In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are some passages of Scripture that are difficult for us because we do not understand them. We are missing a piece of the puzzle, or some details, or the context, and so we can’t see what is being said. It’s obscure to us, and we can speculate about it, but in the end we really just don’t understand it. On the other hand, there are passages of Scripture that are difficult for us, not because we don’t understand them, but because we do—or, at least, we think we do. These are the passages that have been rejected in Western civilization for 200 or 300 years, and even in some corners of the Church they have been rejected for 40 or 50 years. Right at the top of this list of passages that are rejected because we think they are out of date or do not fit our modern situation—maybe even number one on the list—is this passage from Ephesians 5, about how husbands and wives ought to act toward one another.
Why is this passage difficult for us? Why do we get all tense when we hear it, and objections and maybe even anger rise within us? Why does the Revised Common Lectionary—that series of readings for the Church year used by most Protestants, including the ELCA, the Episcopalian Church, the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and others—why does the RCL not even include this passage? Why does it skip over it as if it doesn’t even exist? In fact, the compilers of the RCL are so desperate not to include this passage that they stop in the middle of a sentence in 5:21, and pick up again in 6:1. Why—when this passage is read at weddings, or preached on, or included in the vows—as it is in our marriage rite—when brides vow to submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, and grooms vow to love their wives as Christ loves the Church—why have I seen heads shaking and heard muttered or whispered words underneath people’s breath?
I think it mostly has to do with that little word “submit.” Such a dirty word! Such negative connotations! Our culture is defined by rights: equal rights, equal jobs, equal pay. We have laid a firm foundation of the equality of men and women. But it goes beyond equality. We think that there is no difference between men and women, that they are interchangeable, and even reversible. We try to fool ourselves into thinking men can be mothers and women can be fathers, but we know that it is literally impossible. So when people in our culture hear that wives ought to submit to their own husbands as to the Lord, they think that St. Paul, and the Church—and probably male pastors—are trying to take the world and the Church back to some dark age of patriarchy and misogyny; some dark age where men rule and women are slaves, where men are superior and women inferior; where men hate women. They think this passage basically gives husbands the right to beat their wives, and women can do nothing about it—nevermind that Paul also says that husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the Church, giving himself up for her. It seems to me that if we object to one half of the equation, we ought to object to the other half as well!
So I wonder if we—in our individualized, American culture—can even hear what St. Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ Himself, is saying. Can we hear anything but that word “submit”? Now maybe we don’t really understand the word. Maybe our negative connotations come because we’ve forgotten that “submit” just means to “order under.” That there is an order in creation and in this world that we cannot get rid of even if we want to. That that order is not bad or evil, but that it can be used in bad or evil ways, just as the ordering of government and governed can be misused. Maybe. Or maybe we really do know what is being said and we don’t like it. Because this passage isn’t really—at least, not finally—about husbands and wives. It is, Paul says, a great mystery about Christ and the Church. Maybe our real problem is that when Paul says that women ought to submit to their husbands as the Church does to Christ, it comes clear that sinners don’t naturally want to be the Church, submitting to Christ. We don’t like that Christ gives everything and we give nothing. That Christ does everything and we do nothing. That we are not independent, modern people, but instead dead, damned sinners whom Christ must raise from the dead. In fact, there is no bride, no Church, before Christ makes one. There is only a prostitute who wants to give something in return for what Christ gives. And He says, “No, you do not need to give Me anything. You cannot give Me anything. I give you everything. I cleanse you by the washing of water with the Word. I make you holy. I present you before Me without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and blameless.” Just as Eve does not exist before God takes a rib from Adam—who, for all intents and purposes, is dead—and makes her, so also the Church does not exist before Christ dies and blood and water flow from His side, creating the Church out of nothing but Himself. Just as Eve was flesh of Adam’s flesh and blood of his blood, so the Church is flesh of Christ’s flesh and blood of His blood. No, this is all too much for our sinful natures. We literally cannot accept it. And that’s not a surprise. None of this comes naturally to us. None of us naturally submits; none of us naturally loves.
And, if we are paying close attention, rather than looking for soundbites and buzzwords, we see that this is exactly what Paul says. “Submitting” in verse 21 is not the beginning of the sentence; it’s not even the main verb in the sentence. The sentence begins all the way back in verse 18, and the main verb is there: “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” That’s the verb. Until Christ recreates us and the Spirit of God is breathed into us, none of this makes any sense at all. So it’s no surprise that the world cannot understand; unbelievers do not have the Spirit of Christ. And if those in the Church reject this passage, perhaps they have a different spirit. But Paul is describing those who are filled with the Spirit of Christ: he says, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” Not with envy, or bitterness, or anger, or hatred, but with the very Word of God which you have received. “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing.” “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, making music.” “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, giving thanks always for all things to the Father in Christ Jesus your Lord.” “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, submitting to one another out of fear of Christ, wives to your own husbands as to the Lord; husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church.” Only in the Spirit of Christ are we new creatures who submit and love. The question is, will we seek to throw off this order, be independent, prove that we need no one else, just like the unbelievers? Or will the Body of Christ, in all its relationships with other members, including husbands and wives, bear witness to Christ’s love for the Church and the Church’s submission to Christ? Because it’s not all about us, not all about rights, not all about what we can get for ourselves?
There is a movie which you have probably not heard of or seen, but which I highly recommend. It’s called Take Shelter, about a man who has dreams—even hallucinations—about terrible storms that are coming. During these storms faceless, nameless people attack him and his family. So he makes the decision to do anything he can to protect his family. He starts to build a large storm shelter in his backyard, and no matter what happens, he’s going to finish. He loses his job because he borrows work machinery to build the shelter; he loses his best friend, who, in one of his dreams, attacks him; he nearly loses his wife and deaf daughter, and in one of his dreams, even his wife looks threateningly at a knife. But he will stop at nothing to give his wife and daughter shelter from the storm, even if it costs him everything, even if everyone around him thinks he’s insane.
This is not just a picture of a husband giving everything for his wife; we all know no husband ever loves his wife as he ought, or as Christ does the Church. Even more, this is a picture of Christ, who will stop at nothing to give shelter to His bride, to His family. He will give up everything, even His own life. Even when one of His best friends lifts up his hand against Him in betrayal; even though His bride-to-be not only threatens Him, but crucifies Him, He will go all the way. And when He has died, and when He rises again, He begins to restore, cleanse, and nurture the members of His Body. He begins to gather His Bride, the Church, to Himself. And then, finally, she sees that there is no shelter but the one that He gives. She sees–as the wife does at the end of the movie–the storm of sin and death on the horizon, and she takes shelter in the only refuge there is: her Head, her Lord, her Husband. Finally, the Bride sees what her Bridegroom sees, and she submits to His gracious and eternal love. Blessed is the one who takes shelter in Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/19/15