This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Ephesians 5:21-33
Sermon prepared by Rev. Jack Westerhof, Sarnia, Ont.
Dear people of God,
Marriage is a beautiful thing, a gift from the God who knows that it is not good for us to be alone. Those who are alone, and those who are lonely within their marriages, know how hard it is. A good marriage is probably the most affirming thing there is to be had. No wonder that people are drawn into marriage almost automatically, and have been for eons on end, the world over.
But marriage is at the same time a battle ground for the war between the sexes. That started with the fall, when Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit and flouted God's command. Genesis tells us that instantly there was a break between them. They continued to be drawn to each other, but they were also each other's adversaries. The war was on. He began to assert his power; she became his resentful helpmeet.
Take one huge leap forward in time now, all the way to the world of the New Testament, the world of the apostle Paul. It's not a pleasant thing to watch, this war of the sexes, not in the pagan world but not among the Jews either. The Jews to whom Paul preached assigned women a very secondary place. This is what Jewish men included in their morning prayer: "I thank You, most sovereign Lord, that I was made neither a gentile, a slave, nor a woman."
It was worse in the gentile world. Men treated their wives as commodities — useful as bearers of children. Respect and fidelity hardly entered the picture. Prostitution was rampant. Imagine the pent-up anger and resentment in these families — anger kept from exploding only because of the father’s heavy hand. The name of the game was exploitation — an exploitation answered from time to time with a fierce feminism.
Watch what happens when the gospel arrives in that situation. The message that God loves, that God prizes people. Of course that affects this war that’s being waged. Where that message takes hold this war is over. God loves both men and women. Both men and women are restored. The relationships in which they live get healed. Husband and wife are partners again, full and equal partners. Of course, it's a long road, and it's going to take time to make this vision real, but this is the way we’re headed now. This is the direction in which the Spirit moves the church. Which means that just as in ancient Jericho, the walls come tumbling down. All three ancient walls that made for hatred and division — Jew and gentile, master and slave, men and women. Paul sums it up in his letter to Galatians: "In Christ there is no longer Jew nor gentile, slave or freeman, male or female!" There isn't? No, in principle those conflicts are over; they're one and equal now. "In terms of our salvation," some have said. Yes, but salvation is not just the future. Salvation shows up right here and now. This is the reason Paul sheds light on these relationships. He sketches the contours of the life in Christ, and he shows us how to slough off the old and put on the new. And he points to the start of a very thorough-going turnabout. This is the renewing of the gift of marriage. This is the undoing of the fall, a return to God's original design.
It’s basic, down-to-earth Christianity.
"You have learned to reverence the Lord," I hear the apostle tell this congregation in Ephesus. "Now out of reverence for his work in your lives I want you to submit to one another. Let Christ be the one who governs both of you. Submit yourselves, submit yourselves in your relationship to him!"
It’s basic Christian attitudes. "Guys, no more of the chauvinism you learned on the streets, the language that demeaned girls and women, the attitude that stomped on their persons. Those habits, that kind of talk — you’re dead to that. You’re being shaped by Christ now! I see him turning to the women in the congregation. "Let’s not have the other stuff either — the old resentment, the get-even game." Paul points to the better way. The way in which husband and wife can blossom in real, Christ-like partnership.
It’s submission Paul prescribes. No, not the old stuff again. Not her submission to him again.. Not that of him to her either. No, mutual submission. Both of us in marriage bending, stooping to each other, the one as much and often as the other.
This is where we husbands have to take the lead, says Paul. That's what headship means. Just as Christ does it for his church, you and I cleanse and care and cherish and love and present our wives radiant! That's Christian leadership! And Christian wives need to submit to that — need to honor that responsibility and affirm that in their Christian men. In vs. 33 Paul summarizes everything he wants to say. He says, let husbands love and wives respect!.
"Let husbands love." I think I know why he put it that way. Love was the one thing pagan dads didn't teach their sons. Giving orders they learned, and how to use a woman they learned. But cherishing her person — that they had never been taught to do. They’re taught to do that now. "Husbands, just as Jesus loved his Church, you love your wives!
"Let wives respect." This was not an environment that taught women to respect their men. We know what people do when they feel trapped. It's what prisoners do with their guards. They buck and rebel. They backbite and stonewall. And most of all, they manipulate. That's what women did in these loveless marriages. Paul says, "Don’t you do any of these things! Do something far better than that! Bring about this wonder in your partner’s life, the experience of affirmation, this reality of respect for his person — especially when he leads that Christlike way of life!"
Why stress this today? We men need this affirmation. We men seem to need this more than anything. We need it for ourselves. And we need it to nurture our relationships. Disdain from others, disrespect from strangers — that we can usually handle. But from our wives, our kids, the ones who know us best? No way! Respect is what we crave from you!
So, let’s sum it up. Let husbands love. Let wives respect. Let’s do it. Let’s do this submission, this mutual submission. Let’s seek each other's good. But keep it simple. Keep it loving. Keep it playful!
Neil Plantinga shows us how. Neil Planting has us picture a Christian couple working at love and respect and mutual submission. In the ebb and flow of daily life it works well for them. "But," writes Planting, "one day a disagreement arises. The peripheral matters are pared away bit by bit, and finally a truly basic disagreement is exposed. Husband and wife, each of them a Christians, attempt to submit to each other. So the husband says, ‘Dear, we'll go your way with this.’ She replies, ‘I firmly disagree! You’re right and we'll follow your lead.’ Back and forth it goes. Finally the husband draws himself up to his full height and says, Honey, I hereby invoke the headship of the husband. ‘You are right, we will do it your way, and that's the end of it. Not another word!’ In humble obedience the wife submits."
"We'll do it your way." Out of respect for Christ.
Suggested hymn of response: #513 "Christian Hearts in Love United"