WE ENJOY A BLESSED UNION, BY GRACE.
In the name + of Jesus.
This reading from Ephesians is hard, but for all the wrong reasons. In this reading, St. Paul declares God's design for marriage. It is simple enough: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church... Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” (Ephesians 5:22-23,25) The language is straight forward. A man and a woman each have their own roles in the marriage bond. Each is to serve the other in those roles. What is hard is that wives are better at hearing what their husbands are supposed to be, and husbands are better at hearing what God instructs of wives. Both are interested in the other fulfilling their roles and are not nearly as invested in their own. This creates strife, as each one not only struggles to fulfill his or her own role, but also judges how the other is failing to measure up.
The other issue with this reading is that we often give our attention to the wrong word. Chances are the word which made your eyes pop open a bit was the word, “Submit.” You may have even cringed when you heard it. Americans don't submit. And if we have to, we make it clear that we don't like it. But the word which should grab your attention is not “submit.” It is this one: “mystery.” When the Lord chooses to reveal a mystery to us, we do well to pay attention to it and ponder it often.
As he writes about the roles of husbands and wives, St. Paul concludes the whole matter with this comment: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32) What is the mystery? “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32) The Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed himself to the Church. God became a man, making himself one of us. He has bound himself to mankind in order to make mankind his own. God and man are one flesh in Jesus Christ. He joined himself to us, and he joined us to himself. We enjoy this blessed union by grace.
When a man chooses to marry a woman, it is because he finds something about her that is attractive, endearing, and beautiful. Jesus chose us to be his own, but he did not choose us because we are pure. He did not love us because we were so beautiful or so obedient. Our lives are not pretty. We have not submitted to God's word and followed his commands. We convince ourselves that happiness and fulfillment come by grasping at what God forbids—just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. With those sinful attitudes, we still reject God's instruction.
Consider what God says to married couples. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) Women recoil at this, thinking that God wants them to be doormats for their husbands to walk all over. Women reply, “Submit to him!? What about me? What do I get out of this?” Men are no different and no better. This is what the Lord says: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...” (Ephesians 5:25) The husband is to sacrifice himself for the good of his wife and his family. He is to spend his entire life saying, “No” to his sinful nature. Sinful hearts will not put up with that. Men ask, “Give myself completely?! What about me? What do I get out of this?” So, both refuse to submit God's instruction because each is interested in self-preservation and personal gain. This love has strings attached, and it is usually revoked if it is not satisfied. For the sinful heart loves itself first and foremost. Repent.
But God's love is not sinful. It is pure. It seeks your good. It does what is best for you and gives only what is good for you. Therefore, Jesus did not betroth himself to you because you are pure or beautiful or even good. Rather, Jesus loves you because he is good. In becoming a man, Jesus took his place with us. He became one flesh with us and took up our cause.
If a woman enters marriage bringing with her a large debt from college loans and credit cards, the man who chooses to marry her assumes the responsibility for her debt. He makes it his own and bears responsibility to pay it off. We owe God our willful obedience, and we have defaulted on this. We cannot even begin to make the payment on our sins. When Jesus Christ betrothed himself to us, he assumed the responsibility for our debt. He made himself one flesh with us in order to pay for our guilt with his innocent blood. He submitted himself to crucifixion—dying a cursed death so that we would be pardoned for our sins. The debt has been paid. You are free and clear of all charges.
We enjoy a blessed union, by grace. The Lord has joined himself to you in order to take away all of your sins from you. At the same time, the Lord Jesus has joined you to himself so that all that is his is now yours. By his innocent blood, he cleanses you by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. (Ephesians 5:26-27) The Lord Jesus has arrayed you in a robe of his righteousness so that you are pure, innocent, and beautiful in his sight. He gives you his name so that you know you are his. He provides for your needs. He protects you from sin, death, and the devil. He guarantees your place at the heavenly wedding banquet. For you are not merely a guest in heaven. Rather, you are united to Christ in a blessed union. The two have become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
In this way, husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. If you are one flesh with her, if you have given her your name, then you care for her, sacrifice for her, protect her, provide for her, and cherish her above every earthly gift that God gives you. For, love does not seek what it can get out of someone. Rather, love devotes itself to giving, to serving, and to seeking the best for the other.
This is what wives are submit to—willingly receiving these good things from their husbands. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. (Ephesians 5:23) The Church is not shamed or degraded in any way by submitting to Christ. On the contrary, this is how the Church receives her good things. By submitting to Christ, the Church receives her glory, honor, and salvation. Christ is the head and the Lord of the Church, but he is no tyrant. He is not abusive, but gentle. He is not fickle with his love, but faithful. For, even when we come back to him with our sins, he speaks tenderly with forgiveness, assurance, and encouragement. In Jesus, you remain unblemished, pure, endearing, and beautiful. For, Jesus does not despise his betrothed. His love endures forever.
We enjoy a blessed union by grace. And the Lord has designed marital unions to reflect that love and service among husbands and wives. Although husbands and wives do not have pure and perfect love and there are no perfect marriages on earth, they can still be good. They still receive God's blessing. Husbands and wives continue to say, “No,” to their sinful desires. They forgive each other for their sins, and they submit themselves to God's will in order to seek the good of the other.
We enjoy a blessed union, by grace. While our love will never be perfect on this side of heaven, Jesus' love is. His love has worked for our good and has gained our place at the heavenly wedding feast. For, the Lord loves his Church. And he will rejoice over her for all eternity, just as the Church rejoices in the Lord and eagerly looks for her Groom to return. Until then, we get to taste the feast which our Lord has prepared for our good. By it, he nourishes and cherishes his body so that we persevere to the end. This is a profound mystery, and we do well to ponder it; for the Lord bestows endless joys through it.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.