In a characteristic blast of self-depreciation, Adrian Plass once said: “I’d be a really great Christian if it wasn’t for other people mucking it up.”
Other people! Didn’t Sartre say “Hell is other people”?
Well, maybe sometimes.
But here we are and here we live. Together.
The famous line “No man is an island,/ Entire of itself”, was not originally written as a poem but comes from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. (Meditation 17, 1624). That is to say, it is a man’s spiritual reflection before his God that he does not – cannot- live isolated and detached from other people.
I’m looking here at Ephesians 5: 1-2; 22-33; 6: 1-9. This section of the Bible applies to the obvious fact that humans are designed for relationships. The only alternative perspective is to regard the life-journey as some kind of an exam in excellence. Many do, of course. They may follow the route epitomized by the billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes (“He who dies with the most toys wins”) or the self-aggrandizement of Frank Sinatra’s famous song “My Way” (“I planned each charted course/ Each careful step along the byway/ And more, much more than this/ I did it my way”).
The song reaches its powerful crescendo in these lines: “For what is a man, what has he got?/ If not himself, then he has naught.”
Is that really true?
I don’t think so, and I’m pretty sure that Sinatra, Forbes, John Donne, Adrian Plass (and even Sartre on a good day?) would completely agree.
We need each other. We belong together. Relationships weave the fabric on which human life is lived.
The question here is: How are those relationships built and developed?
The passage begins with a statement of principle, and then gives some practical instances of how that principle may be worked out in practice. Here’s the principle: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God….” (Eph 5:1,2).
He’s not saying “Be like God” as if I’m telling a four-year-old to “Paint like Michelangelo.” It’s not an impossible ideal to aspire towards, knowing you’re going to mess it up. He’s saying “Life a life of love,” and if you want to know what that’s like, then think about how Jesus lived and died in a way that was totally given to others.
So the key note is struck in v21. “ Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” How does this work into relationships in the context of Marriage (5:22-33); Family (6:1-4) and Slavery (6:5-9)?
“Slavery” strikes a jarring note, but it was a dominant reality of Paul’s culture. His challenge was: ‘How can a “life of love” express itself even in the most abusive and oppressive relationship of our day?’
A modern paraphrase renders v21 “Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.” That word “reverent” suggests acting gently, carefully, seriously, as if you’re dealing with something important, as if you’re a museum curator handling Ming Dynasty vases. Handle your relationships with care, with attention to detail. Look after them.
The alternative is horrible, but all too evident. The underlying idea here for the alternative to being “courteously reverent” is dominating, bullying behaviour. It’s interesting that according to the Bible’s narrative, male bullying in marriage was a direct result of the rejection of God’s authority in “The Fall.”. Genesis 3: 16 reads, [From now on] “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Within families, fathers are bid be careful not to “exasperate” their children (which means to frustrate, crush, or take the spirit out of them). It’s bullying again.
In Matthew 20, Jesus handled questions of competitiveness, bullying, dominance, manipulation, control, and power plays. Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25,26)
So, within marriage (for example) it’s “not by domineering but by cherishing..” Not by being pushy, but by being giving and given. “Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting.”
This isn’t a “Do this, do that” legalism. It’s a revelation of “Christ in you, Christ in each other.” As such, we need reverent handling. This isn’t a side issue. It’s THE issue. Love God and put up with each other? Or else we pout and get huffy, we want our own way. (“I am not sulky, I am maintaining a dignified silence.” – Adrian Plass, again).
But how on earth could Paul speak into slavery situations? Here he goes: ”
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him.”
Some commentators have turned this into a discussion on Employers and their Employees, and of course it works that way. Others have even read the divine endorsement of the institution of slavery. It’s not! It’s a statement of how a “life of love” can work in even the most oppressive and bullying of circumstances. In Paul’s churches, both slaves and slave-owners were becoming Christians (that’s the whole point of the book of Philemon), and Paul was declaring a principle that “In Christ there is neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28). No difference between them before God.
And it’s that “before God” perspective that he brings into play here. Just as in marriage, or in the family, there is no place for bullying superiors or toadying inferiors. There is place, however, for mutual respect and courtesy, because “he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven.”
Here we are and here we live. Together.