We reached the penultimate chapter of Ephesians on Sunday, and we tackled it in two halves, starting with Ephesians 5:1-20. We are called here to walk in the way of love, which we are told is both “God’s example” and “just as Christ”, to really emphasise not only how perfect the way of love is, but also that we have a model for what it looks like. That model may seem like an impossible ideal, but it gives us somewhere to start and something to aim for.
If the way of love is the imitation of Christ, that brings us back to my first sermon in September, when I talked about welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us, which I reframed in terms of loving others as Christ has loved us. As I said then, loving as Christ loves, or walking in the way of love, to use the language we are given in today’s reading, means loving with a love that is open and indiscriminate, as we see in the healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s son and the Roman centurion’s servant. In these encounters, Jesus acted with love towards people society expected him to hate. He loved across the physical and social and political and religious barriers we talked about when we looked at Ephesians 2, and we are called to love likewise. I believe that when I talked about this in my first sermon, I called this open and discriminate love a radical aspect of Christ’s love. I had cause to reflect on that again this week, as one of the speakers at the conference I was at spoke of Jeremiah’s call for Israel to pray for the shalom of Babylon precisely as a call to love the enemy. It is not a radical aspect of Christ’s love but of God’s love. Of course the two are synonymous, but the point is that Jesus didn’t make God’s love more expansive, he showed how expansive it always was.
Walking in the way of love also means loving with a love that is compassionate and generous, as we see in the wedding at Cana and the feeding of the multitude. To come back to a phrase I used a lot during our series on social justice, it means living in the world with hearts and arms open. I won’t say any more on that now, because I don’t want to repeat myself too much this morning, but I do encourage you to take some time this week to reflect on how you may open your hearts and arms even wider to the world, to embrace even more of it with compassion and generosity. And I encourage you to think small. I know we’re normally told to think big, and we should be ambitious in our prayer and in our action, but if we’re always thinking big, it’s easy to forget the little things. Smiling at a stranger. Holding a door open even though it means waiting an extra ten seconds. Making a cup of tea for your partner without grumbling. Loving well in those small moments is important too.
Walking in the way of love means loving with a love that is both liberating and challenging, as we see in Jesus’ interactions with the woman caught in adultery and the rich young ruler. Liberating and challenging may seem like they pull against each other, but in fact they are two sides of the same coin, as Jesus pushes and stretches us in order to release us for better things. And so the way of love means giving up sin, which is clearly a central concern in our reading, which lists a number of behaviours which must be given up. Sexual immorality, greed, obscenity. It all looks so simple in black and white on the page, but of course in reality it’s much more complicated. The church has been arguing for centuries over what counts as sexual immorality. The line between enjoying abundant life and greed can be a bit fuzzy at times. And who decides what language is obscene or whether a joke is too coarse? I could give you a lecture on the different schools of ethics, but instead I want to suggest that if it was fruit that started the whole problem of sin, perhaps it is fruit that may also hold the answer. Jesus said “by your fruit you shall know them”. Here in Ephesians 5:9 we read that “the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth”. And in Galatians 5:22 we are told that “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Perhaps it is the fruit of our actions, the consequences and the character they produce, that are our best guide, and perhaps that is what must shape our understanding of sin. If the fruit of light and of the spirit is all that we have just heard, the fruit of sin is that which denies or destroys those things, and so perhaps rejecting sin is less about giving up a list of proscribed behaviours and more about turning away from all that does not produce this good fruit in us.
And walkingin the way of love means loving with a love that is servanthearted and sacrificial, as we see when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and accepts the way of the cross. In many ways, this sums up everything else that I’ve said this morning, because love that is open and indiscriminate and compassionate and generous and liberating and challenging is love that serves the other, even at the cost of the self. Of course this way of life, this way of love, is desperately hard at times, but it is not without joy. There is great joy in loving and being loved in return , and that joy is expressed in this passage as we are called to sing to one another, as we make music from our hearts for the Lord. Maybe the idea of singing to one another elicits anything but joy, but I think we can take the singing figuratively if we prefer. The point is that the way of love should bring connection and celebration, as much as it brings service and sacrifice.
We ended this part of our teaching by reflection on a poem, which offers us another way of understanding what it means to walk in the way of love. It is called ‘Fall in love’, and is normally attributed to a Jesuit priest called Pedro Arrupe. I offer it to you now, followed by some questions which might prompt your own reflections.
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
To fall in love, to stay in love, and to let that love decide everything, is to walk the way of love.
What have you fallen in love with?
How can you nurture that love so that you stay in it?
Do you dare to let it decide everything?
Later in the service, we heard Ephesians 5:21-33. That’s always a fun passage to preach on, especially as a woman. In the interests of full disclosure, I will tell you now that when Mike and I got married, I refused to promise to obey unless he promised the same, so we just left it out altogether. I tell you that because it probably gives you some indication of how I feel about this reading.
But we can’t just junk the verses we don’t like. We need to wrestle with them, to ask why they make us so uncomfortable. Is it that they are too challenging? Or do we truly believe that there is something wrong with them? Did the writer misunderstand something? Were they writing out of a context that has now changed? Have we added our own misunderstandings? These are good questions for us to ask of scripture, and asking them doesn’t mean we’re not taking it seriously enough. On the contrary, it means precisely that we are taking it seriously. If you swallow something whole, you barely taste it. You have to chew it up a bit to really get the most out of it.
So I have chewed on this passage, and I think the issue I have is less to do with the text itself, and more to do with what others have done with it. The command for wives to submit to their husbands has been used for centuries to further the idea that women are lesser, that they should be confined to the home, that they cannot exercise their own authority. It has been used to tell women that they must stay in abusive relationships, because their role is to submit and if they could just try harder to please their husbands, they wouldn’t be abused.
I do not accept that as good or true teaching. It is bad theology, and at its very worst it kills. In fact, I reject it as blasphemy, because to tie God to a theology that demeans and endangers women is to tarnish his name. God did not intend our human relationships to look like that. When we read in Genesis that God created Eve to be a helper for Adam, what we often miss is that the word we translate as helper is used elsewhere in the Bible to speak of God. It speaks of support not deference. And when we read a chapter later that God declares Adam will rule over Eve, what we so often forget is that he makes that declaration as a result of the fall. It is not how things are meant to be. We are made for companionship not control.
Nobody owes complete submission to anybody else. The only one we are called to submit to is God, and even then, he does not ask for unquestioning obedience. Scripture is full of stories of people challenging God. And what does he do? He hears them, he answers them, sometimes he lets them win. And my own is experience is full of times when God has given me a very real choice. Why has he done that? Because we follow him as his disciples did, not as minions but as companions. If we enjoy challenge and choice in our relationship with God, how dare anyone suggest that we should give those things up in our relationships with one another?
I said that my problem is not with the text but with how it has been used, because I don’t think the passage is really saying what some have made it say. I don’t think it is demanding a submission which forfeits the right to challenge or to choose, and which accepts abuse as punishment for disobedience. In fact I am certain it is not, because “wives, submit to your husbands” is preceded by “submit to one another”, and that suggests a mutual honouring. It is also followed just three verse later by “husbands, love your wives”, and love does not allow for control.
Of course there is still a degree of inequality here, rooted in a paternalistic attitude that says it is men who must provide and educate and women who must be cared for. But then, we must consider the place of women at the time. They were considered exempt from the command to learn the scriptures and so received little if any education. They could inherit, but their brothers took precedence and their husbands took the firstfruits. They were only permitted to engage in trade if there were no men in their household, and otherwise were expected to remain at home. They had to be looked after because society didn't allow them to look after themselves.
It seems to have been the case that Christianity was attractive to women because it gave them greater respect and freedom than they had known before, but whatever the early church believed about the place of women, it couldn't emancipate them in a moment. It takes time for societal attitudes and practices to change, and at the point that this letter was written, there hadn't been much time. The church was still in its infancy and barely surviving society, so it was going to be a while before it could start changing it. So perhaps there is a sense here of working with the status quo, recognising the power men held and asking them to use it well, and perhaps also recognising the frustration women felt and asking them to bear it with grace, trusting that their husband would be lord as Christ is lord and not as Caesar was lord.
The problem is that if some have taken the call to submission and made a weapon of it, others have fossilised the whole passage and made a rule of it. They have said that what was true then must be true forever, and so rather than allowing Jesus’ esteem for women to change society's disregard for women, the church allowed society's disregard for women to obscure Jesus’ esteem for women. Of course the picture is rather more complex than that. Large parts of both church and society have changed how they view women, but it has taken longer than it should, and it is still more difficult than it needs to be. Two thousand years after Jesus sent the women at the tomb to declare the resurrection to the disciples, some churches still won't allow women to preach the gospel to the world. Something went very wrong.
Instead of weaponising or fossilising this text and others like it, we need to see the trajectory they are on. These verses recognise and encourage the spirituality of women by calling for their theological education, and they call for a greater respect between spouses than would have been customary, not least by requiring that husbands love their wives as people rather than treating them as property. To us this passage may look conservative or backwards, but at the time it must have been quietly radical. The times they were a-changing, and I believe they were supposed to keep on changing. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new equality and mutuality to human relationships. Or perhaps an old equality and mutuality, an equality and mutuality in which we were created, before it all went wrong and companionship became tainted by control. So we can't cut these verses from the Bible, but we can see where they were mean to take us, and do everything we can to get there.
I realise I've focused on women here, partly because that is the particular perspective I bring as a woman, mostly because we are the ones who have suffered the most on account of poor readings of this passage and others like it, but in truth it's not just about us. Mutual and equal relationships will enrich everyone. And the idea of there being trajectories in scripture is important when we consider other issues too, not least the treatment of other minority groups. But that is for another day...