Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




The Mystery of Human Love

Sunday, November 27, 2005



Ephesians 5: 25-33

John 19: 25b-27


Rev. Dean Snyder


This fall we have been studying the book of Ephesians. We are in the part of Ephesians known as the household codes, one of the most controversial and even dangerous sections of the Bible. 


The words of Ephesians that say “wives be subject to your husband” are among the most abused of all scripture.  These words, taken out of context, have been used to keep women subjected to violence, to keep them passive, to keep them victimized.  Throughout the history of the Church, pastors have too often quoted these words to women and sent them back to violent homes.  So I need to say before I say anything else (to make sure there is no mistake) that violence against women and children is anti-Christ.  Violence in any of our intimate relationships, violence in our home is anti-Christ.  The book of Ephesians teaches nothing that would in any way ask anyone to remain passively victimized by violence.


Seen against the backdrop of a patriarchal society in which women and children were considered property who had no rights, the insistence in Ephesians that husbands love their wives and that parents not provoke their children to anger was a progressive and positive ethic in its context.  It was an ethic that contained within it the thrust and the meaning of the equality and the mutuality that we believe that husbands and wives and partners need and should and can have today.  It was an ethic that contained within it the understanding that our children are to be protected and nurtured and loved and never used. 


So, just because the household codes in the book of Ephesians have been misused so often, this is why we need to pay careful attention to them today.  We need to study them and understand their meaning within the context of the society in which they were taught.  We need to understand their place in scripture and to read and interpret them appropriately.


This morning, I’d like us to look at Ephesians’ teaching about human love and about marriage within the context of the larger teaching of the apostle Paul.  The apostle Paul was really not very positive about human love.  He himself was most likely a widower and unmarried.  The apostle Paul, as taught in First Corinthians, said he wishes everyone was like him so that, instead of concentrating on relationships, they might concentrate all of their energies on serving Christ.  If, as the apostle Paul believed, the return of Christ and the end of life in these physical bodies was near, what sense did human love and marriage make? 


Paul’s conclusion was that it is better not to marry, but it is better to marry than to burn, meaning it is better to marry than to burn with lust and longing.  Marriage for the apostle Paul was a way to contain lust.  He was not a romantic.  It was based on his assumption of the imminent return of Christ and the ministry to which we should devote ourselves one hundred percent. 


This perspective often still dominates much of the larger church’s teachings about human love and marriage. It is a safeguard, a preventive, a way to channel human feelings and emotions and longings to keep them under control.


Now, the book of Ephesians was written by Paul’s followers after his death when they had begun to realize that Christ’s return was not going to be as imminent as Paul had supposed and that we were likely to be around here for a while.  The writers of the book of Ephesians attempt to interpret Paul’s teaching in light of the delayed second coming of Christ and the reality that God seemed to be up to something, not only at this moment in history, but from generation to generation. 


“From generation to generation” becomes a theme of the book of Ephesians.  What does it mean to follow the Christ who fills all time and eternity?  This causes the writers of the book of Ephesians to look at human love in a different way from Paul.  To find a basis to do so, Ephesians goes back way before Paul to the book of Genesis to the verse that says a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh…the two shall become one flesh.  Ephesians talks about the possibility that two people can come to care for each other in such a way that they will love each other as much as their own self, that they can become one flesh.  This is a perspective very different from the apostle Paul’s.


Ephesians suggests two things.  It says that human love in marriage and committed relationships is a mystery.  Actually, what Ephesians says is that human love is a great mystery. The mystery is this: in our broken world, with all of our human insecurities and defenses, with our self-centered and greedy natures, it really is possible for two people to come to care for each other as much as their own selves.  This is an amazing mystery.


I need to be careful talking about this.  One of the baristas at the Starbuck’s, where I stop almost every morning for a cup of tea on my way to the church, frequently asks me what I’m going to preach about the coming Sunday.  It’s a good exercise because I have to try to figure out how to say in one sentence what I really mean to say in the sermon.  So, this week when she asked me what I was going to preach about, I said I was going to talk about how marriage and committed relationships give us insight into the love of Christ.  She said, “Yes, but don’t marriages often fail?” 


Good question.  Don’t marriages and committed relationships often fail?  Yes they do.  But this should not surprise us given the brokenness of the world and our own lives.  The surprise and the mystery is that in the midst of a broken world, a world that is still patriarchal, a world that is still sexist, a world that is still homophobic, what should surprise us is that couples manage to come to love each other still as much as their very own selves.  This is the mystery and the miracle.


During the Advent season, we focus a lot on the family, the holy family, families coming together for the holidays.  I have a psychiatrist friend that used to say that all of her patients regressed during this season of the year.  She used to say that nothing in life is so horrible that Christmas can’t make it worse.  Often during these seasons, Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas, we are reminded about the brokenness in our own families.  Yet we should also remember what Ephesians is trying to say, that we have within us, nonetheless, the capacity to love others as much as we love ourselves.  It doesn’t happen easily.  It doesn’t happen painlessly.  It requires introspection and surrender and trust.  And yet it happens.


A pastor friend in Philadelphia used to say that he did more second marriages than first marriages in his congregation.  He said that second and even third marriages and committed relationships were a sign of hope.  It meant, he said, that people are choosing hope over experience.  Love, human love, makes us better than we are, as stubborn and self-willed as we tend to be.  What begins as physical longing for another person can grow to selfless love becoming one flesh, one body.  This is a great mystery, Ephesians says.


Now, United Methodist social principles are careful to say that not all of us may realize marriage or committed relationships in our lives and that singlehood also includes everything that we need to live a good and fulfilled life.  We should not think of singlehood as a secondary status in life.  But yes, the gift of love, the gift of marriage, the gift of committed relationships is a great gift that we can actually come to love another as much as our very own bodies.


Then Ephesians adds this.  Ephesians says the very reality of human love is a great mystery.  It’s a great gift from God.  Then it says that we should also apply this mystery to the relationship between Christ and the Church.  In the great mystery of human love, we come closest to understanding the love of Christ for the Church and the potential for the Church to love Christ.  Christ loves the Church the way couples can come to love one another in this life and we can come to love Christ in the same way.  The Church can come to love Christ as much as lovers love one another.


Ephesians has one of the most elevated understandings of Christ of any book in the New Testament.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to talk about it so much this fall.  Christ is more than a person.  Christ, the spirit of Christ, fills the universe.  The spirit of Christ fills all time and eternity.  There is nowhere Christ is not.  Everywhere Christ is, Christ is loving us and our world.  Everywhere Christ is, Christ is working out salvation and wholeness and new life.  But we know Christ best as a person, the Jesus who walked the streets of Israel and of Jerusalem, the Jesus who taught and who healed those who were hurting, the Jesus who loved those whom others criticized and judged, the Jesus who died on the cross asking God to forgive those who were crucifying him.  The Church can love Jesus Christ just as lovers love one another.  This is the same mystery that we, who are so often so selfish, so self-centered, so greedy to spend what we have on ourselves, so greedy of our time to spend our time on the things we want to do, can learn to love Jesus like lovers love one another and then to love Jesus and every person we see, those who are hungry, those who are lonely, those who are poor, those who are homeless.


I attended a meeting a couple of weeks ago and the chairperson of the group who was leading the meeting began with a prayer.  He prayed a prayer that, for some reason, I had not heard in a long time.  He began his prayer by saying, “Oh God, thank you for what you have done for us.  Thank you for what you have done for us.”  And I’ve been thinking about it these last two weeks…how much I take for granted: the love of God and Jesus Christ for me and what it has done for my life, the way God in Christ has loved me when I’ve not been worthy of being loved, and the way Jane has loved me when I’ve not been worthy of being loved, and the way others have loved me in spite of my unworthiness to be loved.  This is a great gift.  God loves us the way lovers love one another.  We can come to love God in Jesus Christ and our neighbor.  This is a great and blessed mystery.