“Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
I speak with you in the name of the crucified, risen, and living God, Amen!
Ephesians chapter 5 is not my favorite chapter of the bible. It ranks right up there with parts of the book of Ezekiel that I just simply wish weren’t in the bible. The part of Ephesians 5 we read today is attached to a haunting lingering memory of one my early Episcopal experiences. I was in college in 1996 when a friend of mine drug me to the campus ministry of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Murfreesboro, TN. After six months or so of my sporadic attendance I was asked to be a reader as part of Campus Ministry Sunday. Now, I was still new to this liturgy thing. I grew up Baptist, and though we at times had a complex order of worship, I still hadn’t figured out this Episco-aerobics, shift to the left, shift to right, stand up, sit down, pray, pray, pray type worship service; so, I was a little nervous about being a reader. But I figured, “Hey, I did six years of bible drill as a preacher’s kid. I should be able to stand up and read the bible in public…Right?” So, I agreed.
I learned several lessons that day, the first is always read though the reading before you get to the podium. They had handed me a bible reference, but I hadn’t taken time read through it. So, I get up there…start reading and get to verse 22, “Women obey your husbands…” Now what went through my mind at this point is related to the second thing I learned. See, the pews in St. Paul’s chapel went from the center isle all the way to the wall. I learned that day when you are reading Ephesians 5:22, don’t sit next to the wall at the end of a row of eight strong minded, extremely talented, vocally expressive, Episcopal campus women.
Now, I know I completed the reading, and I know I read all of what the head of the lay readers told me to read. But in my memory the reading stopped with the wives part. It didn’t go on with the husband’s part like we did today. The lectionary does indeed call for verses 21-33, so I must have read the husband’s part that infamous Sunday, but I don’t remember doing it. Furthermore it doesn’t really matter if I did. My female friends from the Campus ministry stopped listening after verse 22. For the next three years they proceeded to remind me often of that reading even though I didn’t write it, and I didn’t even preach on it that day.
Fast forward a few years, to my time as a Resurrection House intern, and this passage of scripture reared its head again. Now, I was in the house in the class of 2001-2002 with two strong minded, vocally expressive Episcopal women. We did not always get along; in fact we worked hard and long that year to see the light of Christ in each other. One particular day, when we were in a not happy place to say the least, it was my turn to plan the house worship for the evening. I opened up my trusty Book of Common Prayer and found the daily lectionary reading to be Ephesians 5:21-33. My heart sank. The acid in my stomach doubled, and that bitter adrenaline taste of fear filled my mouth. I must confess, I changed the reading that night. I didn’t even tell my housemates what I did. I just wasn’t gonna go there.
Ten years ago, I wasn’t the preacher, and five years ago in Resurrection house, discretion was the better part of valor, but today the elephant is in the room and it must be dealt with. Now, let me state the obvious for a moment. My wife Jodie is female. Mother Judi is female. Our Deacons, Juanita and Mary are female. Our warden, Janice Seldon…also female. Indeed most of our leadership here at Resurrection is female and here to today, and I am sure they are all curious how I’m going to deal with this passage. Furthermore, I imagine that every husband in the room is hoping I give him an out before he has to go home with his wife today. So, I guess I should stop stalling and get to it.
Part of my nervousness about preaching on this passage comes from the way it has been used through out history. Often these verses have been used to defend laws that denied women the right to own property or vote. They have also been used to defend laws that said that a woman had no rights to how her body was used for either labor or sex by her husband. Finally, and most atrocious of all, this verse has been used by clergy to send women back into homes and “marriages” (though I use that word loosely) where they were being beaten, and their children abused. These things and other attitudes and policies that deny the humanity of women are flat wrong. Jesus would not support them, and I don’t think Paul would either.
Some people have tried to say that Paul did not mean for women to obey their husbands. I think that is a stretch, given the legal and cultural make up of families in that time and place I think Paul did mean obey. (before yall start warming up the tar and feathers, note that I said Paul thought this, not that I believe women should obey, or that Jesus believed that.) I think Paul is speaking, at least in regards to wives, fairly in line with the culture and laws of the day. All husbands had a large amount of legal and cultural power over their spouses, and even more so if they were the head of the household—the oldest male in line. The head of the household held power to the point of life and death over all descendents and their spouses. It was possible to kill a spouse or child without consequence with little or no reason at all, if you were the head of the house.
With this taken into account, Paul is being out of line with the culture of the first century Roman Empire when he speaks to husbands. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,…” Paul is doing two things in that statement. First, he is reversing the gender roles of a marriage. Instead of the women giving up her life—body, mind, and soul—Paul calls for the husband to give up his life as Jesus did. It is revolutionary in his day and age to even suggest that men should sacrifice for the women in their lives; much less sacrifice to the level of Christ. The second thing that Paul does in verse 25, and indeed throughout all of Ephesians chapter 5, is to set up Christ as the model for all our relationships, friend to friend, child to parent, neighbor to acquaintance, and yes spouse to spouse.
If we look to Christ we see a high standard of relationship. Christ says to treat all as him. Christ says in Matthew 25, that whatever we do to whomever we meet, especially the least among us, we do to Christ himself. Furthermore, Christ says in our Gospel today, for the third week in a row, I am the bread of life whoever eats this bread and drinks this wine have Christ in them.
This is truly a high standard, if we are to assume that everyone we meet has Christ within them.
It is a high standard indeed, if when we greet someone we are to greet the Christ within them.
It is the highest standard in fact, if we are called in every action, in every deed, to treat the person next to us—be they spouse, child, friend, neighbor, or even enemy—as we would treat Christ himself.
Carl Jung once said that it takes a thousand years for an idea to catch on. I think Paul was trying to understand this radical Gospel, this drastic good news of Christ, and for his time, he was pushing the envelope. Paul calls us to be subject to each other, as Christ, the holy one of God, humbled himself and was subject to us. Paul did what he could with what he understood of Christ and God at the time. But, it is Jesus that has the words of eternal life, not Paul.
We have only just begun to understand the equality that Jesus calls for. We have only just begun to learn what it is to be subject to each other. We have only just begun to understand that we cannot lift ourselves above others because of their gender, their age, their race, their marital status, or their sexual preference. We have only just begun to understand what it means to be in the kingdom of God.
Brothers and Sisters, we are called today…called by Christ to his high standard. We are called to pattern our lives in the way of his sacrificial love. We are called to structure our homes, our neighborhoods, cities, towns, states, nations and world in ways that honor the Christ within all.