It is a beautiful moment. A couple stands before a congregation of family and friends. They make lifelong promises to one another and maybe exchange rings. In a moment, their lives are changed. The two who have entered separately leave as one, joined together in marriage.
Christian marriage is not a sacrament in The United Methodist Church, but those who choose to marry enter into “a sacred covenant reflecting the Baptismal Covenant” (The United Methodist Book of Worship 115), and more specifically “a sacred covenant reflecting Christ’s covenant with the church” (The United Methodist Hymnal 864).
Baptism is our initiation into God’s covenant with us through Christ and marks the beginning of a lifetime of growing as followers of Jesus. In Christian marriage, that covenant is reaffirmed.
“The marriage vows specify how the couple will live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the context of their relationship with each other,” explains the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, former director of worship resources with Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.
In Christian marriage, brides and grooms “enter into union with each other through the grace of Jesus Christ, who calls [them] into union with himself as acknowledged in [their] baptism” (from the “Declaration of Intention” of A Service of Christian Marriage).
A service of worship
A service of Christian marriage in The United Methodist Church is a worship service similar to a typical Sunday service. In addition to the elements specific to marriage, there is a time of gathering and greeting, Scripture readings and a sermon, prayers and songs, a time for response to God’s word that may include the sacrament of Holy Communion, and a sending forth.
“Everything about the service,” its introduction states, “is designed to witness that this is a Christian marriage.”
This does not preclude a United Methodist pastor from participating in an interfaith wedding, though care must be taken to include the faith leaders of the other tradition. For example, if a United Methodist is marrying a person of the Jewish faith, the pastor must work with the rabbi to ensure the ceremony properly represents both traditions. Each faith leader should then participate in the parts of the ceremony reflecting her/his tradition. Find more information for pastors about interfaith ceremonies here.
A community of support
While some may think a marriage ceremony is all about the couple (others might say it is all about the bride), the family and friends present are important participants. They are more than passive spectators.
“It is not just a ceremony for the couple,” Burton-Edwards explains. “It is the ceremony in which the whole community is part of the witnessing and blessing of the vows the couple make to one another.”
In addition to participating in prayers, singing, and worship, those gathered bless and offer support to the bride and groom.
After the couple declares their intention to enter into marriage, the pastor asks for the blessing of their families. Next, she asks the entire congregation if they will, by the grace of God, “uphold and care for these two persons in their marriage.”
Married couples benefit from the love and encouragement of family, friends, and the church throughout their marriages. Those who attend their wedding represent the community that promises to support them throughout their life together.
A service of Christian marriage is a celebration of love, but not simply the romantic love of the couple. It also celebrates the love of God for us, and the love Jesus calls us Christians to share with the world.
The Dismissal of “A Service of Christian Marriage” illustrates this well. After offering a brief prayer of blessing over the couple, the pastor charges the couple to a lifetime of mission, saying, “Go to serve God and your neighbor in all that you do.”
The pastor then addresses the whole congregation with these words, “Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.”
A wedding is a beautiful moment that ushers in a new era for the couple, and a worship service reminding us of the love God has shown us in Christ Jesus. In Christian marriage, we are called to be witnesses of that love and to share it with others.
This story was first published in December, 2015.