themselves. It’s foundationally about God’s ability to unite them. And He is very good at His job.
In fact He has united the married couple. At the most fundamental level, this one-ness is not a future hope but a present gift. When the two become one flesh it’s not primarily a human union which God then blesses. Instead the human union is an enjoyment of the prior fact of “what God hath joined together.”
In 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was both engaged and imprisoned. He wrote a wedding sermon for his niece in which he declared:
It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
The experience of oneness (love) does not effect the oneness. That is too great a burden to put onto anyone’s love. Instead the fact of oneness (marriage) sustains and encourages the experience of oneness (love).
So before you read another paperback on “17 Tips for a Healthy Marriage”, look full in the face of your spouse and know, as surely as that ring is on your finger, you are one with this person at the very deepest level. Like a head to a body you are joined. The other person might not be for your union. You might not be for your union. But God is not just for your union – He has established it. And let no-one – not even yourself – put it asunder. Reflect deeply on the fact of your oneness, and see if it does not affect the experience of your oneness.
But more than this. We should realise that marriage is a proclamation of our union with Jesus. Therefore we also learn about our Christian lives from this verse. You see God hath joined me to Christ. My union with Jesus is His achievement. I do not make it happen. I just enjoy it – and all the more as I recognize the sheer fact of it.
Just as with marriage books, there are a million paperbacks promising to “put the romance back into your Christian walk.” There are tips and techniques. There’s advice – some of it sensible, some of it plain ridiculous. But what do we need first? We first need a conviction regarding the strength of the union. God hath joined me to Christ.
So in the same way that I looked at my spouse while feeling my wedding ring, so I look full in the face of Jesus and call to mind my baptism… and I know I am one with Him like a body to a head. The union is not as strong as my human feelings or faithfulness, it’s as strong as divine faithfulness. Therefore let not man put it asunder!
Let the fact of your union shape your experience of it. And realise, to rephrase Bonhoeffer,
It is not your spiritual experiences that sustain your covenant union with Jesus. But from now on, your covenant union with Jesus sustains your spiritual experiences.