How Important is Love? (6) John and Love, a 10 point summary

aliandninoOn this Valentine’s day it seems appropriate to turn to the supreme theologian of love in the NT – the apostle John. No-one, not even Paul, speaks more of love than John. But it’s not just a matter of quantity – John’s theology of love elevates love to new heights. It is he alone in the Bible who describes God as love (vs 8 and 16).

A good way in to John is to look at the most condensed section of his teaching on love in 1 John 4:7-12.

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

It’s worth counting the number of times love appears in these 6 verses (I make it 13).

While John’s style is simple his content is anything but simplistic.

What strikes you from these verses?

Again, look for how love is both the MOTIVE and the GOAL of God’s action in his Son.

Here’s a 10 point summary

1) Love originates in God – he is both the source of love and, in himself, is love.

2) By implication, all that God is and does is loving. In him is no ‘unlove’ – or, as John puts it, since God is light, in him is no darkness at all.

3) No-one else loves like this, of no-one else can it be said that they are ‘love’. There is a qualitative gulf between divine and human love. Humans cannot ‘naturally’ love in the way God loves. Such love is a gift from God.

[An aside here: I don’t think John is necessarily saying humans cannot love – he is saying they cannot love in the way God loves without knowing God himself.]

4) The supreme way he shows his love for us is in the sending of his Son into this broken world (‘sending’ here is shorthand for incarnation, life, death and resurrection).

5) The cross of Christ is where sins are atoned for. While not spelt out, it is in and through atonement that humans can come to know God through being born of God. There is therefore a humility required in order to love – a need for faith and repentance and openness to God’s help and empowering to love.

6) God, out of love, enables humans to know him who is love, and therefore to be transformed into people of love.

7) Divine love in this sense is contagious. It is in knowing God and having God live in us that humans are enabled to love.

8) Yet this is not ‘automatic’: love is a moral choice. John invites and exhorts his readers – ‘Let us love one another’; ‘we ought to love one another’.

9) Love is an essential and universal requirement for every Christian – it is the fundamental ‘baseline standard’ for the Christian life.  Note how John the great apostle includes himself in the call to love – ‘Let us love’. An absence of love reveals that God is not known at all.

10) What does love ‘look like’ in practice? The answer, as is so often the case, is Jesus.

Verse 17 ‘This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus.’

Love is a life looking away from the self and poured out for the good of others.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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How Important is Love? (5) Jesus and Love

aliandninoIf love is hugely important in Paul, how important is love in Jesus?

The best book that I’ve come across over the last couple of years of reading a lot on love is Simon May’s, Love: A History.

It is excellent: his writing is a pleasure to read, his overall argument is exceptionally well made, and he paints fascinating portraits of philosophers and theologians who have written about love through the centuries.

But when it comes to Jesus and love, May argues that love just wasn’t that important for the Messiah as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. Certainly not in the way it was for the two major theologians of love in the NT – Paul and John, nor compared to how love came to be elevated in later Christian theology, especially from Augustine on.

Jesus, his argument goes, does not make love the ultimate virtue. He does not say ‘God is love’. He basically reaffirms OT love commands: love of God and love of neighbour is fulfilment of the law.

Even the radical innovation of enemy love is a sub-set of neighbour love – the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that your enemy is your neighbour.

Does this sound surprising?  Isn’t Jesus the anti-establishment prophet who shows love to all and makes love the defining characteristic of Christianity (as opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees and the OT law generally)?

Certainly in some strands of Christian theology, Jesus is held up as the one whose way of love liberates us from OT ‘law’ (Anders Nygren). But such ‘love versus the law’ theology is unsustainable. It is almost Marcionite in its negative view of the OT. It doesn’t fit Jesus, nor Paul. Both see love as a fulfilment of the law.

So I want to agree and disagree with May.

Yes, Jesus’ teaching on love fits fairly and squarely within the OT.

But I don’t see a chasm between Jesus and Paul & John when it comes to love. Love is critically important to Jesus. The entire goal of the law and prophets is fulfilled in love for God and neighbour. Those who love are greatly commended.

What May, I think, downplays, is how there is a development of theology of love in the NT.

It is not that Paul and John can be compared to Jesus as if all three were independent ancient philosophers of love, and that Paul and John, in very distinct ways, are responsible for ‘inventing’ Christian love and taking it to places that are foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

Rather, as I see it, the theologies of love in Paul and John undergo radical development in light of Jesus – and most especially in the shadow of the cross and in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.

The cross is reinterpreted not as a shameful defeat, but as a glorious demonstration of divine love.

The Spirit is the empowering presence of God who enables spiritual transformation – the most significant aspect of which is love.

It is these two developments that give shape to a NT theology of love. It is not that Paul and John are going off on a totally new tangent of their own. Nothing they say is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching on love.

What both of them see, in different ways, is how love is both the motive for God’s saving work in Christ (the cross) and the desired outcome of that saving work (a life of love lived in the Spirit).

It is to the unique importance of love in John that we turn next – tune in!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Jesus: the smile of God

[This is a copy of my column in the last edition of VOX.]

One of the best (and also challenging) things about Church is that it throws all sorts of people together who would otherwise probably never interact with each other. For example, it’s rare, I think, in our culture for deep friendships to be formed across generations. But, despite being ancient (in my 50s), it is a delight to have good friends who are a generation younger. Two such couples had their first baby last year. It’s been a joy to see their joy. And, since I have just finished a draft of a book on love, it got me thinking about the love of parents for their children.

Now I know that, sadly, this is not always the case, but there is nothing fiercer or more tender than parental love. The mother and father envelop their baby in love; they would do anything for the well-being of that little bundle of life. They bombard their baby with smiles (and various clucking and cooing noises along with weird facial expressions). Eventually this tiny new person smiles back.

baby smileThat first smile is a transcendent moment and is what these musings are about.

In reading about love I came across these comments by a Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.[1] He writes that

‘After a mother [I’d add father as well!] has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child’.

The baby is loved into loving.

And von Balthasar then draws parallels between parental love and God’s love.

God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has [shone] in our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the sea of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace – in the image of his Son.

This is a beautiful and moving picture.

It is also profoundly biblical. John writes that ‘love is from God’ because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8). ‘We love because he first loved us” (4:19). That love takes flesh-and-blood form in the self-giving love of Jesus: ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (4:9). And it is in our response of love that we come to a knowledge of who God is: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’ (4:7).

Think about that for a moment: John tells us that we love in order to know. That’s a radical thought in a culture which thinks that knowledge equals information and facts and ‘know-how’ and has nothing to do with love.

Another theologian, James K. A. Smith, puts it this way,

The smile of the cherishing mother [again, what about dads?!] that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation – “he first loved us” – is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.

Jesus as the smile of God.

Now that’s an image to mull over the next time you hold a happy baby in your arms.

[1] All the following quotes are drawn from J. K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Brazos Press, 2016) pp. 111-12.

Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

Wives, submit to your husbands (2)

A couple of posts back there was a promise to come back to Ephesians 5:21-33 and look at it from a different interpretative angle – that of Cynthia Long Westfall.

I invite you to read this and compare to the earlier post on John Stott’s interpretation. Which do you find most convincing and why?

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Her book has been out a couple of years. You can listen to an interview with her here at the excellent OnScript website – a sort of biblical research podcast treasure trove.

Her big argument is that Paul is subverting male privilege in home and church. The focus of the text is clearly on husbands. Paul is teaching them what life within God’s economy looks like within a Greco-Roman culture of male patronage, power and superiority.

In the context of Paul’s day, the basic patronage relationship was reflected within the marital relationship. The husband is superior in power, status, honour and value. The wife receives the benefits of his standing and in return offers him respect, chastity, obedience and loyalty.

It is this patronage relationship that is being reimagined (subverted) by Paul in light of Christ. A radically new way of relating between husbands and wives is in view. It, of course, still operates within the given culture of his recipients – Paul famously does not directly confront slavery, nor does he advocate social revolution in terms of marriage.

Interpretations that focus on wives’ submission and the analogy of the husband to Christ (verse 23) without proper regard to the grammar and syntax of Paul’s thought act to distort his message and propagate a false view of (male) authority. (p. 93).

To summarise from various places that Westfall discusses the Ephesians text:

  • The passage as a whole is an example of what it is to be filled with the Spirit (v.18 -23 is one long sentence in Greek). [I would argue that the even bigger context is to ‘walk in love’ (5:2) that frames much of Ephesians as a whole].
  • This is the way of life for all Christians – male or female. Jew or Gentile.
  • ALL believers are to be in mutual submission v. 21
  • This is then applied to the Household Codes and husbands / wives, parents / children and masters / slaves. The radical implication is that in Christ there are new relationships now formed, cutting across existing authority and power structures. Each ‘weaker’ group are now, together with the powerful group, ‘all members of one body’ – the body of Christ (v. 30).
  • Each weaker group are addressed personally, recognising their agency. Normally they would not be addressed at all. Their obligation is primarily to the Lord in how they relate to those in power over them.
  • Paul places particular obligations and restrictions on the groups in power.
  • With husbands, Christ’s treatment of his bride, the Church, informs the husband’s function as head of his wife (p. 93)
  • The remarkable ‘twist’ is how the husband takes the role of Christ’s bride and ‘is therefore charged with treating his wife as he has been treated by his own head.’ (p. 93).
  • As Christ is saviour (23) who gave himself up for her (25, the church), so the husband is instructed to lay down his life for his wife. And love her as Christ loved the church (25)
  • Christ’s love is illustrated by his sanctification of the church (5:26-27)

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

  • These are images of domestic chores performed by women:
    • giving a bath
    • providing clothing
    • doing laundry
  • So the husband is being told to do women’s work in how he cares for his wife. The point is fully with the teaching of Paul elsewhere and, more importantly, of Jesus himself. Those in power are to become humble servants of others

He promotes a model of servanthood and low status, consistent with the humility of Christ’s incarnation, precisely for men, who have power and position in the Greco-Roman social system. (p. 23).

  • There is little new being said to wives – they are to submit as expected within the culture. But this submission is drastically relativised by mutual submission of verse 21. It consists of honouring and respecting her husband.
  • But her identity and status is transformed by the commands given to husbands. Those commands are the core of the text and they are anything but what was expected within the culture – they are revolutionary (p. 102)
  • So Paul is placing new and challenging obligations on those who have power (husbands), NOT to defend their own status and authority, but to give up privilege and status and serve the other in love.

[My comment – This is where interpretations that end up defending male ‘headship = leadership’ and insisting on female submission to that ‘authority’ tragically actually reverse the thrust of Paul’s upside-down kingdom ethic].

  • The wonderful irony of this passage is how men are being told to act like women – in terms of ‘low status’ service of the weaker other.
  • This is a profoundly ‘Christian’ calling.
  • She is now honoured just as if she were his body – he is to treat her exactly as if she were a man (his body) – in terms of honouring her, loving her and serving her.

So what of ‘headship’?  Does the Genesis account that Paul references, somehow root female submission in a creation ordinance (as John Stott says and complementarians in general claim)?

  • Genesis 2:18-22 is the basis for the instructions to wives – the woman is created from the man. She receives life from him
  • The instructions to men are based on Genesis 2:23-25 – where the husband and wife are declared to be ‘one flesh’
  • Both ‘head’ and ‘body’ are metaphors [to press ‘head’ to mean ‘leadership’ is unwarranted and distorts Paul’s argument]
  • ‘Head’ – the wife receives life from her head. The metaphor works perfectly. The woman in Ephesians draws her life from man, and the Church draws its life from Christ. This is not an image of authority but of life.  ‘She reciprocates in gratitude and honour expressed in submission.’ (p. 102)

The primary focus in the Ephesian household code is on the husband’s role. The language both reflects the model of Jesus’s servanthood and exploits the metaphor of ‘head’ to create a similar effect as in the episode where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. (p. 165)

And this to finish.

In effect, Paul flips the patron metaphor of being the wife’s head (protector and source of life) … He has given an explicit application of Jesus’s summary of the law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12 NRSV). Paul applies Jesus’s teaching literally to the men: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28 NRSV). Paul’s caveat is that she is his body. The intertextuality between Ephesians 5:28 and the Jesus tradition is transparent. (p. 166).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Good Friday: what does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?

A reflection on Mark 10:32-45 this Good Friday

Monasterboice High Cross

As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.

Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.

The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with would mean in practice.

So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:

– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect

– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.

This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.

The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.

Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.

Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,

Until now.

Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.

Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.

How we are living them and who we are living them for?

If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.

And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.

Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”

Comments, as ever, welcome