“Being a Lover 101” on Ephesians 5:21-33 by Joe Ellis — Sept. 3, 2023
Now, this may seem to be an odd choice of a passage to start with after a four month break from preaching — especially the first part, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord".
I chose this passage because I think it sets the table really well for our focus as a church over the next several months, where I’d like to journey into the book The Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is an odd book in the Old Testament — it's a series of rapturous poems spoken by a young couple in love. They are celebrating the wonder and beauty of romantic love. When you read these poems, you might wonder why these poems are in the Bible and why we would read them at church — after all, the poems don’t directly mention ‘God’ at all. These poems aren’t like anything we’re used to being read in church. That’s where this passage of Ephesians comes in. The themes that Paul works with here, his way of reading Old Testament Scripture here, will help us to approach reading The Song of Songs in a very similar way.
But before we get into that, we need to address some of the feelings that this passage stirs up for many of us when we hear it read. So, let me ask a question. When you heard this passage read, where did you feel it in your body? Did you feel a tenseness come over your shoulders? An uneasiness in your stomach? A tightness in your chest? Does it make you feel more close to me and the people around you and to God? Or less so? Does this passage stir up anxiety or nervousness? These are important questions.
When we come to Scripture, we can often be focused on what it means, ignoring how it makes us feel. But those feelings are incredibly important to pay attention to. For one, those feelings will strongly influence how you or I interpret that passage. Often, the interpretation I favour is the one that makes the tension or anxiety go away.
As I was reading commentaries on that first section of about wives submitting to husbands, I had a huge tension in my shoulders, and I was eager to read commentaries that would make that tension go away. That’s important for me to be aware of — the Word that God has for me/us might not be the same one that makes my anxiety go away — but, then again, maybe it is.
So, what feelings did you notice as you read this passage? Indifference? Hostility to this passage? If you felt either of those two feelings, either indifference (just wanting to ignore it and make it go away), or hostility (feeling outright aggressive towards this passage), pay attention to that. Those two dispositions, being indifferent to something, or being hostile to something, are dispositions that are quite common in our modern culture. We can call this widespread experience alienation. Alienation is the experience of indifference or or hostility that a person may have across multiple fronts. People experience indifference or hostility in their relationship with work; indifference or hostility to their body; indifference or hostility to their kids; indifference or hostility to creation; indifference or hostility to the Bible, the church, our faith and to God.
A German sociologist named Hartmut Rosa thinks that experiences of alienation in our time and in our culture are the rule, rather than the exception. That instead of experiences of deep connection and resonance with creation, with other people, with our work, and with God, people more often have experiences of alienation—experiences where they feel disconnected, alone, separate from and indifferent to others and to the world, or hostility. As I was reading Rosa, I found that he was naming something that I have found true both in my own experience and in observing this time we’re living in. No doubt you can think of other areas to which others, or maybe even yourself, live lives of alienation — with a disposition of indifference or hostility.
My hope is that we as a church, can be singular and focused in our goal over the the months and years to come. My hope is that we can help each other out of our experiences of alienation in life, and have an altogether different mode of relating to each other, to creation, to work, to friendships, to family, to faith and to God. Throughout the Bible you will find a very different word that describes how we are called to relate — we are called to be lovers. We are called to be deeply connected and impacted by creation, by others and by God. We are to be connected in love, rooted in the deep love that God has for us and in return, we for him. And this passage in Ephesians sets the table very well for how we are to be lovers—lovers of creation, lovers of other people, and lovers of God himself.
So, how can a passage that may foster an experience of alienation in so many people teach us how to be lovers? Well, it’s the second half of the passage that really shows for me the way to be a lover — Paul’s words for the husbands in the church. So, while Paul’s words to the husbands teach us how to be lovers, Paul’s words to wives can for many create a sense of dissonance or alienation. Why might that be?
Quickly, I think there might be three reasons that influence why we may experience a bit of alienation when we hear Paul’s word to the wives. First, it may be that, because the context of the Ephesian household was vastly different than the context of modern family life — it may be that Paul’s words to wives don’t apply in quite the same way as they do today (this is a very interesting study. I have an excellent article on this that I’d love to read with any of you if you’re interested). A second reason we might feel alienated from this passage, is that it could be our own cultural context has made it very difficult to hear these words about wives submitting to their husbands as a good thing. On the one hand, for most of world history we have stories of women being marginalized, trivialized and pushed down. On the other hand, our current cultural climate is hugely suspicious of men asserting authority and leadership. Both those dynamics certainly shape our ability to resonate with Paul’s words towards wives. A third reason, and of this I can’t be certain, but it may be that Paul’s words to the wives in this Ephesian community were more of a correction of a particular behaviour that was detrimental to the community or families back then. Sometimes, Paul’s corrections can come across as gruff, and don’t flow with the same poetry or beauty that he writes with elsewhere.
At the end of the day, I believe that the way husbands and wives are to live out the passage is the same. My take is that Paul’s words to the wives and his word to the husband are shaped by the way he starts the whole passage — which is “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He goes on to make clear that both wives and husbands are called to submit to each other’s needs and desires. The practical, observable behavioural differences between a husband following Paul’s teaching, and a wife following Paul’s teaching would be very difficult to distinguish. They would both submit to one another’s desires, sacrifice themselves for one another, pursue the best for one another, and in short, they would love one another. What I do notice is that when Paul writes to the husbands, he is writing as a lover. Paul’s words to the wives don’t quite match the same beauty with which he writes to the husbands. So, for the rest of the time we’ll focus in on Paul’s words to the husbands, because they show us all how to be lovers.
As we look at Paul’s words to husbands, you’ll notice three or four areas for us to practice being lovers. You’ll notice that I said “three or four areas for us to practice being lovers.” Husbands are not the only ones who can be edified by Paul’s advice — nor is this teaching only for married people. As you’ll see, as a single man, Paul has no trouble writing to himself in this passage.Paul gives us three paths to move out of alienation, indifference and hostility, and move towards practicing being a lover.
The first area to practice being a lover is loving your beloved. Notice that I said ‘practice.’ Being a lover takes practice, intentionality, and dare-I-say, work. Sometimes being a lover will feel spontaneous and second nature, but choosing to be a lover can also require willpower. When you listen to Paul’s advice to husbands, the willpower piece becomes obvious. After all, he says for husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church. And how did Christ love the church? He gave himself up for her. For love of His Bride, the church, Christ embraced and endured the scorn, the shame, the pain, the violence of the cross. Christ died so that His Bride might live. Loving His Bride sacrificially was a choice, at times a very hard choice. You’ll remember that even Christ prayed in the garden that the Father might take this cup away from Him, but he obeyed the will of the Father.
So Paul calls husbands to be lovers in the same way. To sacrifice themselves, their own well being, their needs, wants and desires for the needs of the bride. Because this can sometimes be very scary language for us husbands, let’s open this up to the rest of us. You may have noticed that in verse 28 Paul says, “He who loves his wife loves himself”, and then again at the end of the passage, Paul says it again: “Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself.” There is a pretty strong similarity between Paul’s words and what Jesus calls the second greatest commandment, which is to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Basically, Paul is calling husbands to sacrificially love their wives, who happen to be their closest neighbour.
But this command to love sacrificially, isn’t just simply for husbands — it's for all of us who have a neighbour. Of course, the way that we love others is certainly shaped by the nature of our relationships. We love our neighbour different than we love our son or daughter, different than the way we love our mayor, which is different than the way we love our husband, which is different the way we are called to love our parents — yet in all of these relationships we are called to be a sacrificial lover. Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
But, notice that there is another way that Paul calls husbands to be lovers of their wives, and again he models it after Christ’s love for the church. For Christ loved the church, enduring the cross, “giving himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church’s without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
In that way, Paul calls husbands to love their wives. Christ did not simply endure the cross out of duty, but out of desire — desire for His Bride, the Church. He loved her in a way that brought out her beauty even more greatly, so that Her beauty would shine forth, holy and blameless. Paul calls husbands to be lovers with the same sort of purpose — to pursue the beauty, goodness, and loveliness of his wife. To love them in such a way that their beauty might shine forth even more. When you are a lover, your beloved shines more beautiful because of your love.
Perhaps we might keep that in mind as we practice being lovers of our neighbour. We love our neighbours, not just because it is the Christian thing to do, but because our love is shaped by the beauty we see in them. And we love them in such a way to help their beauty shine out even greater. There’s a word of caution here — if you are trying to love your neighbour and you are not able to see anything good, beautiful or desirable in them — what kind of lover are you? Perhaps it might be best to start praying that God might show you that which is beautiful, good, and desirable about your neighbour — whether that neighbour is your spouse, your kids, or the person across the street.
There is a second pathway to help us move from alienation into being a true lover of our neighbour. That is to focus on being lovers of ourselves. I know it might seem like pop psychology, but Paul was not being a pop psychologist when he said, “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — for we are members of his body.” Notice how Paul links everything he says into Christ being a lover of the church. In order to love your neighbour as yourself, whether it's your wife or someone else, you need to be a lover of yourself. Imagine someone say, “Oh yes, I love everyone, it's just myself I hate.” I don’t think that’s possible. And Paul gets specific when he talks about loving ourselves. We need to love our own bodies. That is your smile. Your eyes. Your nose. Your waste size. Your height. Your stomach. Your hair line. Your arms. Your legs. The parts you keep hidden. The parts people see. Everything. For Paul, key to being a lover is loving your body. This, for many in modern humans, is very, very difficult. As our work and play have less and less to do with our bodies, as we are surrounded by examples of people with more beautiful bodies than our own, many people experience being alienated from their own body — by that I mean, many feel either indifferent to their body, or downright hostile to their body. Thus, part of learning how to be a lover of your neighbour and a lover of God, is to practice loving your body.
A very close correlate to becoming a lover of your body, is learning to be a lover of creation. After all, we are our body, and our body is part of creation, it consumes creation, it inhabits creation, it breathes creation, and it depends on creation. As we will see over the next few months, loving our body, our neighbour, our God, and creation are all different sides of the same coin.
The third pathway towards being a lover is learning to be a lover of God. This is the final, and perhaps most important arena for us to practice being lovers — being a lover and being the beloved of God. You will have noticed that throughout this passage, Paul continually draws on the parallels between the love of husband and wife and between Christ and the Church. This is one of the most significant pictures of the relationship between God and His People — that is between lover and beloved, Groom and Bride. This is not a picture that I often dwell on, or have been wholly comfortable with. I find the idea of Christ romantically desiring the church to be strange, but it's one of the most beautiful and persistent pictures throughout Scripture to describe the relationship between God and Israel, and Christ and the Church.
This image is so strong throughout Scripture, that Paul has no trouble applying the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 as a description of Christ and the Church. He quotes Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father an mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” About this passage, which is one of the most beautiful, profound and stirring descriptions of sexual intimacy, Paul says, “This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Paul is saying that marriage, and the most intimate aspects of marriage, is truly a picture of the deep, intimate, and passionate love between Christ and the Church. If I’m honest, this language makes me not just a little bit nervous.
Yet how can I live into my Christian calling to be a lover, if I shy away from contemplating the most beautiful, intimate, and passionate relationship that ever there was. And then, I need to consider that the church is not simply some abstract entity. The church is not some symbolic being that has no relation to me. The church is me, and you, and us — it's us that participate in this passionate love relationship with Christ. This passage invites us to learn to be lovers on the deepest, powerful spiritual level. So, let’s learn to be lovers of neighbour, ourselves, creation and God — but in doing so, we will learn the deeply intimate truth that we are not only lovers — we are beloved. We are deeply desired by God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.