We’ve got a meeting tonight. Nothing unusual about that you may think, especially if you know anything much about the Jesus Fellowship.
But this one’s a little unusual and we only meet in such a way twice a year – it’s a meeting specifically for married people and parents.
The last couple of times we got together, we had some wise instruction from two formidable parents with plenty of experience under their belt. It was excellent stuff. However, this time, it’s been decided that we’ll concentrate on marriage rather than parenthood.
In one sense, there’s nothing extraordinarily strange about a bunch of married people getting together to talk about marriage. Marriage guidance, self-help groups and such like abound (Americans, particularly love that kind of thing and if we Brits are little more private on the whole – my Mum would shudder at the thought of a group where you open up in such a public way – nevertheless, they’re hardly unheard of).
And yet – in our church, we have something of an ideal when it comes to marriage: it’s an ideal which we sometimes describe as ‘kingdom marriage’.
‘Kingdom marriage’ is a marriage entered into not for its own sake alone, not simply because of love or companionship or even the raising of a family – but marriage which is seen as a ministry partnership, something to enhance both husband and wife’s ability to give themselves effectively to the work of the kingdom of God.
We want to take seriously the challenge of Jesus to ‘forsake all’ in order to be His disciple – including a nice, cosy marriage. It was Jesus who said ‘hate your wife and... even your own life’ in order to follow Him. It was Paul who said ‘from now on those who are married should live as though they are not’.
I’d better be clear, here (these particular verses of the New Testament take a little explaining – but not explaining away!) This doesn’t mean neglecting the necessary love and care that your spouse is entitled to, not does it mean that marriage deserves no energy putting into it – perhaps more than most relationships, it takes an investment of time and care... but in a kingdom marriage, the ultimate motivation is to ‘secure an undivided devotion to the Lord’.
That last quote (also from Paul) is often taken to refer to those who have made the decision to stay single for the kingdom. And rightly so, in the context of the chapter it is in (in which Paul strongly urges the reader to consider staying single in order to serve God more freely). Yet the quote applies as much to those who chose to marry – they ought to do so in a way which secures their service for God.
Now there’s a sense in which celibacy is in its native territory in the kingdom of God (Matthew 22:30). It fits easily with the spiritual mind and the freedom in which the kingdom can be given priority (Matthew 19:10-12). Marriage, on the other hand, is of the old order, that which is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31). It is fundamentally natural and of necessity has an inclination to multiply this life’s cares (1 Corinthians 7:28). This is why entering into a kingdom marriage is such a radical thing. It means entering into a complex, rich, hard-work, rewarding partnership in which the priority is living effectively for the kingdom.
Our life in community is particularly suited to such a pursuit. Let me illustrate:
Monday evening: usually some kind of leader’s meeting or discipleship group.
Tuesday evening: Agape (household covenant meal).
Wednesday evening: Cell group – out and about winning people for Jesus.
Thursday evening: Friendship meal at the community house – a houseful.
Friday evening: Evangelism and/or networking with friends.
Saturday evening: House group.
Sunday... well, you can imagine.
So... not a lot of time for romantic candlelit meals for two is there?
Sometimes I get people (in a horrified or – worse – deeply concerned tone of voice) saying things like, ‘Make sure you and your wife get some time together – some “you time”.' They’ve missed the point. Ours is a given marriage. We’ve sacked the world’s concern for a marriage that’s ‘nice for us’. We’re living ‘as though we are not’.
Ironically, I reckon that means our marriage has got a better chance of surviving – and thriving – than a marriage based on ‘being nice’. I mean – what do people who get married because it’s nice do when it stops being nice and becomes hard work? (Well, you know what they do – the divorce stats are clear about that...) A marriage that is rich and fulfilling is one in which both partners are living for something far bigger than the marriage alone. Bigger even than the family that may come from the marriage – based on the kingdom that does not pass away.
No, my wife and I – together with other brave adventurers – are living for the kingdom.
I’m not going to put in a little safety paragraph about how important it is that we do invest in our relationship, and how intimacy, communication, and all that is important in a marriage. Yes, yes, yes. We know all that. It’s all we ever hear.
When is someone going to say that the best kind of marriage is one lived with all the blazing passion and radical givenness possible? That from now on those who are married should live as though they are - not.