This week is one of the weeks that I take issue with the lectionary – specifically, what it has left out. If you’ve been following along reading all of Ephesians at home, you know that there is juicy stuff both between last Sunday’s reading and this one, and between this Sunday’s reading and next one. But it is also difficult, and controversial, and so we are given just this short section from the middle of Chapter 5.
Here are some things you might have read in Chapter 5 that aren’t in our reading this morning:
“But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.”
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.”
Both of those come before our reading for this morning. Here’s a taste of the passages that come after:
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. He who loves his wife loves himself… This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”
I understand why these verses are left out, and I’m sure you do too. “Wives, be subject to your husbands… husbands, love your wives… fornication and greed must not be mentioned among you… the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” These are uncomfortable passages.
But that’s precisely why we can’t avoid them.
I come from a tradition that didn’t use the lectionary – instead, it was up to the pastor to decide what to preach on each week. While that has its benefits, for me it was a joy to come to a lectionary-based church, where the readings are set out. To know that we are reading the same passages of Scripture as churches all around the world is a marvelous thing. I was and I still am a fan.
But there are limitations, and one of them is that although we work through every book of the Bible in three years, there are major portions in each book that are left out – either because they aren’t very interesting, or because there just isn’t time to fit them in, or because, like these ones, they are more difficult to understand or preach on. And if you’re curious, “dark stories the lectionary leaves out” would make a great Bible study series sometime.
Because, friends, the whole Bible is God’s precious word to us, and is full of his light and life. In another letter the Apostle Paul tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) Even the difficult passages have Christ behind them, and can shine a light on him in a different way. The more I read through little-read books like the minor prophets, the more I am amazed at how Christ permeates all of Scripture.
And so the passages before and after our little section today, even though they are difficult, still give us clues to living life in Christ, and still hold the good news of his gospel.
Our Business is Not Our Own
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Be careful then how you live. We live in a society where we do not want to be told how to live. “It’s nobody’s business but my own how I live my life.” Have you ever heard that? Maybe you’ve said it yourself.
“What I do on my own time is my own business.”
Or a former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau’s famous line:
“There is no place for the state in the affairs of the bedroom.”
Trudeau goes on to say “what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal code.” Well, he may have been right when it comes to the state, but when it comes to the church, it simply doesn’t – and can’t – work that way. Not only the affairs of the bedroom but all other parts of our life are not just our own business. We want to believe that they are. We love having control of our own lives. And yet “My business is my own” is another, subtler form of the Sole Survivor mentality that I was speaking of last week; the idea, so common in our world, that it is up to each of us to make it on our own. That survival requires looking out for our own interests, and that our business is our own. But: as members of Christ’s body we are not on our own, and what we do, and the choices we make, whether in the bedroom or outside of it, affect every other member of Christ’s body.
And so when Paul follows this section with a description of being subject to one another (and note that “wives being subject to their husbands” comes immediately after his command that everyone be subject to each other – husbands to wives as well as wives to husbands!), he follows it with “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”
“Being subject to one another – I am applying it to Christ and the Church.”
I spoke last week about the joys of being members of the beautiful body of Christ – how we are free to be God’s agents of grace in the world. But being a member of a body, of a community, also comes with the knowledge that what we do affects the whole body.
Last week in our PALS Bible study we were discussing some of the hidden things that might work against a healthy and mature body of Christ. We came up with quite a list: ranging from jealousy and stubbornness to fear, pride, indifference, and so on. We could add to that list from what Paul mentions in Ephesians chapter 5: fornication (which is simply an old-fashioned word for extramarital sex), greed, vulgar talk, drunkenness. The choices that each of us make, individually, can either give strength and health to the body, or weaken it.
The Joy of Belonging
This may be an uncomfortable thought for some. We don’t like being told what we can’t do. We like to have the freedom to choose to live our lives how we see fit, not how it is described in a two thousand-year-old letter to a church far removed from our own time and cultural context. And yet, this is exactly part of the joy of belonging to something greater. We are not on our own, we are not alone: we are part of something great, something beautiful, something mysterious and grand. We are part of a church that stretches from the very beginning, even back to this church in Ephesus, and continues to this day. The church that Paul describes is our church. His call to accountability and dependency reaches forward to this community, in this time, and in this place. We can’t dismiss his words, even when they are uncomfortable.
And that very accountability and dependency, one to another, is a gift. It’s a gift. We are here as members of one body not to point fingers at each other – remember, our words are to give grace to each other – but to hold each other up in love and support; to give strength to each other in our fight against sin; to encourage one another in doing right. “Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul says, “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.”
Have you ever been in the place where life was simply so hard that you couldn’t pray, couldn’t sing? Friends – here is the joy of belonging to the body of Christ: your fellow members are around you, surrounding you, and lifting you up in their prayer and song. When you can’t sing because your heart is broken, your church sings for you. When you can’t pray because the tears are too thick, the prayers of the church surround you and hold you up. You are not alone, you are not on your own, you are part of something beautiful.
The Church is a gift from God – a gift to each other, and a gift to the world. Around the world, in every nation and at every moment, there are members of Christ’s body giving thanks to God the Father. At every moment there are people lifting their voices in song. We don’t have to rely on ourselves to get it right. We won’t and we can’t. But we are placed in this beautiful worldwide community. And even though it is also a broken community, full of quarrels and disagreements and anguish; even though it has caused pain and sorrow – it is also Christ’s body, and his Bride, and he has redeemed her and washed her clean.
The Bride of Christ
In the passage following this one, that the lectionary leaves out, we read: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” This is the body to which we belong, the Bride of Christ, a beautiful bride without stain or wrinkle.
It may seem hard to believe. This body, this bride, the Church, looks so stained and wrinkly right now. She is hurting and confused, torn by infighting; weary, worn and sad. She lives with the wrinkles and spots that come with sorrow and laughter and just so many mistakes. You may have noticed on the news yet another scandal of abuse involving the church – and we hurt so much for the victims, and the witness of the church.
But the wrinkles and the spots are not her. And that is not how Christ sees her. On the cross, Christ’s blood washes her clean, and his body, stretched out in love, stretches out her wrinkles in turn. Christ’s eyes are only eyes of love for his beloved Church: seen right now as she will be – radiantly beautiful, no stain or wrinkle, dressed in his righteousness as a bride for her husband.
Friends, this is who we are and this is what we belong to. We are the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the glorious temple of the Lord. We are not on our own, we are not alone, and we are a part of something beautiful. We are those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, cleansed from every stain and wrinkle. We have been given the immense joy and responsibility of helping each other grow into Christ’s likeness. We have been given the task of reaching out and showing this same love and belonging to the world, to our neighbours, and to those around us. And we have been given the gift of Scripture – all of it – to teach us, to form us, and to mold us into Christ’s likeness.
So I encourage you to dwell in Ephesians 5 this week – in all of it. Don’t shy away from the uncomfortable passages, but take them to God in prayer, and let the Spirit speak to you through them. Ask God to show you places in your life that he might want to transform through his grace. And if you want to dig deeper into this in a small group setting, consider joining us here this Tuesday night at 6:30, where we will work through these passages together.
Friends, we are the Church, and our business is not our own. What a gift, what a joy, what good news, that it isn’t.
Welcome to the Church.