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s132e97 Somerton Park 17/8/97 Sunday 20 Pentecost 11

"Husbands, love your wives" Ephesians 5.25

I find it quite incredible that the world and I suspect many people within the Church still believe that these words of St Paul mean that wives have to put more into a relationship than the husband. They (and perhaps some of us too) think that these words are saying that wives are to be subject to their husbands, that they are to do everything their husbands says without question. It has become almost the defining factor of Christian marriage, and by becoming such, I find it no wonder that modern people have little or no interest in getting married. Neither do I find it at all surprising that divorce rates are high when these sorts of expectations are placed on people. I suspect the whole raison d'etre of the feminist movement is to escape what is, quite frankly a perversion of all that St Paul was on about.

Some Christians have tried to get some good news into this. They have reasoned that women are called to this, it is their special vocation. It's a bit like the doctor giving us the injection - we are better people as we accept our special roles. It would have been better if we hadn't needed the injection in the first place.

Let me take us back to those words of St Paul, for even the most cursory look at them reveal that St Paul spends far more of his energy talking about what husbands should do, rather than what wives should do.

He starts his paragraph on relationships with the words: "Be subject to one another ..." (v21). He speaks of the husband being the head (v23), and that they are to love their wives (v25) ... as their own bodies (v28) ... he who loves his wife loves himself (v28) ... he nourishes and tenderly cares for it ... (29).

There are two references to wives being subject to their husbands and another where they are to be subject to one another. It is noteworthy that there are no words to say that the wives should love their husbands!

From time immemorial the Church has quoted St Paul who parallels the love of the husband with the love of Christ - that love which Jesus had on the Cross for one and for all. So the love which husbands should have for their wives is a love prepared to venture all for his beloved, even to death. This is the sort of love St Paul is talking about - the sort of love that would never ask anything of the other person - let alone demand or expect obedience. So far from the Church asking wives to obey their husbands and so to contribute more to the relationship than the husband, the words of St Paul call the man to contribute far more to a relationship by loving his wife. This is more than being prepared to lay down one's life for ones beloved (the "knight in shiny armour" syndrome), it is always considering the other's welfare.

The husband doesn't demand obedience, for such a demand is, of itself, a complete denial of love. So too Jesus doesn't demand of us obedience, that too would be a denial of the very love he has for us and for all. Indeed it is only when we realise that Jesus doesn't demand our obedience that we can respond by realising it is our own interests to respond to that love. For (in the end) it is only Jesus who loves us in this way.

Jesus, because he loves us, never asks anything of us, for himself. This is the startling good news, which is reflected in the gospel reading for today, in the words to eat the flesh of Jesus and to drink his blood. Again we are bidden simply to respond in accepting Jesus self offering. And even our response to this self-giving love is for us and not for him. "Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever ... (they) have eternal life ... (they) abide in me and I in them ..."

I have always been impressed by the words of institution that the Roman Catholic Mass uses. Our words (quoting Jesus' words rather more literally) say "Take and eat, this is my body given for you ... This is my blood ... Do this ...". However the words of institution in the Roman Catholic Mass (following the spirit of the words) are: "Take this, all of you, and eat it ... Take this, all of you, and drink from it ..." They reflect the spirit of the words in today's gospel - there is no barrier to anyone to come to share in the sacrament - there is an open invitation to all. Coming to communion is the primary way we obey Jesus, for we are accepting his offering of himself. Of course we can accept the blessing Jesus offers without actually receiving the sacrament - it is not a lowest common denominator demand. Jesus doesn't make demands, he invites. Christians of other traditions accept the self offering of Jesus in different ways.

Jesus gives of himself to us. He doesn't benefit from our worship, he gets eaten!

I also find it no accident that the world, having not realised the gospel of marriage, has not heard the gospel of the Church. We can think: "Oh! this is nice - I can cope with this sermon. Chris is saying I don't have to give more. True, and neither does anyone else!

The Church is almost defined by our proclamation of who should express themselves intimately with whom. The Church has traditionally spent lots of time making sure that people are intimate with another who is totally suitable. So the persons have to be married and married to one another. One should only marry someone suitable. The other must be of the opposite gender, not of the same family but certainly of the same race. Probably there should not be more than 10 years age difference between them, ideally with the male older than the female. The female should be virginal. Of course both of the couples should come from the right side of the railway line ... How many years ago was it that people were ostracised if they married a Roman Catholic or a Protestant? And now, once the proper ceremony is gone through, one has to be subservient to the other. It is easy to spend time telling others how they should live their lives ... That there is not more of those sort of regulations in the Bible is truly remarkable. In England the press, just at the moment, are having a field day over the Church's statements about with whom poor Prince Charles and Lady Diana may or may not be intimate.

We, the Church, exercise tremendous power, for we have the power to grant or withhold God's blessing on peoples' relationships. The Church has never formally or informally renounced our claim of the past that without our specific blessing, effectively people will be consigned to eternal damnation. It is no wonder that some people hate the Church and all for which we seem to stand, when they find that they cannot live up to our expectations. I also have no wonder that the Church finds itself in straightened circumstances, with declining adherents.

I doubt whether any of you watched the program on SBS last Sunday evening at 10.40pm - a Canadian production called: "The Human Race". It was a fascinating programme which attributes all disputes and wars, not to religion, but to continuing gender inequality and our patriarchal society. It is the thesis of this program that the whole survival of the human species is dependent on our changing our ways - particularly men!

At the session of Synod yesterday we considered a motion concerning the consecration of women as Bishops. I repeat the statement about how powerful we are as the Church. It might be that individuals might prefer that women didn't become Bishops, but the ramifications might not be inconsiderable - they may well be global.

The argument about the "headship" of Christ has always to be tempered with the knowledge that Jesus never asks of me, or of anyone else, anything for himself. So the Church has no right to ask anything of others for herself, let alone demand or expect. What others choose to give, or choose not to give, is up to them and them alone.

Church leaders often lament the declining influence of the Church in our modern society. Quite frankly I rejoice in it, if it means we are being brought back (even if kicking and screaming) to what we should have been on about from the beginning - blessing.

So rather than looking to the future and to the world with despair and pessimism, I am beginning to see signs of hope. The Bible bears testimony after testimony of God working through those whom the people of God consider to be pagans and enemies to bring the message to the chosen people. God has done that throughout history, and just because we can call ourselves Christians is not likely to mean that God has ceased to need to use the same methods. The Bible tells us just as frequently that the people of God have never had a particularly good track record when it comes to accepting the word or the actions of the Lord.

In fact it is rather sad because I have little doubt that we think St Paul is talking about "The Christian Household" in verses 21 to 31 - how men and women should relate. However the first pat of our reading talks about Church worship - singing "psalms and hymns". But rather more startling to me is that in verse 32 St Paul says straight afterwards: "This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church" - not to the relationship between men and women at all!

Jesus, in the gospel reading for today, promises and gives us (and the world) life in his flesh and blood. There is no need to worry about the declining influence of the Church, for we hold and hopefully offer all, everything that is precious and good. Life has not been given to us as a right, it is simply a gift from God, to be passed on to others and to all.


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