This past weekend was the annual summer gathering of Allegheny Mennonite Conference. It was a good weekend. I feel privileged to have been able to join Cindy, Michelle, and the other pastors of the conference in their pastor peer meetings, as well as sit in on the work and seminars of the conference. From my perspective, it felt like a hopeful weekend. I started the conference feeling overwhelmed and left feeling spiritually rejuvenated. However, there was time on Friday when I was far from the place of rejuvenation. Sitting in the pastor peer meeting, listening to a representative from MCUSA, I felt frustrated. It’s been about four years since I tuned into the goings on of the broader church, and that four years has been full of fighting the same battles. It feels like as a denomination, we just can’t get it right. I couldn’t help but think that it would be so much easier to walk away. It would be so much easier for me to walk away from the Mennonite Church. I feel like at the age of nineteen I have done enough fighting within this denomination to last a lifetime. My thoughts continued to travel to my relationship with the Bible, especially since I had been processing ideas for this sermon in my mind. It would be easier to walk away from the Bible too. And I felt a moment of peace as I realized these things. When I acknowledged that there was pain, when I acknowledged that sometimes I want to walk away, it felt good.
Today’s text, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, is a letter, and describes ways of living in unity as a church and in the image of Christ. It echoes passages from both the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 63, and Colossians. Highlights of the text include reminders not to lie, the importance of honest work, the necessity of helping the needy, and acknowledging the place of righteous anger without letting that anger become sin. The passage also reminds the church to use words of affirmations with one another, building each other up and using good words to meet needs of their fellow church mates. It also encourages the people to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us. The last verse of our text today is a reminder for us to live in love, more specifically, to practice a self sacrificing love, reminding us that when the body of Christ loves one another, it is an offering which pleases God.
All of these pieces of wisdom seem to be good reminders of how to treat our neighbor. But many of us feel a resistance to these words, especially when some of the other words in Ephesians are quite well known– and not for good reasons. If we continue reading chapter 5 in a bible which is not the inclusive translation, we read about wives submitting to their husbands in all ways and husbands being told to love their wives. If we kept reading in chapter 6, we read that slaves should obey their masters.
Ephesians is a difficult letter to read. It’s painful. It’s infuriating. Honestly, most of the Epistles and Paul’s work is difficult. Many people, including us, who engage with the Bible or with institutional religion struggle with these texts. In Ephesians, verses about wives submitting to their husbands have been used to oppress and abuse women for hundreds of years. Verses announcing that slaves should obey their earthly masters were used by white Christians in this country to support the atrocity and unjust practice of enslaving African people. Passages from the other Epistles have been used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ+ folks, as well as keep women and others who aren’t straight males from ministry. Oppression is fluid and it is overlapping, and passages from the Epistles have done their fair share of contributing to oppression.
This stuff is painful. There is generations worth of pain and trauma here. These verses and the way people interpret them have created real world consequences that hurt, kill, and take away the human rights of other people, people who are loved by God. A recent example of the ongoing consequences comes to mind. This weekend was the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right protests. This weekend saw more rallies which glorify white supremacy and seek to continually dehumanize people of color in this country.
Reconciling the loving words of today’s text with the dominating words that come next is daunting, especially since there is no justification for perpetuating the oppression of others. Can we seek to move beyond searching for justification for the way tough passages were written? Is there anything to be discovered from learning more about these texts?
Typically, this letter has been said to have been authored by Paul, and his purpose for writing the letter was to address the church at Ephesus. However, authorship is widely disputed today. Some continue to assign authorship to Paul, while some say it is more likely a Pauline student wrote it. With a change in author comes a change in purpose. Some scholars believe the destination of Ephesus was added later, when this letter was actually meant to be encyclical, reaching many ears and contexts as it traveled around the countryside. Many of the New Testament Epistles are written to address specific occasions or needs, while this letter is more sermon like and probably meant as a general letter of encouragement. As the Women’s Bible Commentary reminded me, even if Paul didn’t write this letter, Ephesians does not cease to be canonized Scripture. It simply means that we must shift our understanding of purpose and historical context. It also means that we must keep questioning.
There are many possible explanations for why Ephesians was written in this way. One commentary said that many of the author’s words were actually radical for the day. Another said that the author was using a metaphor which doesn’t actually hold up literarily. In my Engaging the Bible class last semester, we learned that Paul, although he didn’t believe in the patriarchal laws and unfair laws about slavery that were part of the culture of the day, was using the culture to ensure the survival of the church. Author Rachel Held Evans wrote that Paul was writing for a specific group at a specific time, and we need to remember that that doesn’t make his words universally binding for all people at all times in history.
Yet none of these possible explanations resolve the pain for long. The words from these unjust passages in Ephesians and the Epistles will probably never cease to hurt– and that’s okay. Learning the context or reading about the disputed authorship or realizing the flaws in the analogies feels like a bandaid on a open wound– relieving for a little bit, but ultimately without healing power. However, being hurt or upset by passages in the Bible which perpetuate injustice doesn’t make us over sensitive or any less faithful. It makes us human. We are right to pay attention to and call out the passages that cause pain, the passages that don’t seem to follow the path of God’s love, the passages that are red flags. We are right to ask questions of these texts.
We must keep wrestling. The Word of God is not finished, and the story of God’s people hasn’t ended, and so we keep listening and testing what we hear. There are no easy answers or solutions to tough questions. The only way forward is acknowledging our pain and wrestling together. We can wrestle with the question of how we can appreciate Ephesians’ contribution to theology without accepting with no hesitation the unfortunate views on human relations. We can wrestle with the gap between a God who stands with the oppressed and a God who seems to allow oppression to happen. We can wrestle with how to take the words of Ephesians seriously while also continuing the fight for liberation for all.
In the Expositor’s Bible commentary, there is a small piece of wisdom in which the author’s words in Ephesians were likened to seeds which had the potential of radically transforming the people within the Roman world institutions, and maybe even the institutions themselves. Sounds great, but here’s the thing about seeds: sometimes they grow, sometimes they don’t. Some seeds grow into their potential, while the growth of some seeds is stunted. When we ignore the tough passages, when we seek answers that placate, or when we continue to uphold oppressive systems, the seeds the author planted cannot grow into a transformative justice. But when we wrestle with Ephesians and the Epistles, when we engage with the tricky texts, we are allowing these seeds planted by the author to grow into full blown plants of justice, ripe and ready for harvest. When we wrestle, we allow space for the beginnings of justice in the text to become a radical justice for all people, with power to completely transform institutions of this world, in this time.
Earlier I mentioned that I felt a moment of peace when I realized that sometimes, I want to walk away from the Mennonite denomination and even at times the difficult, contradictory library we call the Bible. Wrestling is daunting, it’s scary, it’s frustrating. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t any answers out there. Walking away from all of those unknowns is tempting. If we walk away, yes, we save ourselves from further pain. But we will also be missing out on future joy. If we walk away from the Bible, we will walk away from the stories and passages, like those in Ephesians, that cause pain. But we will be walking away from the joy of theology and Biblical themes which liberate and redeem.
If we walk away from the Mennonite denomination, we will likely save ourselves from years of fighting, years of the same conversations over and over, years of pain. But man, will we miss out on some of joy along the way. Identify your own reasons to stay, but mine include the hymn sings, the potlucks, and the wonders of being a part of a church family. If we stay, we have a chance to take part in the work of transformative justice in the denomination and in the world.
What could transformative justice look like in MCUSA? Being led by people of color is a great start. Focusing on place based ministry, allowing each church to live and work in their context, is a hopeful beginning as well. Starting to live out the phrase “unity does not mean uniformity” is another step along the way.
And transformative justice in the world? That’s something we can all envision, with longing and excitement. It means naming and dismantling all systems of oppression– including, but definitely not limited to, patriarchy and white supremacy. It means working with Poor People’s Campaign, or Sanctuary Congregation Network, or other organizations which lead the fight for justice. It means spreading the love of God by action on the behalf of others.
We are all walking our own journeys. Or, if the image suits better, we are all wrestling in our own matches. Some of us are on a journey with our denomination or another institution. Some of us are on long, winding faith journeys. Some of us are on a journey of grappling with the Bible’s toughest texts. Some of us are on other journeys. Yet we are all here, together, part of Hyattsville Mennonite and the broader church, walking alongside one another. As we do so, may you feel encouraged by the reminders in our text today. Give those around you words of affirmation. Build each other up with good words. Forgive one another. If someone has a need, meet it. Treat each person in the pews around you with kindness. Live in love for one another. In the end, what sustains us through the ups and downs, through the wrestling, is journeying graciously with each other.
Sources of Info/ Help/ Editing
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
The Women’s Bible Commentary
Voices from the Margin
Inspired, Rachel Held Evans
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
 Women’s Bible Commentary
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
 Women’s Bible Commentary
 Inspired, Rachel Held Evans
 Women’s Bible Commentary
 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary