Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. (Ephesians 4:26)
Jesus gives us a new life, but he also realizes that we have to learn how to live it. That may sound a little odd. I mean, we’re simply alive, right? Well, no actually.
Just because you’re breathing and your heart is beating does not mean you’re really living in the full sense of the word. And Jesus wants us to have life in the full sense of the word.
And so Jesus came as both our savior and our teacher. In that order. What I mean is this. Jesus did not come to give us a set of teachings that, if followed precisely, will lead us to salvation. In a way, that would make salvation our own achievement. Christianity would be about the Good Rules.
But Jesus came bearing Good News. Good rules tell us what to do. Good News tells us what has already been done, what Jesus has already done for us.
Jesus saved us by dying for us on the cross and rising again from the dead. Believing in him gives us a new kind of life: eternal life. The moment we put our trust in Jesus, eternal life begins, at least dimly.
As our reliance upon him extends more and more into our everyday routines and choices and priorities, we are increasingly permeated by the eternal life that only Jesus imparts.
In other words, Jesus came to secure for us a new kind of life right now, and that life will carry on, in fact will come into full flower, when we pass through the veil of death.
But let’s be clear. Eternal life is something that Jesus helps us get the hang of today. Right now. It’s like playing the piano or hitting a golf ball or taking a foul shot or running a marathon. It takes practice. And that is where Jesus’ teaching comes in.
Jesus does not teach us how to achieve or to earn eternal life. He teaches us how to exercise the gift of eternal life that he gives us.
He summarizes his teaching like this: Love God so much that you would give up anything else to be with him and love your neighbor as if your own life depended on it.
That’s the summary of the law. You may more readily recognize it like this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus did not say, “Act like this and you’ll be saved.” Instead, Jesus died for us to give us a life that that looks like this. Through Jesus we can make God our greatest love. Through Jesus we can embody compassion and mercy for other people because of who we are, not who they are.
And it is in this spirit that Paul teaches the Ephesians, and he teaches us, about living with anger.
Some people equate following Jesus with being nice. As a result, they assume that anger is a moral failing. To feel anger at all is, in their view, a sign that we are not loving and merciful. Every feeling of anger must be quickly suppressed.
Let’s face it. This strategy never really eradicates anger. Swallowing our resentments and aversions leads us to channel our antagonism into passive aggression. Or perhaps worse, we turn our ire inward on ourselves as depression, bitterness, and acid reflux.
A popular but no less misguided theory says that anger is like any other feeling and we should freely express every emotion we have. We are our feelings, or so goes this line of thinking.
Unfortunately for those who follow this philosophy of life, the reality is that they learn no self-control and become a victim of their emotions. Emotions are fleeting, shifting according to ever-changing external circumstances and modulations in blood chemistry and the electrical activity of the brain.
People who make a habit of going with wherever their emotions take them are mercurial, flighty, reactive, or just plain unreliable. But in the case of anger, there is something more dangerous.
Unlike many other emotions, anger has the capacity to become a spiritual habit that defines our soul. Anger can color every moment, every interaction with negativity and contempt. (Fear and shame can also take up permanent spiritual residence, but that’s for another sermon.)
This is why Jesus himself takes pains to teach about it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here is what he says:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Jesus teaches that nurturing anger leads to contempt. Think of contempt as a lens that filters out the humanity of another person and brings only their least flattering characteristics into view.
When Jesus equates anger with murder, he is not looking at the outward behavior but the inner state of the soul. You cannot murder a person with a nickname, friends, a mother, sons and daughters, a tender heart, and fond memories. You can only kill a non-human, some contemptible creature.
But contempt works in both directions. In addition to distorting what someone else looks like, it debases the perceiver. It robs the contemptuous person of one of the chief marks of his or her humanity: the ability to see the humanity in another person.
When Jesus taught his disciples to forgive those who hurt you and to serve the hungry, the naked, and the homeless, he was providing us the antidote for contempt. Instead of seeing those with moral failings and those who are down on their on their luck as outcasts, misfits, and troublemakers, followers of Jesus Christ have a challenge from Christ himself. Find the humanity in them that makes them just like us.
The bottom line is that Jesus calls us to be human beings. That means loving our neighbor as ourselves. To so entangle ourselves with the fate and well-being of others that, when they are hurt, we could wish that their sorrow or injury or misfortune had been visited on us instead of on them
When my daughter had open-heart surgery, I would have gladly lain down on that operating table in her place if it had been possible. King David said words like these when his murderous, rebellious son Absalom was killed in battle. You have probably said or thought the same thing about someone you love.
This proves that we have the capacity to identify with another person. In our fallen state, that capacity is sorely diminished and distorted. On our own we could never bring our ability to show compassion, empathy, and mercy to the level Jesus requires.
However, following Jesus saves us. His death restores our relationship with the Father and his resurrection resets our default settings to those proper to the image of God.
Putting our trust in Jesus instantaneously restores us to right relationship with God. That’s what theologians call justification. Getting the hang of being a real human being—acting like the image of God—takes some practice. It takes our effort in concert with the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s what theologians call sanctification.
Jesus’ teaching on anger is not, “Stop getting angry.” Instead, he shows us how his followers deal with anger when it arises.
Love your enemies.
Forgive seventy times seven.
Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers or sisters you do to me.
The very ones we are most likely to look down upon or to ignore—those who disagree with us, those who have hurt us, and those who are social misfits for reasons of means or manners or looks—are our best opportunities to practice being redeemed humans.
And here is Jesus’ cheat sheet. Sometimes it is very difficult to find the humanity in another person. So, Jesus tells us to look for him in them. After all, he is not only fully God but fully and perfectly human. And he promises to plant himself right in the midst of every heart at its very worst moment.
Try this prayer: Jesus, I don’t see anything lovable in this person, but I know you’re in there. Show yourself!
Here’s the truth Jesus’ followers must cling to. Any humanity we have we have received through him as a gift. When we practice our humanity, we’re simply letting him shine more fully through us. Other people have offered that prayer about us, too.
So, being a redeemed human means recognizing someone like ourselves in the other. This does not mean seeing someone who agrees with us on politics or religion. Instead, we see these things:
Someone in need of mercy
Someone who is limited and offers themselves timidly as an imperfect gift
Someone for whom Christ died
Seeing others in this way takes practice. Practice does not make us perfect. But if we commit ourselves to practice, Jesus will perfect us over time and into eternity.
This sermon was preached at Redeemer, Oak Ridge, on Sunday, August 12, 2012.