A sermon based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Ephesians 5:21-6:9 preached August 13th, 2017
We’ve been immersing ourselves in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians all summer long now. We’ve tried our best, so far, to do more than that, though. If we’ve been paying attention to what Paul has to say here, if we’ve given ourselves fully to the truth about who God is, who we are in God, then there’s no way we can come to the end of this letter without a transformed and altogether renewed vision of the world, of the God who created it, who entered into it through the person of Jesus Christ, and who still to this day fills it with His mighty and grace-filled presence through the Holy Spirit.
We started big. Talking about God. Big words about the eternal and infinite. We’ve been invited into the vastness of our living God, urged to jump into the deep end of God’s presence—vast, long, wide, deep. And as we have moved further into the letter to the Ephesians, the more particular and specific the language has been.
All the sudden we realize that we are because God is. That the ins and outs of our day—all the way down to the boring and humdrum aspects of it are the way they are because God is the way God is. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in or about our lives that God does not have words to speak into. Nothing is secular or completely up to us. Everything is sacred and completely up to God. We must listen closely.
It’s quite easy for us to see God in the vast expressions of the cosmos—a sunset, the beauty of nature, the flight of a bird, the mysterious changing of Summer into Fall. It’s quite another thing to see God at work in the small parts of our lives. In our relationships, our households, in our daily encounters with neighbors and strangers, our wives and husbands, parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. This is far more complicated.
What does God have to do with those things? How is God speaking into those routine parts of our lives? Is God there at all? Or have we left Him here at church from one Sunday to the next? Did we leave God in the mountains of Montreat or in some other transcendent get-away, under some notion that keeping God in places like that protects God from our everyday lives, and our everyday lives from God?
Paul isn’t done yet. The further we get along in this letter, the more specific the context gets.
Last week, we talked about how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re in church community. This week, Paul drills down further. This week, Paul wants us reflecting upon how God’s presence changes our actions and attitudes when we’re at home. How husbands treat wives and wives treat husbands in a way that reflects the love and grace of God. How marriage changes the family dynamics. How children are a part of this. What their role is in the context of family—how they are to treat their parents and, in turn, how their parents are to treat them. There’s absolutely no part of our lives that God is not speaking in to.
Last Monday evening, I had the honor to officiate the wedding of my Father-in-Law, Jim, and his fiancée, Katheryn. (I have to be careful how I phrase that—at first, I told some folks that I was marrying my Father-in-Law.)
It was a beautiful ceremony. We held it in our Chapel, surrounded by a dozen or so family members. Afterward, all of us went to out to dinner at Fratelli’s. We had a great time. As we were leaving the restaurant, Katheryn, the bride, gave me a hug and said to me,
Thank you for not mentioning anything about submission or obedience.
I laughed and agreed with her. I told her I hadn’t even thought about saying any words like that. And that was true. We’ve all been to plenty of weddings where passages like this one is read or at least mentioned.
Wives, obey your husbands.
Maybe, the word submit is even worse.
We end up cursing passages like this one and others like it. Why couldn’t Paul just keep his mouth shut about such matters? He wasn’t even married! So, when we hear a pastor say these words in the context of a wedding ceremony, all of us squirm about in our pews. But in these weddings, the surrounding verses are always left out. Whether we agree with it or not, we hear verse 22, but we never hear its context—all that Paul says around it.
Verse 21: Be subject to one another. Why, or for what reason? Out of reverence to Christ. And we discover in the next paragraph that husbands are not off the hook. Just like every other Godly relationship, marriage is a two-way street.
Verse 25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
I want to encourage you to hear what’s astounding about these words from Paul. Women in his day, and in every time before, were considered property. They were not people. They were not her’s or she’s—they were its. Objects. Owned and never loved.
Enter these words from Paul: “Husbands, stop thinking you own your wives. Don’t treat them that way! Love them instead.”
It’s as if Paul is saying “You live in a culture that tells you that in order to be a strong and powerful man, you just assert ownership and dominance over your wife. No more of that for us! Reject this cultural message. Your new life in Christ calls for an entirely different way of thinking about your spouse and your marriage. Husbands, love your wives and hold them up—honor them, seek their interests and personal development.”
This was radically counter-cultural. And in quite a number of places, it’s still a radical idea. Be subject to one another.
Here’s the thing about submission that we don’t understand anymore: Submission, as it’s spoken about in this passage and others like it, is never forced. It is always voluntary. Furthermore, this submission to another is never a permanent arrangement. It’s always situational. There are moments when it’s right for you to submit to me and just as many moments when it’s right for me to submit to you. Such is the way of a healthy relationship.
Neither does Paul’s idea of submission have anything to do with hierarchy. It does not mean that one of us has the right to assert power over another. It is not that. What Paul is talking about here is a flexible, dynamic way of relating to one another that’s based upon self-giving love. We’re talking about the way of mutual servanthood. Never mandated but, in Christ—the Servant King—always encouraged. When we understand all this, it’s easier to see how these words are meant to free wives from the oppressive ways in which that ancient culture made objects out of them.
Today, these words are still here to free all of us, men and women, to empower one another—to lift each other up, asserting each other’s dignity and worth as the beloved and honored children of God we all are.
This is how to bring Christ into our homes, or more to the point, this is what it looks like when we practice Christ in our homes: in each other’s sight, our intrinsic value and worthiness takes off, has no limit. And we respond to each other’s God-given worth by becoming subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. In Christ, we have to power to empower one another, to lift each other into the light, to celebrate each other for the gifts we are to one another!
I hope you can see how this is radically counter-cultural even today. No one may ever admit it, but we are a people who gain and assert our power and self-worth by recklessly and dismissively climbing over the backs of others.
We live in a world of unbelievers who do believe in something: they believe that the only way to practice power—to assert themselves—is to wield power over others. To these folks, self-centeredness, individualism, and independence are things to aspire to. For these people, the name of the game is that wrong kind of submission—the one Paul speaks against in this passage—the kind that says in order for me to be important and significant, you have to be unimportant and insignificant. Such is the way of the world. In the face of this ugly assertion, we who call ourselves followers of Christ shout No!
We are to live in such a way that we assert one another’s worth, to give witness to the truth that one person’s importance takes nothing away from another’s importance. That your power and significance, expressed and practiced biblically, is never had or asserted at the expense of my power and significance—or anyone else’s for that matter. Life, love, significance, and worth are not zero-sum games. And, in the same way, my expression of submission to you never means that I think myself as less important, less human, than you—just as your expression of submission to me never means you or I think you are worth anything less than me.
If we look at Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we would never think that submitting to each other could ever be done out of a sense of inferiority. Christ, the King of all kings, the All-Sovereign and All-Powerful Lord of all lords, came not to be served but to serve, and even give up His life for others.
Friends, we are called to imitate Christ in all of our relationships. Each of us looking out for the interests of the other.
We are called to ditch all the worldly notions we have that tell us that submitting to each other makes us push-overs or weaklings or doormats. Far from being an expression of inferiority, our willingness to be, and witness as, servants to one another through our Servant Lord is an opportunity for us to lift up the lowly into the light of Christ. To bend down in an effort to pick others up.
We serve out of an expression of a strange kind of power—one that the world knows nothing about—the power to submit ourselves so that those we serve may be empowered.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!