s131e00 Somerton Park Sunday 19 13/8/2000
"Put away from you all ... wrath ... be imitators of God ..." Ephesians 4:31,5.1
It is, as we would say "a big ask", to expect of ourselves to be imitators of God. It is surely a totally unrealistic expectation for anyone. The Church talks about us being saints, and we sort of quietly don't hear these words. We think - that's for someone else, someone with more time for their prayers, not for someone with hardly time to "scratch myself" like me. We think - that's for someone with more money to give away to those who indeed need our charity, but not for me who has worked long and hard for the few little luxuries I have managed to scrape together. We think - that's for someone else who doesn't enjoy the occasional beer (or claret :-)> like I do, for someone who doesn't especially enjoy sexual intimacy like I do ...
However as I look at the words from the letter to the Ephesians today, they are all about how we are either self centred or concerned for other human beings. So licentiousness and greed are always at the expense of someone else. It is about being honest with our neighbours, putting aside our anger with those around us, working honestly to share with others, about speaking to give grace to those who hear. The words: "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Eph 4:31-32) are all about how we relate to those around us. They have nothing to do with abstaining from the personal joys of life in order to somehow appease an angry and wrathful God.
Because, of course, if the writer to the letter to the Ephesians seriously expects us to be able to imitate God in this way, then it follows that God does all these things quite perfectly and naturally already. If God didn't do these things perfectly and naturally already, we can hardly be sure what imitating God would mean. I mean, if God had the occasional lapse - perhaps letting the sun go down on the divine anger once or twice throughout eternity, perhaps we're allowed the occasional lapse too ... :-)
No, if we can be asked to imitate God, God must fulfil the criterion of the words, completely and perfectly, already.
So God is not, nor ever has been bitter. So God is not, nor ever has been wrathful. God is not, nor ever has been angry. God has always been and is always kind, God has always been and is always tenderhearted, and God has always and still always forgives.
This is the indelible, unalterable character of God towards everyone, toward the whole of humanity.
Well, not quite the whole of humanity. The reality is that there still are people who do "live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds ... alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart" (Eph 4:18) Clearly within the context, it is hardness of heart towards their neighbours. It follows that it is inconceivable that those who are not ignorant of the loving kindness of the Lord remain self centred and angry towards others. Inconceivable it should be, but all of us who have glimpsed something of the meaning of the Cross for us, still have a way to travel along this path.
There are some theories about the love of God which stress that God's wrath is but the other side of God's love. And I wonder if this can become a way of allowing God to have the occasional lapse, and for us to have more than the occasional lapse too :-) Personally, I think not. There is no place for the proclamation of God's wrath in Christianity. So I heartily endorse the "rubrick" in AAPB p 306 §7 "The following verses (of the psalter) may be omitted in the public worship at the discretion of the minister: 17.14; 54.5; 55.16-17; 58; 59.6,14; 68.21-23; 69.24-30; 79.10,12; 83.17; 101.6,9; 109.5-19; 137.7-9; 139.19-22; 140.9-11; 143.12. I am surprised similar words are not in our new APBA, though perhaps I haven't yet found them. I was bemused to attend the funeral of a member of the clergy a couple of years ago, to find all of Psalm 90 said, rather than, as is usual, omitting verses 7-9; which are:
7. And we are consumed by your anger:
because of your indignation we cease to be.
8. You have brought our iniquities before you:
and our secret sins to the light of your countenance.
9. Our days decline beneath your wrath:
and our years pass away like a sigh.
I rather wonder at the theology being here proclaimed.
I want to comment that the things that the writer of the letter to the Ephesians insists on us doing are all things that we can do. He, (or perhaps she) doesn't ask us to spend our lives on our knees, abstaining totally from the pleasures of life, to become something we are not.
But it is possible for each of us to try to be sensitive to others' feelings, to be disciplined, to accumulate wealth in a restrained manner, to speak the truth. It is possible to try to put aside our anger. It is possible to work, even if not for wages. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute in some way to society. Bringing up children in a stable situation is a great blessing.
(Recently the "Advertiser" showed a picture of the clipper the "City of Adelaide" rotting away in the UK. If someone would allow me to get the "dole", I'd love to work on its restoration.)
It is possible to try to speak no evil, even allowing a few choice words when proverbially we hit our thumb with the hammer attempting to hit the nail. It is possible to try to speak in such a manner as to give grace to those who hear. It is possible to try to put away from us bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. It is quite possible to try to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.
It is these things which constitute "a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph 5:2).
Nowhere does the author ask anyone to wear a "T" shirt with "Christian" emblazoned all over it.
In fact of course Jesus taught that there were many in life who knew not the king who would be admitted into the presence of the Father because they acted in kindness towards a neighbour: 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:40).
As I was preparing this sermon, I saw a TV news item which stated that a particular people wanted the right to fight to retain their sacred places. I should indeed be sad if some of the places I consider sacred were threatened or denied me. Yet we talk of the Church as the people not the building; and I wonder if we really consider how very true this is. There would be very few parishes when there wasn't disputes about the decorations in the building at some stage in their history.
Indeed, it is assuredly one of the reasons that the religious authorities wanted Jesus killed - because he put human charity above religious observances. It is one of the reasons we can say that Jesus died and rose again for those who are charitable following another faith tradition, or of no particular faith tradition. It transpired that the religious authorities were not all that charitable towards someone who thought like this. It is up to us to do better!
People are important, all people. If some people choose to give to God to increase the fabric of the Church, that offering is accepted. Where would humanity be without the contribution the Church has made to the arts over the centuries? If some others choose to give to God by giving to the poor and needy, again that is their choice and that choice is accepted. And of course I mean here far wider than giving to God through Church Charities - every donation towards the relief of the poor - to Red Cross, World Vision or any of the multitude of other charities - all are a gift to God and those offerings are accepted as such, no matter who gives them.
For much of humanity's wrath towards one another, has been, from the time of Cain and Abel, concerned with disputes about whose offering to God is more acceptable (Gen 4:7). Indeed as Matthew and Mark portray it, the impetus for Judas to betray Jesus was the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany. (Mat 26:6-13&26:14-16 // Mk 14:3-9&14:10-11)
There is no place for the wrath of God in Christianity and therefore even less place for "Christians" exercising the wrath of God on others in God's name. We follow only in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who was able to sit down and eat with all people. It should ring alarm bells when we remember that it was precisely this sit down and eat with all people which precipitated the wrath of the religious authorities towards Jesus, and led him to be crucified.
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