Servant Power — Throwback Thursdays, Ephesians

Ephesians 5:15-33

We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. The power of love is always “servant power.” Servant power is always FOR others. That’s today’s main thought.

About a hundred miles inland from Ephesus was the little town of Colossae. There you’d find a local businessman named Philemon. Philemon was married to Apphia. They had an adult son named Aristarchus. Philemon, Apphia and Aristarchus hosted the new Christian congregation at Colossae in their home. They must have been fairly well off. They had a house big enough for such gatherings. And as a family they owned slaves.

We know about Philemon and his family in a brief New Testament letter from Paul written to Philemon. Philemon may have met Paul on a business trip to Ephesus. Philemon came home an enthusiastic Jesus follower. Soon his wife and son joined him in this new way of life.

There was a problem. One of the household slaves, Onesimus, had escaped from his master. Onesimus may have stolen some household money to fund his fleeing. Onesimus headed down the Lycus River valley to Ephesus. Maybe he planned to hop a ship and skip town before he could be caught.

Then Onesimus met Paul. Paul was under arrest in Ephesus, but he was still free to receive visitors and to teach the faith. Maybe Onesimus knew Paul from a previous encounter. Maybe it was what some would call coincidence. Either way, Onesimus became a Christian. It must have been a magnificent conversion. Paul referred to Onesimus as his adopted son and valued his assistance in the ministry of the Gospel.

Now to the problem. Following Jesus changes everything. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power.  Onesimus had unfinished business in Colossae. “Thieves must give up stealing,” Paul wrote, “rather, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so at to have something to share with the needy.” I wonder if Onesimus thought about the tidy little stash he had lifted from his master’s purse.

More than that, Onesimus and Philemon were now brothers in the Messiah. Paul challenged Onesimus to do something about the rupture in this relationship. Paul asked Onesimus to carry two letters back to the congregation in Colossae. One letter was for the congregation. The other was for Philemon. It’s likely that Onesimus read the letters out loud at worship. In the personal letter, Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus.

I don’t know if it happened this way, but something like this took place. I share this story because of the directions we find in Ephesians 5:15-33. Paul addresses the relationships between wives and husbands, children and fathers, and slaves and masters. Philemon fits all three of the latter categories. Paul urges him to re-work each relationship based on the power of love rather than the love of power. “Be subject to one another,” Paul writes, “out of reverence for Christ.” If we want a model for servant power, we can look to Jesus. Servant power is always power FOR others.

First century Greco-Roman culture assumed that only freeborn adult men could be fully and truly human. One first century Greek philosopher wrote, “The man has the rule of the household by nature. For the deliberative faculty of the woman is inferior, in children does not yet exist, and in the case of slaves it is completely absent.” Men in this culture assumed that women had limited brain power, children were a work in progress, and slaves were too brainless to be fully and truly human ever at all.

We Jesus followers reject this view. What makes someone a fully and truly human person is God’s image that we bear as a gift and calling from God. We receive that gift and calling in our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Messiah’s resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s presence restore God’s image in us. Living in the Messiah by the power of the Spirit makes us fully and truly human. Anyone can embrace God’s gifts—men, women, children and slaves. Maleness does not open the door to full humanity. Baptism does.

In this first century culture, the master of the house life and death power over spouse, children and slaves. Any talk of limiting that power with love was revolutionary. That is precisely what Paul does in Ephesians. Paul places special responsibility on those with power over others. Servant power is always FOR others.

Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to husbands are disappointing. Requiring women to “submit” to their husbands creates a dynamic where the love of power reigns supreme. Last week Paul reminded us that what we feed is what grows. Too often the church has cooperated in feeding the system of male dominance that is strong in our culture. As the whole church we must repent of that sin.

The wrong emphasis has created ongoing abusive situations in millions of homes. That love of power produces verbal, emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse. Worse yet, the blame for the situation is placed on the victims. Paul travels a little way down the road toward loving treatment of women. We have come farther, but we have not come nearly as far as we thought. We know that “submission theology” endangers women—even in Christian communities. Systems of male dominance produce abuse.

I need to say this as clearly as possible. Emanuel Lutheran Church is a safe place for anyone who needs to escape from Intimate Partner Abuse. We will hear your story. We will believe you. We will support you in your decisions. Women are not responsible for the emotional issues of men.

Systems of male dominance have no place here. We submit to one another out of reverence for the Messiah. We embrace full partnership between men and women. We reject the view that holds women subject to the authority of men.

We know what we need to do. We live by the power of love, not for the love of power. Servant power is always FOR others. The power of love must shape our most intimate relationships. It will be important to keep in mind Paul’s strategy with Philemon as we continue next week. Let’s pray…