Last week's hosting of Ephesians chapter four was a rich conversation. In each of the three groups that gathered we found much to appreciate and to respond to in these verses. We found ourselves having to constantly remember that the second half of Ephesians (chapters four through six) must always be read in the light of the first half of the letter. In the first three chapters the emphasis is on God and on God's saving grace which is the source and sustenance of our life together. There is nothing we can do to earn or to create this grace. It is all gift. In chapter four we begin to read "therefore ethics" (Eph 4.1) in which the way that we live is a result of God's grace rather than as a means to God's love. There is plenty of wisdom and advice in chapter four, for example: "Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger ... Let no evil talk come out of your mouths" (Eph. 4:26, 29). Sometimes our anger does become dangerous to others, becomes captive to sin. Sometimes the sun does go down on our anger. Sometimes our speech does damage, breaks down rather than builds up. This does not negate God's grace. Nor does getting anger "right" make God more gracious toward us. Instead, once caught up in God's grace our whole lives are lived seeking to embody that grace. Such embodiment will always be imperfect. That is why grace is so crucial. Now we are on to chapter five ...
The chapter begins with another "therefore" - "Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us" (Eph. 5:1). The text invites us to consider that we are toddlers, learning how to be a human by imitating our parents. This is known as the Imitatio Dei. When you think of the way in which being a follower of Jesus Christ involves imitation what comes to mind for you?
In the next verses we are encouraged to allow no "fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed" to be "even mentioned among you. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph 5:3-5). Given the "breadth and length and height and depth" of God's love (Eph. 3:18) and the free gift of God's grace that included the Gentiles in the inheritance of God's family, how is it that those who are "impure" are denied participation? What do you make of the way in which the text assumes that fornication, greed and silly talk are all - apparently - equally impure qualities that would make one unfit for the kingdom? What do they have in common? I don't have answers to these questions. They are the ones that come to mind.
"For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light - for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true" (Eph. 5:8-9). How would you describe what it is to "live as children of light"? How might we "try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord?" (Eph. 5:10).
At Ephesians 5:21- 6:9 we arrive at one of the famous Household Codes in the New Testament (there is another at Colossians 3:18-4:1). These codes were a commonplace in the Roman world of the first century. There is much debate about the way in which they have been used within the Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. Some argue that these reflect a later first century shift away from the radical communities established by Paul. They argue that, based on evidence within the letter itself, this letter is not written by Paul (this non-Pauline authorship is widely agreed by a majority of New Testament scholars). They say that the inclusion of the Household Code here is part of an attempt to make Christianity more acceptable within the social world of the late first century. Here, for example, is a resource that I found online by a professor who makes this argument: The Household Codes of the Later Pauline Traditions. Others see something else at play here. They notice that Ephesians 5:21 urges mutual submission: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ". They argue that such a concept is not known in the standard Household Codes in which a hierarchy was clear. Yet in this Household Code the pairs are to be mutually subject (wives & husbands, parents & children, masters & slaves). I found an online blog in which a grad student at Fuller seminary focuses on the relationship between husbands and wives and argues that Ephesians intends a mutuality, not a hierarchy. He also offers a helpful review of the current state of the debate. The best way to follow this is to scroll to the bottom of the page and to then read the blog postings in order from the bottom to the top - Household Codes. By the way, it is worth keeping in mind that the households that were organized by these codes were not small nuclear families. The households of the Roman world were large corporate enterprises in which the "family" was one's business, family and religious home all in one. The household's rank in the community, not one's own personal achievement, was the source of one's status. Belonging to a thriving, highly regarded, powerful household (even as a slave) was to be living a good life.
These verses have been hotly debated over the centuries. The confederacy used the text at Ephesians 6:5 along with others from the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. Ignoring any idea of mutual subjection, some Christians have seen Ephesians 4:22-24 as a reason for male domination in the home and some women who suffer abuse have read this as justification for their husband's violence. This raises questions of how the church continues to interpret and to re-interpret scripture over time. It also raises questions of how much we are prepared to change the standard "Household Codes" of our own time as a result of the new way of life revealed in Jesus Christ. Can you think of any ways in which a Christian household might live that is unconventional, even radical, in the eyes of its neighbours?
Well, that is surely enough to get us started. Next week we will finish the rest of chapter six and look back at what we have discovered in hosting the entire letter together.