Marriage and the death of the will. John 12:20-33
A talk given on the occasion of the wedding of Ben and Rumiya in St Petersburg, on Passion Sunday
We’re talking today about the death of the will for the sake of Christ.
I’ve recently been reading the story of Laurus by Vodalazkin. It is a story - of Arseny, a mediaeval Russian peasant, who completely renounces his will for the sake of his love for Christ and for the salvation of his beloved Ustina who died during childbirth because of his pride. At one point, he is attacked by bandits, and when he comes to, he is in a ditch, skeletal, beaten and bruised, with long, matted and bloody hair, and naked. He puts on the filthy lice infested rags - one of the robbers stripped Arseny of his clothes and left behind his own rags. Arseny crawls to a river and sees his reflection. He sees his body and does not recognise himself. He is horrified at what he has become. He realises that he hates his body with a passion. And then he laughs.
In the story, he is called to become a holy fool. He sleeps outside all year round, except when it gets exceptionally cold, and eats food, that others give him, off the ground. But God uses him in amazing ways - he gives him deep insight, and through him he brings healing to many, mainly by prayer. But the greatest gift that God gives to Arseny is the ability to love. If one of his patients has the plague and he is unable to heal him or her, he stays with them until they die. He is not afraid about getting the plague himself - after all, in his own eyes he is already living as one dead.
That is a story, but one that illustrates John 12.24-26:
Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.”
This might seem a very uncomfortable message to preach when we have a wedding. But I wonder ..
Laurus is a story. And even though there may have been women and men like Arseny, we are almost certainly not called to become like him.
And for many of us, marriage is one of the gifts of God which helps us begin to learn to die to our own will and to become alive to another person.
The lover is alive to the needs and the desires of the beloved. They would sacrifice everything for their beloved, even their life. At first, in all probability, it is hormone driven. The Ancient Greek philosophers called this kind of love a madness.
But that is where marriage comes in: because that sort of love gives people the impetus, the drive, to make the commitments of marriage.
It gets them over the walls and barriers of our self which we have put up, and which - in normal circumstances - prevent us from opening our lives to another, let alone beginning to change our habits or the way that we live for them.
And even if later the feeling of infatuation goes away, now you have the wedding, the promises, the vows that you made to each other, your word.
And this is when the commitment kind of love kicks in: the ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health .. till death us do part’.
This is where God can use our marriages to do his wonderful spiritual work in us.
And yes, when we get married, a little bit of the old self, of the old will needs to die
You become part of each other
You belong to each other
Marriage is not about two people coming together to share their lives for a while, and then go their separate ways.
It is about a union that is much deeper - far deeper than physical intimacy.
It is very easy, if one partner is dominant in any relationship, to attempt to impose your will on the other person - even if we think that it is for the best of that person. I guess that has to happen in this world in many relationship: teacher with pupil, employer with employee, officer with soldier.
But in marriage, which is about mutuality, in which you have both given yourselves to the other, and have both taken the other for your possession - that sort of relationship, where one imposes their will on the other, is abusive and destructive.
When I try to compel Alison to do what I want her to do, or to be who I want her to be - it is not only foolish, because I don’t stand a chance - but I am also so far from learning to die, from learning to lose my life.
And for the person who imposes their will on another, or who stubbornly refuses to submit their will to the other, that is, I’m afraid, the way of spiritual death.
And marriage - Ben and Rumiya - is one of the God given stadiums where we learn to submit our will to each other.
And every time we say yes to the other when we would rather say no, or sorry to the other, or give up something for the other, or genuinely serve the other, or go or do or eat what the other wants even when we really want something different; every time we get up in the middle of the night to settle the child because we know our husband or wife is exhausted, every time we spend money on them and not on ourselves, or make a cup of tea for them in the morning when all we want to do is to stay in bed - we learn to die a little.
And in the Christian marriage that is centred on Jesus, when we love the other and submit ourselves to the other for the sake of Jesus, we become a little bit more like Jesus.
In our reading, Jesus talks about dying to yourself and hating your life in this world, just after the Greeks have come to Philip and said ‘We want to see Jesus’.
Ben and Rumiya, it has been a real delight to speak with you and get to know you a bit. I pray that your love for each other will deepen and become richer. I pray that in 60 years time your love for one another will be deeper than it is now. You’re in this for the long haul! And I pray that as you continue to learn to submit your will to one another, to die to yourself for the sake of the other, and of our Lord Jesus Christ - so God will change you individually and together into the likeness of the Lord Jesus - and that, as others look at you, they will see Jesus.