12 Jun Church: Relationships, Relationships
Church: Relationships, Relationships
June 10, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Misconceptions about church are legion: church is a place that’s all about rules, especially the “thou shalt nots.” The people in churches are judgmental, hypocritical, fanatical, or uptight. Churches are cold, sterile, boring and repetitive or they promote sensationalism and emotionalism. Church is anti-intellectual and what they teach is incompatible with science. And, of course, churches are always talking about money; they’re always reaching for your wallet.
Another misconception is that all that matters is what you believe. Right doctrine, right theology, the right prayers and creeds—that’s what the church is about. Paul has gone to great lengths in Ephesians to tell us that what we believe is important—we need to grasp that God is actively involved in our lives and our world; that we are saints because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit; and that we have a vital role to play in God’s kingdom purposes. Believing these truths is vital but belief is not an end to itself. We believe these truths so that we can live them, so that we can put them into practice.
For Paul, theology, which is simply what we say about God, is not a mental exercise. Instead, the Holy Spirit penetrates our being with the very life and presence of God, impacting every detail of our lives. There is nothing in creation, salvation or sanctification that is remote from or irrelevant to who we are or the people we live and work with. Every jot and tittle of the gospel of Jesus is here for living, for embodiment in each and every one of us, for working into the muscles, bones, and ligaments of our ordinary lives.
If we’re not paying attention, we can let the big ideas, the majestic vistas of salvation, the grand visions of God’s redemption distract us from taking with gospel seriousness the unglamorous ordinary. But as author Kathleen Norris reminds us, “it is the daily tasks, daily acts of love and worship that serve to remind us that religion is not strictly an intellectual pursuit…Christian faith is a way of life, not an impregnable fortress made up of ideas; not a philosophy; not a grocery list of beliefs.”
In practical terms that means that the practice of resurrection begins where we live, at home and in the workplace, and we never graduate to higher ground. The big words are still there—salvation, redemption, eschatology, ecclesiology—keeping us prayerful and expectant, but practice immerses us in named people, specific tasks and the stuff of everyday.
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is the lead sentence on the practice of resurrection in household and workplace. It is followed by naming eight representative “one anothers” that all of us deal with in the course of an ordinary day, six of them in the home and two in the workplace.
We’ve been talking about maturity for two months, acknowledging that we do not become mature on our own. Maturity, especially if it is to be the “measure of the full stature of Christ,” can be accomplished only in relationship with others, not anonymous others whose names we have never heard and wouldn’t recognize if we had. Neither can these others be handpicked, people we quite naturally like or admire. We start with those who are there by no choice of our own—parents, siblings, children, and extended family members. To these we add “all the saints.” Church refuses to individualize our identity, refuses to put us in charge of our own growing up, but insists that we are “members of one another” and “subject to one another.” Family language (brother, sister, father, mother) is consistently used in the church to give us both intimacy with and responsibility for those who are not related to us by blood. Jesus gave us our “one anothers” when he extended his and our family relations exponentially, pointing to his followers and saying, “here are my mother and my brothers.”
Each of Paul’s eight household and workplace designations refers to a role that is more or less culturally defined. A woman who grows up in a Korean Buddhist home has a different experience of how children, husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers live their roles than a woman who grows up in an Italian Catholic home. A young man in inner-city Detroit who has never known a father has a very different experience of family life than someone on a family farm in Kansas with both parents and seven siblings. Workplace roles are experienced in radically different ways on an Israeli kibbutz and in a Chicago meatpacking plant.
Most people have a home. Most people go to work or once worked before retirement. So given the wide range of cultures in which home life and work life are formed, how can Paul possibly tell us how to go about the practice of resurrection in our various cultures and settings?
We see right off the bat that beyond a few general comments, he doesn’t. He doesn’t give detailed advice or counsel. Contrary to the prolific, lazy exegesis that abounds on this part of Paul’s letter, he doesn’t hand out official “Christian” doctrine on how to raise children or get along with spouses or bosses. What he does is replace our understanding of our culturally defined roles with a Christ-defined role. Every aspect of our family and work life is redefined in relation to Christ rather than what we have grown up with as the culturally prescribed relationships between spouses, parents and children, slaves and masters.
The repeated phrase that redefines who we are in all the complexities of household and workplace is “as to the Lord” which Paul uses nine times or “in the Lord” which is used twice. These eleven phrases link the way we understand our roles, not in terms of culture, but in terms of Christ. A final identification places both slaves and masters as peers under “the same Master,” regardless of how they are viewed in society. The “same Master,” which is Christ, rounds out our now reassigned roles from culture to Christ to an even dozen. Paul couldn’t be more clear: in the practice of resurrection, in the living out of Christ’s life, we no longer understand our role by comparing it to some prescribed model taken from the culture, but always and without exception, to Christ. The measuring stick for maturity for the Christian is the “measure of full stature of Christ.”
If we are serious about becoming mature, we must practice resurrection in company with the risen Christ, which means we must pay attention to the ways that Jesus forgave, loved, touched lepers, received outsiders, and prayed for his friends. We know a lot about Jesus’ ways. We know that resurrection is not a dogmatic truth that we spend our lives trying to understand. Resurrection is not a behavior we can perfect through carefully managed techniques. Resurrection is a practice we engage in as we follow Christ in trust and obedience, as the Spirit, God’s empowering presence, brings the life of the Triune God alive in us, in Jesus’ name.
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parts of the sentence are radically countercultural, but only when they are held together. First, “be subject to one another.” Again, maturity is not a solitary state; it is relational. Maturity does not come about by making the most of ourselves by ourselves; it is making the most of personal relationships. We don’t do that by becoming stronger than the other, overpowering him or her, dominating either emotionally or physically. We don’t impose ourselves. We enter into another person’s life sharing both weakness and strength. We enter the life of another, but we don’t force the entrance. Mutuality is always involved in “be subject.”
Americans are not used to this. We are raised in an aggressively competitive culture. We measure ourselves against one another, be it in education, sports, salary, popularity, appearance or performance. There are many settings in which a competitive spirit brings out the best in us. But there are just as many, and maybe more, when it brings out the worst. And the one setting in which it can bring out the very worst in us is the family. If family members are in competition with one another, intimacy is insidiously undermined. We can achieve maturity in families only by being “subject to one another.” Home is where we practice submission and humility.
The workplace comes a close second as a setting in which a competitive spirit prolongs immaturity. But the dynamics of competition are more subtle in the workplace, where personal relationships are not as close as those in the family. Elements of competition in areas of productivity and performance are obviously useful, but discernment and care must be exercised lest competition depersonalize workers into a function. Most work is done with other people and if it is to be done well, it requires courtesy, respect, and give-and-take. If a worker is identified solely with the work, if the employer functions exclusively in an impersonal role, the workplace becomes an emotional and spiritual wasteland.
Beyond home and work, if the competitive spirit enters the church, we end up with a real mess.
“Out of reverence for Christ” is the companion phrase to “be subject to one another,” and provides the working conditions apart from which “be subject” cannot flourish. Without reverence for Christ, it is not likely that “be subject to one another” will happen in either home or workplace. Without “reverence for Christ,” the counsel to “be subject” reduces us to doormats.
What does Paul mean by “reverence”? The literal word is “fear”—“out of fear of Christ.” “Fear of the Lord” is the most common phrase in the Old Testament for an appropriate attitude and adequate response to God’s word and God’s ways. Most translators dull the sharp edge of Paul’s word “fear” by using “reverence,” “respect,” or “awe.” This makes sense as a way to avoid connotations of terror or horror or panic, but what is lost is the “fear and trembling” that comes from an encounter with The Holy. God cannot be domesticated; God cannot be reduced to whatever we are comfortable with. A God without holy mystery is not a God to worship on our knees but a cheap idol to be used on demand. The “fear of the Lord” reminds us to avoid trying to make God in our own image.
Just as “be subject to one another” is hard to come by in our competitive world, so “out of reverence of Christ” is hard to come by in an American culture saturated with irreverence. Reverential fear, or fearsome reverence, is an attitude or disposition that acknowledges the presence of the Sacred. I stand or kneel or bow before something or someone that is more than I am. It begins at the burning bush as we remove our sandals. It continues and permeates our relations as we recognize and revere Christ in every man and woman we encounter, be it at home, work, worship or on the street. Reverence opens up in us a capacity to grow, to become more than we are, to mature. Fear of the Lord opens our spirits and our souls to become what we are not yet.
Contrary to misconceptions that exist both inside and outside the church, God does not come to us as an idea to be pondered, or an experience to be savored, or a power to be used. God comes to us only in relationship. If we choose to study God as we would study philosophy or astronomy, or set out to experience God as we would a safari in Kenya, or use God to change the world for the better or change ourselves into saints, we will never know the first thing about God. If, instead, we will submit to God in humble reverence, we will find ourselves in relationship with Holy Mystery which then permeates all our other relationships and indeed, all our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.