By Paul Koch –
The past month has been one that I will not soon forget. My wife and I successfully hiked from Yosemite National Park to the top of Mount Whitney. All in all, our journey together in the mountains covered 245.7 miles over 24 days. We traversed everything from dense and beautiful forests to exposed and sometimes frightening mountain peaks. We hiked in the sun, the rain, and more than once in hail. We would eat our lunches beside lazy streams in the midst of meadows and set up camp in places of stunning beauty. We spent all our time together. We talked and encouraged one another along the way. We ate every meal together, set up camp and broke down camp together. We would talk about the trail, about what the next day would hold for us, how much elevation we would gain or how brutal the downhill grind would be. We talked about our life together, our children and our faith.
So, after spending all that time with my wife in the backcountry, I get to come back here to church, back to my job, and I am greeted with a perfect text for our sermon today. This text is devoted to the relationship of husband and wife, a text rooted in love and compassion and care. Ephesians chapter 5 says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.” Lovely, isn’t it? And I know what you’re thinking. Your thinking that this doesn’t sound too much like love and compassion. That it sounds more like a holdout of a rejected male chauvinism. Some may secretly like it, some might be somewhat embarrassed by it. For we tend to resist the language of headship and subordination these days. It doesn’t sound so much like love, but more like restrictive commands and burden in our life.
But as I looked at this text, after spending all that time with my bride, I realized that this text is about a profound and deep and abiding love. A love that turns us from looking out only for ourselves to looking out and caring for another. In fact, I think it speaks of a love that expects the care and compassion from someone else. And this exhortation to love doesn’t just flow from wife to husband and husband to wife, but it flows from one Christian to another, from brother to sister in the body of Christ. It is bigger than we first imagine. What St. Paul speaks about was part of the love that I felt through sadness when I leaned about the death of two of our members while I was gone. The wishing that I could have been here, that perhaps I should have been here. I wanted to grieve with you. Not that I could have done anything grand in the moment, but I missed the moment to sit with my brothers and sisters as together we mourn in longing hope of the resurrection.
This sort of love is what this text is about. A love that binds God’s children together.
Now the time that this text is most often used is in a wedding ceremony. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have stood before a couple and asked them questions that flow right from this text. I ask the bridegroom, “Will you have this woman to be your wedded wife… Will you nourish and cherish her as Christ loved his body, the Church, giving Himself up for her?” To the bride I ask, “Will you have this man to be your wedded husband… Will you submit to him as the Church submits to Christ?” And every time you can see the honest and pure look of love and joy in their eyes as they confidently and courageously say that they will. They will love like this. They will love, honor and keep one another in sickness and in health and forsaking all others remain united until death parts them. This text becomes their promise, their public vow of love.
It is this text, and that vow, that gives a pastor the courage to conclude the wedding ceremony with those famous words of our Lord, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Matt. 19:6) But it is as soon as those words are spoken that the real trial and testing begins. For the call for a husband to die for his bride and the call for a bride to submit to her husband often proves to a be a bar that is set too high. Sin can and does twist our lives and our unions. There is the reality of abuse and neglect and addictions that lead to divorce. People who were once passionately in love seem to grow apart and grow cold toward one other. For many these words of Paul are not a clarion call for love but a list of demands that many may long to fulfill but are unable to carry out. A selfless and sacrificial love is not encouraged. It is better that you are happy, that you are content within your own heart and soul.
When speaking about how a husband ought to love as Christ loves, he says, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” To fail to love your bride is to fail to love yourself. This shows just how deep the problem really is. Your failure to love doesn’t just affect someone else. It isn’t just a matter of marriage and divorce. No, such failure gets to the core of who you are. It affects your psyche, your understanding of your own value and purpose. When your love for another fails, or when one who ought to love you comes up short in their love, it hurts. And that wound is deep and lasting and difficult to heal, for it cuts into the core of your identity.
But as we begin to look toward ourselves, toward our abilities and failures to love as we ought to love, we begin to wonder if we can sacrifice for another, if we can trust one another, if we can dig deeper and get the job done. Perhaps we even begin to plot a course that might give us some success. Just as we get going down that road that looks to ourselves for the answer to our struggles of love, why then St. Paul pulls the rug out from under us. For as he is making his argument for this powerful and sacrificial love he says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
So, the whole mystery of the two becoming one flesh, of a husband willing to die for his bride and a bride choosing to submit to her husband, all of it, is telling a story that is greater than itself. It is an imperfect reflection of the perfect love of Christ for all of you. Christ, who didn’t hesitate but took your sin upon himself. Christ, who threw himself between you and the wrath of God, who endured the temptations of Satan and defeated him, who died to justify the judgment of the Father. The love of a husband and wife, the love between brothers and sisters of the body of Christ is but an echo of this greater love. When I care for my bride and sacrifice for you, when she chooses to support and care for me, when you love and embrace each other in good times and bad, why, you are bearing witness to a greater love.
But notice what Christ’s love for you does. He doesn’t say go and love like me, try and get it right for life and salvation are dependent upon it. No, according to Paul, Christ gave himself up for the church, so that “he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Christ’s love for you actually changes you. It gets a hold of you in the washing of water with he Word. Here in that gift of Holy Baptism you are sanctified, set apart as the children of God, heirs of eternal life. Through this gift he presents you to himself. In other words, he loves you so much that he dies and rises for you and then washes you in that death and resurrection so that you might be a suitable bride for him. He presents “the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
That is you. That is who you are in the gifts of Christ. You are forgiven, you are washed, you are holy and without blemish. The love that is found in your marriages, the love that thrives here within this body, the love I feel for this great family of saints and sinners, is but a testimony to a far greater love. A love that surpasses our understanding. A love of hope, and confidence that will endure to the day of the resurrection of all the dead.