Year B, Pentecost 11
My first high school was a pretty diverse school, which was a wonderful experience because it meant that I was friends with a lot of different kinds of people. Most of my friends were not Christian. There was a Christian group at the school, but I did not feel as though I fit in with that group, partly because they met before school started, which seemed like an ungodly hour to me. There was one girl in that group who just baffled me. She was always cheerful. She smiled all the time. I never heard her say anything rude or inconsiderate. For a while, I thought this had to be a front. She could not be sincere. However, I soon began to admire her as a wonderful example of a Christian. But then I got worried because I was nothing like her. As some of you may have noticed, I frown when I am thinking, and I am thinking most of the time. It’s hereditary. Everyone in my family does it. At the time I remember thinking if being Christian means I have to smile all the time, I am in serious trouble.
As I matured in my life as a Christian, I realized that Christians look a lot different and even act differently than one another. As Christians we are called to emulate not other Christians, but Jesus Christ. This realization makes me feel slightly better, but also frustrated at times. First of all, emulating someone you have never seen is pretty tricky. And emulating someone you have never seen who is also perfect, is that much harder.
One of the reasons that we read the Bible is to get a picture of Jesus, to get to know Jesus. Paul’s letters can be especially helpful because he was trying to help people be Christian. The portion of Ephesians we heard today contains some of that practical advice. Don’t say mean things. Only say things that will build other people up. Don’t steal; instead share with the needy. Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another… While these things are not necessarily easy to achieve, they make sense. They are really nothing new, not even at the time this was written. Being kind to one another was not a new Christian concept. However, there are a couple things in this portion of the letter that are more nuanced. They are not just advice on how to be a good person.
One of the first things Paul says is, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…” Later he adds, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger…” Well which is it, are we supposed to be angry, or not? I would say that generally, people think Christians should not be angry. That has led to a lot of guilt on the part of people who experience anger. That means they ignore it and don’t deal with it. Then it festers until it either weighs them down, or explodes and creates even more problems.
Human emotion is not a sin. It is what we do with that emotion that leads to sin. Paul says it is ok to be angry. It is even good to be angry sometimes. Jesus got angry several times in the scriptures. The prophets of the Old Testament were often angry. Yet there are different kinds of anger and different ways of handling that anger. There was a period in my life where I was really angry. And my dear husband listened as I ranted and raved about this and that. I was sure that my anger was justified. It was even righteous. It wasn’t just anger, it was righteous indignation. But it didn’t go away. It lasted for months and I didn’t feel any better. I didn’t do anything positive with the anger. It just consumed me. At some point, probably while contemplating a sermon, I realized that there was nothing righteous about my anger. It was just anger and the righteous thing was to release it.
How do you know whether or not your anger is justified, whether it is righteous? It’s actually pretty simple. When Jesus was angry, it came from a place of love. He was angry because people did not want him to heal people on the Sabbath. He was angry when the poor were ignored. He was angry when people willfully misunderstood his father’s words. He was angry when people took his words and twisted them to fit their own needs. Those are the kinds of things that we should be angry about.
Yet I would guess that normally we are angered because we feel slighted, because our pride is wounded, or when people hurt us. And I am not saying that getting angry about those things is wrong, because it is a natural reaction. But that is the kind of anger that we need to let go of as soon as possible. Paul even provides a timeline. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. So you’ve got about day, and no more than that. If you hold on to it longer, it will hurt you and it will make it difficult to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We should also keep in mind that love comes before anger. If the origin of our anger is something other than love, then it is not righteous. Love comes first.
Now you might think, well what about righteous anger? Can I be angry about that for long periods of time? If you want to hold on to righteous anger, you must first sure that you are right, that you know exactly how Jesus feels about the thing you are angry about. Not only that, you need to examine the rest of your life pretty carefully and make sure that you are following Christ in every way that you can. Personally, I am going to try to be like Jesus. But I am not confident that I know the mind of God. In fact, I am pretty sure that I don’t. So I will follow Jesus to the best of my ability and pray that I can see myself and others as he sees us. But I am going to try not to claim righteous anger, at least not until I am sure that I have mastered the necessary precursor to righteous anger, which is loving God and loving my neighbor. Love comes first.
Being Christian is not always about being cheerful and smiling a lot. Horrible things are happening in this world every day and we should be angry about those things. But the answer is not bitterness or visions of revenge, but instead focusing on what we can do to be agents of change in this world. But before we change the world, we need to allow God to change us. I have often said that, “God loves you just the way you are.” I believe that with my whole heart. But recently I heard someone say, “God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be like Jesus.” I know that sounds like a tall order, but God is not as worried about the end product as he is about the process of becoming like Jesus. Paul wrote, “Be imitators of God…” Another translation of that is, “Keep on becoming imitators of God…” That is not grammatically correct, but I think it makes the point a little more clear. As Christians, we do not claim perfection. We are not finished products. We are in the process of becoming godly and the moment when we think our transformation is complete is the moment when we know it’s time to start over. The process of becoming like Jesus is never over. Just remember, love comes first.