Sunday 27 February 2011

Kind and forgiving, children of light

The 4th of 5 addresses on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th February 2011, the 2nd before Lent.

The first four and a half chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians are about theology.
They are about the relationship between God – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and human beings – both individually and together as the Church.

In the first 3 of these 5 addresses, we explored key theological themes:
  1. ‘We must start with Christ’;
  2. ‘In Christ God is saving us by grace through faith for good works’; and
  3. ‘In Christ we are members of God’s household, Christ’s Church’.
We looked at Paul’s beautiful metaphor of the church as like a building, knit together by Christ as the corner stone, with the Apostles and Prophets as foundation. And although we didn’t examine it, Paul at the beginning of Chapter 4 gives another lovely metaphor of the church as like Christ’s body, with Christ as the head and Christians as its different parts, each given different gifts and different roles.

But in today’s reading (Ephesians 4:22-5:14) Paul moves beyond his theology to look at its ethical implications for how the Ephesians should behave to each other.
‘You were taught’, says Paul, ‘to put away your former way of life, your old self … and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’.

Paul continues with specific advice about how Christians should behave to one another:
  • We must speak the truth to our neighbours, because we are all members of one community.
  • If someone angers us, we must seek to make it up. Anger is not wrong in itself – remember, Jesus often showed righteous anger, for instance when driving the money-changers from the Temple. But if we let anger fester – if, in Paul’s words, we ‘let the sun go down on (our) anger’– we allow sin a way into our lives – we ‘make room for the devil’.
  • We must be honest in all our dealings – we should work for what we get, not steal it. And why? So that we have something to share with those in need. Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor – but this is not the Christian way: we must work, so that we have a surplus to give away in charity.
  • We should avoid evil talk – words intended to hurt others rather than help them – and this includes ‘obscene, silly and vulgar talk’, because ‘fornication and impurity of any kind, and greed’ cut us off from God. I find it interesting that Paul links fornication and greed in this way – for surely what is sinful about fornication is the greedy grasping at our own pleasure without thought for others.
  • And we should weigh up carefully what we hear, in order to avoid being ‘deceive(d) … by empty words’ into doing anything which would incur God’s wrath.
So, says Paul summarising, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you… Live as children of light' – what a beautiful image - 'for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’

And finally Paul quotes from what scholars believe is one of the very earliest Christian hymns, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you”.

Paul’s message to the Ephesians - and to us, for we are the present day Ephesians – is this: ‘In God’s household we must be kind and forgiving, we must live as children of light’. This is how God wants Christians to behave to each other, and towards neighbours. In fact, we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, just as Jesus taught us.

If you’ve been reading ahead, as I suggested, you will have found the next section of Ephesians (5:21-6:9) challenging.
Challenging particularly for women, but also I hope for those of us who are men! It would be wrong of me to just ignore it, I think. So let me try to unpick it.

‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’, Paul tells the Ephesians. This ethical principle of mutual submission, of being subject to one another, is derived from his theological insight, that as God’s adopted children ‘In Christ we are all members of God’s household’ - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Few would argue, I think, with the idea of mutual submission between those who live together in the same household – it is surely a recipe for peace and harmony!

But then he goes on to consider three pairs of personal relationships, in which he calls on one party to be subject to the other:
  • ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church’.
  • ‘Children, obey your parents… And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger’.
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters … as you obey Christ… knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord… And masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.’
‘Wives, be subject to your husbands’, indeed! What a shocking thing for Paul to say! Nowadays almost all of us see equality between men and women as a fundamental human right, so Paul’s words shock us to the core today. But let’s not forget how recent this view is - in Irish law a husband owned all his wife’s assets until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, it was not until 1923 that Irish women got the general right to vote, and the ‘marriage bar’ required women to resign from the public service on marriage as late as 1973.

It’s hard not to see Paul as a sexist old curmudgeon, isn't it, but he was a man of his own time. Among all ethnic groups then – Jews, Greeks and Romans – women had few rights and were legally just appendages of their husbands. Paul made no attempt to lead his churches to challenge this, any more than he led them to challenge the institution of slavery. He seems to have shared the general view that women should be submissive and that there was nothing wrong with slavery. But if he didn’t share that view, it was surely wise of him not to challenge it directly – since the result would surely have been even greater persecution of his small and vulnerable churches.

But starting from his theological conviction that ‘In Christ we are all members of God’s household’, he argues for mutual submission, seeking to balance social and Christian obligations. The social obligation on a woman to submit to her husband is balanced by a Christian obligation on a husband to love his wife. The social obligation of children to obey their parents is balanced by a Christian obligation on parents to treat children fairly. And he balances the social obligation on slaves to obey their masters, with a Christian obligation on masters to treat their slaves well.

This is what we should learn from Paul, I believe - the ethical principle that we should be mutually submissive, one to another in all our personal relationships. We should apply it within our own society, in which we all accept the equality of women and the unacceptability of slavery, and we should also apply it within our own families. In giving advice to wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters, he was making the best attempt he could do to apply that principle to the specific social circumstances of his own time. It would be wrong to insist on it today in our different social circumstances. We should try to do better today than Paul could in his time!

I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father God,
may your Holy Spirit help us
to be kind and forgiving members
of your household the Church,
and show us how to be mutually submissive
in all our personal relationships,
that we may live as children of light.
Through your Son Jesus Christ we pray.

No comments: