Spirit and flesh

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25

Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 5:21-33

John 6:60-69

We are nearing in the end of the long summer of bread. This week’s reading from John is the last of the series. Here, we see the split that occurred in the Johannine community between the “sacrifice” and “non-sacrifice” partisans. One group is saying that the Johannine meal must be seen as sacrifice: eating flesh and drinking blood (it is interesting to note that the word for eating implies chewing, and the word for flesh implies raw meat — I wonder if the Johannine community tended toward the dionysan — compare to the miracle of water to wine). Another group says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” A split occurs.

I’m sure that is why we have the reading from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You had better be ready to go the distance, seems to be the message of the designers of the lectionary.

But I’m a lot more interested in the passage from Ephesians. This is one that gets people up in arms: “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Again, I think this represents a point of real contention in the early church. Many early christians eschewed marriage completely. The various acts of the named apostles all deal with an apostle preaching and convincing the engaged to forgo their marriages. The apostle would then celebrate a eucharist, almost always in the order of cup and then bread. I believe these were the water and bread Christians (see McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists). Marriage and sacrifice were deeply intertwined and implicated in the cultural background of the time: marriage produced progeny and sacrifice guaranteed descent from father to son. If you wanted to be counter-cultural, you could refuse marriage and sacrifice both. Thecla, in the Acts of Paul, gets herself martyred for her refusal to marry. Many christians got themselves martyred for refusal to sacrifice (and plenty of others got themselves killed for sacrificing to Christ, rather than Caesar).

So the Letter to the Ephesians represents a step along the way of accommodating the christian message to the cultural background, making it possible for people to live in both worlds. The section that this pericope begins lays out a handbook for household organization. There is nothing particularly shocking here. Any good Roman could agree. Our christianity today isn’t very shocking. Any good American can agree.

What would it be like to be a christian of the other variety, one who opts out of the cultural background? Sacrifice is not the organizing principle of our society, the way it was of Greco-Roman society. The money economy is. What would it be like to opt out of that background? What would it be like to engage in it, but directed to a different emperor, the way the sacrificing christians directed their sacrifice to Christ, not the emperor? How would we organize our households?

Marriage in the Greco-Roman world was part of one’s responsibility of citizenship. Now, marriage is about love, not duty to a larger community. How would we go about opting out of a hyper-individualistic (romantic) understanding of marriage and fulfillment? Somehow, we would have to find a way to consecrate the fruits of our labors and of our households to an intentional community, not identical to America.

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