On Wednesday of this week, we observed the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in all US elections. Before that point, each state decided for itself which types of elections women could vote in, if any at all. The fight for women’s suffrage lasted more than 70 years from the first public declaration until the last state ratified the 19th amendment. It took so long in part because of the assumptions that were made about women and what they were naturally suited for. At the turn of the century many people still believed that women were biologically unsuited for political disagreements. That women’s delicate sensibilities would be disturbed if they had to sit on juries and hear about crime. That a woman’s place was in the home, bearing and caring for children, and that to grant women a voice in public decisions would literally cause the total breakdown of American civilization.
Looking back, those assumptions seem absurd to us. Yet when we read letters and newspaper articles and books from 1920, we recognize that they are a product of their time. People believed what they did because of when and where they lived. That was their reality. We must also keep that in mind as we read our sacred text, especially some of what we will read this morning in Ephesians 5. This letter to the Christians who gathered in Ephesus and the surrounding area is a product of it’s time and place, AND also we believe that it contains timeless truth. The challenge for us is sorting out how we apply what we find in the Bible. It takes wisdom, which these verses talk about this morning. One of my favorite Christian authors, the late Rachel Held Evans said, “Wisdom isn’t just about knowing what is true; it’s about knowing when it’s true.”
As you listen to these verses this morning, I invite you to try to put yourself in the mindset of the original audience. A mixed group of people, gathered together in a large home to sing songs, pray prayers, eat together, listen and discuss. Jews and Gentiles, different races, men and women, single and married, masters and slaves and shepherds and shop owners, living in an ancient city in the Roman empire which thrived on everyone knowing their place and staying in it.
These ancient Christians knew that Jesus had come to usher in a new kingdom, the same word for empire. They knew they were really citizens of God’s empire, but they were still residents in the Roman empire. So the question for them was how to live a distinctly Christian life, to walk in a distinctly Christian way, in the midst of the Roman empire.
Here is some of the advice they were given:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But sexual immorality and impurity of any kind and greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s vengeance comes on “the sons of disobedience.” Therefore do not in partnership with them.Ephesians 5:1-7
According to these verses, living in the way of love and imitating God has a lot to do with how we talk. It’s not only about our actions, but also about our words. They will know we are Christians by our love, but apparently also by our speech. The author asks us if we are entertaining ourselves with the same kind of talk as the rest of the empire. Are we talking about what other people are doing? Gossiping about their sex lives, their choices and their money? Are we talking about other people’s shortcomings in order to make ourselves feel better? This author says to leave that stuff alone.
Because according to these verses, there are some behaviors that will keep us out of God’s empire. Some things most definitely do not fit in walking in the way of love. The author lists three. The first one is fornication, your Bible might say sexual immorality. The Greek word is porneia. It’s where we get our word pornography. This word contains the idea of sexual activity for sale, like ritual prostitution in Greek temples. Remember that Jesus welcomed everyone, including prostitutes, and he defended a woman caught in adultery. But he also called them to live differently once they’d met him. It is unhealthy for us to commodify sexuality, to buy other people or their images like we buy objects. Using people, instead of knowing and honoring people — that’s not going to fit in God’s empire.
The second thing that doesn’t fit is impurity. This is just a general word for things that are ceremonially unclean. In the gospels, this is the word for what you find inside a tomb. If we are deliberately pursuing things that we know are unclean, we won’t inherit God’s kingdom. Remember that “inherit the Kingdom” does not mean going to heaven when you die. It means taking part in God’s realm fully breaking into ours, doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We cannot walk however we want and also inherit the Kingdom, because some things have no place in the Kingdom. As long as we are holding on to impurity in our lives, we won’t be able to fully take hold of God’s kingdom.
The last thing that won’t fit in God’s empire, or God’s kingdom, is greed, which is idolatry. When we put our trust in acquiring more and more, more money, more stuff, more house, more car, more clothes, we will miss out on God’s kingdom. I think this is because God’s kingdom will run on sharing and not hoarding. And so if we are greedily grasping and putting our trust in stuff instead of in God, we are going to miss out. So what should we do instead?
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of the light is all goodness, righteousness and truth. Discern what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what people do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” (We think this was a baptismal hymn.)
Be careful, then, how you walk—not as unwise but as wise, snapping up every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, because that is spiritually useless. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ephesians 5:8-14
Suddenly the author has switched from talking about specific behaviors to larger general language about darkness and light. We are called to be children of the light, in all goodness and righteousness and truth. However we are not asked only to stay away from the darkness, but actually to expose the darkness. We expose the darkness when we live in the light, because it’s suddenly very clear what is dark and what is light.
In our country, we are finally exposing the fruitless darkness of racism, the implicit racial bias that all white people have. We are seeing the darkness that is inside us exposed to the world in large ways and small. It’s not only the senseless and tragic shootings of unarmed black men. It’s the mean looks and whispers that my black Muslim neighbor gets every day. This darkness has deep roots in our country, and thank God it is finally being exposed. We must see it. We must see it in our structures and we must see it in ourselves. That is the only way it can be changed. As these verses remind us, “everything exposed to the light becomes visible, and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” When the darkness of racial prejudice in us has been exposed to the light, we have the opportunity to repent, to change, and to grow. And when we do, that growth in us, what has been illuminated, becomes a light to other people. As individuals and as a country, we must endure the painful experience of having ourselves exposed to the light so that we can become a light. It’s not easy, but it is an essential part of our Christian calling, to be illuminated and become a light.
So far all of this guidance seems timeless to us. I can definitely apply this to my daily life. But now we come to the section of the chapter that might feel less relevant to us.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your own husbands as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—and I am applying it to Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.Ephesians 5:21-33
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Is it? Is this the word of God for all people? And are we really thankful to hear it? Let me start by saying that I am not going to be able to resolve this for you. It says what it says. The words are what they are, and this time I have not found any clever alternate translations of the original Greek that are going to make you like it more. BUT we can still take this for what is is. We can examine it in the context of the time and place in which it was written. And then we can see what carries forward for us today.
First, let me point out what these verses do NOT say. They do not say, “All women submit to all men as you submit to the Lord.” These are specific instructions for the context of a committed relationship. It also does not say “obey” or “never question” or “always do what you are told.” The same word “submit” is used at the beginning of this section in a reciprocal way; as followers of Jesus we are to submit to one another. The word “submit” is also used in other verses to describe the relationship of Christ to the Source, the Son to the Father in the Trinity, which we know is not a relationship of subservience.
So what does it say? Well it sounds very much like other ancient writings that we have, called “household codes.” The Roman empire relied on everyone keeping their place, from the smallest child to the emperor who they viewed as a god. Household codes were written to instruct people on how to keep their place or risk the collapse of Roman civilization. All of these household codes had the husband and father as the ruler, as a little emperor in his own household realm, ruling over his wife, children and slaves. Household codes also included instructions to wives, children and slaves, just like we read in Ephesians.
But Ephesians is different from those household codes. These are distinctly Christian instructions for citizens of God’s empire who are residents in the Roman empire. First, although the wives are instructed to submit, their submission is held in the context of the mutual submission that all Christians have to one another, and that exists within the Trinity. Also, the relationship of submitting is one of the body submitting to the head. Which you may not like any better at first, but here’s why it matters.
The instructions to husbands in Ephesians are like nothing else found in any other household codes. They are radically different. There are some other codes that say husbands should treat their wives kindly. But nothing else instructs husbands to love their wives with a love that follows the example of the way Christ loves the church, which was to the point of death. Husbands are also to care for their wives as deliberately and tenderly as they care for their own bodies. Christ the head cares for the church body, and the husband slash head must in the same way care for the wife slash body. That was radical stuff when it was written, and we need to give it credit for that. The Christian way was a huge step forward.
The word for submitting was sometimes used to describe the way soldiers walk in step with one another. Somebody sets the pace and everyone else follows. In the ancient world, in this context, it would not have been inappropriate to ask a wife to walk in step with a husband who was literally willing to die for her and who looked after her as carefully as he looked after himself. In a world where women had no rights and no protection outside of a relationship to a man, this would be a very safe relationship for her.
Knowing that, what can we do with these verses today? Well first of all we can welcome the timeless instruction that we are all to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That verse is a bridge between the section that talks about the whole church and the section that talks about the family, so it can apply to all Christian community. That’s good advice for all Christians, whether single or married.
Next in the context of married relationships, whether lesbian or gay or straight, we can strive both to care for one another as we care for ourselves and also strive to walk in step with one another. In my own marriage, sometimes Sam sets the pace and sometimes I do. And we both strive to care for each other with self-giving love. To match the pace of someone who is willing to die for you is a very safe place to be. That’s good advice for all Christian marriages.
Often we run into things in the Bible that don’t sit well with us. Whether it’s the phrase, “Be sure that no fornicator, or impure person or greedy idolater will inherit the Kingdom of God” or whether it’s “wives submit to your husbands in everything.” There’s stuff in this sacred text that we don’t always know how to take. When you run into that, I invite you to sit with it for a minute. Remind yourself first and foremost who God is – the source of all love and justice – and who you are – one who has accepted God’s invitation to be blessed in order to be a blessing. And then read that hard verse again. Think about the time and place it was written and think about how the world has changed. Then read it again. And consider how you might read it in the best, most generous way possible. When we read the Bible we have a choice to assume our first negative impression is correct, or to trust that maybe God’s truth is bigger than we can see in the moment. God is good. All the time. And we can trust God. So read with an open heart and an open mind and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire you and surprise you. Amen.