Monday, November 17, 2014

The Highest Calling - A School for Christian Life

Preached on Sunday, November 16, 2014
Scripture readings: Genesis 2:15-25; Ephesians 5:21-33.
I have always been a little scared of dancing. I have nothing against it. I should have said that I have always been a little scared of myself as a dancer, except in the spring of 1977.
Here I Am, About 1977, In My Dancing Days
In 1977 there was a girl I knew I could love, who also loved to dance. We were both in seminary, in Dubuque, Iowa; and Dubuque had a real disco with a floor lighted from underneath, and flashing lights, and a mirrored ball.
Her name was Donna, and she made me dance. No, she made me want to dance, and so I did it gladly and enthusiastically. Donna loved to dance, and I loved to look at her dancing with me, and I loved to look at her looking back at me, right there, dancing with her.
I felt desperate about what to do. So I did the easy thing. I did my duty as part of my seminary training. That summer I went away for my year of internship. When I returned to seminary, Donna was gone on her internship.
Marriage is like a dance, and I don’t know much about either one. Of course I have watched many marriages. I have been very close to some marriages.
Times are changing, but most people still get married. Marriage is basic. Going back to the very beginning of the human race (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) we see that marriage is God’s gift to supply something that is good for human life.
Without the gift that marriage is given for, life is deprived of the gift of something very powerfully good. “It is not good for man (meaning Adam, which is Hebrew for human, or earthling) to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
Not everyone in the Bible gets married. The prophet Jeremiah didn’t. Possibly the prophet Daniel didn’t. (The eunuchs in Isaiah 56:4 clearly didn’t.)
Jesus implied that some people, in order to follow him, would not marry, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:12) Although Paul says a lot about the goodness and holiness of marriage, it is clear, from what he says, in some of his other letters, that he was not married. (1 Corinthians 7:8)
Photos Taken at Desert Aire WA; November 2014
Some people blame the fact of Paul not being married as the reason why some of what he wrote about marriage sounds strange, or even wrong. Paul has been misunderstood.
We know that Paul had been so devout in his Jewish faith, before he became a Christian, so energetic in his faith, and so well trained in his faith, as a young man in Jerusalem, that he rose to high places in the hierarchy of rabbis connected to the Temple. He may even have been a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Senate (Acts 26:10).
In order to be a member of that Senate (or even to be in that hierarchy) you had to be married. Perhaps Paul had a wife who left him, or who was taken away from him by her family, when he did the unthinkable, scandalous thing and became a Christian.
Paul doesn’t write about dancing together, but he does write about singing together. Earlier he said, “Speak to one another with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” (Ephesians 5:19) Singing with another person is a little bit like dancing, if you both enjoy it. You are aware of each other. You respond to each other. You move together, in sync together, dividing up the parts and taking them in turn. Marriage is a duet and a dance. Two of the parts of the dance are submission and love, and each one takes their turn.
Just before Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, he has told everyone to submit to one another as Christians, out of reverence for Christ. As a Christian, the husband has already been commanded to submit to his wife as a Christian, because all Christians are commanded to submit to each other.
Paul goes on to say that the husband should imitate Christ, by being willing to give up himself and to die for her, as Christ died for us. It’s what all Christians are called to do for each other.
The wife has now been told to give to her husband the very thing she would never withhold from any other Christian. In another place Paul tell his Christians friends, “Out do one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10) The wife has been given the calling that all Christians owe to each other.
That means that a wife is to bring her faith into her marriage. I believe that the word of God teaches that there should be room in your life that serves as a learning place for the Christian life, and that room is your home and your marriage. What better place would there be to learn how to submit to someone than a relationship with someone who has been called to submit to you in return? It’s a special dance. Paul has laid out the choreography for this dance in Ephesians.
It is the same with the husband. Paul has just told all these Christians, at the beginning of chapter five, “…live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:2) This extreme love is a duty, which all Christians owe to each other. Then Paul says, “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her…” (5:25)
So, a husband is told not to withhold from his wife the very thing that he owes to every other Christian. He is told to be a real Christian to his wife. Doing this will look a lot like the action of “giving himself up,” just as Jesus did.
When Christians think and teach about marriage they sometimes forget to put Jesus and Paul together to get the whole picture. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28) Surely marriage fits this.
All Christians are called to love each other that way. They called to “give themselves up”, as Christ gave himself up for us. The Bible is teaching us that marriage and the home should be practice rooms dedicated to learning how to love like that. What can be a better place to learn how to love like Jesus, than a relationship with one other person who is committed to loving you like Jesus in return? This is part of the choreography of Christ.
If one partner submits herself, and the other partner gives himself up, then no one is the boss the way we think of bossing. My kindergarten class had a big, elaborate play house area. And I remember playing house, sometimes, being the husband and father, and I remember it was always an important, in the beginning of the game, to establish exactly who was the boss. I always found a way. But we were five years old.
There needs to be authority in a marriage, and in a family. But it is not an authority based on “who is the boss?” It is an authority based on being Jesus to each other and seeing Jesus in each other. How would you treat your spouse if you looked at them and saw Jesus?
An automatic authority comes to a man who obviously and deeply loves his wife. An automatic authority comes to a woman who obviously respects her husband because she knows he would give up everything for her and even die for her. Submission is a hard word but Paul ends up calling it respect. (Ephesians 5:33)
What if we make a pair out of these two words: love and respect?  Let’s think of the love side as something tender, affectionate, warm, sensitive. Let’s think of respect as, well, respect: the mark of confidence, trust; a kind of dignity or honor that is well placed.
Now let’s think of all people having the wonder of the image of God in them, but also of God planting something unique in each person. God makes each person a unique blend of strengths and needs. Men and women are also unique from each other. Men and women have somewhat different natures, as men and as women.
There’s a story that goes like this. There is an elderly couple. Let’s call them Ole and Lena, and they’ve been married for fifty years. They’re sitting on their front porch swing, on a summer evening. Ole looks at Lena and says, “Lena, it’s more than I can stand, to keep from telling you that I love you.”
Men have to learn to be romantic. They have to learn to express love to a woman and make it clear, unless they have grown up in a home where the father has been a clear example of this kind of love.
Christians love with true devotion. The church, and marriage, and family are the places where men can learn to love like Christians. These places reinforce each other. They are all schools of the Christian life. They are places where men can learn the things that don’t come easily to them.
Think of what Paul says about Jesus being the husband of the church and the church being the bride of Christ. Think of the image of Jesus washing his bride. Have you ever thought about that? It’s like a honeymoon bath: a huge tub with a Jacuzzi, and scented candles, and a lot of sponges. What if a husband lived with his wife every day as if he were taking a honeymoon bath with her?
I remember talking with a couple and I made the confession that I sometimes make about my own sense of maturity. I told them I was really just a twelve-year-old at heart. The woman laughed and said that all men are twelve-year-olds at heart.
We all laughed at this. It’s probably so funny because it’s true. At the same time it’s just as true that twelve-year-old boys need to learn what it’s like to be respected.
I believe that women have a gift for love in the form of taking care of others; along with a great many other gifts. But giving respect as a form of grace does not come easily to most of us.
I knew a couple where the husband was very responsible and caring. He was more than that. He did things like secretly planting crocuses in the yard, so arranged that they would form a heart when they sprouted and bloomed, but the wife was not good at showing him respect.
Maybe that comes from not being properly respected themselves when they were children; and so showing respect is hard. The church, and marriage, and family are the places where we learn to give to others what comes hard for us to give, because Jesus has given it to us.
I believe that a man’s need for respect mystifies some women in the same way that a woman’s need for tender love mystifies a man. I believe we all need both. But men and women have special needs.
In marriage, Christian people bind themselves in a partnership where they have a holy obligation to listen and learn to give according to their partner’s special needs. They don’t have an obligation to succeed, but they do have an obligation to want to give, in the hope that their spouse will flourish, and not merely survive.
Loving and respecting each other is what the Lord expects all his people to learn. The things we know how to do best are the things we do every day. God wants us to learn love and respect every day; and God wants us to be loved and respected every day; and so God created the church, and marriage, and family life.
Maybe the curse of our modern day conveniences is the illusion that everyday things should be easy. If we went back in time more than one hundred years, we would find ourselves in a time when nothing was easy. For most people (for any people who were living right here, in this place, one hundred years ago) if you wanted water, you carried it from the well, or the river. If you wanted bread, you baked it yourself. If you wanted eggs, you raised chickens. If you wanted bacon, you raised pigs. If you farmed, then you fed, and watered, and doctored, and groomed horses or mules every day of your life. Nothing you did everyday was easy: but you had to work at it in order to have a life worth living and a life where you had something to give to others.
We don’t live that way anymore. I sometimes think, or hope, that the people of the past were more likely to carry that understanding of work to their marriages, and their family life, than we are.
At any rate nothing important is easy: not honesty, not forgiveness, not faithfulness, not purity, not constructiveness or helpfulness. Nothing important is easy. It isn’t only marriage and family where people take the easy way out. There is a lot of hurt going on in this world because of that. But Jesus calls us to do things a different way.
The church is one place where we are called to learn these things. So are marriage and the home. These places are the gifts of God. They are schools for the men and women who want to become men and women of God. But it is also a school for girls and boys, so that they may look at their parents and know what it means to become men and women of God.
Along with the Church, home should be a place where boys and girls learn how beautiful it is when we live together the way God wants, even when it is hard work. Church and home should be a place where kids learn that love and respect are worth working hard at, even when it is a rocky road. A child’s home, and their parent’s marriage, should be the place where it is safe for them to give their love and respect to others and to be wholesomely loved and respected in return.
God calls us to make wherever we are into a good place like that. God teaches us that we belong in school: a school of respect and love.
In the Gospel of John Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (15:13-14) I would say that the sort of friendship to which Jesus invites us is a kind of respect and love.
In Jesus, on the cross, we see the strange love and respect of God, for us. Over and over, Paul says, “you do this; just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Respect is a kind of dignity or honor. The love of Jesus gives us that.

We are following Jesus, aren’t we? And what he did for us, giving himself up for us, gives us the strength, the patience, even the will, to live with that respect and love, not only out in the open, where our neighbors can see us, but most of all where those who know us best can see us, and where God himself can see us: in the inner chamber of our marriage, and our family; if only God so blesses us with these great gifts.

1 comment:

  1. A school of respect and love, yes we all should belong to that school.
    Ah, those Disco Days of the 70's, I was glad to see the 80's!