Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Trinity: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 8 August 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2; St. John 6: 35, 41 – 51)
If you look down the list of the seven Deadly Sins – which you may not do very frequently – in amongst the more popular ones like Pride, Envy and Gluttony, you will find Anger. Some people are surprised by this, seeing anger as a common and relatively harmless emotion. And they might be encouraged in that idea by a small sentence in today’s Epistle. Writing to the Christians in Ephesus (where he was once almost lynched – but that is for another day), St Paul says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”
Actually, what he said (in the original Greek) was “Be angry, AND do not sin.” That appears on the face of it to rule out a causal connection between anger and sin. So what does he mean?
It would seem he is here talking about righteous indignation, not a fit of bad temper. As William Barclay points out, “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, or of Shaftesbury against the labour conditions of the 19th century.” He speaks of Jesus’ terrible and majestic anger, for instance against the scribes and Pharisees who would deny healing on the Sabbath to a man with a withered hand; or when he made a whip and drove the money-changers and sacrificial animal sellers out of the Temple courts.
There is, on the back page of the Church Times week by week, an interview with someone who has led an interesting life with religious connotations. One of the questions is “What makes you angry?” The answers generally involve righteous anger – injustice, stupidity, political leaders who don’t tell the truth (a semi-permanent source of anger, one imagines). I notice, though, that this week’s interviewee answers, rather charmingly, “spending 20 minutes trying to find my phone in the morning.”
The key to righteous anger is that it must be controlled: one cannot imagine William Wilberforce ranting manically in Parliament. It would not have helped. But with Paul’s next words – famous as they justly are – we move into more familiar, everyday territory: “do not let the sun go down upon your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Now he is talking about the sort of anger which finds its way into the roll-call of Deadly Sins. And it is worth examining more closely.
We may identify various stages as anger mounts. The first is impatience or irritation, a common – probably universal – response to life’s small trials. Personally, I find things more irritating than people, especially objects or machines that refuse to do what they are supposed to, or what one wants them to do. People one can accommodate, reason with and understand. But for those who cannot always make such accommodation, irritation can lead on to verbal aggression, lashing out with the wounding insult, or even, for those who cannot find suitable words, physical violence.
That in turn may lead to the dangerous stage of anger, where something snaps, and all sense of moderation and proportion disappears and we are out of control. German proverb: “a man in a passion rides a horse that runs away with him.” I take, incidentally, as a warning another German proverb: “Old men are soon angry.” It is easy to see how some families in lockdown, especially those in flats and with small children, reached this point.
A further stage, perhaps the most poisonous, can be the aftermath, if it is accompanied by resentment, smouldering anger which can quickly re-ignite, and long-term dislocation between the parties. Under those circumstances it is difficult to offer the hand of reconciliation, not least for fear it will be angrily rejected.
That is why St Paul’s advice, to the Ephesians, but also to us as Christians, is to try not to make room for the devil in the first place, and not to let the sun go down on our anger. In the poet Horace’s words, anger is a ‘furor brevis”, a brief madness, to be controlled lest it dominates. That is of course often easier said than done; but if we feel our impatience beginning to pass into real anger, which can be so spiritually and physically destructive if nurtured or allowed to burst out uncontained, it may just help to bring to mind four words of Jesus – “bless, and curse not.”
As he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” St Paul unpacks this in our Epistle, and helps us to fix our eyes on the ideal, which, with God’s help, we may attain:
“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger ….. and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.”
But perhaps most appropriate for us in this Communion Service are Jesus’ words of admonition: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”