The Christ-like love that Paul asks of Christian husbands and wives is the same kind of love that Jesus asks of all of us. What does this love look like? Why is it so difficult to live out? Is there any hope for us? Yes! But only because our faith is in the One whose love never fails.
I preached this sermon at Cannon United Methodist Church on February 3, 2019.
Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33
Although, technically, today’s scripture begins at verse 21, you’ll notice that verse 21 is the tail-end of a sentence that starts at verse 18. So let me begin at the beginning of the sentence. [Read scripture.]
Most of you don’t know me very well yet. For example, most of you don’t know that back in 2001, my son Townshend was born on the living room floor of our house in Tucker, delivered by a couple of paramedics, while six or seven of Tucker’s Bravest looked on—from as far away as they could possibly be! They were hugging the opposite wall! They wanted nothing to do with delivering a baby! When the paramedics arrived, Lisa asked if she could have an epidural. “No,” they said, “it’s way too late for that!”
So this is what happened. Or so I am told…
You see, I wasn’t actually there when Townshend was born! I was down in Bradenton, Florida, near Tampa… What was I doing? Collecting my trophy for “husband of the year,” obviously!
Hardly! I was there working on an engineering project at a Tropicana plant. I was there because I couldn’t say “no” when the project manager begged me to go—“just for one night,” he said, “You’ll be right back home in time for your baby to be born.” So, like an idiot, I went, even though it was close to Lisa’s due date and, well… naturally that’s when my first son was born.
My point in sharing this story is to suggest that I am not going to win any “Husband of the Year” awards; I am not well-qualified to lecture or preach to any of y’all about how to be a perfect spouse or how to have a perfect marriage—to say the least! I have often been a miserable failure at marriage—and maybe you have, too. If so, I hope, like me, you’ll find encouragement as the apostle Paul brings the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on the institution of marriage. And I hope you’ll also see that the Paul’s words are about much more than just marriage. Today’s scripture is for everyone.
For example, verse 21 isn’t even directed to wives and husbands; it’s directed to literally everyone who is a Christian: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What does Christian submission look like? How about this:
[Jesus said,] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
Or how about this, also from Jesus:
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Or this, from Paul:
[Love] is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…
When Paul talks about submission, he’s referring to the same kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus and the rest of the Bible demand of us elsewhere.
I hope that’s clear enough…
Next, in verse 22, he asks wives to love their husbands in this exact same way. In fact, in Greek, the word “submit” doesn’t even appear in this verse: Verses 21 and 22 literally read as part of the same sentence, as follows: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Do you see? The submission that Paul asks of wives in verse 22 is literally the same submission he asks of all Christians in verse 21.
It’s as if Paul were saying this: “You Christians—every single one of you—ought to submit to one another as an expression of your desire to please Jesus alone. You’ll want to bring this attitude of submission—which is, ‘putting the needs and interests of someone else ahead of your own needs and interests at all times’—into all of your relationships. If that’s true for relationships in general, isn’t it also true for the closest, most important, most intimate of all human relationships—the marriage between husband and wife? Naturally! So of course the wife will want to submit to her husband as an expression of this same kind of Christ-like love!”
And you may say, “Yes, but I notice that Paul doesn’t tell the husband to submit to his wife.” No, he doesn’t. He asks of the husband something even harder: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church”—and did what? Gave himself up for her.”
The following scenario is trivial, but I hope it gets the point across: A husband and wife are buying a car. The husband wants the blue one; the wife wants the red one. They can’t decide. Is it at this point that the husband says, “Babe… Remember what Ephesians 5:22 says? ‘Wives, submit to your husbands.’ Therefore we have to get the blue one.” Is that what he would say? I hope not, because the wife could rightly turn around and say, “Honey, remember Ephesians 5:25: you have to be willing to die for me, and obviously I’m asking for you to do much less than that! So let’s get the red one.”
I hope you see the point. This scripture is not about who gets to pull rank. On the contrary, it’s about setting rank aside, like Jesus, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…” It’s about both husband and wife loving one another enough to put the needs and interests of the other ahead of his or her own needs and interests—the way Jesus taught us to do.
In order for this to work, we have to realize this truth: Marriage is not about us!
We Christians more than anyone else, should be uniquely positioned to understand this! When the Good Samaritan in the parable came to the aid of the injured victim on the side of the road, it didn’t matter how he felt about this person who was his enemy—it didn’t matter what this person was giving back to him. What mattered was the Samaritan’s responsibility to love his enemy—who was also his neighbor.
And of course we church people understand this: We do all sorts of self-sacrificial things for people in our community, in our nation, and around the world. And we don’t ask for anything in return. We love our neighbor. We sacrifice for our neighbor.
And when we get married, guess what happens? We now have a neighbor who lives under the same roof as us. We have a neighbor who sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, and raises kids with us, and makes a life with us. But now—now that our neighbor is also our spouse—it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel about this relationship? It matters what we get out of the relationship? It matters whether we find the relationship fulfilling to us? Isn’t that a double-standard?
Especially since Paul says that our spouse is actually closer than a neighbor—he or she is part of us—a part of our own body!
My dad was a Shriner. He became the “Grand Poobah” back in 1985—technically, he was called “Potentate,” but Happy Days changed it around a little bit. Anyway, at a banquet celebrating his inauguration into office, I heard someone ask my mom about her marriage… why was her marriage successful? Did she ever think about divorcing my dad. She said, “No, I never thought of divorcing him. I thought about killing him on a few occasions. But never divorcing him.”
Those of you who are currently married for more than a few years, or who are divorced, are thinking, “Yep! I know the feeling!” But the rest of you, who’ve never been married, are thinking, “Not me, brother. When I get married, things will be different!”
And I completely understand why you feel that way! Because your experience in relationships hasn’t gotten much further than the “falling in love” stage. And falling in love—which has the appearance of being directed exclusively at the other person—as you obsess over their beauty, their charm, their humor, their cool personality—the way they talk, the way they laugh, the clothes they wear—everything about them is perfect.
And therein lies the problem. We don’t see the real person; we see an image we project onto them. And because they’re so perfect in our minds, they flatter us by loving us back. Think of your first kiss: “Oh my goodness… I can’t believe this perfect goddess is condescending from Mt. Olympus to be with me, to love me, to spend time with me, to kiss me.” It feeds our ego like nothing else. It makes us feel so good! We get an electric charge just being around this person! That kind of “love” is all about what this person does for us! How they make us feel!
So we look to this person to fill up our tank; to give us the fuel that makes our engine run.
But in a lifelong marriage, that kind of fuel runs dry quickly. How could it not? Our spouse is the only human being in the world who gets the privilege of seeing us at our absolute worst—they see the meanest, ugliest, most neurotic, most unloveable version of ourselves—and in spite of that–we hope–they don’t leave us… or murder us. Even though we probably deserve it!
So if our spouse is going to stick with us through all that, it won’t be because they need something from us to fill up their tank! They’re filling up their tank in some other way. They’re finding their deepest needs met in some other way; they’re finding satisfaction for their souls in some other way.
What is this other way? Paul tells us in verse 18: “Be filled with the Spirit.” Look at the scripture: notice in verses 19, 20, and 21, all the good things that ought to characterize our lives as Christians are the result of being filled with the Spirit!
If the Spirit is meeting our deepest needs, we won’t need anyone or anything else to do that for us! Be filled wit the Spirit!
Listen, I failed my wife back in 2001 by going down to that Tropicana plant when she was about to give birth. Why did I fail her? Because the project manager, and my boss, and the owner of the company, they were giving me something—and not just a paycheck—they were giving me something that I needed to “fill up my tank.”
“Brent, you’re so important, you’re so smart, you’re such an expert! Only you can be the hero and solve this terrible problem that we’re having. You’re so amazing! You’re so wonderful! Please!”
And I was thinking, “This is going to be great! I’m going to be recognized by the executive board! I might get a raise! And people are going to respect me! People are going to love me! People are going to give me an award if I go and do this!” It was stroking my ego. I needed something—or at least I thought I needed something—to fill up my tank. And these are the people who had it—and forget about my wife in the process!
And I think this is the challenge we all face when it comes to loving in this way: We want something back!
But if we’re filled with the Spirit, we don’t need anything back! The Holy Spirit, which is the very Spirit of Christ, is enough for us! The Holy Spirit is enough for you and me! And if we have the Holy Spirit, if we’re full of the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to be filled by anyone or anything else! Amen?
I don’t have time in this sermon to talk about how to be filled with the Spirit. I think you know a lot of the ways. I think it probably begins here [pointing to Bible]… with God’s Word. It begins here, too, with worship. It begins certainly with prayer.
But it also begins by remind ourselves time and again of this world’s greatest love story… Are you ready? We read it earlier. Paul quotes the scripture from the very first wedding, back in Genesis chapter 2: ““Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
And you’re thinking, “Oh, sure, Paul is talking about husbands and wives, right?” Well…
Then he says something strange: “This mystery is profound…” “Mystery” is an unusual word: Paul is saying, in other words, “God has revealed the following secret to me.” And what is that secret? “I am saying it”—what is it? Marriage itself—“I am saying that marriage, human marriage, refers to Christ and the church.” In other words, our marriages ought to tell the story of how God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
So think of it like this: Just as “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” so the Son of God left his Father in glory and became human. Why? Because he loved us that much… and he wanted to become one flesh with us. Let that love story melt your heart!
1. Matthew 5:40-41 ESV
2. John 13:14-15 ESV
3. John 15:13 ESV
4. 1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV
5. Philippians 2:3 ESV
6. This illustration comes from Tim Keller’s sermon on the same text called “Marriage in Christ.”
7. Philippians 2:6-7 ESV