This is a shorter sermon due to a congregational meeting following the service. I could not quite say everything I wanted to.
10 April 2011
Ephesians 5:21-6:9; John 11:11-27
One the first things to discuss in today’s reading from Ephesians is who the author is or is thought to be. Ephesians and Colossians are called the “disputed letters” of Paul: they sound like him, but on closer examination, they are probably not by him. Paul has a very distinctive theology and his hallmarks are equality of Christians before God, the expectation that Christ going to return any minute and that the church is an institution outside of the structures of this world. Please note that “disputed” does not mean “not authoritative”. Just because we aren’t sure who wrote it doesn’t change its position in our understanding as Scripture.
The author of Ephesians is a little more circumspect about the imminent return of the Messiah. Because it doesn’t seem like Jesus is just around the corner, the author of Ephesians becomes more concerned with how Christians are in the world. The author has deeply meaningful things to say about getting along within the Christian community and about God’s on-going work through the Holy Spirit.
But then our author felt the need to insert a household code. A household code gave guidance for how members of a household are to act in relationship with one another. A Christian household code adds to that formula an understanding that God somehow ordains and blesses that order. In the Greco-Roman world, the husband/father/master was the head of the household. Equality with the head of the household was great for the first generations of Christians because they expected Christ to return and to redeem them from external social struggles.
When that did not happen, the need for order became apparent to some church leaders. Particularly within the house church model, some hierarchy was needed to prevent chaos and to establish some religious legitimacy with non-Christians. Our struggle arises, first, when we don’t consider the household code in its own context and, secondly, when we consider it prescriptive rather than descriptive.
If we take this as an order from God for our households are to be structured, we chafe in several ways. Some women fight against the idea of submission, equating it with subservience. Some men don’t want to be solely in charge, which can be a lonely and thankless proposition. If this is the prescription for household order, then, we also must have slaves because that is how we are being instructed. I trust no one here is interested in procuring a slave for his or herself. (Household help, maybe, but not a slave.)
Instead, we have to understand that this is not the gospel. I don’t mean Ephesians is not one of the four gospels. I trust you grasp that. I mean a household code does not save us. This does not communicate the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ. If we hold this up as God’s expectations for our lives, we are setting ourselves up for failure and we’re making an idol of the written word by missing the spirit of what we’re being called to.
Submission isn’t subservience. Furthermore, the arc of Scripture leads us to understand that God has created men and women to help one another. Marriage, in Christian understanding, is a partnership where two people join in love to bear God’s image and work together for the good of God’s creation. Parenting is an opportunity to communicate love, justice and hope to one’s offspring and to the larger world. Employment makes room for our vocational skills and our understanding that the structures of this world do not define us before God.
There is hopeful possibility in this passage from Ephesians, but we have to listen with the ears of Christ to understand how it calls to us. Otherwise, it does become the proverbial stumbling block where people grieve their inability to live up to God’s expectations.
If we limit Ephesians to the household code, we might as well put it with Lazarus in the tomb. But Jesus, the Living Savior, calls forth the truth of the word. Come out, Ephesians, reveal to us the glory of God.
Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Amen.