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August 25 lesson: A Covenant of Mutual Love

August 19, 2019
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A Covenant of Mutual Love

Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant 
Unit 3: Covenant: A Personal Perspective

Sunday school lesson for the week of August 25, 2019 
By Rev. Ashley Randall

Lesson Scripture: Ephesians 5:21-33
Key Verse: Ephesians 5:21

Purpose: To embody God’s self-giving and self-emptying love in the covenant of marriage

Once upon a time

“There’s a universal desire to discover love and it can be hard to find, but that’s where we step in — we narrow down the world of possibilities to a personal A-list of meaningful introductions that get singles closer to finding the one.”

That’s the opening pitch on eHarmony’s website. They invite people to use their “patented Compatibility Matching System® which allows eHarmony members to be matched with compatible persons with whom they are likely to enjoy a long-term relationship.”

It is hard to argue with “a universal desire to discover love.” From folktales like “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White” to online services like eHarmony, Match, and OurTime, we hear the message that there is someone out there who will fill all our voids and meet all our needs.

According to Dr. James Hollis, author of “The Eden Project,” that is one of the two great fantasies that frustrate our personal growth and lead to conflict in our most intimate relationships. In his counseling practice, he regularly works with couples who are experiencing drama, distress, and dysfunction due to their belief that there is a “Magical Other” out there who will make them whole. The search for that “Other” is futile. Nevertheless, we unconsciously project this fantasy onto our partner.

Hollis claims that the search for romantic love has replaced institutional religion as the greatest influence in our lives. In other words, the search for romantic love has supplanted our search for God.

His work with couples involves helping them move from the fantasy of being rescued by another to accepting their personal responsibility for their growth. He acknowledges that this is much more difficult than it sounds:

It takes great courage to ask this fundamental question: “What am I asking of this Other that I ought to be doing for myself?” If, for example, I am asking the Other to be mindful of my self-esteem, I have a project waiting unaddressed. If I am expecting the Other to be a good parent and take care of me, then I have not grown up. If I am expecting the Other to spare me the rigor and terror of living my own journey, then I have abdicated from the chief task and most worthy reason for my incarnation on this earth.

Once I begin to acknowledge that it is not my partner’s responsibility to “complete me,” I can admit that they are not responsible for my suffering – or my happiness. As I own my personal responsibility, the challenge is to find the courage to lift this responsibility from them – and to support them as they do their own growth work.

It is through taking on the heroic task of lifting our projections off of the Other that we may best serve their interest, that is, love them…. Projection, fusion, “going home,” is easy; loving another’s otherness is heroic. If we really love the Other as Other, we have heroically taken on the responsibility for our own individuation, our own journey. This heroism may properly be called love. St. Augustine put it this way: “Love is wanting the other to be.”

Ultimately, the health and hope of any intimate relationship will depend on each party’s willingness to assume responsibility for the relationship to one’s own unconscious material. Sounds logical, even easy, yet nothing is more difficult. The chief burden on any relationship derives both from our unwillingness to assume responsibility and from the immensity of the project. 

Once I accept that the only healing available to me is through the process of returning to myself, will I be able to take care of myself by taking full responsibility for that which can heal me. I no longer look to my partner for that healing, and in doing so I set them free to be who they are. This kind of love is selfless and brave. 

What are some of the ways that “magical thinking” has led to drama, distress, and dysfunction in your relationships or the relationships of those close to you?

Submit to each other
Ephesians 5:21-24

Let’s begin by admitting that there is something bitter about being asked to submit. We have been taught from an early age to stand up for ourselves. Don’t let anyone push you around. Be careful of anyone who tries to take advantage of you. 

We have happily received that advice. It lines up with our own selfishness. We want what we want, and we are unhappy when anyone comes between us and whatever that is. It begins early – before we can even talk, but it remains firmly fixed in our nature.

Paul clearly says, that’s the problem. “Change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). Instead, “Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2).

Note that Paul says, “submit to each other out of respect for Christ.” Paul is not asking us to do something that Christ has not done for us. Rather, Paul is saying – as clearly as he knows – how when we submit to each other it is one way that we can imitate Christ – one way that we can become more like Christ.

When Paul makes the shift to the relationship of wives and husbands (“wives submit to their husbands”), he is extending the implications of our endeavor to imitate Christ to the relationships in our families rather than establishing a hierarchy of authority or outlining a set of principles to govern the relationships in our households. The relationship between the church and Christ serves as a model for our life in a covenant relationship when it has been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

What are some of the passages you recall which talk about the ways that Jesus gave himself for us and submitted to the will of God?

Just like Christ
Ephesians 5:25-31

Paul moves quickly to illustrate what this transformed life means as husbands consider how they are to love their wives. “As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is an echo of what he has said at the beginning of the chapter.

As Christ has made the church holy by his thoroughgoing care for the church, so are husbands to love their wives. Paul has explained that the church is inseparably joined with Christ – indeed, the church is the body of Christ. Going back to Genesis, Paul reminds us that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two of them will be one body” (Genesis 2:24). “That’s how husbands ought to love their wives – in the same way as they do their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:28).

There are many “one another” and “each other” passages in the Bible: “Love one another.” (John 13:34); “Through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13); “Be kind to one another.” (Ephesians 4:32); “Be devoted to one another; … give preference to one another.” (Romans 12:10). What do these passages indicate about the nature of the relationship we should have with others in the covenant community?

A Covenant of mutual love
Ephesians 5:32-33

Inevitably, analogies break down, if they are taken too literally. Still, Paul hopes that by comparing marriage to the union of Christ and the church, those who read his message will come to a deeper understanding both of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and also of how our relationships can be transformed as we “change the former way of life that was part of the person you once were, corrupted by deceitful desires. Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person created according to God’s image in justice and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). God’s overall intention for relationships in the covenant community, as well as for marriage, is mutual submission and reciprocal servanthood.

That transformed life is one in which we no longer put ourselves first. We no longer expect others to “complete” us. We set others free to be who they are. We live to serve God and to serve others – to love God and to love others. We live like this because God has chosen to enter into a covenant with us – a covenant established by Christ. “When he came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near. We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit. So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household” (Ephesians 2:17-19). 

John Wesley encouraged the members of his societies to renew their covenant with God regularly. You may have used a form of this “Covenant Prayer” in a special worship service in your congregation. Notice the ways this prayer calls believers to submit themselves to God:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.

How does your willingness to submit to God influence your willingness to enter a covenant relationship of mutual submission?

Rev. Ashley Randall is the pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. If you would like to learn more about the work of Dr. James Hollis, go to his personal website jameshollis.net.

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