1 Corinthians 1: Being Married – Rev. Henry Brinton (audio available)
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1 Corinthians 1: Being Married
January 15, 2012
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
This will come as no surprise to you, but relationships are hard. Being married is hard. Being single is hard. Treating others ethically is hard. Being in the church is hard. Being disciplined is hard.
When you come right down to it, life is hard.
We all need help, and that’s why I want us to turn to the writings of the apostle Paul. Over the next five weeks, I’ll be offering five sermons on life, from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Why Paul? That’s a good question. A lot of people don’t like Paul, because he said some rather negative things about women, and some positive things about slavery. His words don’t always ring true to us in 21st century America. Personally, I think it’s wrong to take everything he said and apply it literally to life today.
But Paul should not be ignored, because he had a first-class mind. One of my Bible professors at divinity school, Leander Keck, used to say that we have a problem understanding Paul, because “Paul had a first-class mind, and most of us have second-class minds.”
That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? We should accept the fact that Paul has some important things to teach us, even if we don’t agree with everything he says.
Let’s begin with what Paul says about being married. You might be surprised to discover that Paul is really not the biggest fan of marriage.
If he had his way, everyone would be unmarried, as he is (1 Corinthians 7:8). “But because of cases of sexual immorality,” he advises, “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband …. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (7:2, 9).
In the mind of Paul, marriage is basically a cure for lust. If you cannot control yourself, get hitched.
That’ll cure you.
Still, even though he is not a big fan, Paul would have to be impressed by the huge number that recently popped up at the National Shrine in Washington, DC.
The number: 36,722.
That was the grand total of years of marriage accumulated by the 829 couples who registered for a special worship service in their honor. These husbands and wives had all been married at least 25 years, and some had been together for more than 70. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. Until parted by death.
36,722 years is an impressive number. The apostle Paul himself was walking the earth just 2,000 years ago. Go back 36,000 years, and Neanderthals are killing each other with stone weapons.
Please hold your jokes about husbands being Neanderthals.
If you walk into any congregation in the United States, you are going to see couples with an impressive marital track record. Here at FPC, we have couples who have been together for 30, 50, even close to 70 years. These unions are rarely without stress and strain, and many have overcome obstacles of illness, loss, and unfaithfulness. But if we added up the total number of years of marriage here at FPC, we would be amazed.
Maybe not 36,722 years. But still impressive.
My focus today is on marriage, and next week’s message will explore what Paul says to the Corinthians about being single. Both are perfectly legitimate ways to live one’s life and serve the Lord. But for today, the topic is Christian marriage, and how it can be preserved.
In Washington, a man named Larry Farr has seen a lot, as a D.C. police officer for 30 years and a husband for 50. But his wife Barbara still surprises him. “I’m amazed she’s still so supportive and caring,” he told The Washington Post (June 6, 2011). “No matter how mad I get at her, or how mad she gets at me, the next day, it’s cool.”
Another couple, Victor and Marguerite Dawson, met at a homecoming dance in 1944, when he was 17 and she was 14. Victor went home that night and told his mother, “I met the woman I’m going to marry.”
His mom’s response? “Go to bed.”
He did, but he ended up marrying Marguerite after a four-year courtship that survived time in the military and studies at MIT. They now have five daughters, 19 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren. Their marriage is going strong after 63 years.
“He’s been a good, faithful husband,” says Marguerite. “That means a lot.”
So what is the key to staying married through days of anger, months of separation, and years of disappointment, illness, and loss? The apostle Paul boils it down to six words: “The two shall become one flesh” (6:16).
Two people, one flesh. When the two become one, a 70-year marriage becomes possible.
Now I’m not saying that Paul is showing much originality here. In Genesis 2, God creates the first human beings and says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (v. 24). And in Mark 10, Jesus scolds the Pharisees for their view of divorce, reminding them that a husband and wife “are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 8-9).
So what does it mean for two people to become one flesh?
For starters, each of us needs to understand who we are. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” asks Paul (6:15). We are not just flesh-and-blood creatures — mammals who walk on two legs, communicate via spoken language, and share pictures on Facebook. We are children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, people who are nothing less than the physical presence of the Risen Jesus in the world today. Since “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him,” our identity as Christians is going to shape the choices we make in our daily lives (6:17).
Each day, we are given opportunities to be honest or deceitful, faithful or unfaithful, sacrificial or selfish, brave or cowardly. These choices are not always easy; in fact, they can be really hard. If we don’t know who we are, we are probably going to do what feels easiest or most comfortable at the moment. But if we know that our bodies are “members of Christ,” we’re going to make more Christ-like choices.
Knowing who we are also influences the relationships we develop. We need to choose our partners carefully, because two people become one flesh whenever they become intimately involved. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Corinthians in his typical blunt-spoken way, “that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” (6:16).
He’s right. In a physical sense, it is really quite easy for two people to become one, so we need to make sure that our choices are in harmony with our deepest convictions. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” asks Paul. “Therefore glorify God in your body” (6:19-20). Our bodies are precious temples of the Holy Spirit, deserving of care and respect. They should not be joined to anyone or anything that is going to reduce their value.
Step one: Know who you are — a member of Christ. Step two: Choose your partner carefully — your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Once you are clear about yourself and your partner, you are ready to enter into marriage, where the two become one flesh, for 30, 50, or even 70 years.
When the two become one, the focus is more on giving than on receiving. Paul says that “the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (7:3). This is awkward and ancient language, for sure, but the focus here is on giving — giving to your spouse all of the rights and privileges that go along with marriage.
There is balance and mutuality in marriage as well. In a line that sounds more like a legal contract than a verse of scripture, Paul says, “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (7:4). What’s important here is the sense of balance that is created in a marriage; the focus is on a mutuality of authority that exists when two people become one flesh.
Paul goes on to encourage husbands and wives to provide for one another, to devote themselves to prayer, and to do what they can to stay together and even make each other holy (7:5, 10-16). In each of these cases, the focus is not on self-satisfaction, but on serving someone or something that is bigger than yourself.
Now I know this sounds complicated. Many of us wish that the Bible would be a little clearer about how to do this. We would love it if Paul included “Ten Secrets to a Happy Marriage” in his first letter to the Corinthians. But he didn’t. According to Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Paul wasn’t even talking about marriage in 1 Corinthians 13, his famous “love chapter” that is so often read at weddings … you know, love is patient, love is kind, love never insists on its own way and so forth.
Instead of marriage, Paul was addressing a church fight. The “believers in Corinth had split into factions and were competing for prestige and influence,” says Carey.
On the whole, the Bible is not a big help on the topic of marriage. I’m sorry about that. But it is a great resource on self-giving love, which is at the heart of what it means for two people to become one flesh. When a husband sacrifices his own desires to help his partner, the two become one. When a wife puts her partner’s happiness ahead of her own, the two become one. When both consider service to God to be more important than service to self, the two become one. Any time partners look beyond themselves and their individual interests, the two become one.
Deep within each of us, there is a desire for this kind of unity. And as the Marriage Equality movement is teaching us, this longing is not limited to men and women in heterosexual relationships. Same-sex partners want to marry and become one flesh as well.
Jesus was the greatest example of self-giving love, and he invites couples everywhere to walk in his way. Better yet, he joins them to himself — Paul says that “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (6:17).
Married couples who do this will be examples of biblical love and faithfulness. Not just for 70 years, but forever. Amen.
Laris, Michael, “How do I love thee? Let me count the decades …” The Washington Post, June 6, 2011, www.washingtonpost.com.
Carey, Greg. “What does the Bible actually say about marriage?” The Huffington Post, July 7, 2011, www.huffingtonpost.com.