Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Wrath of God

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
April 16, 2015

Happy thirteenth day of Easter! Only thirty-seven left to go. Revel in the Easter joy.

That’s what our readings do during this season. We hear a lot about the early church from the Acts of the Apostles, that second volume of Luke’s gospel that traces the time from Jesus’ ascension to Paul’s final journey towards Rome. In this scene, the earliest apostles are already in hot water and already learning how to make their case—that following Jesus does not represent a betrayal of their Jewish faith but rather, in their belief, its joyful fulfillment. The reaction is that the authorities are enraged and want to kill them. And that’s the flipside of engaging with a joy this all-encompassing. It may demand our very lives.

We also hear a lot from John’s gospel during Easter season. This is because, of the four gospels, John’s gives us the most fully developed theology of the Risen Christ, tried and tested over a number of decades within Christian community. Often what we find in John’s gospel are not necessarily Jesus’ original words, but words that attempt to set Jesus within a larger context. Jesus starts by talking to one specific person, and then John uses this conversation to get us to a place where we’re all ready to hear some larger teaching.

In this case, though, the words we hear come from a scene in which Jesus is absent. The verses we have here may be intended to be those of John the Baptist, but since there are no quotation marks in biblical Greek, we’re not sure. John has just been saying that Jesus is the Messiah, and that John is stepping back to make room for him. Then come these verses, either meant to be spoken by John or by the narrating gospel writer. Either way, these words sum up a passage about Christ’s role in the world and in our lives: “the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.”

One thing that can easily bug us about John’s gospel is that he often portrays things in stark, black-and-white, contrasting terms. This is a great method if you want to convince people to agree with you—you’re either this, or that—and John tells us right at the end of his gospel that his goal is to make us agree with him. Indeed, quite often in life we do have to make decisions between precisely one thing and precisely another. Specific situations call on us to decide something definitively.

But hypothetical situations do not, and this is why black-and-white pronouncements are not a great way to do theology in general. So when, in the Bible, we hear earth contrasted directly with heaven, or flesh contrasted directly with spirit, it’s a good idea to slow down and notice the import of what is being contrasted, and what is being asked of us personally.

The most striking contrast I see in this passage is one that we might not assume to be a direct contrast. I’m talking about the contrast between believing in Jesus and disobeying Jesus. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” The stakes are pretty high here: belief leads to eternal life, while disobedience leads to an inability to “see life,” and to “God’s wrath.”

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath
What is the meaning of “God’s wrath” for us, who are Easter people, who understand Jesus to have drawn all to himself, who revel in the joy of the resurrection? When, as John of Chrysostom said, “forgiveness has risen from the grave,” how can there still be talk of God’s wrath?

The “wrath of God” is a very specific phrase that sees specific use in Scripture. The Greek word we translate as “wrath” is “horge,” “a vigorous upsurge of one’s nature against someone or something” – “anger, wrath, indignation; as the divine reaction against evil, bringing judgment and punishment both historically and in the future; as a future culmination of judgment in an outpouring of the stored-up anger of God.” It is usually mentioned in the New Testament in relation to God’s attitude towards human sin.

We might not be comfortable talking about the wrath of God against us. But what about the wrath of God against our enemies? Is that easier to grasp? How about the wrath of God against terrorists, against exploiters and abusers, against the greedy and the dishonest? In these cases, we might want very much for God to show some wrath, because we harbor some wrath of our own. And why shouldn’t we? Injustice should make us very angry.

So if God has some wrath to dish out on the day of judgment, we have some idea who deserves it, right? Not so fast, writes Paul in his letter to the Romans. He tells us that when we judge others, we bring God’s wrath on ourselves. In other words, whatever “the wrath of God” means, nobody is immune to being at the receiving end of it.

Some corners of Christianity use passages like these to develop a theology that God’s very nature is so repulsed by our sinful actions that God cannot bear to be near us. Jesus is the one who washes our sin away and makes us able to come close to God again. The problem with this is that it seems to show Jesus to be a completely different entity from God. God can’t be near us, but Jesus can? This isn’t in keeping with our asserted theology that the three persons of the Trinity share one nature and are the one God.

I would say instead that while we can describe some actions as sinful, it is not the actions themselves that are sinful in black-and-white terms, but rather the quality of the relationship. Sin refers to our turning away from God, and I think this most often comes through our shortsightedness. God comes to us to be helpful and loving, but if we do not understand that we want God’s help or need God’s love, then we will turn away from it.

And so we come back to this strange contrast between belief and disobedience. We don’t normally think of these two things as opposites. But what might it mean if they are? Think of a parent-child relationship. What does it mean for the child to believe in the parent? I think it means trust. The child might say, “I trust that my dad will not leave me at the grocery store. I trust that my mom will come in and kiss me good night, even if I’m already asleep. I believe in them.”

In the same parent-child model, disobedience might have something to do with mistrust. A teenager might say, “I no longer trust that my parents understand my needs. I want to go out on the town with my friends, and I refuse to be prevented from doing so. So I’m going to swipe the car keys when they’re not looking, and just go.” The result will be a damaged relationship between child and parents.

We are in constant need of reminding that God always understands us and always has our best interests at heart, even when it hurts. No matter how much we talk about the “wrath of God,” we must never lose sight of the fact that God will never harm or destroy us. Any harm or destruction that does come to us does not come from God. Rather, God “gives the Spirit without measure.” God offers us more love and joy than we could possibly know what to do with.

What, then, does it mean for the “wrath of God” to be revealed on the day of judgment? Well, when the kid straggles in at 3:00 a.m. with alcohol on his breath and the car wrapped around a telephone pole, I can guarantee you there’s going to be some judgment and wrath! But why? Because of the damage to the car? No, of course not. It’s because of the parents’ worry about their child having been in danger. Whatever it takes to redeem this damaged relationship, then, the parents and the child will have to go through it. And that begins with judgment: accurate assessment of the damage, because it may seem at first that the relationship, not just the car, is totaled.

Maybe it’s a quirk of human nature, but I think that God’s judgment must just feel like wrath to us. Because judgment demands that we change. God demands that we grow beyond what we believe to be our limitations. We never have to worry about earning God’s love—that’s not even a question. But being in a loving relationship with God is hard work.

And so our Easter joy can even survive an encounter with the wrath of God, because divine joy is large and deep and comes to us as an ocean of grace. There is always more of God to love us back into life again, no matter how far gone we are, no matter how much it demands of us, no matter how long it takes. God is Love, and Love is calling us home. Amen.

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