David A. Davis
October 16, 2016
In worship this fall here at Nassau Church, we have been working our way through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in our preaching life. If you have been keeping track, or keeping score at home, or reading ahead in preparation, today we come to Ephesians chapter 5. Two challenges have become obvious in my sermon preparation this week. The first challenge is that the beginning of Ephesians 5 pretty much continues with the call to a holy and faith-filled life that I preached about last week using the text from the end of chapter 4. Ephesians 5 begins like this: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Live in love. And a few verse later, Live as Children of light and Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord and 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.
So the first challenge with Ephesians this week is to not offer a repeat of last week’s sermon. Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. The first part of Ephesians 5 follows from and repeats the end of Ephesians 4. Challenge #1. Challenge #2, the second obvious challenge, the challenge, well, it’s the second half of Ephesians chapter 5. Without a doubt, the more common approach to Ephesians 5:21ff would be to skip it. As you are about to hear, there may be good reasons for a kind of Thomas Jefferson approach (snip, snip, snip). My guess is that if you were born and raised Presbyterian, you will have a hard time remembering ever hearing a sermon from the second half of Ephesians 5. I have never had a couple request Ephesians 5 to be read for a wedding. A more common approach would be to skip it. Ignore it. Pretend its not there. But we’re not going to skip today. We’re not going to cut and paste around. We’re working our way through Ephesians so we’re going to wrestle with it. We’re going to chew on it. So hold on, we’re going in!
They call it “the household codes”. This part of Ephesians, along with other similar verses from others of Paul’s epistles; “household codes”. Writings that both describe and instruct regarding primary domestic relationships; husband, wife, parent, child, master, slave. Household codes. Paul’s attempt to address humanity’s fundamental relationships in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, in light of the mystery of salvation made known in Christ.
The term isn’t all that helpful, actually. “Household Codes”. Though it is a kind of technical term in literature or in archived material not limited to scripture or to the first century. “Household codes”. It’s not like a puzzle to unlock or figure out or decode. It’s not really an extensive list like some kind of “code of ethics” signed in a contract or in an agreement with the human resources department at the time of hire. It’s not like Paul defines the term house, or household here (or even uses the term for that matter). “Household” for Paul, earlier in Ephesians is a powerful and compelling metaphor. Something far beyond a domestic term. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are citizens of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. Household of God. Household for Paul is something greater. To refer to the second half of Ephesians 5 as “household codes”, or as it is described in my study bible, “The Christian household” isn’t very helpful.
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Paul’s initial call for mutual submission in relationships out of reverence for Christ would certainly seem to apply far outside the house. I bet I am not the only one who can remember a bible study curriculum or a devotional that took a kind of “thesis statement approach” to Ephesians 5 that privileges v.21. Be subject to one another. The argument is then made that if human beings are being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, everything else from Paul here shouldn’t be a problem. It’s sort of “a stop and affirm v.21 and don’t’ worry about the details, the specifics that follow” method. The method breaks down pretty quickly when you start to do the math in what follows, when you sense the imbalance in what follows, when you figure out it actually isn’t about being subject to one another, it’s about wives being subject to husbands, children being subject to parents, and slaves being subject to masters. Its all about one-sided subjugation, hierarchy, dominance, and gendered power.
Last spring I attended a talk at Mathey College next door here on Princeton’s campus. The speaker was Daniel Linke, the University Archivist and Curator of Public Policy Papers at the Mudd Library. He was working on a Woodrow Wilson exhibit in the aftermath of the robust conversations about Wilson’s legacy related to race on campus and beyond. At one point he challenged a commonly held opinion that Woodrow Wilson was simply a product of his time, place, and culture. He shared with the gathering his own conclusion informed by pretty much his life’s work that when it came to race and racism Wilson was more than likely worse than his time. And no, it wouldn’t be difficult to find historians and biographers who might hold a different, and yet informed opinion on Wilson.
In fashion similar to Daniel Linke’s work, there are scholars who could share their informed opinions about the Apostle Paul on marriage, parenting, and slavery. Was he a product of his culture? Ahead or behind? And, of course, just as one could find historians who disagree with Linke’s opinion on Wilson, it wouldn’t take long to find folks who disagree on Paul. The conclusion that the household codes of Paul are “culturally and historically bound” and therefore of little contemporary use as a living word for the church certainly supports the skip it, ignore it, and pretend its not there approach.
Though scholars may disagree on Paul and first century domestic roles, there can be very little disagreement about how these specific verses have been used throughout history to subjugate women, to justify abuse, and to defend the existence of slavery. There can be no disagreement about the church’s sin when it comes to how the second half of Ephesians 5 has been used to sanction violence and justify evil and maintain the status quo for the ones who hold the power. Any discussions of Paul’s intended first century meaning here ought to be drowned out by the volume of the church’s lament for those whose voices have been long silenced (as it says in the Brief Statement of Faith), those whose voices have been long silenced by these verses and those who sought to impose and justify their power and position while skipping and ignoring and forgetting that Jesus said whoever wants to be first among you must be a servant of all.
You know its not just a matter of history, right? Of historical interpretation, of how these verses were used back then, back when? A skip it, ignore it, pretend its not there approach to Ephesians 5 takes away the opportunity for the church to be honest about its past and its present.
For those of us who take the name of Christ to look into the eyes of an abused woman and tell her we know you heard from a preacher this was somehow okay. To welcome back with tears the young man whose father quoted scripture to him every time he reached for the belt. To stand with the African American community in this town and on these campuses and offer a collective shout, a groan about how the bible was used to justify slavery, and Jim Crow, and the toxicity of racism in relationships in Princeton pretty much forever. You can’t just pretend the second half of Ephesian 5 isn’t there.
The household codes in Ephesians….it is the Apostle Paul’s (or one of his followers thereafter) attempting to address humanity’s fundamental relationships in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, in light of the mystery of salvation made known in Christ. Last week, as we read the end of chapter 4, it was the “so then” and the “therefore” of a Christian life marked by the holiness of being kind and tenderhearted, forgiving another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Paul, then, takes the step toward the relationships that bind us together, the relationships that form a foundation of life, the institutions that set the parameters for who we are, how we live. The trajectory of Paul’s thought. Paul broadening, widening the impact of the gospel. The gospel’s reach, not just in your own devotion, not just in the body of Christ, but the gospel’s reach to the intimate and tender spaces of your life, to the institutions that shape you…in order that the glorious riches of your inheritance in Christ might infuse the fullness of your life; that God’s grace and mercy, and the love of Christ, and the inward power of the Holy Spirit might not just trickle down, but might spring forth into every corner of life, that you and I, we might be a part of how God’s kingdom breaks in and transforms and turns upside down and makes new and heals and saves the world.
Household code. It’s just not very helpful when it comes to grappling with Ephesians 5. But verses of scripture that lead God’s people to confess and lament and reconcile? Verse of scripture that challenge God’s people to discern what it means for the very promise of Christ to shape the very core of our existence in the world….the yes, this is the Word of the Lord.
And the house, the household… it’s not Paul’s, it’s not yours, it’s not mine. The household belongs to God and you and I are called to serve in it and bear witness to the living Word of the Gospel made known to us in Jesus Christ. Citizens of the household of God!
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