Sabbath Reflection for September 26 (’14)
It’s easy to say to someone, “God loves you.” It’s even easier to think it if you’ve grown up in particular denominations. (I know there are some churches and denominations that teach with attitude rather than word that God probably hates you or, at least, dislikes you a lot. But the Evangelical problem seems to be the mushy stuff, not the hard stuff.) But have you ever wondered if God really likes you? The YOU no one else knows. The “you” even you can’t stand. If you can’t stand you, how can he?
Ephesians 5:22-33 weighs heavily here. It begins and ends talking about marriage:
5:22-25, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives…
5:28-33, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Paul presents a portrait of a man—a husband—who doesn’t just love his wife. He likes her. Why am I harping on that word “like”? Mostly, because we “love” hotdogs, “love” sunsets, “love” Dancing With the Stars, and “love” our dog. Then, of course, we love our wives. There’s nothing wrong with “love.” It’s just so used that we often do not think about what we’re saying, and thinking is good. The husband in Ephesians loves his wife enough to like her (even when she, and he, aren’t exactly likable in the moment. As my wife says to me sometimes, “I love you, but I don’t like you right now!” Well, I deserve that, though). To use the metaphor Paul uses, he loves her enough to cherish her as he does his own body, for nobody ever said, “I love my body” then turns cutter. You turn cutter, in some instances at least, when you hate your body or self. In such a case, cutting and self-mutilation is an outlet and a punishment. Contrastingly, this husband likes and cherishes.
Between these “marriage verses” are 2 short verses jam-packed with mind-altering theology. These 2 verses declare 5 attributes of the relationship between Jesus and his people that prove he likes you, the reasons why, and how we can have hope when we’re hopeless about ourselves which, for many, is all the time.
Here they are:
1, 5:25a — the love of Christ for the church
2, 5:25b — that leads to the sacrifice of Christ for the church
3, 5:26a — which was for a specific purpose for the benefit of the church
4, 5:26b — triggered by a tool given for the church
5, 5:27 — in order to attain a goal that is only for the church.
Consider these in turn.
1. The Love of Christ for the Church (5:25a). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church….” Paul could have given many things after this. “Christ loved the church if….” He doesn’t. And, boy, are we glad he didn’t. Christ’s love for the church is not conditional. It simply is, was, and will be. It was the motivating factor of his birth and expresses the glory of God (the ultimate target of creation). How often our own vows in marriage, friendship, the witness stand, or otherwise are a great big finger-crossed IF. “I’ll love you if….”
Jesus genuinely loves you—he likes you. I know myself. And this causes serious emotional staggering. I almost don’t want to believe it because, in my worst moments, I’m terrified of even God knowing me. It’s as if I’m scared God will agree with my annual report card and my quarterly self-assessment. But he doesn’t. He’s chosen me in love. Gospel.
2. The Sacrifice of Christ for the Church (5:25b). “…and gave himself up for her….” Again, Paul could have put a number of words after this phrase to indicate Christ’s giving wasn’t voluntary. He could have said, “and gave himself for her because he had to.” He could have shown how Jesus was compelled or forced. What love is love when forced? Nobody wants an “I’m-sorry” unless genuine, and I don’t want to be liked unless it’s because you really like me. Ditto with Jesus. Jesus willfully gave himself, motivated by #1 (his love for the Church). Gospel.
3. The Specific Purpose for the Church (5:26a). “…That he might sanctify her….” We often believe “sanctification” refers only to the moral realm of holiness. But it’s more. It’s not just moral, but spatial. The Temple (a space) was built specifically for Yahweh’s presence, but prior to his coming, it had to be cleansed by blood (the moral), and it was. Likewise, we are physically removed from the Kingdom of Darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of Light (cf. Colossians 1:13), but we’re not just left that way. We are declared holy, pure, and spotless. We’re not that completely, of course, and if you look at yourself, you know this to be true. No amount of self-produced, holiness-themed make-up can cover your self-centered sinful essence, and no make-up removal wipes can take away the blood-drenched identity you’ve been given in Christ that truly is sanctified while not yet sanctified as we’ll be. Yet Jesus loved the church, gave himself for her, and sanctifies her. We’re set apart (space) and set upon (moral) by Christ. What we are is not what we will be. Gospel.
4. The Tool that Triggers All for the Church (5:26b). “…having cleansed her by the washing of the water with the Word.” This most likely references baptism, but is baptism joined to the Word. In the Reformed faith tradition, we’re big on what we call “Word and Sacraments,” by which we mean this: it is only the tools God has promised to use that we should bank on for blessing/sanctification. Here, both are mentioned.
Knowing this, I’m stunned at the number of youth and parents who believe the Church doesn’t matter. They show this by their casual membership: only sitting in pews, never “serving in the kitchen” (or other so-called dirty jobs that pretty much lack glamor and recognition), and rushing out the door before “traffic” hits (hard to tell if they’re talking about people or cars…). I guess it’s something that they’re there, though.
Bryan Chapell wrote somewhere about first-year seminary students he used to teach in his preaching classes. He would always have a sign-up sheet of local ministries they were required to do for the duration of the semester. The one that was always picked last—and which he usually had to assign to someone—was visiting the sick and dying in nursing homes. Let that sink in. He mentions that it confused him for years why this was so. Then, it hit him: this was a ministry that gave no fame, no fortune, and no recognition. They give of themselves for a short while, the recipients die, and then the cycle repeats. How disturbing an illustration from these young seminarians of our hearts’ desires.
Back to the Church: does she matter to you? Do you like her? What about her members that aren’t there on Sunday—the ones that have been washed by the Word but can’t receive the sacraments any longer? The ones that are dying. The Church is supposed to be the place where Word and Sacrament, together, are given freely and properly. They really mean something because they are the only tools the Holy Spirit has ever promised to use. In them, as we gather together, we demonstrate the reality of our identities as the Body. In other words, while the Spirit may use other tools, these he has sworn to use. Does your casual disregard for the people who are to receive these with you reveal a darker tint to your shiny-windowed heart than you thought was there? Being on the inside looking out, it can be hard to tell which hearts are tinted…. Nonetheless, it is the tool of the Word that cleanses us—it is Christ himself who cleanses us, and so Paul reminds us a few verses later in 5:29-30, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.“ We receive the Word together as the Church, and this tool is effective. Gospel!
5. The Goal that is Only for the Church (5:27). “…So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Jesus really does like us. Here is the proof: he will never leave us to ourselves, nor forsake us to our own methods. He has given us his love, his sacrifice, stated his mission statement up front, and left us his tool to get there, and then—on top of all this wonderful wedding cake theology—shown us where we’re going. This is (to continue the metaphor) the sweetest of all.
If he just tells me he loves me and leaves me to myself, that is not love. If he doesn’t tell me he loves me, and gives me his Word and says, “Be like this,” that is not love. If he gives us himself, but doesn’t tell us he loves us, that is not love, but is confusing. If he gives us all these things, but does not tell us the end-game, what hope have I that where he’s taking me is really good at all? Maybe it’s all just a big joke that begins with cosmic child abuse on the Cross?
He doesn’t leave us be. He shows us the weight of glory (as Lewis says) that will be ours such that, if we were to see ourselves now as we will one day be then, we would be awe-struck. We are being changed and transformed from one glory to another, and that “another” is a reality that is hard to keep in our minds and hard not to want now.
More than all this, too, this is a glory for the Church only. This is Gospel, too. It’s Gospel because it would be terrible news if, as one author put it, “Love Wins” and everyone gets it in the end. After all, we are murdered, mocked, tortured, and suffer for the Faith. We’re promised we will have to, no less. So if a devout pagan can get what a struggling Christian can get, then sign me up for the former.
Scripture is clear, though: this splendor is for the Church alone. Gospel. After all, judgment should really matter, otherwise the Gospel is just another soundbite. This is what gives me hope week-“end” and week-out. I honestly don’t know how else I would get out of bed in the mornings if it wasn’t for the promise of God from now to the end of my days, and that they really start the first and greatest chapter.
This is a longer Friday post than I would ordinarily like. But it is such good news I couldn’t quite help myself. It can be taught to children so simply, though. Take away the fluff of the post and lay out the truth like so:
(1) Christ’s love for the church (2) led him to sacrifice himself (3) for a specific purpose of cleansing her, (4) which is brought about through his Word (5) in order that she alone would be clothed in splendor.
Can I get a witness?