The parents of a toddler brought their daughter’s newborn brother home from the hospital. The baby’s room was fitted with a monitor, so the parents could hear what was going on in there from different places in the house.
One day they could hear their toddler daughter approach the crib. They heard her say to her baby brother, “Tell me about what it ’s like to be close to God. I’m starting to forget.”
Like me, you may have heard this story from a variety of sources. Marcus Borg most recently reminded me of it. He uses the story to illustrate the meaning of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
As infants, we are enmeshed in our surroundings. Undifferentiated. We get hungry and we’re fed. We’re wet and we’re changed. But as we mature, we begin to differentiate ourselves from the others in our world. To be ourselves we distance ourselves from others. And that includes God.
As adults, we vaguely remember Eden: a seamless intimacy with our Creator and with everyone in our surroundings. Perhaps it’s more like the sense that something is missing than a discrete set of recollections. We feel as if we are living East of Eden. We long to relearn what we have forgotten, to reconnect.
In Jesus, God is reconnecting us to him and reconnecting us to each other. Jesus does more than provide a set of instructions to follow so that we can reconnect ourselves. Jesus embodies a Way. The Way of dying and rising. We enter that Way through Jesus.
Jesus gives an extended teaching about the Way in the Sermon on the Mount. In today’s Gospel, we’ve come to an especially rich and challenging portion of the sermon. Commentators call it “The Antitheses,” because Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said…….. but I say.”
In the Antitheses Jesus provides specific examples of the effect of God’s transforming love upon us as we follow him on the Way of dying and rising. We gradually become ourselves by getting over ourselves. Or, to paraphrase Jesus a little more closely, we get a life by giving our life away for his sake.
What I want to do this morning is think together about the Way of dying and rising by focusing on what Jesus has to say about anger. As a preparatory step, I want to take care to highlight the core of the Gospel and to set aside a misconception you may have about what Jesus is saying in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount.
Good News, Not New Instructions
Remember that the Gospel is Good News about what God is doing in Jesus. It is not a new set of instructions about how we can achieve the required intellectual conformity, moral rigor, or spiritual purity needed to win God’s approval. Following Jesus transforms our heart and mind and will, and this is perhaps where the confusion arises.
Some people think that Jesus brings a new set of instructions to follow. We win God’s approval by adhering to a strict set of doctrines, a rigid moral code, and a prescribed set of religious practices. Spiritual life becomes a series of successes and failures. Acceptance and rejection. We either meet the bar set by God and win his acceptance, or we fail to measure up and endure his rejection.
If we persist in thinking that Jesus came to give a new set of instructions, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount will be bad news indeed. From this perspective, Jesus seems to be raising the bar so high that none of us stands a chance of getting over it.
He says that it’s not enough to keep your hands from somebody else’s throat. Getting angry at them is the moral and spiritual equivalent to murdering them.
So now it’s not enough to keep my actions in line, I have to control how I think and how I feel?
If Jesus is delivering a new set of instructions I have to follow, I’m a goner. Having an intact internal editor is not good enough. Now I’m accountable for even fleeting unkind thoughts and short bouts of impatience.
Well, as it turns out, Jesus is not giving us a new set of even more rigorous instructions to follow. We don’t have to live in fear of making a mistake and finding ourselves on the outs with God.
As we will see, Jesus is teaching us that the spiritual life is a learning process. Jesus is helping us get the hang of living the life that he has already given us.
The Way of Dying and Rising
Good Friday and Easter crystallize the life that Jesus gives us. Jesus dies and rises again. He dies to an old life and rises with a new life given by the Spirit. It’s helpful to remember that Easter is not a day but a fifty day season.
Jesus is given new life and then he walks the earth for forty days. Ronald Rolheiser explains this forty day period in a way that helps us to see how our own spiritual life works. New life is a gift we get after dying. But that life is, after all, new. We learn how to inhabit this life, like making a new jacket or pair of shoes our own. The fit is not automatic. There’s a breaking-in period.
You will often hear Jesus’ Way characterized as dying to self and rising to selflessness. And while this is not wrong, it can be a little misleading. Some people have misinterpreted following Jesus’ Way to mean that expressing our own needs or resisting injustices done to us is somehow unchristian. It’s as if having a self is a bad thing.
But Jesus does not say that being yourself is a bad thing at all. Instead, he’s helping us see that he has given us a new way to be ourselves. In him, we have already died to a life dominated by self-expression, self-gratification, self-affirmation, and self-preservation.
Jesus is teaching us how to be our new selves, a self whose identity emerges from the bonds of love we weave with God and with other people. You could say that he hangs with us while we practice the life that he has already given us. What Jesus teaches us about anger is an especially clear example.
For most of us, saying “Don’t murder,” simply goes without saying. We are not likely to consider murdering someone else. And yet, we do get angry. Some of us get angry more frequently and more readily than others. Some anger seethes, some explodes. Passive aggression and the cold shoulder can give us plausible deniability, but they are forms of anger nonetheless.
Jesus teaches us to take the destructive power of anger very seriously. He does not say, “Don’t feel that way.” Instead, he tells us that the outward behavior of murder frequently has as its interior side some form of anger. And at the very least, anger distances us from each other.
The new life that Jesus has given us—the Way of Jesus—is all about reconnecting us to each other as God’s beloved. Anger erodes and demeans this way of life.
Jesus does not tell us to stuff our anger or scold us for getting angry. Instead, he teaches us how to unlearn a life that can be hijacked by anger. And he does more than give us an abstract principle about the dangers of anger. He gives us a concrete spiritual practice to use when we get angry.
Now you might be thinking that he tells us to forgive the one who has injured us. But that’s not what he does. I suspect that’s because we are likely to focus so much on our own injury that we complicate the process of forgiveness. He wants us to forgive, but he gives us an important preliminary step.
Instead of focusing on how injured we are and how to let go of our anger toward someone else, we can take our anger as the occasion to remember that we’ve managed to injure some people ourselves.
Before exerting a lot of energy letting someone else back into our lives, Jesus counsels us to look at the injuries we’ve caused and to try to rebuild relationships we have broken.
That’s what he means when he says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Just at the moment that our old habits would turn us inward toward our own grievances, Jesus turns our hearts and minds outward toward the woundedness of others. We will learn how to forgive by experiencing our own need for forgiveness and the relief of being welcomed again into a heart that we have broken.
God has already given us a life devoted to reconnecting. That’s just what we’re here for. Jesus has given us the Way of dying and rising. And he’s hanging in there with us while we get the hang of it.
This sermon was preached at Epiphany Episcopal Church in New Iberia, Louisiana.