A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on August 7, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.
Single ‘Til Kingdom Come
Alright. Pop quiz: what do John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, St. Patrick, St. Brigit of Kildare, Hannah More, Lottie Moon, Amy Carmichael, Corrie ten Boom, Mother Theresa, and John Stott all have in common? They remained single for life. And single for the purpose of serving God and his kingdom.
This is a doorway to Matthew 19:11-12. That’s right! You thought we were done with this one, but it turns out we get two turn Hard Sayings for the price of one. Not only is Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce considered a Hard Saying, so is his follow-up to the disciples exasperated exclamation: “it is better not to marry!”
Understanding the Saying (vs. 11-12)
The first question to ask is, What does Jesus mean by “this saying?” in verse 11. Is he talking about his hard saying on divorce or the disciples’ response to his hard saying? It seems unlikely that Jesus would give such a bold pronouncement on divorce and then crumple up into saying, well, but then again, I know not everyone can receive this![i] Clearly, he’s referencing the disciples’ response: “It is better not to marry!”
All About Eunuchs
Now the other part to get right is to understand what Jesus is saying about eunuchs in verse 12. He says: 1) there are those who have “been so from birth.” Meaning, there are men born with physical disabilities that prevent them from fathering children. 2) There are those “made eunuchs by men.” This refers to a common practice in the ancient world. In fact, if you Google “eunuch” you’ll get this definition: “a man who has been castrated, especially (in the past) one employed to guard the women’s living areas at an oriental court.” So, Jesus is referring to known practice in which men were rendered “safe” to be around the women of a royal court.
But it’s the third one Jesus is most interested in here: “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.” This speaks to a voluntary celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. A voluntary foregoing of marriage for the sake of our first family: the family of God.
Now, just like Jesus’ hard saying on gouging out our eye, this one is hyperbole. It was not intended to be taken literally. You may know that famously the church father Origen did take this saying literally (moment of silence for Origen!), although he later admitted he was wrong to have done so. So it is a spiritual saying, but nonetheless, we also need to see that this hard saying is probably just as or more unnerving and surprising than Jesus’ hard saying about divorce.[ii] Why? Because virtually all men and women were expected to marry in first century Judaism.
So to summarize, Jesus says there are two tracks in the kingdom of God (and only two tracks!): marriage & celibacy. Both are good gifts. They are not in competition (one is not better than the other), but rather they serve side-by-side on the same team.
Unpacking the Saying: What Does It Mean For Us Today?
Two Equally Legitimate Calls
St. Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 7:7: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
For all our good, right, appropriate, called for, necessary focus on the role of the family in church and society, we can lose sight of the fact that not everyone is called to that. In fact, we should expect it, says Jesus! As the church, we must embrace, equip, disciple, and send those called to celibacy. According to Jesus, we should bless them and fully recognize them.
Against the expectations of his day, the prophet Jeremiah was called to celibacy (Jeremiah 16:2). Earlier, we heard the Lord say to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Singles in the church ought to experience the same sense of individual calling and fulfillment in Christ’s kingdom.
One of the ways we can support this is to simply be sensitive to the way we talk to one another. For instance, when you meet an adult single after church on a Sunday or in a small group, is your first instinct to ask them why they aren’t married? We should be willing to ask them what the Lord is doing in their life, and hear of God’s call on their life, before presuming what God has, in fact, called them to.
For the Kingdom of God (vocation) vs the Kingdom of Self (autonomy)
Jesus says that some are called as eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom of God.” But so are married couples. Single or married, we are called for the sake of and in service to the kingdom of God. Both require self-denial.
On the one hand, it’s not a competition. No one’s going for brownie points here! In the past, the church has made the mistake of elevating the single life above married life. Today, the church often makes the mistake of elevating the married life over the single life! The disciples here do say “it is better not to marry.” And Jesus seems to agree with them – but better for whom? The one called to not marry. The one to whom this saying is given.
And even here, Jesus qualifies celibacy with his answer – clearly those called not to marry will be in the minority of his disciples! I can’t pass this scripture by without saying that this one place where we believe the Church of Rome is in flat contradiction to the Word of God. If the apostle Peter, spokesman for the twelve, first among equals, can be married, then surely priests and deacons can and mostly should be, too. God has given a remedy to the scandal of sexual immorality in the church, and it is called marriage. Certainly not “unadvisedly or lightly,” as our service of Holy Matrimony puts it, but marriage, nonetheless.
This whole discussion of celibacy vs marriage is greatly helped by one word: vocation. Each of us have a vocation to live out in the body of Christ. For most of us, that involves raising a family to the glory of God. For some of us, that includes giving ourselves fully into God’s family to the glory of God.
But, there is no calling in Christ to serve the kingdom of self. We should not confuse Jesus’ words with the spirit of our age. The spirit of our age would have each us drift, serving ourselves, living a unattached and autonomous life, pursuing simply pleasure or new experiences or the highest paying job at the expense of serving and growing with others in the kingdom of God. There is no call in the kingdom of God to simply serve yourself. None.
Are you called to marriage? Prepare for it. Are you called to singleness? Prepare for it. We spend 18 years, at least, in education preparing for a job and adult life. How many of us spent time preparing ourselves, or our children, for marriage? Called or not called, this is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life. Let it be for the sake of the kingdom of God.
In the New Covenant, the ideal is that young and old, single and married are living together under the Word of God and the grace of Christ, pursuing a unified and single hope in the Gospel together.
Making Even More Room
Let’s talk about some other ways the church can practically make room for those called to the single life.
First of all, this is a place where the church can her show herself strong to Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. The body of Christ is the place where those who come repentant and humble ought to be met, not with shock and silence, but with friendship, accountability, and genuine places of service in the body. And this a place where callings to the religious life in religious orders can potentially be of great help, offering a life of fulfilling service to Christ.
I also believe it’s possible that a person may be called to marriage earlier in life and then celibacy later in life. From the beginning, the church has blessed and even enrolled widows into a life of intentional prayer and service. Listen to the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Timothy 5:9-10:
9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.”
An example of what this can look like today is found within our own Anglican Church. The Daughters of the Holy Cross is a Lay Order of women, many of them widows, who have committed themselves, in a specific way, “to the work and service of Jesus, the Church, and the church’s clergy.” By the way – there is a local chapter of the Order at Church of the Ascension!
Anthusa the Valiant
I want to close our time today with a testimony from one who chose a life of celibacy and saw God richly bless that life.
Anthusa was a 4th century Christian who lived in Antioch. She was widowed at the age of twenty. She had a son named John, and decided to embrace celibacy for sake of her son, raising him up in God’s kingdom – indeed, she never remarried! She willingly gave herself to the homeschooling of her son full-time because she believed that was the best education she could give him. She formed his character and conviction, teaching him the Bible, classical literature, and virtue. John would look back and conclude that his mother gave him his, “enthusiasm for the good, his moral energy, his aversion to ostentation, his zeal for justice and truth and his steadfast faith.” He says, “[His]mother was the protecting wing for my salvation.” John would go on to many pursuits, but he lived with his mother until she died.[iii]
This John was not just any John – the John she raised and sowed so much into was John Chrysostom, one of the most famous of the 4th century preachers (his “last name” is really a nickname: golden-mouthed) and archbishop of Constantinople. No doubt, he received many of his giftings from his moth. His prayers and preaching are so enduring that one his prayers made into our Morning Prayer service.
Both his work, and the lesser known work of his mother, bear eternal and lasting fruit for sake of the kingdom of God. That is our aim, too, single or married. Thanks be to God.
[i] “After a strong prohibition, it is highly unlikely that Jesus’ moral teaching dwindles into a pathetic ‘But of course, not everyone can accept this.’” Matthew by D.A. Carson, pg. 419.
[ii] Divorce & Remarriage by David Instone-Brewer, pg. 168.
[iii] As quoted in Women in the Mission of the Church by Leanne Dzubinski, pg. 63.