This is the message preached at Crafton Heights Church on Sunday, May 29 2011. The texts for the day are Genesis 2:18-25 and Ephesians 5:21-33. As mentioned below, this is the tenth in a series of messages stemming from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Years ago, my friend “Sylvia” began attending worship in the church where I was pastor. She and her husband, “Ed”, had come around because we had a reputation for good children’s programs, and she wanted to take care of the kids in the eyes of the Lord, as it were. She was surprised, however, that she found herself engaged in worship. She enjoyed the sermons. She started to think about her own spiritual life. She attended Bible studies. She asked me to give her a Bible of her own so she could read it for herself.
I was, you might say, a pleased pastor. I thought to myself, “Self, this is how it’s supposed to be. Way to bring her into the fold…You, my friend, are a good pastor.”
And then, one night after 11 pm, the phone rang. It was Sylvia. She was not a happy camper. “All right, Pastor Dave,” she exploded. “I’m trying hard. I understand I’m supposed to live like Jesus and all that stuff. I’m trying to clean up my act. I’ve even been giving my money away, and if you knew me, you would know how hard that is. But this is it. You know how you suggested that I read the Bible? Well, Ed and I started reading it together before bed. But tonight, we sit down, and I open up, and this Paul dude that you are always talking about starts hammering on women, and telling me how I’m supposed to be submissive to a man? Did I ever tell you what my first husband did to me? Do you know? I am sorry, Pastor Dave, but this could be a deal-killer. If I have to act like that to be a Christian, then I suppose that I’m not cut out to be a Christian after all.”
Let me say that I both loved and hated that conversation. I loved it because here was a person taking the Bible seriously. She knew that the Word of God was invasive in her life. She got it! But it was a difficult conversation, because if I wasn’t careful, I’d be the pastor answering the phone and saying something like, “Well, now, Sylvia, let’s be honest. That’s just Paul, talking about relationships. Nobody takes him seriously. It’s just the Bible, being, you know, the Bible. Relax. Nobody expects you to do any of that…”
This is the tenth in a series of sermons on Ephesians. I hope that by now you’ve gotten the idea that I am committed to taking this seriously. But how in the world are we supposed to read this?
Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we are well aware of the fact that it is a document that has its roots in a different time and place. We read about sheep and goats gathering by the well, and we have to admit that we don’t know much at all about sheep and goats. There are stories of ancient rulers and antique weaponry and different words for money and so on and we know that the Bible is anchored in a different culture, and we search for the meaning within stories that are from another era.
But when we see “husbands” and “wives”, we think, “Ah, this is something I know about. Marriage is marriage. I love weddings.”
Let me tell you something. If the Apostle Paul were to stroll in here some Saturday afternoon and sit in on a wedding, he’d be mystified. For starters, he’d probably be amazed at how old the bridal couple is. The average age for a first marriage in the USA is about 27 years old. What’s wrong with them? That’s practically middle-aged! And they are getting married because they love each other? What kind of crazy talk is that? And why are you trying to avoid having children? Everybody knows that children are one of the main reasons for marriage. The more, the sooner, the better!
For most of the people in the Biblical world, marriage was a matter of economic necessity. In many cases, it was a business decision: when a woman was given in marriage, her parents often received a payment that would help them in their old age. Sometimes, marriages were arranged in order to foster political decisions or to bring neighboring towns into a closer alliance.
This is not to say that love was unknown in marriages. But rarely was love considered a valid basis for entering into that kind of relationship. Love grew out of the best marriages as husbands and wives made decisions and acted as a family.
OK, so if that’s true, does that mean that we are free to disregard the Bible’s teaching about marriage? If it comes from such a different place, then is it irrelevant?
By no means. We are not free to treat this teaching in that way. In fact, you may have heard an echo from the Old Testament passage in the reading from Ephesians. Paul quotes from Genesis in this teaching. Moreover, if we were to turn to Matthew 19, we would hear Jesus quoting the same passage. Paul also quotes from it in I Corinthians, making it the only Old Testament passage of which I am aware that is quoted in both the Gospels and the Epistles. I believe that makes it an important passage for our consideration. Marriage and the intimate relationships of our lives – they matter, don’t they? Surely, God’s word has some guidance for us on these topics.
Last week, I led a two and a half hour seminar for a group of teachers. The topic was speaking respectfully to other people, and treating them with respect. There were about 25 people in the room, and it was a great seminar. I had met a couple of them before, but for the most part, they were strangers to me. And it was nice. I spoke. I told a few jokes. I offered wise words about how to behave well in relationships. It was easy, frankly, because none of those people actually knew me. I was free to talk all day about how to be a nice guy because none of the people there can actually verify whether I am a nice guy or not. I’m a stranger.
But here, well, it’s a little different. Some of us have known each other for more than twenty years. You’ve seen me. You may know something about my marriage. You, or your spouse, may have come to me with some issues in your own marriage. Heck, I have officiated at a lot of your marriages. We have watched each other. We know secrets about each other. We hear what is said. We are not strangers.
And yet here I am, talking to you about marriage. And my anniversary is tomorrow.
Sooooooooo. How ‘bout them Pirates?
Do you remember what we’ve said about Ephesians? How it begins with the really big issues: who is God? What in the world is God doing? What does it mean to the world that Jesus Christ has come as the Son of God? And then, after having laid out a few of those large questions, Paul helps us to see our walk in the context of that which God is doing.
Today’s reading is simply a logical extension of that process. He has helped us to see that there is no part of our lives that is untouched by the grace of Jesus – that every area of our lives should show the love that God has for the world. He’s talked about the ways that we conduct ourselves in public, the ways that we interact with each other in the church, and now…well, now, he starts to meddle. He’s talking about marriage.
What does a Christian marriage look like?
Many of us grew up with a stereotype that was based on a faulty reading of this passage. Some people read that wives were to submit to their husbands and began to teach that a “Christian” marriage was one where the man runs the show, tells the woman what do to, and she cowers meekly, subservient to his demands because clearly, God has made him the boss in that relationship.
However, the folks who have taught us that have left out the beginning of this passage. Our translation has it as “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Because you “revere” Christ, be mutually submissive. The Greek word that we have translated as “reverence” is one that you recognize: Φοβω. Phobia. The “fear of the Lord.” If you’ve read the Bible, you’ve come across that phrase before. If you’ve been here often, you’ve heard me speak of it. The “fear of the Lord” is a concept that appears in both the Old and the New Testaments. It does not mean that we are to be cowering in terror because the Lord is waiting to smite us. It means that we respect the awesome power and grandeur of the one who created, redeems, and sustains us. We take our every step, our every breath, fully realizing that steps and breaths are gifts that come to us from God. Typically, the Bible talks about “the fear of the Lord” as an element of faithful worship. Here, Paul says that we approach the most intimate relationships of our lives anchored in the reality that we live in God’s world, we breath God’s air, and we are called to participate in God’s purposes.
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is another way of saying, “because Jesus is who he is, and did what he did, and gave you what he gave you, now you go out and respect the other people about whom Jesus feels the same way. Your husband, your wife – is precious to Jesus. Treat that one as precious.”
Starting a discussion on marriage with the idea of fearing or respecting the Lord prevents us from keeping score in the marriage relationship. It keeps any discussion of marriage in the language of self-giving and covenant. If the opening sentence is missing from this passage, we might be tempted to read “wives, you do this” and then “husbands, you do that” – as if the process is somehow cause and effect. As if the core task in marriage is to make sure that the other person is kicking in their fair share. As if marriage is somehow a 50-50 proposition.
Paul doesn’t have any time for the nonsense about a 50-50 marriage. His primary illustration for the marriage relationship is that which exists between Christ and the church. There is a head and a body – neither of which can survive without the other. Each of which relies on the other. Does Christ exist for the church? Yes. Does the church exist for Christ? Undoubtedly. In the same way, husbands and wives are for each other.
He really hammers that home as he commands the husbands to truly love their wives. You may know that there are several Greek words for “love”. Here, he uses the word αγαπε (agape), which we understand to be the self-giving, self-sacrificial love in which the lover nourishes and treasures and encourages and cares for the beloved. It is the love described in I Corinthians 13. It is a generous love.
Why does all of this matter? In the grand scheme of things, why does the church concern itself with the ways that we choose to relate to one another? Remember the point of Ephesians: that God is doing a big thing in the world through Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find our fundamental identity; we find healing from old wounds, deliverance from trials, relief from pain, and hope in loss. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed the fact that in Christ, we have a new quality of life – the ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy reflect the purposes God has for the world.
Here, Paul says that if we have this new quality of life, then it should probably show up close to home. If there is anything at all to this business about humanity being created and redeemed; if we believe that God has a purpose for the world and we have a role to play – in short, if any of this counts for anything, then it should be apparent in our basic, every day lives. Like the way you treat your wife. Or the way you talk about your husband.
There has been a great deal of conversation in recent years – and in recent weeks – about “traditional values”. The politicians, the culture, the church, and your neighbors – they have all had something to say about sexual ethics and homosexuality and divorce and equality and so on.
I do not know where this cultural shift is taking us. I do not know where the debates will end up.
But I do know this: that the world (and our conversation about relationships) would be different if for the past 200 years the world watched the people who claim to be the church live and love in the ways that Paul describes here.
When the church was first getting started, it had a reputation for being a place in which people were treasured. A man named Tertullian, who lived around 200 AD, pointed out that the outside world just couldn’t understand what Christians were about. “Look,” they say, “how they love one another” (for they themselves hate one another); “and how they are ready to die for each other” (for they themselves are readier to kill each other). Christians changed the world with a self-giving, generous love that sought to welcome the other.
Now, well, things are different. My sense is that if you ask anyone under 30 who does not go to church what they think about Christianity, and rather than joining Tertullian in talking about Christian love, you will hear that the church is the place where people are judgmental. The church is the group of people who hate the gays. The church is full of hypocrites. The church is a place where people pretend to be something that they are not. The church is anti-science.
Are these criticisms true? Too often, they are. For instance, the Barna Research Group – a conservative Christian polling company – released data suggesting that for conservative, born-again, evangelical Christians, the rate of divorce is about 3 in 10. For those people who claim to be atheists, that figure is 2 in 10. I’m not here to bash anyone who has experienced the tragedy of divorce, but simply to indicate that before we presume to speak too loudly about morality and values, we’d better be sure that we are doing as we say.
In Ephesians, Paul is saying that nobody cares about the huge things that God is doing in the world if they can’t see the little things that God is doing in your life. Don’t get me wrong: the people of God are called to speak a word to the culture that is around us. But that word has got to be lived out in our homes before it is preached to the world. Paul begs the church – you and me – to show the world what the new life in Christ looks like before we presume to tell them how to do it. Today, let those of us who wear the name of Jesus commit ourselves to confessing where we have fallen short and to treating each other the ways that God, in Christ, has treated us. Let’s start in our homes, and allow that grace-filled way of honoring and relating to others to flow into our world. Amen.
 Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter 39.7