St Barnabas, 8th March 2015
Readings – Luke 18:9-17; Ephesians 5:15-33
What do all the following quotations have in common?
Play it again, Sam
Elementary, my dear Watson
It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it
One way or another they are things that were never actually said by the characters involved.
I couldn’t help thinking of these quotes as I came to our passage from Ephesians this morning. Because, if there’s one part of Paul’s teaching which has caused more trouble than any other, it’s found in verse 22, where he apparently says: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. It’s a verse that seems so completely out of step with our modern times, and for many people who have been the victim of a harsh or unequal relationship, one that’s particularly difficult to accept.
But before we dismiss Paul’s teaching completely out of hand, let’s stop for a moment and look at what he originally wrote. Because if you were translate verse 22 literally, what you find he says is actually wives…to your husbands as to the Lord. There is no word “submit” there at all. Why not?
Well, despite the way our English translations lay out our reading there is no paragraph break between verses 21 and 22, still less a separate heading. Paul’s teaching about husbands and wives flows naturally and without a break from his earlier teaching in verses 18-21. Our versions put the breaks in because without them we would sometimes get lost in his long and complicated sentences, but here to me that little white space after verse 21 is particularly unfortunate.
You see, if we were to take verses 18-22 and interpret them literally, this is what we would end up with:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,
… speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
… singing and making music in your heart to the Lord,
… always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
… submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ – wives, to your husbands as to the Lord.
Doesn’t that give us a completely different understanding of what Paul is talking about in verse 22? His teaching on husbands and wives flows from his understanding that we should all submit to one another out of reverence to Christ. But we can only understand what submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ means, if we first are clear about being filled with the Holy Spirit.
That’s why quite deliberately I chose to begin today’s reading at verse 15. Paul wants us to live wisely because the days are evil, and that’s as true today as it was back then. But if we are to live wisely in our marriages, in our family relationships and in our workplaces, then we need first to understand what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. You see, you need the Holy Spirit if you want to be a Christian wife, or a godly father, or an exemplary employee. The Holy Spirit is not an optional extra in our faith, or a nice religious idea. He is an essential part of our everyday living if we are really going to be followers of Jesus Christ.
So what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Well, sadly, this is a phrase that over the years that has come to mean so many different things to so many different people. For some, being filled with the Holy Spirit has become bound up with a particular experience or a certain style of worship. This is all very well, but not all Christians have these experiences or engage with that kind of worship, and it leads to all kinds of questions as to whether that believer or church is Spirit-filled or not. So what was originally a very simple command by Paul has in certain church circles become very complicated, and a matter of great controversy, which is never what Paul intended at all.
No, let’s be clear: the moment you accept that you are a sinner, and that you need Jesus to be your Lord and Saviour, then you are filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul tells us way back in Ephesians 1:13-14:
… you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Having believed, you were marked with the Holy Spirit. You became the Lord’s possession, guaranteed to share in life eternal. And whatever experience you may or may not have had when Jesus became Lord of your life is in some ways beside the point. Some people when they come to faith are overwhelmed with a powerful wave of emotions. Others receive a quiet assurance in their hearts. Still others feel no different at all, only that they would now call themselves believers. But the same Holy Spirit has been at work in each situation, and from that point on, He brings the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ into the heart of every believer.
So today, if you are sitting here and wondering, “have I been filled with the Holy Spirit?” the question to ask is not, “have I had this or that experience?” but rather, “have I accepted Jesus as Lord over my life?” Because, if you can answer yes to that question, then you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. Full stop. End of argument.
So let me ask before we go any further: “have you accepted Jesus as Lord over your life?” If not, then there is something, or rather someone, terribly missing from your life, and you need to take action today if you want to be blessed by God.
The Holy Spirit comes to confirm that we have begun a new relationship with Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. But like any relationship our walk with Jesus needs to grow and develop. And I have to say, nothing makes me sadder in my ministry than to hear Christians who tell of a wonderful experience of coming to the Lord twenty, thirty, forty years ago, but seem never to have made any progress in their faith since then. They may be the most faithful and the most godly believers but you can tell they are living off spiritual memories.
Paul’s instruction to the believers in Ephesus is clear: Be filled with the Holy Spirit. Or again, translating rather more accurately: Keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. Once we become followers of Jesus, we should aim to receive more and more of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We shouldn’t be content to have one particular season of blessing in our lives. We should hunger and thirst to know Jesus better, to grow in love and wisdom, to seek to carry out His will.
But where I think many people go wrong is that they try to seek after the Lord alone. I will stop going on about the original Greek in a moment, but the last point I want to make about the text is an important one: that Paul’s command here is in the plural. He is telling a group of Christians together to keep seeking more of Jesus in their lives. Because it is when we come together under the word of God, united in prayer and praise, that we will find the Holy Spirit moving in power in and among us. That is why I stress so often the importance of Sunday worship, and small groups, for it is very much my understanding that it is precisely as we meet God chooses to bless us. Or as Jesus says in Matthew 18:20: where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.
And here in this passage it is striking that Paul moves straight on from talking about being filled with the Spirit to relationships one with another: in the church (5:18-21); in marriage (5:22-33); in the home (6:1-4); in the workplace (6:5-9). So if you really want to know if someone has the Spirit of the living God in their lives, don’t judge them by how they worship or what kind of experience they enjoy. Look at the quality of their lives. How do their deeds and their words reflect that Jesus is Lord? Indeed, how do our deeds and words reflect that Jesus is Lord?
Let’s look, then, at Paul’s description of a Spirit-filled church in verses 19-21. What does it look like?
First of all, it is not a quiet church. People there speak to one another, which is not something you can take for granted in every church. And they don’t just speak to their own little cliques or circles. Everyone is included in the conversations, and no-one is left to feel an outsider.
And what do people talk about? Well, they might mention the weather or how the local football team is doing, but when they gather for coffee, the focus of their conversation is primarily spiritual. They speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. You see, in this kind of church people are really concerned to build each other up in the faith of Jesus Christ. Everyone recognises just how precious and wonderful it is to know and to love Jesus, and there is a real desire to help one another know and love Him more.
This is why, secondly, a Spirit-filled church is a profoundly thankful church. People are singing and making music in their hearts to the Lord, verse 20, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Everyone has some story or other of what God is doing in their lives, and even the small things of each day are seen as a blessing from our loving Heavenly Father. So when the service starts, it is the most natural thing in the world for their believers to come forward and share their testimony. Grace is not just something that is talked about on Sunday; it is seen and celebrated day by day, week by week, both in the good times and the bad.
And because the focus of this type of church is constantly on Jesus and all He has done on the cross, thirdly, it is marked by works of loving service. That is what Paul means when He talks about submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. It’s about recognising that the person sitting next to you this morning is someone for whom Jesus gave up His life. It’s about seeking to follow Jesus’ example of sacrifice and obedience. And it’s about allowing the Holy Spirit to make you more like Jesus so that your service becomes more a matter of joyful praise than dutiful obedience.
Which all sounds very wonderful and magnificent, but how does Paul’s teaching actually work out in practice? Well, as we saw at the beginning, in verse 22 he moves seamlessly from talking about relationships in the church to relationships in marriage. Perhaps to us that may seem like a big leap. But for Paul his life wasn’t broken down into nice neat compartments. He saw a profound connection between the faith we profess in our worship and the life we lead outside that worship. Being filled with the Spirit wasn’t an experience just for Sundays or church gatherings. It was a way of responding to God that led directly into the home, and into the most personal and private of relationships.
So, eventually, we return to Paul’s teaching in verse 22. We’ve taken a long time to get there, but I hope you can agree that the journey has been worthwhile. Because once we get to grips with all Paul has said about the Spirit-filled life in verses 18-21 then we can properly understand what he is talking about when he says: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. He isn’t asking women to become doormats to their partners or giving husbands permission to treat their wives exactly as they see fit. He is calling on wives to demonstrate a life of sacrifice and obedience in the home, as an expression of a living, growing faith in Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t mean doing everything that a husband demands of them. Paul quite clearly states: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord and if there is a conflict between serving the Lord and serving your husband, Paul would be quite clear about where your priorities should lie. But it does mean doing everything in your power to make the gospel of Jesus Christ attractive and beautiful by the way you live your life, as you seek day by day to live in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit.
And don’t imagine for a moment that Paul allows the husbands to have an easy time by comparison. In verse 25 Paul tells them quite clearly: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. That’s quite a tough challenge, isn’t it? It’s about being willing to do anything to show your love for your other half, whatever the cost, whatever the suffering involved. It’s about providing and caring for your wife above all other and having a genuine care and concern that she grows in the power of the Spirit to be the woman of God that the Lord intends her to be.
Now there’s a lot, lot more I could say about husbands and wives here, but I recognise that many people here have either never married or are no longer married, and you may well be wondering what all this teaching of Paul has got to do with you. Let me suggest two answers to that question.
First of all, whatever our own status Paul’s teaching shows just how important is the institution of marriage and how as Christians we should all seek to defend and to honour it.
You see, the story of Jesus tells us of someone completely unlike us coming to lay down His life for us. And God has given us the institution of marriage to reflect that selfsame pure and sacrificial love in our own lives. That’s why when we see politicians attack the traditional understanding of marriage or celebrities tell us that marriage is outdated we need somehow to make our voices heard, and pray that this land, let alone this church of ours, returns to an understanding of marriage as between one husband and one wife.
Secondly, while it is easy to quickly sketch out the theory of what a relationship between a husband and a wife should be like, let’s be honest – there are times, aren’t there, when any marriage is not easy. So those who are married need the support and prayers of the whole church, especially in a day and age where relationships of every kind come under the strain of a constantly busy, interconnected world.
Equally those who are married need to uphold and support those who are single, and demonstrate a real Christlike care and compassion for the widow, the orphan and the destitute. If Paul’s teaching about relationships in the church flow seamlessly into his teaching about relationships in marriage, then there is a real sense in which relationships in marriage should impact on relationships in the church. Strong Spirit-filled relationships in the church should lead to strong Spirit-filled relationships in marriage. But equally strong Spirit-filled relationships in marriage should lead to strong Spirit-filled relationships in the church encompassing people in every state of life.
And why is all this just so important? Well, let’s return to the start of our reading, to verses 15-16:
Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
That ultimately is why day by day we need to be filled by the Holy Spirit, so that in days like ours others see the positive difference Jesus Christ makes. Not just in our life as a church, but in our marriages, our homes, our workplaces.
So let me ask once again: Are you filled with the Holy Spirit?