13th Sunday after Pentecost – Ephesians 5:22-33 – 2021
Ephesians 5’s teaching on marriage is a challenge for the church today. There is one phrase that particularly goes against our sinful nature.
“…the two shall become one flesh”
Now, we don’t think much of those words. We get hung up on the opening verse of this reading. Wives submit to your husbands. Those words sound evil to our ears today, and not just to women, but even some mature and God fearing men are made uncomfortable by these words of scripture.
So uncomfortable are these words today that otherwise faithful & Bible-believing Christians will bend over backwards to explain away these words, blaming the historical context, saying this is just Paul’s personal opinion and not truly God’s word, and other excuses that we would never dare apply to any other part of our God’s Word
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be faithful to God’s Word and also learn to be more comfortable with these words, and we don’t have to become brainwashed women-haters to do this! We get so hung up on these words of wives submitting to husbands, that we miss the bigger picture, and we miss the words that are far harder for us to accept.
“The two shall become one flesh”. Now these words are beautiful, the idea that marriage makes woman and man a single unit. We don’t have a problem with these words on the surface level, but I tell you, when it gets right down to it, we hate these words maybe more than any other scripture.
We are inherently selfish. How often does the Bible instruct us to love God above all things, to love our neighbor as ourselves? Why does Paul tell husbands to love their wives as their own body? If we did this naturally, we wouldn’t need to be instructed. But we naturally serve ourselves first. Even some of the best intentioned marriages work this way. Often marriage is thought of as a contract for mutual benefit. Ideally it ought to be mutually benefitting, but even with this language, we are thinking of the spouses as separate. It’s not a mystery why divorce is commonly sought when we think this way. If it’s only for mutual benefits, why stick around when the relationship seems one sided, or when neither feels like they are gaining anything from it.
It is so hard even for us Christians to keep from thinking of marriage this way, we can’t keep from thinking of ourselves as individuals. Truth be told, God forbids us from thinking in this way. He provides a greater alternative. “The two shall become one flesh”. Marriage is not a mutual relationship, it’s a fusion. No longer are there two, but one. This isn’t merely a metaphor! There is a spiritual reality behind this. Even though our earthly eyes can look at a married couple and still see distinctly a husband and separate from him a distinct wife, nevertheless, through faith, we should see one joined unit. Not a mutually beneficial contract, but one single organism and being. The Pharisees tried to ask Jesus about divorce at one point, and instead all he did was talk about marriage, confessing these incredible words “What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.”
This is difficult for us, impossible even for our sinful flesh to understand. But through faith, God shares this wonderful mystery for us. That’s the language Paul used. He closed this passage by saying 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
That’s where this teaching of marriage enters a whole new level. Even for those, who like Paul are not married, marriage serves as a window peering into the mystery of Christ and the Church.
Jesus is not interested in a mutually beneficial relationship with us. Jesus would have dumped us on the curb a long time ago if that’s what he wanted. He would have signed divorce papers long ago. Our God is not interested in a mutually beneficial relationship where we remain distinctly separate entities. We can offer him as much thanks, praise, offerings as possible, it surely doesn’t equal Jesus giving his life for us, or the Father giving his son for us.
God is interested in much more from us. He desires a marriage between himself and all of us as his church. He desires to make us one unit, one inseparable fusion with him. And to do so, what did Jesus do? He loved us more than his own body, giving up his own in our place. And he gives us his own holy and pure body and blood, to make us pure and holy. This marriage isn’t about equality, about each of us doing half the work with God. All we can do is open our hands and receive this blessing, and stammer out words of thanks from our unclean lips.
Forget getting hung up on the question of submission and authority, men and women. If we do not understand our relationship with God in this way first, that Jesus joins himself to us, then trying to make sense of our own marriages won’t work either. We’ll still treat marriage the way the world does, as a mutually beneficial relationship, and nothing more. Let us instead understand our proper relationship with God first, how he unequally lays down his life for us to make us one with him.
With the marriage between Christ and his Church in mind, then we can consider again what Paul says about men and women. We are called to make one flesh, and Paul teaches that the wife is the body, and the man is the head.
As rational people, we place our minds over the body, and we regularly pit our minds against our body. That’s our first problem. How can we hope to become one flesh in marriage with a spouse, if we don’t even understand our individual minds and bodies to be truly one flesh.
Sometimes our bodies win out over our minds. History is full of stories of men doing horribly irrational acts according to the mind only for the sake of bodily pleasure. A less extreme example, but how often do people mentally desire to eat better and work out, but cave to their cravings of their stomachs and their tired muscles.
But sometimes our minds win out over our bodies. You hear about professional athletes mentally deciding to play through an injury, when their body is clearly telling them to rest. More relatable to all of us, how easy is it to avoid going to the doctor for less serious but lingering issues. Failing joints, cavities, health screenings in general.
Rarely do we seem to have our minds and bodies in harmony. We should not let our minds give into every desire of the body, but nor should we ignore what our bodies intuitively communicate to us. We should be one flesh.
So it should be with marriage. Whether we like it or not, God assigns husbands to be the head, and wives to be the body. It doesn’t do us any good to have two heads, nor to have two bodies and no head. And before we fuss about which is greater, the mind should not be assumed to be greater than the body, as oftentimes our brains are much dumber than our bodies.
For women, they are taught to submit to the husband. Not to be a slave, nor to be less important. We don’t like submission because we think the opposite is freedom. More properly, the opposite of submission is rebellion. What good does it do for our bodies to rebel against our minds? What good does it do for the church as the Body of Christ to rebel against our Lord Jesus? When we do not submit to our God as the church, it doesn’t mean we’re free. It means we’re rebels, and slaves our sin.
Likewise, if we desire to become one flesh, what good does it do for the wife to rebel? The opposite then, as much as it leaves an awful taste, is to submit. To get the awful taste out of our mouths, we should resolve to have a higher understanding than what the world teaches submission to be.
But we need more than a healthy and functioning body and wife. We need a head and husband that leads, and more importantly listens. Our bodies, if we listen to them, often know better than our minds. As Christ loved his body, us , the church, Paul teaches us that in the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
It comes back to being one flesh. Wives should not rebel against their husbands. Husbands are to make their wives’ needs their own. This relationship has often been abused in this world, where wives have been demanded to submit, and yet husbands have abused their authority to care for only their own needs. Though marriage has been abused, we the church should not reject this gift from God, but hold ourselves to a higher standard of what it means to become one flesh.
Each of our one-flesh relationships will look different. Paul doesn’t tell us who has to do the dishes, change diapers, or balance the finances. But we are called to be one flesh. And when we inevitably fail to live as we ought, thanks be to God that Jesus didn’t seek a 50-50 mutual relationship with us Church, or he would have been dumped a long time ago. For those who are single, as Paul himself was single and commended people to follow if they felt so, then let this teaching of marriage help you understand this mysterious but wonderful one-flesh union our God seeks with all of us.
Let us never be ashamed about what God taught through Paul about marriage, but instead let us be inspired by how marriage is a window displaying the wonderful relationship God establishes with his Church. Jesus loved us as his own body, and gives his body for us even now as we gather.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.