Sunday, January 24, 2010

Desperate Household: Marriage Lessons

The Key: Being Subject to One Another

Ephesians 5:21-33

Last week I wondered aloud if I was crazy to come out of the gate on this preaching series about the household speaking to the subject of intimacy. This week the question is equally valid. I am not necessarily a feminist, but that doesn’t mean that this text is easy for me. It confounds me every time I come to it. And how many weddings in conservative settings have we heard this text followed by an exposition of how a woman needs to know her place and how a husband needs to rule over the household. There is a classic read of this text that troubles me. So as I begin to think about it with you, I am aware of that history within most of us.

Paul opens this section of Ephesians by encouraging us saying, “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.” Paul is describing a way for all of us to be with one another. If we are faithful Christians, wanting to walk in the ways of Jesus, then there is a way for us to be with one another that isn’t like the culture around us. Another translation says “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” When we think of being subject to one another we think of a kind of slave and master relationship. But that, I don’t believe, is what Paul is describing. What Paul’s phrase encourages us to is a life of serving one another, not out of a relationship where one has power over another, but out of a relationship of mutual love for one another, first demonstrated in Christ’s servant love for us.

When I read this text from Ephesians, I read this first phrase as a sort of thesis statement. Paul makes his point in the first line. Live a life of trying to outdo one another in service. What follows people have taken as prescriptive, a rigid account of how husband and wife are to live out that service to one another. It is a rigid account in that this prescription delegates a particular role for the wife and a particular role for the husband. That, anyway is the traditional reading of the account.

As I read this text over the last three weeks or so, I began to believe what follows Paul’s thesis statement is not so much prescriptive, as descriptive. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” And then Paul goes on to describe some ways we can live that out in the marriage relationship, not the only way to do so. Paul describes for his generation a way he can see husband and wife “being subject to one another.” He gives examples of what it might mean within that marriage relationship.

If there is a key to marriage, or any relationship for that matter, Paul gives it to us in the first phrase of this section of Ephesians. “Be subject to one another.” Serve one another out of love. Do things for one another any chance you can. Think of the other person first. What would be good for them? How can I make their lives easier? Better? More full? As the Thompson’s talked about it in the video, it is finding the joy in doing for one another. To be kind and outdo one another in demonstrating a love for one another.

Elvin hasn’t yet gotten this servant’s attitude straight the afternoon he comes over to the Huxtables to pick Sondra up for a date.

Remember the Cosby Show?

Elvin has learned about marriage in that more conservative tradition. But he has some idea that Sondra’s parents don’t have that kind of marriage.

While he waits for Sondra to be ready for their date, Claire inquires as to whether or not Elvin & Cliff, her husband, would like a cup of coffee.

“You mean, you’re going to get?” Elvin asked confused.

“Yes. You’re surprised?” Claire wonders aloud?

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Huxtable,” remarks Elvin. “I didn’t think you did that sort of thing.”

“What kind of thing?” she asks.

“You know, serve,” he responds.

“Serve whom?” You can hear and see Claire getting a little steamed.

“Serve him.”

“Oh, as in serve your man?”

“Yea!” Elvin says confidently. He thinks they have finally got to the center of the issue. But there is Cliff in view, hanging his head in his hand and wishing for Elvin that he was somewhere else. Cliff can see what’s coming.

Wagging her finger at Elvin, Claire starts in “Let me tell you something, Elvin.” She passionately describes how what she is doing for Cliff is not “serving,” as that’s the kind of thing that goes on in a restaurant. No, what she is doing is bringing Cliff a cup of coffee in the same way Cliff brought her a cup of coffee earlier that morning. “And that, young man, is what marriage is made of. It is give and take. 50 / 50.” And just to bring home the point, she tells him that if he doesn’t change his attitude, “you’re never going to have anyone bringing you anything, anywhere, any place, any time, ever!”

There’s the nugget again, that nugget of marriage advice that we all need. That nugget of relationship advice that Paul, out of his love for Christ, gives to those of us who want to live in Christ’s ways. Marriage isn’t about who’s in charge of what. Marriage isn’t about power over another. It is about a mutual love that is lived out in trying to do for one another. It’s drawing a bath for your wife when the work day has been particularly hard for her. It’s spending time listening to the joy your husband wants to share about this week’s football game. It’s surprising your partner with their favorite home-cooked meal. It’s a well written note of encouragement in their lunch. You know the kinds of things that Paul encourages us to. You know the nugget of relationship advice that makes a marriage work. Mutual love for one another, lived out, quite frankly, in finding ways to serve one another out of that love.

May such an attitude and work of love reign in your relationships, and especially in your marriage. Amen.

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