Written Sermons & Bible Studies

Communion and the Bride of Christ

Communion has been the topic of our sermon series this month. We talked about communion as a sacrament in which the Holy Spirit is present to us, as an affirmation of the unity we have in Christ and with each other, and as a recognition of our graduation into the family of God. Today, I want to talk about Communion as the marriage relationship between Christ and his Church.

 

Communion is the intimate sharing of thoughts, experiences and feelings. Some people commune with nature. Here I am speaking about communion when the sharing is spiritual. In the church, communion speaks to the mystical relationship we have with Christ. Communion is also found in the close relationship shared by Christians, as individuals or with the whole Church of Christ. Communion includes the shared relationship we have with Christ and other Christians.

 

In Scripture, Christ is referred to as the Groom and the Church as Christ’s Bride. The relationship, between groom and bride or husband and wife, says a lot about our relationship with Christ. So, to understand our relationship with Christ, we need to understand how Paul explains the relationship between husband and wife.

 

Our reading today is taken from Ephesians Chapter 5:

 

Ephesians 5:21-33 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  in the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

 

Many years ago, now, Jan and I went on a weekend retreat to work on our marriage. We spent a long weekend at a monastery with other married couples for an intensive weekend of sharing. During the day, we listened to talks. We took time to share answers to questions designed to strengthen our marriage. We spent time alone together in prayer.

 

At night, we retreated to one of the monastery rooms, which were sparse. The room’s door had a window so the head of the monastery could check on the novice monks—and I guess on us.

 

The weekend revitalized our marriage and when we returned to normal life, a group called us and asked us to be part of a continuing Marriage Encounter group. They are here with us today. We spent years together sharing a meal, working on our marriages, and listening to each other’s struggles and triumphs.

 

I have participated in many Christian groups, but I have not been in a group that was more Christ like. We were different in so many ways and yet, we shared a bond that has endured time, distance, and long separations.  When you spend years with a group of married people, you are there for bad times and good times. You see the best and the worst. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. We carried jokes too far and had to apologize and rebuild trust. We shared life together.

 

I love these couples. Why has the bond been so strong? I think it is summed up in Paul’s final words in our reading. “…and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” When a woman and a man marry before God, something special happens and unites them to become one. I think when you are with married people, the unity of the couple extends in some way to the group. The visit from my Marriage Encounter group inspired this sermon. Today’s Scripture discusses marriage while it also communicates strongly about our relationship with Christ as his bride, the Church. At the end, I will tie it all back to communion.

 

The Scripture passages today are often misread by contemporary people who do not consider the culture within which Paul writes his letter. They get hung up on “wives be subject to your husbands” and “the husband is the head of the wife.” What they don’t realize is the passage upends the cultural norms of the time and challenges husbands. In fact, it is very affirming of women and wives.

 

To understand the passage, we must travel back to ancient Rome. In that society, there were civil codes, and the society was ordered not by individual freedom and choice, but by honor and shame and ruler and ruled.  The emperor ruled, and the people were ruled. The emperor was under no obligation to love the people. He had to provide for the people. The ruled people were supposed to love their emperor. Masters ruled, and slaves were ruled. Parents were rulers, and children were ruled. Likewise, in ancient Rome, husbands ruled, and wives submitted. Paul takes the model of Christ as the groom and the church as his bride, and he will totally upend the civil codes of marriage.

 

For the people Paul was writing to, life was precarious. They were not a financially and relationally secure group of people. There were married couples and families. There were divorced people, widows and widowers, orphans, and single people. Many were poor, and some were middle class. In ancient Rome, circumstances determined the living situation of a person. Women frequently died in childbirth. Disease and injury killed many people. Divorce was legal and not uncommon. Death was a common part of life. The early congregations would experience the loss of a member frequently. A person’s life could change quickly.

 

The Scripture passage is set in an idealized situation. It applies to married couples, to be sure, but Paul also speaks to the whole congregation. The passage is about more than just marriage and family. It talks about how any Christian should treat a fellow believer. Ultimately, the passage explains the nature of Christ as our Lord. 

 

Paul has two expectations of all Christians regardless of their civil roles. First, a Christian is filled with the Spirit. Second, every Christian is to submit to each other out of reverence to Christ. Christ is our Lord, and yet, he does not rule us like lords ruled over their subjects in ancient Rome. Christ serves us and loves us, and we are to serve each other and love each other.

 

In the first century, Paul’s message would be very hard for people to hear. It went against all expectations of that community. To change the civil codes made people uneasy. They believed that the foundation of their society depended on those civil codes. To lose those codes or abandon those codes was to slip into anarchy. And anarchy was the greatest fear for people in marginal circumstances because it led to war, destitution, and slavery.

 

Imagine a woman sitting in a church and she hears Paul. She would expect Paul to hold up the civil codes, so it would be normal to hear that she should submit to her husband. It would be weird not to hear that she should obey her husband. She would expect to hear that she should please her husband. Paul does not tell her to please her husband.

 

Since the husband provides life for the wife in the form of a home, clothes and food, in a patronage system, she owes him submission and honor. Paul does not tell her that she owes the husband anything. He promotes mutual submission. What the wife hears and what the husband hears is a role reversal. The husband is to submit to the wife in a Christian household. When Paul says the husband is to treat his wife as if she is his own body, he puts the wife in the male position. A woman hearing this would be shocked at Paul’s words.

 

In Rome, a woman is told that she is inferior to the man. A woman listening to Paul hears that she is a man’s equal. She is called to live a life filled with the Spirit, and she is called to live out all the virtues through that Holy Spirit. Her life spiritually, philosophically, morally, and functionally has been elevated to equal status as her husband. Paul’s message to the single women in the Christian community is they now share equally the position of men in both their spiritual life and physical life. In Roman society, a wife’s life was a life of subjugation. As a Christian, no man or person has any right to subjugate another. In a Christian home, submission is mutual and without subjugation.

 

On the one hand, it is noteworthy that Paul never tells the wife that she must do anything except give respect to her husband. On the other hand, Paul commands the husband twice to love his wife. Because the husband has the cultural authority in the home, only the husband has the power to change the way the couple lives their marriage.

 

A woman would be accustomed to the man owning her body. Now the husband’s body becomes the wife’s body. Ownership of each other is shared in a Christian household. In a sense, the woman becomes the man of the house, especially as it pertains to the two becoming one flesh.

 

A Christian woman would be surprised by the sweeping implications of the Christian life on her family and herself. The husband is told by Paul to model Christ through a self-sacrificial and humble act of love towards his wife. It is to that love and that goodness that a wife submits. She is not asked to submit to a husband who would rule over her. Normally, she would be expected to love the husband. As the ruler, the husband would not be expected to love the wife. He might, but it was not a requirement. Now the husband must love the wife.

 

The husband is to use his power and privilege to serve the wife. He is to lay honor and privilege aside in sacrifice to his wife and to other believers.  He, like all Christians, are called to lay aside their position and to do the work of people of lesser standing. Like Christ, the husband is to do “women’s work” in feeding, nurturing, and providing for his bride.

 

“For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church.”

 

Like Christ on the cross, the man chooses to accept shame, unfitting work, and dishonor to love his bride and all other members of the church of Christ.

 

Now let me shift focus. Paul rarely talks about only one subject at a time. As Paul discusses marriage, he is also describing Christ. Christ is the bridegroom and God. Yet, Christ does not act like a god or a groom. Christ does not act like a Lord. Christ serves Christ’s church through a sacrificial giving over of his life in shame on a cross. Christ provides for the church and nurtures the church. The church does not provide for Christ or sacrifice for Christ. Christ gives of his self in sacrifice for his bride, the church. The body of Christ is joined in union as one flesh through the resurrection and ascension of Christ to be at God’s right hand. Christ does not ask the church to love him as would any other Lord.  Instead, Christ first loves the church and then the church loves Christ. This new order of reciprocity and relationship changes how we as Christians live and how we relate to God.

 

Christ brought to earth a new creation, a new world that is breaking into this world. The expectations of that new world challenge all the dimensions of this world. In the new world of Christ’s Lordship., those with social privilege must humbly serve those of less privilege. Christ’s love has the superior serving the disadvantaged. Husband serves wife, master serves slave, and Christ serves the Church.

 

In the new creation of Christ, husband and wife become one flesh. Yet, they remain two people with equal respect. The wife is not absorbed into the world of the husband. A single woman can devote her life to prayer without needing a husband. In a world were a woman had no honor outside of her relationship with a man, this is a radical departure from the societal norm.

 

In the Christian community, no one possessed honor or status greater than anyone else. We might think that to lower ourselves humbly to be submitted to each other would reduce our individuality. The reverse is true. Without the constraints of societal codes of conduct, people could become individuals.

 

Each of us belongs to the body of Christ. We are the bride of Christ. We are united to Christ and to each other. Yet, we have individual wills. Christ loves us individually and is present with each of us as individuals. The Holy Trinity exists as one God in three persons. Likewise, the body of Christ is united as one flesh in Christ, but it is comprised of billions of individual persons—united but separate.

 

When we come together at the communion table we celebrate our fellowship—our communion with each other and with Christ. We come together united as one body. We also come together as individuals, as Scripture says, “…subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We celebrate the mystery of our unity as we celebrate and recognize the diversity of the Body of Christ throughout the world. As husband and wife are one body mutually subject to each other, so is the Body of Christ one body mutually subject to each other and loved by Christ. The communion prayer could say, “Because Christ gave his body for us, this bread represents our body to be given in service of our brother and sister. Christ’s blood shed on the cross made a new covenant with humanity. Out of reverence for Christ, this cup represents our sacrificial life and love for the Bride of Christ.” Amen

About Pastor Tim

Tim Holmes

Senior Pastor

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