**Below is the manuscript for the sermon preached at Marrow’s Chapel about marriage on Oct. 25, 2009. The text for the sermon is Ephesians 5:21-33.
Loving You ‘In Christ’
Divorce rates at an all time high. Men and women change relationships as often as they change their clothes. People marry for selfish reasons, to fulfill their own desires, and leave as soon as they feel those desires are no longer being met. Women are seen as objects or possessions, better to be seen and not heard, left to busy themselves with housework and children. And men? Men are just pigs, as this 1994 cover of Time Magazine illustrates, asking the question, “Men. Are They Really That Bad?”
You probably think I am describing a modern phenomenon, the reality that we witness around us and many if not all of us have experienced first hand. While all of this may be true in our day, what I am actually describing is the world in Paul’s day as he pens this 5th chapter to the church at Ephesus. We may be tempted to think Paul is simply describing the way things are and that Paul is merely reinforcing the patriarchal, man-centered culture of his day. Thinking that way has led many people to the conclusion that Paul is irrelevant when it comes to talking about relationships between men and women while leading many preachers to other, more politically correct texts to preach (had I been following the lectionary, for example, we would have skipped this section altogether).
So allow me to place this passage in context for us all. Yes, the stuff I mentioned at the outset is all true – divorce rates are high, men and women change relationships like they change their clothes – all that is true then as it is now. But here are some specifics. Jews, of whom Paul was one and many of the first Christians were Jewish converts, had a very low view of women. There was a sentence in the daily morning prayer that every Jewish man prayed where he gave thanks to God that he had not made him “a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” Within Jewish law there was provision making a wife not a person but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever but was a possession of her husband’s to do with as he pleased. As the Church was coming into being divorce was tragically easy to do. How to interpret the law of Deuteronomy 24:1, which reads, “If a wife finds no favor in the sight of her husband because he has found some uncleanness in her, let him write her a bill of divorce, and send her out of his house,” was hotly debated. Some rabbi’s interpreted “uncleanness” as adultery and only adultery. Others thought it could mean anything from spoiling his dinner, talking with other men on the streets, not keeping her head covered or my biggest pet-peeve, hiding the remote. And still others took the phrase “found no favor in his sight” to mean a man could divorce his wife if he met another woman he found more attractive. It’s easy to imagine which school of thought was popular (Jesus weighed in on this debate in Mark 10).
If you think marriage was bad in the Jewish world it was worse in the Gentile world. Prostitution was an essential part of Greek life. A prominent Greek statesman, Demosthenes, had this to say about the common rule of life among the Greeks: “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.” Socrates asked, “Is there anyone to whom you entrust more serious matters than to your wife – and is there anyone to whom you talk less?” Seneca, a Roman philosopher who lived in Paul’s day wrote that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. He even remarks that women in Rome date the years not by numbers but by the names of their husbands.
This is the world Paul sees all around him. The institution of marriage is deplorable. Laughable, even. It is against this backdrop that Paul, the pastor in prison, pens these words to husbands and wives. But not just to any husband and wife….Christian husbands and wives. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” he begins. In other words, we cannot expect the rest of the world to understand this or abide by it, but when they look at us, we who call Jesus our Lord, may they see this…
Now, given this context it should be obvious Paul is no misogynist. He has a very high view of women. He has a high view of men. But this high view is not because of anything intrinsic about us as women or men but because we are all “in Christ.” As such, Paul is not describing the way things are nor is he reinforcing the patriarchal culture of his day but rather he turns all of this on its head. Let us examine more closely how Paul envisions Christians living as husband and wife.
But first, a commercial break. This is tough stuff. It is tough for me personally and I know it is tough for some of you, if not directly than indirectly. Scripture often calls us to the carpet and will make claims upon us that are not always easy to swallow. But remember this: Scripture is authored by the God who is love. It is this rule of faith that if we have the courage to follow will bring us life – a life only God can give – a life that Jesus calls “abundant.” One more thing. As we examine Paul’s directive to wives and husbands we must guard against taking a cookie-cutter approach. Life is messy and relationships are anything but predictable. Therefore, where there are cases of abuse, emotional or physical, or infidelity and the like we must guard against making blanket judgments or one-size-fits-all fixes. If you leave here thinking Paul, or your pastor, would say to an abused spouse that you just need to respect your husband or love your wife in this or that way or following these steps will make you and God happy than you have missed the point. End of commercial.
I think Paul would have made a great psychotherapist. And why shouldn’t he? He is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our Creator, the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. 2000 years ago Paul nails the deep, primal need of both male and female. Wives, he says, respect your husband. Husbands, he says, love your wives. Wives, in the same way you are subject to the Lord, be so with your husband. Husbands, in the same way Christ loved the church, love your wife. As is usually the case when I open the Scriptures this passage confronted me. The trials my own marriage has faced recently are a direct result of my failure to love my wife as Christ has loved the Church. I have not loved her sacrificially. I have not loved her as I love myself. It is for this reason that this sermon has not been an easy one for me to preach but it is one I had to preach. I want you to know that I am preaching every bit as much to myself, even more so, than I am to all of you today. My prayer is that in some small way God will honor this and bless us all through the cleansing power of his Word.
There have been countless books written that try to explain the differences between men and women. We observe that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus or we read about the 5 love languages or, God forbid, we glean 9 strategies to get your man’s heart from the cover of Cosmo – all of them fall flat, however, unless we begin here: Respect and Love – the primal need of women and men. Women, if you wonder where the knight in shining armor you married went, let him overhear you bragging about him to one of your girlfriends. I promise you he’ll turn into a king before your eyes. Husbands, if you wonder where the princess you married hid, sacrifice something important to you to show how much of a priority she is and watch her blossom.
Of course we can only be responsible for our side of the plate. Husbands, if we are not being respected perhaps it is because we are not first being loving. Wives, if you are not feeling loved, perhaps it is because you are not first being respectful. When wives respect their husbands and husband’s love their wives each is having their deepest need met. The key to motivating your spouse is to meet their deepest needs.
What if my spouse does not deserve my respect or my love? I think this is why Paul is so quick to point both wives and husbands to Jesus throughout this passage. Our example is not other people or other great marriages but Christ himself. Therefore, perhaps we need to change our thinking. Perhaps we need to think of respect and love like we think of grace. It’s a gift. It’s not deserved. Remember, Christ died for us while we were sinners. We didn’t deserve it. The respect and love we show one another is not because we merit it, not because we deserve it, but because Christ first loved us.
Let’s go a little deeper, shall we? In verse 31 Paul says a man leaves his father and mother and is joined with his wife, making the two become one flesh. In vs. 32 Paul says he is applying this to Christ and the church, calling it a “great mystery.” I want to offer some reflections on this “mystery” Paul speaks of.
For me, this conjures up images of the kenotic (emptying) hymn found in Philippians 2. This hymn speaks to the way Jesus emptied himself for our sake. Paul writes,
“Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
In the same way Jesus left the Father, or we might say, he did not cleave to what was rightfully his, but rather emptied himself and gave himself even to the point of death to you and I, Paul says we are to leave our mothers and fathers and join ourselves to our wives so that two shall become one flesh.
Consider the importance of this with me for a moment. Paul says that a husband and wife will become one flesh. He then applies this truth to Christ and the Church. In some mysterious way, Paul informs us, Jesus and the Church (the body of believers) are one flesh in the same way that a husband and wife ought to be one flesh. In the same way a husband and wife are joined together, so too is Christ and those who believe on Christ. If this is true, than it is also true that the ease with which we dissolve the one we dissolve the other. The ease with which we dissolve the union of husband and wife reflects our lack of conviction that Christ and the Church are really one. Our low view of marriage, our refusal to live sacrificially within it and the ease with which we flee from it when it appears to no longer meet our own selfish desires reflects our true convictions about Christ and his Church. Likewise, our low view of church, our refusal to live sacrificially within it and the ease with which we flee from it when it appears to no longer meet our own selfish desires reflects our true convictions about marriage.
If I truly believed that my wife was part of my very own flesh how differently might I serve her? If I truly believed that my Lord Jesus was part of your very flesh, that my Savior was ever present in the bones and blood of the people that make up his Church, how differently might I serve you? How differently might we serve one another? How different might our mission be to the community and the world if we truly believed that the One who so loved the world that he gave his own life to save the world was joined to our flesh and bones and what the world sees the Church do or not do, they see Jesus do or not do? Perhaps we should not expect to find power in the Church to change lives, let alone the world, because we have long ceased to expect to find power, life changing power, in the joining of flesh between husband and wife. If we come to a place where we feel there is no hope for our marriage than are we not also saying there is no hope for the Church?
Thanks be to God, we are not left hopeless! A moment ago I read to you only the first half of the Kenotic Hymn. I stopped at the cross, where Jesus, who is joined to the Church, was left hanging – lifeless, joyless, hopeless. Now, hear the rest of the story, the Good News:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
God did not allow death to have the final word. God breathed new life into the tomb Easter morning. God can and desires to breath new life into our marriages. Following the Kenotic Hymn Paul goes on to say, “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Perhaps even now, wives, you sense a desire, a will, to respect your husband even when he does not deserve it. Perhaps even now, husbands, you sense a desire, a will, to love and cherish your wife sacrificially, even if it means your own life, even when she may not be deserving of your love. That desire does not come from yourself but from God. It is the Holy Spirit speaking to your heart. The same God who rose Christ from the dead is the same God who now gives you this desire, but also the power, enabling you, Scripture says, “to work.” We cannot work this alone.
In an attempt to keep any of us from feeling isolated as we strive to make our marriages mirror the marriage Christ has with the church, I have a proposal: I ask you to join me in a challenge beginning today until the end of the year where wives commit to showing respect to their husbands and husbands commit to showing sacrificial love to their wives. I am calling this the “Loving you ‘In Christ’” challenge, since one of the central themes of Ephesians is recognizing we are all “in Christ” and learning how to live in that reality. The “not alone” component will be carried out online, on our church website, where you will find a transcript for this sermon and can share your own ideas as well as success stories with others in the comments section. You may do so anonymously if you wish. By “ideas” I mean you may wish to share what you did that showed your husband in a special way that you respect him and husbands you can share ideas of how you showed your wife she is loved. I hope you will prayerfully consider entering into this challenge with me.
Any work worth doing requires nourishment. The Lord’s Supper is a constant reminder to us that the flesh of Christ is joined to the flesh of the Church – to you and I. There is power here. Paul calls what happens here a great mystery – and indeed it is. Here we receive food for the journey. Here we are reminded that we are not alone. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, this is our altar call. As we share in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, if God has placed a desire on your heart I invite you to fan the flame. You are welcome to kneel and pray, to rest in the arms of our Father who in beginning a good work in you promises to be faithful and true to complete it.
**Please use the comments section to share how you have shown respect or love to your spouse (feel free to comment anonymously). How did you do it? What was his or her response? What impact has it had on your marriage?