Several years ago Bob Deffinbaugh was speaking at a missions conference in India.
He was travelling in a group that was riding in a van, on their way to the tent where the conference was being held. They noticed several ladies walking beside the road whom we knew to be going to the conference, and so they stopped to give them a ride. The van was already filled, but in India that is never a problem. There was a box on the floor that Bob had been using for a seat. When the ladies entered the van, he started to sit on the floor, so that one of the women could sit on the box. But an older man, one of the officers of the mission, strongly resisted his efforts to sit on the floor. He wanted to give up his seat, so that Bob would not give up his. Bob would never forget what he said, “If you sit on the floor, I shall lie on it.”
In his mind, Bob was a guest speaker, and thus he had to be given a place of honor.
It was bad enough that Bob should be sitting on a box, but when he attempted to sit on the floor, that was going too far. The old man would not hear of it. He felt that he should be in a lower position than Bob, so if Bob sat on the floor, he would have had to lie down.
In some societies submission is a way of life. Here in the west we tend to be more emancipated, although here too, I have noticed a shift back to more hierarchical relationships. In Holland, we seem to gradually drift away from our famous “polder model” and equality. I agree that it is sometimes better to know who is the boss and not fool ourselves that we can always have the last word.
But is that really what our text in Ephesians is all about? Hierarchical submission?
The greek word for submission does contain the prefix “hypo” which means “under” like in “hypothermia” which means “under the right temperature”. And the word for “reverence” can also be translated as “fear”. And there is no denying that as Christ is the head of the church, the church will always have to be subject to Christ. This gives the church a tremendous advantage over other organisations. When worldly leaders go their own way, there is not always someone to correct them. When Christian leaders fail, they may still ignore the voice of God, but at least there is this higher authority that always keeps nagging at their conscience. So submission is not always a bad thing.
However, I believe this does not yet bring us to the core of the message for today.
And I will give you 3 reasons why.
1. If you read chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians from verse 1 you will find that it is all about following Christ, Christ who sacrificed himself for us, and thus submitted to us.
We find the same theme again and again in the gospels, for instance when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. So really, we are given an example of how to act when we are in a position (or think we are in that position) which is higher up in the hierarchy.
It was never Christ’s intention that those who are low on the ladder of society
should be kicked down even lower, or kept in their “proper” place, while misusing his words. On the contrary, he is addressing those higher up, to humble themselves and serve. So the pastor in our story in India, rather than considering it proper and very Christian and an example to all of us that the old man gave up his seat, thus confirming the cultural status quo, should perhaps have explained how Christ can free us from the burdens of some of our human conventions and bring us true equality.
2. Secondly we should realize that there are two layers in the letter to the Ephesians.
There is the moral layer, which tells wives to obey their husbands, and which is culturally determined. This layer is problematic because we know that Paul’s attitude towards women varies. In one place he tells women to be quiet in the congregation and in another he speaks of women prophesying. Throughout the centuries theologians have tried to explain this or to explain it away. The simplest explanation seems to me that there were two different authors at work here. But apart from that, our understanding of marriage has changed, partly because of the gospel. Most people no longer think of the husband as the head of the family, and we need not return to the old way of doing things just because it is presupposed in the bible.
The second layer is: the analogy with Christ as the head of the church. Here the husband and wife only serve as a stepping stone to a higher reality. And once we understand that the relationship between Christ and the church is based on self-giving love, this can be reapplied back to the husband and wife. But that is still not the main point in this layer.
The main point is given in verse 21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This applies to all followers of Christ, and not only in marriage relationships.
It is a mutual subjection, which is really no subjection at all. I was tempted to think that this was a primitive way to express equality, but I found it to be more than equality. After all, when we treat each other as equals we could still do so without any real interest or involvement. Christianity challenges us to do more than respect each other, namely to be engaged and to serve.
The author goes on to explain that we should do so “out of reverence for Christ”. The word “reverence” is usually associated with being silent in church, or making the right movements. How different is the kind of reverence that St. Paul requires of us in this Epistle. We are to do things that may not seem reverent at all, but that are in the interest of the people of God. We are to give to each other whatever is needed to bring us closer to Christ and to build up the whole body of Christ, not just parts of it. To do less than this would not be reverent, not respectful towards Christ who gave himself for all. If we change the gospel so that this revolutionary element is taken out of it, we will encounter the other translation of the word “reverence”, namely “fear”. A God we only pretend to follow is a God to be feared, One who will set things right sooner or later.
3. Our lectionary has done us a great service by combining Ephesians and the gospel of John. Our text from Ephesians ends with: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. And John 6 elaborates on this when Jesus says he is the living bread that we should eat in order to have eternal life.
It shows that there are two sides to the self-giving love that Jesus advocates.
First of all this love should be practiced, as Jesus practiced it time and time again.
But also, it should be accepted. Sometimes accepting love and kindness can be as hard as giving love and kindness. The Jews found it easier to argue amongst themselves than to accept the love of Christ. Today many people still have difficulty accepting that Jesus loves them. It is much easier to discuss the defects in his followers than to admit Christ in their hearts.
But Jesus goes one step further. He calls on everyone to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Early critics of Christianity, taking this literally, spoke of cannibalism. But Jesus clearly speaks of his life giving spirit, which he in turn received from the Father. We are to internalize his life and his way of life, so that he becomes a part of us. Paul writes in Galatians 2: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. But by using the image of eating, Jesus clarifies that we are not talking about a hostile takeover, like when a demon possesses someone. When we eat, we integrate the nutrients in the cells of our body. And so, when we really absorb the spirit of Christ and of Christianity, we do not disappear, but develop into who we were meant to be from the beginning.
And so, in the middle of all the moral advice that can be given, St. Paul, too, brings everything back to this one piece of advice in verse 18: Be filled with the Spirit.
May we, likewise, as the “prayer of humble access” formulates it, “know how to eat the flesh of our dear Lord and to drink his blood, so that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”