SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, AUGUST 23, 2015, THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Well, they did it to me again. Last week the other clergy left town and left me to tackle the Assumption of Mary in my homily. So this week, I’m preparing for the sermon, and I see: Wives, submit to your husbands. Come on. I expected that when I was a baptist, but here - and on a Sunday when my wife is at mass? And yet - in our liturgy, every time we read the Bible, in the daily office or at mass, whether we love the text or we hate it, we always respond with four words: Thanks be to God. No matter what. Our view of the Bible is that it is not ours to correct or amend according to our own whims or the dictates of our culture - our job is to sit under the text, especially when it’s a difficult passage, to see what there is in the text that God wants us to hear. Timothy says “All scripture is breathed out by God and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, or training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3.16), so there is something here today to teach us, reprove us, correct us, or train us.
First let’s get our bearings - Why’re we here? This famous (or infamous) passage from Ephesians 5 is the next stop on our tour through the book of Ephesians this summer. It isn’t a long book - just 6 chapters - but Barclay (William, not Charles) called it “the queen of the epistles.” It’s written to particular people, to Christians in the city of Ephesus — we’re going to Ephesus when we visit Turkey next year. First-century Ephesus was a diverse, cosmopolitan port city; it drew tourists and merchants from all over the world. Maybe they even had duck boats. There was a type of “acceptable” religion in the city - the cult of the goddess Artemis (Diana), goddess of the hunt, adopted as goddess of commerce (perpetual hunt for profit) - but Christians were a distinct minority in a culture hostile to their beliefs. So this little book has much to say to us in Boston today, as it did to Christians in Ephesus when it was written.
See - Paul was writing to a people - God’s people, the church, created and called to be a new society - an alternate city right in the middle of hostile Ephesus. To the believers who lived in that world, which is so much like ours in Boston, the apostle wrote they should stand out, not just for what they confessed (private belief), but because there’s a particular ethic or “shape of life” they lived for all the world to see (public). So let’s think about our life together: (1) The ethic of that life, (2) the earth under that life, and (3) the engine for the life. If we were building a house, we’d be looking at the blueprint (the shape of the house), the foundation, and the power source.
First - The Ethic: The blueprint for the house: The first words we heard today, before the part about wives and husbands, were: Be subject to one another. (5.21a) In the translation we read from today, this is a complete sentence by itself. But not when Paul wrote it - in the Greek NT, it’s actually the final clause of a sentence that begins back in verse 18 - Paul gives the imperative command “Be filled with the Holy Spirit,” then he unpacks what it looks like when a community is Spirit filled, and the last identifying mark of that kind of community is mutual submission. Mutual submission. The passage we read today and the first part of chapter 6 is called a haustafeln, a “household code.” Households were bigger back then than ours are today - households comprised husbands and wives, children, extended family, even servants - so people wrote codes dictating what life should look like in these extended households. Paul says wives should be subject to husbands, children to parents, servants to masters, because those are particular examples of how the church is actually a society where all the members are in mutual submission to each other.
Submission sounds odd to our western ears because we live in a highly individualized society, one based upon the idea of individual rights and freedoms, so “submitting” sounds to us like “oppression.”
But it’s really not that at all. Look, Christianity upends every culture:
That’s the shape of our life, the schematic of the house. We don’t stand on our rights, or demand to have our way; we submit to each other, always putting others’ needs first.
Point two - The Foundation: The earth under the house: Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ. This foundation for our submission, the earth it’s built on, is reverence to Christ. But that’s a little misleading. The Greek word for “reverence” is phobos, literally “fear.” We submit because we fear God. For the longest time, I had a problem with fear of God as a concept. It sounded so ominous. In Genesis 31 there’s a place where God’s very name is fear - in verse 42 Jacob calls God “the God of my father, the God of Abraham, the fear of Isaac.” How could God’s very identity be fear? The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, Proverbs says. So do I need to be afraid God will punish me or cut me off if I don’t meet his standards? Or am I to respect God like you would a powerful person, like a president or a dictator?
Well, one verse, and one sermon by an old seminary friend, completely revolutionized how I understand fear of God. Psalm 130.4 says With you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared. How can that be? My friend Abe Cho said in a sermon:
When we think about fear, you and I, we understand fear almost exclusively in the negative. So fearing God, for us, means that we ought to dread his disapproval and his anger. But when the bible talks about fear . . . it’s almost always in the positive. Fear is not the one whose disapproval you most dread, it’s the one whose love you most treasure. That’s your fear . . . . It’s the one whose opinion of you really counts. It’s your ultimate love. It’s the one thing [of] which you say “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s opinion is - what you say about me, that’s all that matters.”
God has to be our fear, our greatest love. That’s the foundation for this peculiar life we’re called to lead.
We have a shape to our common life, a blueprint for our house; it’s built on a foundation; Third, and last, the house needs a power source. How can we be strong enough to live this life to voluntarily submit to each other, consistently to put the others’ needs before our own? - Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (5.25-27) There are five verbs in that sentence - love, give up, sanctify, cleanse, present - and they perfectly describe the work of Jesus’ life. What Jesus did for the church - he loved her so much that he gave himself up (that’s the cross) to make her holy and clean so she can be presented to him as a bride.
Submitting to each other is hard work, I know. But when we have before our eyes the beauty of Jesus, how he gave up his rights for us, our hearts melt. When we remember Jesus submitted his desire - to have the cup of suffering pass from him - for the good of the church, we are transformed. That’s the only source of the power it takes for us to give up our lives for each other - to remember Jesus gave up his life for us.
And that’s what we are about to enact. In the Mass the veil of time is lifted and we are present at the last supper, when Jesus took a basin and towel to teach his disciples that the first will be last, that the one who will be greatest is the one who serves. The veil is lifted and we are at the foot of the cross gazing up at our God giving up his rights, laying down his life so that we can live. He is robbing our sin, washing us, making us beautiful to be his bride. Fix that in your minds, return to it day after day, even minute by minute, and find strength to conform our lives to the shape of his, submitting to each other because our fear, our greatest love, is the one who first loved us.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
1) John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, TBST (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1979): 15 (citation omitted).
2) Abraham Cho, “Confession and Assurance,” a sermon delivered at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City on 31 August 2008.