A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 15th September 2019
During this service two boys – Digby and Sebastian – were baptised.
In twenty-six years of ordained ministry I’ve managed to avoid having to preach on any of the Bible texts about wives and husbands. With some trepidation today our sermon series on Ephesians means I can avoid the challenge no longer. A special thanks to Michael Bailey who read this morning – I’m sure Carol will be having words at home.
I ought to explain to our visitors today, especially those here for the baptisms of Digby and Sebastian, that these passages from the Bible don’t crop up very often. If you’re not used to coming to church, I do apologise to you today that we’ve come to this rather curious corner of the New Testament while you are here. I’ll do my best to give you something to take away.
Of course, at one level, there’s no need to apologise for reading a passage of Holy Scripture in a church service; there are passages of Scripture that, from our perspective seem strange, violent, out of step with the modern world, or even deeply suspicious. But they remain part of the Bible. It would be very easy for us to avoid these difficult passages, for church services to be all about the nice stuff. To be faithful to what we have been given, we have to deal with the difficult stuff as well as the warm, fuzzy things.
But it would also be fair to say that a passage that, on first examination seems to be about the submission of men to women and of the obedience of children to parents, and which even seems to justify slavery, should be subject to he most severe examination. There are undoubtedly among us today those who have been exposed to domestic abuse, unloving spouses, bad parenting and potentially even, it is shameful to say, modern slavery. These are not uncommon things in 21st century London and those of our community from Afro-Caribbean and African backgrounds will know the appalling cost of slavery in their own social history. They have also been part of the history of the church. We should be acutely aware that when we gather as the People of God, we gather with such experiences not as theory but as lived experience. As they say on the television, if any of the issues raised in this sermon affect you personally, please do speak to one of the clergy if you’d like to.
So let’s have a bit of a closer look at this passage. You may find it helpful to have it in front of you. It begins “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” So before we start into the section about wives, husbands, children and slaves, there’s a general instruction. And it’s mutual. “Be subject to one another. This is very much part of what we’ve been exploring in Ephesians, that the boundaries been groups have been broken down. Jews and non-Jews, different religious and racial groups, these have been set aside so that the church, the people of God, can be a sign to the world of reconciliation between God and humanity, and between different peoples. Before what follows, this reminds us of the main thing, which is mutuality. And, as the Americans say, we need to keep the main thing the main thing. If we start to interpret the bits about wives, slaves and children without that sense of mutuality, we are likely to be barking up the wrong tree.
But, hang on a minute, what about the other element here? What about “Be subject to one another”? Surely subjection has all sorts of undertones of power, abuse and putting ourselves down? Surely the world has had enough examples of subjugation to show what a dangerous concept it is? Subjection, subjugation and submission feature significantly in this passage – so it’s worth pausing to explore here.
Words are tricky things and their meaning changes over time. If I had prevented you in the 17th century I would have gone before you in a line. Today, when I prevent you, I stop you from doing something. So, if we’re going to understand what “being subject” means in this passage, we do well to try and discover what a word means when it was used, rather than reading into it more recent ideas. So, and this is the sort of thing intelligent scholarship does all the time, it makes sense to see if Paul uses the idea of submission and subjection elsewhere in what he writes. And, you know he does. He uses it of the way in which the Son will be subject to the Father. So in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” Now, this is neither the time nor the place to go into too much detail, but ponder this: do we imagine that in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son that subjection looks like the sort of abuse of power that characterises modern understandings of subjection. Whatever ‘being subject’ means, it does not mean abuse of power. Indeed, taking the whole of what the New Testament says about the relationship between the Father and the Son, we see first and foremost that this is a relationship of love and mutuality, not hierarchy. So “being subject to one another” in some what must have overtones of the love and mutuality of the relationship between the Father and the Son. Someone who loves the other will give precedence to them, someone who is subject to the other will do so out of love.
Now, look at what husband and wives are called to do in this passage. Wives, to be subject to husband as you are to the Lord; husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Taken together, there is love and mutuality here. A loving husband will give his wife precedence; a loving wife will allow him to take precedence.
I think that’s all that can be said about wives and husbands from this passage by way of universal Christian message. But the passage about slaves needs to be addressed too, and it will help us make all this biblical unpacking more relevant to us.
Paul’s instructions to slaves take slavery as a given. It is profoundly uncomfortable that this apostle of Christian liberty did not instruct masters to free their slaves, and that he seems to encourage slaves to remain enslaved. No Christian preacher would want to encourage that state of affairs to exist today. Paul may well advise a degree of realpolitik in the way he encourages slaves to do their jobs so well that God, their true Master, would be pleased, and by the way he encourages masters to a more enlightened and loving care for their slaves, but that’s not enough for us, and rightly so.
But the history of the abolition of slavery has been one in which it has been the message of Jesus and the apostle Paul which has inspired Christians to take the lead. Even as some Christians continued to own slaves, and justify it from Scripture, others have read deeper and more consistently, and have been inspired to fight against this evil. Even today, Christians are at the forefront of campaigns against modern day slavery. We have outgrown Paul’s advice to slaves.
Christians believe that God by his Holy Spirit speaks to his people across all time and that his inspiration did not stop when the pages of the New Testament were all written. So, it seems perfectly right that we should feel free to say, with proper humility we should say, “that was then, but this is now”. We can still take the key elements of Paul’s teaching on relationships between wives, husbands, children, slaves and masters – the elements of mutuality and love – but we can adapt them and change them. We can rightly say that the obedience of a wife to her husband, as it were by right, is a proper thing of the past, and was probably a misreading of Paul an expression of a particular patriarchal culture; we can reasonably say that, unlike Paul’s day when children had no rights nor status in society, today we do our best for our children by a combination of loving guidance, careful, wise discipline, and most of all the example of our own lives; we can certainly say that, while Paul may have been judicious about his words to slaves and masters, they were certainly insufficient, and have no place in our modern world. And when we say that, we must say it with great care, because we have our own blind spots. What, for example, will later generations of Christians say of our blind spots – “what did they do about climate change, when we can read the Bible now to be so clear about our duty of care for creation.”
So, I promised something for us all to take away from this rather careful sermon and I hope this is something for each of us, maybe especially godparents of Sebastian and Digby. With all its specifics about relationships – our partners and spouses, our children and (perhaps by extension) our workplaces – this passage reminds us that Christian faith isn’t something to be compartmentalised. There’s no box for our “Christianity” which we get out and dust off every Sunday, or once in a while, or on the special occasions when we’re asked to be a godparent. The Letter to the Ephesians began not with specifics about our close relationships but with Christ in glory and majesty with the Father. The same Christ, universal and majestic, is the one on whom we are invited to model our most intimate relationships. In the daily round, the tasks we do from morning to evening are as much part of how God wishes to reconcile the world to himself.
The challenge of course is that it is much easier to be a Christian for an hour on a Sunday than when our front door is closed and there’s no one looking. But the home is the place where we reveal our truest selves, our closest relationships are the crucible for the formation of our personalities, values and those of our spouses, partners and children. If this passage – difficult and not entirely able to speak to our time – if this passage says anything to us, it’s an invitation to ponder how our life in its most intimate relationships models the sort of mutual love that is the hallmark of Paul’s teaching. Based on that central value, we are invited to try and work out how best to live in marriage or committed relationship, how best to being up our children, how best to live in economic relationships with others. We need not come to Paul’s conclusions which were very much for his time, without abandoning a commitment to follow the same Jesus he followed in the way we live with those we spend most of time with.
So, if this passage says anything to us today, it invites us to ponder this question: how in your closest and most important relationships do you honour God and how do you share the love of Jesus. If Sebastian and Digby know that you do these things, parents and godparents, you will have done your duty by them. If we all might honour God and share the love of Jesus in our closest family and friends, we will have achieved one of the toughest challenges a Christian has to face. Amen.