Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bold Declarations

Bold Declarations
Sunday, August 26, 2012
© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Ephesians 6:10-20                  

Pray for me,
so that when I speak, a message may be given to me
to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,
for which I am an ambassador in chains.

I remember one summer seeing an eye-catching promotional ad for an upcoming television show. An actress, who apparently had been spending an inordinate amount of time at the gym working on physical conditioning and strength, wanted to prove herself – to someone other than the attendant who hands out the towels at the door, I suppose. Actresses can be like that. So she arranged to take part in a circus trapeze act for one of those TV extravaganzas specially made for the late summer television doldrums. In the promotional piece, they showed her flying through the air, releasing her grip in time to spin around and be caught by a man on another trapeze who arrived just in time to make the catch. But I noticed right away that they had attached two lines to a special belt around her middle, so that if her partner failed to catch her, she would just bounce up and down like a yo-yo or a bunji cord enthusiast going off a bridge.

Right away I found myself thinking, “Oh, big deal! She’s got a net and a set of bunji cords!” How jaded and cynical can I get? I would never even climb the pole to the platform, let alone swing over the floor of a circus tent on a trapeze unless there was a substantial net, a large liability policy, and a highly trained staff of physicians and nurses in place. Still, we all know what is meant when someone says, “She’s performing without a net.” Whether we’re speaking of a circus performer or a Wall Street investor, it means someone is operating without precautions in the event that they might fail — they are operating at high personal risk. It is either confidence or craziness that causes people to take big chances. I can hardly look when one of those aerial performers, possessed of a maniacal confidence in their sense of balance, decides to walk a tight rope over Niagra Falls or between tall buildings.

Still, even the most daring circus performer takes some precautions, much as they may attempt to make it appear otherwise. The first precaution is thousands of hours, years of practice. They use special shoes so their feet can grip the line, rosin on the wire, a special pole to assist them with their balance. Not to do these things would be truly crazy, potentially deadly as well. Though they may appear completely vulnerable, there are subtle considerations providing for their safety, some of their own strength and ability to provide for them.

It’s interesting that when Paul wrote about the Christian struggle in the world, comparing our sources of strength as believers to the strength of a soldier’s armor, he was a prisoner, very likely guarded by someone wearing the very armaments he described. He was in the weakest of positions in which anyone could find himself, able to call upon few strengths of his own. Accused, arrested, behind bars, at the mercy of his jailers for his daily food, subject to the beatings of his more vicious captors. Yet in such a situation, he found the spiritual resources to write about strength, power, the armor of God. What confidence! Someone imprisoned for his faith who continues in his faith despite the penalties for it might appear to be working without a net, without a surrounding community of fellow believers, without the cultural support of a society that is tolerant of his religious affirmations, without even an outward sign that God approves of what he is doing — because if God was so fond of Paul, the thinking might go, why would he allow him to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges?

Without all those things that make for our accustomed measure of safety and security in declaring in this religiously free society that Christ is our Lord, what sources of strength are left? Just think if constitutional safeguards concerning our religious observances were taken away, if the entire culture around us were to turn to some set of beliefs directly hostile to our own, and if we saw our own fellow church members, one after another, abandon our faith, turning away from following Christ because it was no longer culturally acceptable — where would we turn for the strength to go on, to remain faithful?

Paul helps us see that all the outward safety nets for our faith are just trappings. Strip them away, and what we have left is the one essential of our faith, not the strength of our own personal convictions, but the very strength of God. If we rely on our own strength, it will ultimately fail us. If we rely on God’s strength, we cannot fail in the end.

Over 20 years ago now I recall seeing a movie called The Doctor. Maybe some of you will remember it. While I don’t believe it won an academy awards, the impact of it has stayed in my memory all this time. I think it contained a good lesson for anyone tempted to think they can survive this world by their own wit and widsom alone. In the film there was an intriguing scene in which the main character, a powerful and well-known surgeon played by William Hurt, is reduced to the status of plain old patient in his own hospital due to a serious medical problem of his own. He finds himself being treated as a piece of anatomy, shuffled from one waiting room to another. In particular, his own surgeon treats him with a mechanical sort of efficiency, rather than as a human being. When he objects, she literally throws him out of her office; but before he goes, he says to her “What is happening to me is like something that will happen to you. If not now, then maybe thirty years from now but it will happen. You will get sick one day. You will know what I am going through.” I’m not picking on physicians. Any one of us can find, and may already have found ourselves in such a life situation.

Before the diagnosis of his own medical problem, it is likely that William Hurt’s character would have declared to anyone who wanted to listen that the source of his strength lay in the skill of his hands as a surgeon, in the quality of his mind, in the extent of his training and in his proven ability. But one little tumor reduced him to a status in which none of the things in which he customarily placed his confidence would provide strength for him now. Looking around, he saw little else to bear him up in his time of trial. Long since emotionally distanced even from his own family, he was going to face his surgery like an acrobat working without a net.

If we are sufficiently in touch with our lives to admit it to ourselves, certainly there have been such times for each of us. When our own mortality looks us in the face, reducing all our life’s priorities to a single overriding concern, we are bound to reach into the deepest parts of ourselves to search out a source of strength to see us through.

It is at precisely such times, when all other sources of strength have either failed us or been found wanting, or irrelevant, that we are in the blessed position in which Paul found himself in his prison cell. We may not think of it as a blessing, but I promise you it is. It may be the biggest trauma of our lives: our health threatened by a disease; our child marching off to war; our best friend dying before our eyes; the child we have loved into adulthood turning on us as though we were somehow the enemy rather than someone who loves them more than anyone in the world; a career collapsing around us; a marriage failing with no singular or even reasonably identifiable cause. Whatever the trauma, these are times when Paul says to us, as he says here, “Be strong!” Actually, this English translation of Paul’s Greek word is inadequate, making it sound as though receiving the strength of God were a step we could take, another achievement we could undertake, a self-help exhortation on the order of “Shape up! Be strong! Get with it! Just do it!”

A better translation would be something moe akin to, “Receive strength!” or “Turn around and open yourself to the strength of the promises of God which await you!” Receiving the strength of which Paul speaks is most certainly not another work we can perform, a variation of relying on our own strength. It isn’t an admonition to search within ourselves for a source of strength. It would be all too likely that we would have already searched as deeply into our own sources of strength as we could and found them wanting. There wouldn’t be any good news in that.

The blessing that hides in our severest trials is just the potential for this discovery that there is no trial we may face for which the strength of God’s promises cannot more than provide, not even the trial of death itself. Even when we “lose it” in the middle of our trials – get that feeling that we are totally out of control and suffering beyond hope, even then we may discover that our being out of control only provides us with all the greater opportunity to invite divine strength to control the situation in such a way that it’s resolution might be satisfying to God. A Christian is free to recognize that hope for redemption of a terrible situation may even lie beyond death, because in Christ, God reigns even there.

If you face life’s crises the way I do, you know that it is not within human ability to fully equip ourselves for facing all the traumas of our lives. Some battles are of such magnitude that rugged individualism, or professional counsel can’t help but fail us. So think of the pieces of armor that Paul used as an illustration, the qualities they represent speaking of ways God may strengthen us. If in the middle of our trials we find that there is truth to sustain us, it is likely to be God’s truth. If we find that we are unexpectedly succeeding in some things, it is likely to be a “right”-eousness that God has granted us, not our own faltering attempts to do things right. If we find that despite all expectations to the contrary we are able to hold our ground and remain standing even though everything familiar seems to be failing us, it is likely that our shoes are firmly footed in the gospel of shalom, the gospel of peace. If we find that things which usually drive us crazy now seem insignificant, hardly relevant, it is that the sustaining word of our faith is shielding us from those things which we might ordinarily allow to bring us down. If we find that even though every human being around us has failed us but we discover strength in the fact that God loves us in spite of it all, we are protected by the promise of salvation in Christ from having to rely on the strength of anyone else. If we find, astonishingly, that we can even talk to others about our difficulties and maybe even support a fellow sufferer by the ability to articulate our own pain, we are in reality giving voice to the word of God which lives within the heart of every believer through the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Strange as it sounds to modern ears, so attuned to a false gospel of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, making ourselves ready to battle life’s demons that would tear us down has little to do with our own abilities and preparation, and everything to do with the sufficient grace of God, which stands ready to strengthen every believer in every hour. We need only look to our need to be open to God’s strength.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Subject or Object?

Ephesians 5:15-33            
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 19, 2012

One summer, I was riding through the Scottish countryside with my cousin, Malcolm and his wife, Muriel. They have a highly kinetic relationship, so a good deal of good-natured bantering was going back and forth between them. Finally, Muriel had spoken maybe a little more sharply than she might have intended, and there was a moment or two of uncomfortable silence. Then Malcolm spoke up, “Muriel, I know you love me; you told me so five years ago.” Without missing a beat, Muriel replied with mock seriousness, “That was then; this is now…” Referring to marriage in a sermon in our day, even in an oblique way, is among a preacher’s greatest fears...and with good reason!
Several years ago, on Orientation Sunday in Duke University Chapel, the text assigned to the preacher ... was ... Ephesians 5:21. The preacher’s heart sank. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands...”
“I can’t preach that,” the preacher thought. “Only the likes of Jerry Falwell would preach such a text! Especially is it an inappropriate text for a progressive, forward-thinking, university church. Forget Ephesians 5. The word for our day is liberation, not submission. But the preacher decided to let the Bible have its say. He began his Orientation sermon this way:
“[We] despise this text. No one but Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) or some other reactionary would like this text. What an ugly word! Submission. And yet we know that, taken in the context of the day, this is a radical word. Women had no standing in that day. The writer of Ephesians 5 expends more words giving advice to husbands, telling them about their duties to wives, than words to wives telling them what they are to do for their husbands...this is not a text about women’s submission in marriage, it is a text which urges mutual submission in a strange new social arrangement called the church.”
“And that is why we despise this text. Our word is liberation.”[1]
While scripture’s word is submission.
There is so much modern misunderstanding about this passage of scripture that our lectionary suggests preachers skip verses 21-33 altogether. Even less likely is a modern day sermon on the first 9 verses of chapter 6, with their emphasis on obedience in children and slaves. The use – and abuse – to which these verses have been put in many places and circumstances over the centuries, makes any preacher less than enthusiastic about preaching on them.
So, we have a whole section of scripture, much of which sounds immediately distasteful to modern ears, with words about subjection and submissiveness, directed at wives, children and slaves. Aren’t these verses a perfect example of the need to use the Thomas Jefferson method of scripture analysis, cutting out the passages which offend us in order to leave us with a Bible that is not only more agreeable, but which more closely reflects modern sensibilities?
Well, no, I don’t think so, though you are welcome to disagree with me, and if you do it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in my ministry! What is needed is the recognition of a few crucial principles in reading these verses.
Only a community of faith which receives these words
can hope to understand them correctly.

These words were not directed at the culture in general, but to believers whom together Paul calls the “body of Christ.” So, a real understanding requires, first of all, a life within the community of faith. These are not general human principles which would make sense to any thinking person whether they were believers or not. They sound crazy to non-believers, and, truth-be-told, to quite a few believers as well, and probably for good reason.
It makes no sense to urge non-believers to allow themselves to be subject to others, because in the world outside the family of faith, where power is the motivating force in most relationships, to suggest that people assume a powerless and subjective position would be tantamount to suggesting that they become permanent victims. There is no guarantee of mutuality there. Being subject in a world that treats people like objects doesn’t sound like good news but more like a prescription for servitude. No one in the world can assume that submissiveness on their own part will be met with mutual submissiveness from others. Quite the contrary. The world is entirely likely to victimize anyone who makes themselves so vulnerable.
We must grant that pursuing all relationships with a sense that they are about power is a way that leads to death, not life. But only a community of faith organized around a different standard can understand submissiveness in a way that leads to life and wholeness.
These verses may legitimately be understood
only with deep humility, convictionally and confessionally.
They are intended to be understood so that a spouse, for instance, may ask himself or herself from time to time, “Am I working toward loving my spouse as Christ loved the church, sacrificially, unselfishly?” They may legitimately be used reflectively, subjectively. They may not be used legitimately as a blunt object to threaten the opposite person, but rather as a personal moral guide.
So when, in Paul’s letter, husbands, for instance, are advised concerning their behavior, they are not permitted to ignore the verses directed at them while berating their mates concerning the verses Paul wrote regarding wives. Similarly, wives ought not read the verses directed at husbands as part of a riot act, while overlooking the admonitions Paul wrote to them.
There are those interpreters who attempt to show that these verses reveal a divinely ordained order for family relationships, with God at the top of the organizational chart, then husbands directly under God, with wives appearing under the rule of their husbands. I have seen this type of structure referred to with various headings like “God’s Chain of Command,” as though loving relationships among faithful people had mostly to do with organizing a power structure in which some give commands and others obey them. The odd thing is, the chain of command idea already existed in Paul’s time, though not as a guide for Christian living, but as a pagan listing of household responsibilities. In Ephesians, Paul called upon everyone’s familiarity with that idea in order to help believers break free from it, to move human relationships beyond the banal questions of who will be giving the orders and who is destined to take them.
The discipline encouraged in this passage is meant to be internal, chosen, not external and enforced; it is to be subjective, not objective. No one may legitimately use these verses to force subjection on an unwilling spouse, and neither may one use them to require sacrificial love from their “better half.” I recently read about a Christian speaker who was approached by a married couple with the husband asking, “I want to know who should be in charge of a Christian marriage?” The speaker looked at them and said, “But that’s not a Christian question! The Christian question is: ‘How can I best serve my spouse…?’”[2]
These are principles which must be freely chosen to have any meaning at all. And the operative principle in all of them is announced in verse 21.
 “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It is true that every home needs a leader, but the contest for that position should not be between one spouse and the other. The leader of every believer’s home should be Jesus Christ: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” Paul declared. It is Christ who is the one deserving reverence in Christian homes.
All the things Paul encourages in his letter: that husbands love their wives as fully as Christ loves the church, which is to say, as fully as one who was willing to face death on a cross for the sake of his love; that wives should subject themselves to their husbands, which anyone who has been around our culture lately knows has about as much human chance of getting a hearing these days as a shellfish in a oyster bar; all these things should be things we hear with amazement, not with nodding heads. They are incredible, from a human point of view. But before we can hold up our hands and say, “No way!”, before we even hear words about submissiveness and sacrificial love, Paul predetermines our view of his instructions with the first instruction, the one that supersedes them all: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
He explains further, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” This isn’t an exhortation about how we can be if we just work at it, but about how Christ is. Christ was submissive even to the point of death, Christ loves his church – loves us – more than he loved his own life. It is only because we know that’s how Christ is that we can begin to see the mystery that Paul mentions as it applies to our own commitments – how we can be.  We begin to see that the commitments we make to one another – not just as husbands and wives, but as lovers, as friends, as families in the fellowship of the church – these commitments are going to be hopelessly control driven unless we submit them to the one who was totally submissive in giving himself away for us all.
Christ will not fail to honor those who reverence his submission for our sakes. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” For Christ has made himself subject for our sakes. May God bless us richly in him, and may each of us strive in every way to be a blessing for each other.

[1] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon, 1989, pp. 152-153.
[2] Stephen Knox, “Becoming One Christ’s Way,” Best Sermons 2, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 179.