The readings for Year B Proper 14 are available here and include this from Ephesians 4-5:
Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. … 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. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
There is plenty going on just in this tightly-packed passage of Ephesians: tell the truth; be careful with your anger; consider how you gain and how you spend your worldly goods, not out of plain self-interest, but for the good of those who need your goodness; be imitators of Christ in your dealings with one another. Live in love, as Christ has loved us.
Walk in love, because Christ has loved us.
For me, it is always striking to read that the letter of the Bible says, go ahead, get angry; just do not sin. Many of you will have grown up like me in households where we were discouraged from getting angry, to say the least; where anger was the privilege of a powerful few, and the rest were expected to keep meek and stay mild; where we were taught that, for us, anger is the sin. There is something freeing, for us, in being instructed by scripture to be angry, and to be expected to be angry without it becoming a sin.
Anger is dangerous. That much seems evident. From the days of Cain who killed Abel out of jealousy, simple self-interest that gave birth to murderous anger; to last year’s horrific events in Charlottesville, Va, when Heather Heyer was killed by someone whose unrighteous, self-interested, jealous anger again spilled over into deadly violence; we know that anger that is born out of envy, greed, corruption, selfishness, hatred; anger that is born out of enmity leads most directly to deadly sin.
But there is an anger, born of love, that leads towards life. William Barclay, in his commentary on the epistle, notes that
There must be anger in the Christian life, but it must be the right kind of anger. Bad temper and irritability are without defence; but there is an anger without which the world would be a poorer place. The world would have lost much without the blazing anger of Wilberforce against the slave trade …
The anger which is selfish and uncontrolled is a sinful and hurtful thing, which must be banished from the Christian life. But the selfless anger which is disciplined into the service of Christ and of our fellow men is one of the great dynamic forces of the world.”[i]
Selfless anger which is disciplined into the service of Christ and of our fellow folk is one of the great dynamic forces of the world.
Look at the times when Jesus became angry: when people would try to deny another the chance for healing, for forgiveness, for a blessing, because of the Sabbath, because of their status, because of their stature. When people used corruption, greed, self-righteousness to turn others away from the temple of the living God. Whatever would get in the way of loving God and loving one’s neighbour; that is what made Christ angry. Whatever would get in the way of walking in love, as Christ loved us.
When we tame Christ’s anger out of the story, we lose a dynamic force. Barclay again says, “There is a place for the tiger in life; and when the tiger becomes a tabby cat, something is lost.”[ii]
The instruction to anger without sin is related to the instruction to tell one another the truth. Christ was not one to leave too many things unsaid, one might think. One who is righteous in anger and does not sin will not leave evil to go uncontested.
When evil is abroad, promoting its lies in subtle or in strident fashion, undermining the foundations of love on which the kingdom of God is constructed; when it ranks people by their skin, by their status; when it ranks people by their similarity to the one doing the ranking, then unless that one is God’s own self, it is a lie.
Avoiding sin is not the same thing as burying truthful, rightful, roaring anger at such lies. When that tiger is caged, something is lost. Righteous anger is the integrity of the tiger as a free, whole creature of God, raging to be set free.
Here’s a really small and quiet and totally manageable real-life example. I once had a conversation about the kind of bike lines that we now have outside the church. They were not a fan, labelling them a liberal conspiracy. Then, the person said, “They’re just gay, really.”
It was, I promise you, just as easy to tell that person, “Using ‘gay’ as a slur is offensive and I don’t appreciate it,” as it would have been to let it go.
The menace of casual slurs, which pile up like trash stinking up the lives of people we love; these careless lies and injuries are compounded by the things that go unsaid by those of us who know better, and say nothing. I have done that, raised to stay meek and mild, conflict-avoidant; I have stayed silent enough times to know that it is harder on my conscience, in the long run, than speaking out is on my confidence.
Whatever gets in the way of loving God, loving our neighbours, walking in love as Christ loves us; these things should make us angry.
“Do not make room for the devil,” the letter warns. Do not allow the Father of Lies to make you doubt the righteousness of Christ’s anger wherever false prophets set up roadblocks to the love of God and the true love of one’s neighbour.
Even so, anger is dangerous. Hence, the letter-writer advises “do not let the sun go down on your anger;” rather, “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.”
Do not let the sun go down on your anger, because you do not want it to infect your dreams, over which you have no control. Righteous anger can be used to the advantage of the kingdom of God; championing the abolition of slavery; fighting the Nazi holocaust; marching to make sure that everyone has heard and understood that Black Lives Matter; defending the defenceless and the endangered. But anger is only useful as a tool in the hands of one who has control of it, and who is not controlled by it. It must always be servant only to the purposes of love, of kindness, of a tender heart, promoting the love of God and the true love of neighbour, if it is not to become sin.
Walk in love, as Christ loves us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Walk in love. Let truth-telling, let anger, let our words, our work, even let forgiveness serve only the purposes and pathways of love.
Walk in love. Walk like a tiger, wildly, freely, loudly, dangerously. Love like Christ, selflessly, completely, without reservation, without exception, without end. There is no sin in that.
[i] William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, The Daily Study Bible, Revised Edition (The Westminster Press, 1976), 155-156
[ii] Barclay, 156
This post has been edited.