A school of love: Marriage and the Holy Spirit

September 8th, 2015

As far as I can tell, in all of the many conversations continuing to break around the issues of marriage and sexuality, so little is ever said about the Spirit. That claim might seem overly simplistic, but I find it nevertheless true and equally disturbing. The Unity Dialogues, an ongoing project in my own conference, begin with the question, "What does the Spirit seem to be doing?" Yet even here the conversation moves so easily away from actually listening for Spirit's movement into expected entrenchments.

I think we have to ask if Spirit’s conspicuous absence from our prayers and our conversation might be why we find it so hard to move forward. If Spirit is absent from the conversation on marriage, our ways of speaking are necessarily less-than-trinitarian, and therefore less than orthodox and ultimately false. Put differently, if Spirit is not present to light the way, our understanding of marriage and its purposes will remain forever lost in the dark.

In the United Methodist liturgy of Christian marriage, as response to the word read and proclaimed, the celebrant prays: “Eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all life, Author of salvation, Giver of all grace: Bless and sanctify with your Holy Spirit Name and Name, who come now to join in marriage. Grant that they may give their vows to each other in the strength of your steadfast love. Enable them to grow in love and peace with you and with one another all their days, that they may reach out in concern and service to the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[1]

When asked what marriage is, pastors should remember this prayer. This prayer, standing at the hinge between proclamation and response, reminds us that marriage is properly a school of love. As theologian Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. has so eloquently argued, “Christian theologians best understand marriage as a form of sanctification in community over time. Marriage makes time both to expose faults for healing and to develop virtues for incorporation into the trinitarian life.”[2]

The remainder of Roger’s essay acknowledges the place of the Holy Spirit in marriage as a means of sanctification. Rogers has done what so many of us fail to do: to look for Spirit’s presence and work in the places where we are told to expect Spirit to be. The neglect is more egregious, since “it is, after all, the Holy Spirit, in Christian discourse, who renews and diversifies, the Spirit who produces sanctification, human beings transformed by grace.”

By invoking Spirit and her office of sanctification as often as he does, Rogers offers at least two key ideas for our conversations on sexuality and marriage. First, he reminds us that Spirit characteristically rests on bodies (for a sustained reflection on how this resting appears in the scriptural narrative, see Rogers’s tour de force After the Spirit), which means that Spirit fundamentally gathers, diversifies, and orders bodies. Trinitarians should always be suspicious of binaries, as Spirit continuously shatters, gathers, and expands social structures.[3] Spirit, who bears witness to the love between Father and Son, continues to rejoice in causing creation to be fruitful and diversify.

Rogers also reminds us that marriage, like all of God’s ordinances, is fundamentally a communal gift. Weddings analogize our communion within the Triune life, as “at a wedding the partners represent the love of two, while the congregation participates in the rejoicing of a third, caught up into the office of the Spirit in the trinitarian life.”[4] We are reminded that Trinity is communion-in-diversity, a communion between the one who blesses, the one receiving a blessing, and the one who rests upon them as the bearer of blessing. Distinction stands at the heart of Trinity, of sanctification, and therefore of marriage as Spirit’s school of sanctity.

Marriage as a form of sanctification in community means that all who are involved are brought under Spirit as headmaster. Marriage is not an office merely for the two joined together in its bonds, but for all who share together in its liturgy. It is an office all who share together in the community made possible by the Spirit who calls some together in marriage. Therefore Rogers presses us to ask the right sort of questions. “Given that same-sex couples are not going to go away, two questions press the theologian: How is the Church under the Holy Spirit going to turn the phenomenon to salvific purposes, that is, under what concrete liturgical form?”[5]

I believe Rogers is right. I wonder if the prayer mentioned above is not in fact already a liturgical form for beginning to interpret this phenomenon of the Spirit. If you want to know what life with Trinity is like, go to a wedding. If we want to know what it means to be faithful to our triune faith, then we will have to wonder how Spirit is making room for same-sex couples in the economy of salvation. And if you want to understand something of what Jesus means when he tells us that whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven, then conversation about sexuality in the church should continue on as it is now. The continued “refusal to bear witness to and keep faith with love refuses to participate in the work of the Spirit.”[6]

Coming to see marriage as a school of love means that we will celebrate and seek the ways Spirit continues to diversify the body. We might actually come to desire the company of those we would never have imagined sharing company with before. We might come to read Scripture and its readers through a “nuptial hermeneutic” like the one Rogers deploys, and in doing so receive the gift of being made a witness to the Lord’s wedding feast with Israel.

In the light of a recovery of Spirit’s office, we might be able see marriage as an invitation to take part in the grace of the multitude, instead of the constricting coils of a deathly homogeneity. Seeing marriage not merely as a mechanism for procreation or as a threshold in the interstitial space between sexual expression and morality, but instead as a form of sanctification opens a way for us to step from the darkness into Spirit’s light.

[1] “A Service of Christian Marriage,” The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 866.

[2] Eugene Rogers, “Marriage as a Discipline of Sanctification,” n.p. [cited November 3, 2005]. Online: http://covnetpres.org/2005/11/marriage-as-a-discipline-of-sanctification/

[3] This claim could virtually stand as a condensation of Acts.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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