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Christ Loves the Church

  • November 18, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 18 November 2018 (Proper 28 Year B REV)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Ephesians 5.21 – 6.9; Psalm 16; Mark 13.1-8

Title:               Christ Loves The Church

Give us your spirit of wisdom and revelation, O God, that we may have power to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, and to be subject to one another out of reverence for you. Amen.

“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” (Eph. 5.29-30).

We are almost done with this Letter to the Ephesians, just as we are almost done with the Church Year. Next week we come to the conclusion of both as we recognize Christ the King before Advent returns. But before we come to that grand finalé, we have to work through today’s challenging text.

Now, it’s important to understand that today’s passage from Ephesians has been carefully – and quite deliberately – left out of our Lectionary cycle of readings.

Never – at no time – is this text appointed to be read at the Eucharist in one of our Episcopal churches. It is not forbidden, of course, but never is it found in the Lectionary.

Personally, I think that is a cowardly approach. And a misguided one. We need to read texts in the Bible that make us uncomfortable, and we need to wrestle with them. Like it or not, this is our inheritance, and it is our nourishment.

After all, what is it that we ask for each year on this Sunday, just before Advent returns, when we pray this most famous Anglican Collect?

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning (ALL of them, mind you!): Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

If this faith claim is true, then the problem we have with some texts lies not in the texts themselves, but in our inability to hear them and to inwardly digest them. ***

Today’s passage from Ephesians is called A Household Code. It has much shorter parallels in other places, but this is the primary text in all of the New Testament where these matters of the household are addressed most directly.

The first place that we find this kind of Household Code is in the writings of Aristotle who died 400 years before this Letter to the Ephesians was written.

This kind of list became quite common in Greco-Roman society, and the author of this Letter took a common piece of his culture and added a radical new component.

Yes, it may be difficult for us to see it now, but in its original context, this passage was quite radical.

But first, let’s understand its practical purpose. In our society today, what is a standard way to slander a particular group?

It probably depends on your perspective, but there are a number of things you could say that you know would elicit the desired response.

You could say, “Those people? They are weak on crime and they want open borders!” Or you could say, “Those people? They are all Trump supporters!”

And depending on your audience, those to whom you are speaking will know exactly what you mean by that, and they will nod their heads in understanding. “Oh, I see!”

Well, it’s seems that in Greco-Roman society, a common way to throw shade on particular groups was to say, “Those people? Their women are out of control! They’re crazy!”

Now, you have every right to disagree with their tactics, but it seems clear that the predominantly male leadership of the church became concerned about this kind of criticism.

After all, in the early days after the Day of Pentecost, one could probably say that women in the new Jesus movement WERE a bit out of control – at least as far as traditionalists saw it.

Without any question, this new Jesus movement gave enormous respect to women, to children and to slaves.

And as long as that early community lived with the expectation that they were IN the last days, in the days when the Temple was to be destroyed and the end of human society was close at hand, it was perfectly fine to be radical and to break the rules of how people are supposed to behave.

If everything is about to be destroyed, then who cares about following the rules?

However, as time went on, once the Temple was destroyed and yet life continued on as usual for most people, once the expectation of a quick Parousia – an immediate Second Coming of the Lord – once that expectation began to fade, it became clear that the local churches needed to become a bit more respectable.

They were a very small minority group, and if they wanted to live in peace – without the fear of persecution and hatred and discrimination from their neighbors.

So they needed to blend in, to be respectable. Even more so if they hoped that others would receive their good news message and be baptized into their community.

Again, you can certainly disagree with the approach that was taken, but it seems clear that early leaders in the church felt the need to temper some of the more radical elements that still existed within the churches.

They wanted the world to know that Christian households were actually full of good order and discipline.

And that is precisely the language that is used here. There is, in fact, no Greek word in the text which says to ‘be subject”.

That is a translation of a different Greek word which comes from military usage.  Hypotassómenoi literally means “to line up under” so that the first verse literally says, “Line up under one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Soldiers and sailors line up in formation to demonstrate good order and discipline.

And THIS seems to be one of the primary goals of this text: to call the church together in unity in a way that demonstrates good order and discipline, in a way that shows the world that these Christ-loving people are good and trustworthy citizens, that society has nothing to fear about the church.

This seems to be the practical motivation behind using this household code and the other texts like it.

But there is a radical component as well, and there is a spiritual message in this text that is far deeper and much more important than these practical concerns.

Did you notice the remarkable claims made about Christ in this text?

“For no one ever hates his own body,” it says, “but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5.29-30).

We could argue that some people do in fact hate their own bodies. Sadly, this is so.

But we can never argue with the plain truth that Christ nourishes and tenderly cares for HIS Body, his church, his people who are claimed and cleansed and washed in Baptism and presented before him without blemish, holy and beautiful and good.

Not that WE are without blemish, but that Christ sees us in that way and is making us, forming us, to be that way.

Below and beneath all of these concerns about good order and discipline within society is this deeper soul-level current about the amazing and breath-taking love of God revealed in Christ.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

THAT is radical! Husbands, love your wives – be willing to die for them! Because this is what Christ did for all of us.

It is almost as if Jesus was willing to give up his body, to let go of that earthly body there in Galilee and Judea, because he knew that he would soon create a better one!

And that better Body is made up of people like you and me (and little ones like Lottie).

I cannot tell you exactly why, but it seems that our Lord Jesus Christ really loves this new Body that he is continuing to create. And that he continues to be really excited about it.

Sure, there is always need for order and discipline and for us to appear respectable in society, and if that helps to make the Gospel more attractive to others, then that is good.

But no matter where we might find ourselves within the ever-changing norms of human society – whether we happen to be at the top, or at the bottom, on the inside or on the outside, whether we happen to be privileged or oppressed by those in power – no matter where we might be found in society, this can NEVER define who we are.

Because our true identity is defined by Christ alone, who loved us and gave himself up for us. And with whom there is no partiality!

You are nourished as part of his Body, and no one can ever take that away from you.

And all the people of God said, Amen! And Alleluia! And thanks be to God!

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