A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ
I was looking at the readings this week as I prepared for this sermon. I noticed that the epistle lesson from the book of Ephesians was shorter than most of the lessons from Ephesians have been this summer. So I looked at what the framers of the lectionary were doing with our read through Ephesians. It turns out that after this lesson, they skip well over a chapter and finish next week with a portion from near the end of the epistle. In the process, they have left out one of the best known passages from Ephesians. That passage is difficult and it makes a number of people uncomfortable, but it is still there. I think it is more important to look directly at the difficult passages in scripture and struggle to understand them, rather than skip over them and let our discomfort and the discomfort of others do the interpreting. So, let me read this morning’s reading from Ephesians again, continuing through that passage:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
The key to understanding the last part of this reading is its first sentence: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In other words, as we respect Christ, we should put the needs and concerns of others above our own. It is addressed to ALL Christians, not one group more than another. We should keep that in mind as we look at the rest of the passage.
The thing that makes this passage uncomfortable, of course, is the next couple of sentences: “Women be subject to your men.” Why does Paul write that? I don’t really know. However, there are a couple of things to bear in mind when interpreting this. First, we should not assume that we know everything about the place of women in ancient Roman society, from our experience and understanding of nineteenth and twentieth century European and American society, or even of medieval society. The Christian church in the first century probably had more women than men, not too differently from today. And we know from very early on there were some quite prosperous women in the early churches. In Roman society, a woman’s primary allegiance was to her father, more than to her husband. A wealthy woman, whose father was prominent, might be quite independent of her husband, and, if so inclined, might look down on him and not respect him. In the early church there was also an inclination among many people to understand the freedom in Christ as entitling them to be free from all social conventions. The Apostle addresses the women of Ephesus, reminding them that their freedom as Christian adults is for the service of others, and not for disrespect. There are many details of this passage that are worthy of a much more detailed examination and discussion than we can do on this hot August morning—certainly this is not the last word in understanding the whole of this passage.
But the second thing we should remember about this is even more important: we hear this passage, most of the time, in the light of really bad interpretations done by men who skip over all the important parts to reinforce their own privilege. Believe me, I’m a man, we do this—and it distracts from the real understanding of the words in front of us. A few years ago I saw an interview on TV. The interviewer asked a man about many crude, demeaning, intimidating and disrespectful things he had said about women in public. His response was to say he was referring to only one person. When it was pointed out that there were many others, he labelled the issue as being about “political correctness,” as if respect for other human beings is political. He also said it was “all in fun”—though I think it was he who was having all the fun—and then he finished his response by claiming to be the victim of personal attacks. He never took responsibility for his own attacks on others, nor did he answer the moderator’s question. Men often do this when they are reading this passage. “Wives be subject …”—hear that? Be subject to me. Treat me like Jesus, the King of Kings!
If you point out to these men that the passage continues regarding men… Well of course, “Husbands love your wives.” Well, you know, I love the ladies, and yeah, just as Christ loved—he’s a man like me, right? So I don’t need to look at the rest—it’s all there, Wives be subject to your husbands, right?
The Apostle is saying something much different, and we need to listen carefully. “Love your wives just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for it.” It is not the honor or privilege that we give Christ that is supposed to parallel the place of men, but rather Christ’s self-sacrifice. It continues, “husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies,” with respect, love, care. It is not quite so necessary to remind women of this, they bear children from their own bodies and often spend their whole lives nurturing them. But we should always keep this in mind: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.” Christians are subject to one another, not as slaves or inferiors, but as people who respect themselves and hold others as Christ’s gift, worthy of that same respect.
In thus serving one another we abide in Christ, the Bread of Heaven.
As He says in today’s Gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”