Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Sermon Text - 10/2/09

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Ephesians 4:17-32

This passage gives us much to think about, and I'm going to focus on what may seem like a smaller point to most who read it. Pastor Roeda today discussed the topic of anger in his sermon, and how we ought to understand it and deal with it in our own lives. Paul gives us instructions here that are perhaps unexpected: "
Be angry and do not sin." (v.26) What? Without a doubt it is a curious command, and perhaps some of our minds immediately jump to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment..." Anger, at least as Jesus seems to have it, should not have a place in the Christian life. Or does he say that? If we are more careful with the way in which we understand anger, I think we find that Jesus is not saying anger itself is inherently wrong.

First off, it is worth pointing out that what Paul says in Ephesians is not some bizarre idea that is his alone. The beginning of Ephesians 4:26 is actually a quote from the Old Testament, of Psalm 4:4 - "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent." Paul uses the same Greek expression (
orgizesthe kai me hamartanete - be angry and do not sin) that the Psalm uses (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was the common bible of Paul's day). So what he is doing is actually quoting a bit of wisdom literature that would have been familiar to his bible-reading audience. He probably means to evoke the sense of the whole passage from the Psalm. The Psalmist is not directing us to be angry on principle, as though it's the goal of the follower of God - he is saying, 'When you do feel anger, do not allow it to spill over into sin.' The proper response is to "ponder" in our hearts "on our beds." The kind of anger the Psalmist (and Paul) is talking about needs to be 'digested,' one could say... it needs to be dealt with calmly.

I think this understanding of anger should resonate with most people very well. We all know what it is to feel a burning anger toward another person, the kind of anger with which we want nothing more than to lash out, to shout down, even to punch out the person who is the cause (or many times, even people who didn't do anything). It is a burning that we feel, a fury that is difficult to quench, and it seems to arise in us spontaneously in many cases, regardless of whether or not we asked for it. Can Jesus really be saying that the mere experience of the emotion is enough to bring judgment on us?
Perhaps, but I don't think this his point. Notice what Jesus says in the verses immediately following: "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matt. 5:22) I think if we are paying attention, we see that Jesus is in fact right on board with the Psalmist and Paul (or, considering Jesus' identity, perhaps we should say that the Psalmist and Paul are right on board with Jesus). The 'being angry' is not the ultimate source of judgment (though perhaps we may be judged for being too easily angered); instead, it is the anger which lashes out that is condemned.

Notice how Jesus describes this - his condemnation of anger grows in intensity with each sentence based on what the angry person is
doing: if you are angry with your brother, you will be judged... if you insult your brother, you will be liable to the council, if you say "You fool!" (literally "raca," a degrading Aramaic term), you will be liable to the hell of fire. Jesus has in mind here a very specific kind of anger - the kind of anger that leads us into sin, causing us to hate and mistreat those around us. Such anger has no place among Christians. Paul recognizes this as well, which is why he gives us the instruction, "do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." (Eph. 4:26-27) Like Jesus, he recognizes the inherent danger in being angry, that it erodes our capacity for selfless love and respect. It is important to notice how Paul's exhortation comes in the midst of a lot of practical advice (vv.25-32), and that all of it is grounded in what he has just said prior (vv.17-24). In the preceding verses he tells the Ephesians (and us) that "you have heard about [Jesus] and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (vv.21-24) Christians are new people, Paul is insisting, with new lives that differ drastically from before. He does not want us to "walk as the Gentiles do" - in other words, we must not walk like those who are without the presence of God in their lives.

What does the absence of God in one's life involve? Well, if we look carefully at Paul's description we see that his condemnation of the unbelieving Gentiles' lives focuses especially on their
ignorance "in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous." (vv.17-19) But, he says, "that is not the way you learned Christ!" (v.20) Christians are supposed to be people who know God in a saving relationship, and who understand the kind of life he calls them to live into. We must "put away falsehood" (v. 25) in order to live differently, to "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (v.32) If we are people who know that God's anger towards us was satisfied on the cross of Christ and that even now we depend upon God's mercy to save us from our sins, how on earth can we then become so enraged with others that we lash out at them, when we ourselves are every bit as sinful? To 'be angry and sin,' as Jesus, the Psalmist, and Paul caution us against, is to be "darkened in understanding." It is to ignore the fact God in Christ has forgiven us.

What kind of anger is appropriate for Christians, then? One of the observations that Pastor Roeda made in his sermon is that saying "Be angry, and do not sin" is not the same as saying "Lust, and do not sin." They are different categories of emotions, and anger has a much greater variety than lust when it comes to what the emotion does and how it is caused. There is such a thing as
good anger, and it is an anger which Jesus displays at multiple points. At the beginning of Mark chapter 3 (read), Jesus comes into a synagogue on the Sabbath, and encounters a man with a withered hand. He knows the Pharisees have their eyes on him, looking for an opportunity to accuse him of violating the Sabbath. Their interest is not in the Sabbath itself, nor is it for this man who is suffering, but their sole hope is to find some means of condemning Jesus. He says to them the biting words, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" (Mk. 3:4) and they say nothing in reply, making it obvious what they are waiting for. Now something interesting happens, something that we mustn't miss if we want to understand the character of Jesus of Nazareth properly: before healing the man's withered hand, "he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart." (v.5) The second phrase explains the first - Jesus is grieved that these Pharisees are so calloused and hard-hearted, ignorant of God's goodness and of the very meaning of the Sabbath, that they are incapable of receiving his message, incapable of feeling for this weak man with a withered hand, and so obsessed with upholding human tradition (in their specific interpretation of 'work' on the Sabbath) that they do not recognize the Messiah when they are sitting in his very presence. Their ignorance and calloused minds are incapable of love, mercy, and true justice. So, Mark records, Jesus feels anger toward them.

This is good anger, and if we are to feel anger at all, this is the kind we should feel. A look at
John 2:13-17 will reveal a very similar kind of anger. This anger is best described as a
passion for justice on behalf of those who suffer, and also a passion for glorifying God. It fits in parallel with the greatest commandment we are expected to follow: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. When we see either of these being neglected, anger is the appropriate response, a 'righteous indignation' that is grieved (as Jesus was) that injustice exists and that the greatness of God is being ignored. It is very different from the 'bad anger' Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount. The anger that sins, which Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4, is an anger that concerns the self. It is based on a feeling of inadequacy, that a personal slight must be met with wrath and vengeance, that the person who insulted me must be destroyed. But the good kind of anger has little to do with the self - it is instead focused on God and others. It is not a capricious kind of anger, but simply a passion for justice and righteousness. This is the kind of anger we are right in feeling, and Jesus serves as our example in the two passages I mentioned and elsewhere throughout the New Testament.

Not only that, but this kind of anger is what
God the Father feels toward sin and evil. Paul writes in Romans, "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." (Rom. 1:18) This is something that few pastors like to talk about in the pulpit, but I truly believe that this statement (for believers, anyway) is actually good news, not bad! It means that God hates evil and is committed to justice down to the very core of his being. It means that God is not 'okay' with the injustices of our world and with the unrighteousness of people in the world. This burning passion is awakened by the fact that people "by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." God cares about truth. If God did not feel anger at all of this, what kind of God would we suppose him to be? Indifferent at best, or evil at worst. No - God is indignant at the evils of the world, and we should be too. We cannot say we love anyone in the world or anything about the world if we do not also say that we hate evil and injustice.

And this injustice, we quickly discover, is rooted in ourselves. As Paul writes later in Romans, "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Rom. 1:21) Because of this, they "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals," (v.23) for idols that do not reveal the truth about God.This way of thinking is exactly what Paul diagnoses elsewhere, if we go back to Ephesians: "you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph. 4:17-18) Human beings have a fundamentally disordered existence - we are by nature unreceptive and unresponsive toward God, and instead we feel the kind of anger that leads into sin, the kind of anger that is rooted in self-absorbed, obsessive pride, that wants nothing more than to destroy anyone who utters the slightest insult or or suggests the slightest fault on our part. In doing this we live lives without God, and in that we "suppress the truth."

The truth is, however, that "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 Jn. 4:8). The truth is, "God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him," (v.16) and that "everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (3:15) Those are strong words, and challenging, especially to those of us who go around claiming that God loves us and gave his only-begotten Son to die for our sins and yet still lash out in anger at other people, showing our contempt for anyone we happen to dislike or by whom we feel wronged. When we do this, we are suppressing the truth - the beautiful truth - that God has come into the world to destroy evil, punish injustice, and rescue the oppressed; that we should have a passion for that justice, and that such passion must lead us to love those around us, "forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph. 4:32) We cannot love the good and take delight in it unless we also hate the bad and grow angry on behalf of the weak, seeing justice neglected.

If you are reading this and are not a Christian, I invite you to consider how you have felt anger in the past. What kinds of things make you angry very quickly, and cause you to lash out at others, even at others who have nothing to do with the anger? What do you think that says about human nature, that we are so immediately protective of our selves, trying to justify everything we do and admit no error? According the the Apostle Paul, we are by nature darkened in our understanding, living in the futility of our minds without any substantial knowledge of God. That may be a difficult idea to stomach, but it is accompanied by the best news the world has to offer - that "God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved!" (Eph. 2:4-5) God gives us hearts to understand him, even though we have been calloused and futile in our thinking, and by doing so he enables us to love him, love others, and long for justice in the world. It may be difficult to admit how very wrong things have gone in the world and within all of us individually, but doesn't it seem obvious that they have, if we are being honest with ourselves? Consider what Paul is saying, that we ought to live a renewed lifestyle grounded in our knowledge of God, a lifestyle that overflows with a passion for justice, a love for God and for others, and at times, a very real anger on behalf of others to see injustice being perpetuated so constantly in a world that is without God. May God give you grace to come and receive his love, so that in newness of life you can "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Eph. 4:32)