World Communion Sunday was started in 1933 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 1933 was the worst year of The Great Depression, and people all over were worried about the rise of Nazism and Fascism. The prevailing attitude that year was one of fear and anxiety, much like today as we combat hunger, inequality, and terrorism. Shadyside’s response to these attitudes back then was to create a Sunday in which we all celebrate the Eucharist at once, drawing the circle wide in prayer and thanksgiving…. one that continues in our fear and doubt even today. Attitudes of anxiety have risen and fallen over the years since World Communion Sunday was created, but the idea that at least once a year, we all (regardless of denomination) come to the table together has not.
We come to the table regardless of our circumstance in life, and we receive food, anyway.
It is interesting that because we are coming to the communion table in unity, today’s gospel is, in part, about divorce… or, at least it is on the surface. It is hard to tell whether the Pharisees really wanted to know what Jesus thought, or whether it was another legal entrapment they could use to perpetuate his demise. They ask, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Notice that with the Pharisees, we are not talking about love, fidelity, roses, and candles. They want to know one thing. Is it lawful? It is in this moment that Jesus gets an amen from me because he does this political sidestep of massive proportions and turns the question back around on them. He says,what did Moses command you? I know this is venturing into fiction, but I think Jesus gets nauseous every time the Pharisees try to talk to him, and he knows that anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law, so the mask he presents to the world comes down to hide his fear. He won’t use his own words, but those of someone whom the Pharisees already follow. The Pharisees answer, Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.
I’m going to have to stop us riiiiiiiiiight there.
There’s some history that needs to be explained, because that time and structure was quite different than the one we have today. First of all, just as children don’t choose their parents, they didn’t choose their partners, either. Boys and girls were paired off according to their parents’ deals with each other, and some women were not even lucky enough to marry someone of their own age. If a family had a chance to move up in stature, but their daughter was 13 and the groom was 35, this was not considered any sort of deal breaker. Money was money and women were property. In fact, in Mosaic law, a woman could not initiate divorce. Only a man could.
Because marriage then had to do with property, stature, and honor of the families involved, divorce was significantly more complicated than it is today… and by property, I also mean the bride herself. Women could not initiate divorce because in the eyes of the law, they weren’t people in any case.
Here is where Jesus crosses the line from the legal to the spiritual with the Pharisees:
Because of your hardness of heart he [Editor’s Note: Moses] wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
The Gospel does not record what the Pharisees have to say about this, instead skipping to a private conversation between Jesus and the Disciples. They ask him about divorce again and he says, whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
Something jumped out at me in this text very quickly, and that is in front of the Pharisees, Jesus only mentions a husband divorcing his wife. In private, he talks about the ability of a woman to divorce her husband. In private, beyond the gaze of the Pharisees, Jesus supported marriage equality between both partners. Both people are allowed to have grounds for divorce.
In this one instance, Jesus changes the definition of marriage. However, he does not change the content. The only grounds for divorce are adultery, and not, as some liberal Jews were beginning to think, for any fault in the wife at all. For instance, Jesus did not think it was lawful to divorce your wife if she ruined your dinner or ruined your favorite shirt, even in front of the Pharisees… departing from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which notes grounds for divorce as a husband simply finding something displeasing about his wife.
I believe that Jesus’ interpretation of divorce was that it should only happen when something cracks the foundation of marriage, because cracking the foundation is rarely something that can be undone.
Dana and I were sitting in the congregation at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, when Dr. Ed Young was preaching on the topic of divorce. He took out both a blue and a pink piece of paper and glued them together. When it had dried somewhat, he started to try and take the blue and pink pieces of paper back apart. Invariably, and I am sure you’re ahead of me here, there were little pink pieces of paper still on the blue side and little blue pieces of paper still on the pink side. He made the point that once we have been put together, there is no way to separate cleanly. In a Southern Baptist church, of course he wouldn’t have held up two pink or blue pieces of paper, but the message was the same. Even though the pieces of paper are the same color, is it any easier to separate them wholly into what they were before they were joined?
I cannot speak for Dana, but I know that her emotional paper is still inside me, and will be for a lifetime. I will always think about the regrets I had in cracking our foundation, which started slow and ended with a thunderclap. We didn’t just break up with each other, we broke up our families, as well… and this is exactly the image that Jesus is trying to get us to see. What God has put together, let no one put asunder is true even after a divorce has taken place. No one can take away my memories of Dana, and no one can take away her memories of me…. the good, the bad, the terrible, the glorious… they’re all there in movies we revisit, sometimes whether we want to or not.
Jesus is right- those memories do not go away in being with other people, and I believe that is how we should interpret his words about committing adultery with future partners. The people we divorce still sit with us and we with them. Moving on does not mean that our memories are erased, but with the passage of time, perhaps we sit with them easier. We pray through the pain, both for forgiveness from God and from the person we have wronged, because let’s face it. In a divorce, no one wins. We have both wronged each other.
Your invitation today is how you’re going to react in treating those who have been divorced. Are you going to sit in judgment like a Pharisee, or are you going to open the circle wider to be inclusive of those who have been emotionally injured in that way? Are you going to look at the divorced in shame, or are you going to simply say, I’m sorry for your loss? If you aren’t there yet, perhaps this is the Sunday you’ll progress toward equality, because gathering at the table means that no one is left to sit watching from the pews. No one is shamed. No one is turned away empty-handed.
We are one bread, one body…. o’er all the earth.