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The Human Search for Intimacy #4

Closer: The Human Search for Intimacy #4

The Marriage Metaphor

Reading: Ephesians 5:1-33

Introduction: Once more this morning we seek to understand what human intimacy among Holy-Spirit filled-followers of Jesus Messiah looks like. I’m grateful to Terry and Cowboy Dan for their efforts to show us love for the stranger last week. I want us to journey this morning back into the world of God’s creation design and new-creation identity, found first in the words of Genesis 2 when woman was created from the side of man (“For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh,” Genesis 2:24) and the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.* ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:17-33).
Imagine with me this morning living in a social and cultural setting in which the world as you know it is completely under the dominant control of one super-power. In this world, there is a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and elite who benefit most from governmental structures and economic realities that put them in the category of the Elite. In this social order, 2-3% of the population consumes 65% of the resources. Another 7% of the population functions as the social middle class – they own their own land or business and benefit from the political and religious structures around them. That leaves 90% of the population that live one day at a time, either in servitude to others, or on government welfare, as migrant workers or day to day laborers, or street people – beggars, prostitutes, whatever it takes to live another day.

This is the world of Empire – the Roman Empire – in which worship of the Emperor is expected of every citizen. Rome made it very clear to all of its conquered territories: Cooperate with us and you can keep your religious practices, keep your local authorities. Just pay us taxes and don’t give our armies cause to come after you. If you fail to live peaceably under our rule, we will destroy you! It is the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome established with Caesar Augustus and lasting for more than 300 years. Under the rule of Empire, as long as the emperor was recognized and worshipped, all other religious practices and beliefs were permitted. In a world in which 90% of the population was enslaved or otherwise just barely making it, any religion that promised help was believed and practiced.

It is a world in which the ways of the Greeks that dominated beforethe Romans are embraced as a means of keeping peace and maintaining the status quo. Greek, not Latin, is the universal language. The beliefs and practices of ancient philosophers like Aristotle are simply accepted as true. Aristotle believed that the basic building block of city and government was the family. Centuries before Christ was born, Aristotle included in his political theory a household code – a way of conceiving family structures that best suited good city life. The family was a microcosm of the state. Master and slave, husband and wife, father and children – those relationships defined life and within them there was always a ‘ruling’ factor. There was always a ruler and a subject. The Master ruled the slave; the husband “by nature” Aristotle claimed, was superior to the wife; the father ruled the children.

A philosopher in the court of Augustus Caesar, Arius Didymus, restated the code for Roman citizens in even stronger terms: At one point in his writings, he reasons that the power of deliberation in wives is simply inferior to husbands. Such deliberation skill does not yet exist in children and it is absent is slaves. Similar ways of speaking and writing about these ‘household’ codes can be found in the first century Jewish philosopher Philo and the Roman moralist Plutarch. In this world we are imagining – the first century Roman Empire – the Paterfamilias, the head of the household, was the oldest male in the family. If a grandfather was still alive, sons and wives, grandsons and wives were all subject to his authority. When we speak of households in this context, we are talking about such extended family systems that also included slaves and their families.

Now imagine a city like Ephesus, with 250,000 residents. Ephesus was a provincial capital city under Caesar. Part of the Imperial Guard was stationed in Ephesus. Claudius Caesar personally commissioned the building of a Theater in Ephesus that could seat 25,000. No one doubted that Caesar was Lord in Ephesus. At the same time, the city was home to one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the magnificent Temple of the Goddess Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of Fertility, the source of life, to be worshipped in order to have healthy babies and be protected in childbirth. As one might imagine, the rulers of the Temple were closely associated with the political powers. Together they maintained their social and economic status as the elite in the city. Into this setting comes the early followers of Jesus, according to Luke’s account. And according Acts 19, this upstart group holding meetings in a local meeting hall was disturbing the status quo to the point that a riot brakes out. To follow Jesus Lord was a threat to the religious and political status quo.

All of that background this morning may seem tedious but I believe it is necessary for us to hear Paul’s own use of the ‘household’ code in this letter we call Ephesians. In Ephesians Paul seems to take up the same relationships that Aristotle first described. As you read on into chapter six, all three groups are named – husband/wife; parent/child; master/slave. And there is “being subject to” language leading off the whole section. Paul is writing a letter that to our own ears not only does not seem subversive, it seems a bit archaic and out of touch with our own cultural sensibilities about male and female, husband and wife. Anytime we hear the words “be subject to” we get nervous.

Some have argued that the reason we find this language in the New Testament because Paul or Peter (both use the household code) don’t want the family structures in the Christian faith to get so out of step with the larger culture that the Gospel message is hindered. Since ruling structures of the political world ultimately are based on the family unit, maintain the status quo only for different reasons. I think there is great merit in the argument. The whole world accepts slavery as a given of the socio-cultural environment. Remember, we are talking about an empire with 50-60 million people in. At the midpoint of the first century, followers of Jesus messiah would have numbered in the thousands; in one particular city like Ephesus perhaps a few hundred – perhaps not even that.

But as I’ve thought through this text again, I believe more is at stake than not hindering the Gospel. Two things jumped out at me as I reread these texts this week. First, to claim that Jesus is Lord is a subversive act against Caesar as Lord and much of what is written in Ephesians is an announcement of a radically different king and kingdom in which power and authority have been turned upside down. The power and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ comes through his being subject to humiliation and death on a cross. The mystery made known to the principalities and powers is that all people, no matter what their race or gender or status in Empire have been made one community at the cross. The one God and Father of all has revealed himself in Jesus Messiah. Gone are the days when one wears religious beliefs like band-aids. Gone are the days in which the social caste system of elites and middle class and poor, leaving human beings permanently segregated. Gone are the days in which human dignity applies only to male heads of households and everyone else is in some sense little more than property.

In this new community already indwelled by the Holy Spirit, Paul urges them to be filled with the Holy Spirit rather than escaping life through drunkenness. Earlier, at the beginning of what we call chapter 5, Paul urged his listeners to be “imitators of God,” to live in love as dearly loved children, just as Christ loved by “giving himself for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The kingdom of Christ and God is lived when a person treats every other human being with dignity and respect (see verses 3-7). It is the Holy Spirit life that prompts song-inspired conversation with each other, music that comes from the heart, thanksgiving to God the Father – he is the paterfamilias in this new kingdom. And in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, everyone is subject to everyone out of reverence for Christ.

Mutual subjection in the community of faith is the building block for the kingdom of God. That’s the new context for talking about household codes – not the basic unit of governance in the Roman Empire. Wives participate in submission because Jesus is Lord, not Caesar (v. 22). Wives live not as property but in the same relationship to their husband that the community has with Christ. Husbands are not granted rulership “by nature” or their superior deliberation skills. They are to demonstrate their own “being subject to” as Christ himself demonstrated his submission – by dying.

Remember that this is what the Spirit-filled life looks like. Husbands love their wives like Christ loved the church , Paul says, “for we are members of his body.” Paul then quotes Genesis 2:24 before making this incredible claim, that the language of a man leaving his father and mother and being united to his wife and the two becoming one flesh, is a great mystery that applies to Christ and the church. Imagine the best marriage relationship you have ever seen – two people living out their lives become one with each other in everyway – it’s amazing how such couples literally start looking alike after many years together. That “mystery” is the shared existence of Christ and church. Becoming “one flesh” is not at all about sexual intimacy in this context but nevertheless about a relational intimacy between Christ and the community of faith that spills out on everyone in community. We should expect the journey to oneness to be just that! Husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves are changed in their relationships because all have been filled with God’s Spirit and now mutually live in subjection out of reverence for Christ. The code is no longer about civil order in Empire, it is about relational love in the Kingdom of God.

We no longer live in a world in which the paterfamilias rules over all parts of an extended family. We certainly don’t live in a culture that believe such family systems are the microcosm of government. We do have to confess, however, that our population of 300+ million people consumes an inordinate percentage of the world’s production of goods and services and that among us this is a growing disparity between the elite and powerful and the dwindling middle class and poor. For all that the Pax Americana offers us, human dignity for all human beings still remains elusive. The search for belonging, for meaningful relationships, for marriages that have staying power, for churches that live in love just with each other in a particular setting – all of those efforts continue to be subverted by days that are evil, by power and control games and church politics, and lives that seem anything but Holy Spirit-filled, even in worship assemblies. Can you imagine people refusing fellowship with other Christ-followers because of an argument over one Greek word in one verse of Scripture? Like the word translated “sing” in Ephesians 5:19. And if God is the paterfamilias, and all of us – male and female, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, young and old, tall and short, underweight and overweight have become “one flesh” with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, where should our search to belong and find relationships – close relationships – begin and end? If the promise of intimacy – that space inside 18 inches – includes God-presence whether we are married or single, male or female, then all other human relationships are changed. To be imitators of God is to walk in the way of love, as Jesus Christ loved, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, November 26, 2006.

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