The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
17th September 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last week we heard the story of the Passover, and I began my sermon by drawing out the connection between the Passover and the Last Supper, and particularly with the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday. There is a very similar connection to be drawn out this Sunday. Just as the story of the Passover is read every year on the evening of Maundy Thursday, so too the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea is read every year at the Easter Vigil. And just as at the Maundy Thursday liturgy there is almost no-one there to hear the reading except the choir, so too at the Easter Vigil! Which is a shame, because the Easter Vigil is the liturgical summit of the whole Christian year.
The Easter Vigil is the service at which we celebrate that mysterious moment in the night, before the women or the disciples arrive at the tomb; that mysterious moment when Jesus’ triumph over death is accomplished. As last week, so this week, I encourage you to put the date in your diaries: Saturday 30th March. Be there!
And again, as with the Passover, the story of the Crossing of the Red Sea is a story of both God’s deliverance and of God’s justice. Deliverance, because the Israelites are saved from slavery in Egypt and bloodshed at the hands of the Egyptian army; justice, because the Egyptians are punished for their violence and cruelty, and also for their arrogance in pursuing the Israelites even to the seabed. I suspect that many of us like the deliverance better than we like the justice. We like the idea of a God who saves us from our enemies; but we’re not too keen on the idea of God’s justice because in our heart of hearts we know that there are many reasons why we ourselves should be on the receiving end of it.
The story sits perhaps a little awkwardly with the gospel reading, with its focus on forgiveness. And yet, when we look at the two situations, we realise that there are some important differences. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we are dealing with people who admit their debt, and who are asking for mercy from a position of honesty about their responsibilities. The Exodus story is very different. Pharaoh is utterly unrepentant; his heart is hardened and his purpose is fixed. He has chosen the path of oppression and violence. He is not asking for forgiveness.
Liberal-minded Christians in our generation are very uneasy with the idea of the wrath of God. I have been uneasy with it myself at times. But reflecting both on the holy scriptures and also on the world around us, I increasingly recognize that it is a vital category for thinking about God and the relationship between God and humanity. That said, it’s important to handle this concept with extreme care.
All our language about God is ultimately metaphorical. Human language is inadequate to describe God, still less adequate to probe God’s nature and character. We use all sorts of words about God – almighty, Father, wise, merciful, loving and so forth – because they correspond to some truth about God’s nature as revealed to us. And yet we must remember that these words are not adequate to describe God. We call God almighty, and yet God transcends all human ideas of might. We call God wise, and yet God transcends all human wisdom. All our language is inadequate, approximate and metaphorical, in the face of the transcendent mystery of God. And so we need to take great care in applying any human term to God, and this is perhaps most especially true of the concept of the wrath of God.
Especially true because so many of us have emotional baggage connected perhaps with an angry parent or an angry schoolteacher or some other negative childhood memory. It is so easy start projecting onto God the image of some bad-tempered adult that our childhood self was forced to constantly appease and placate, and then to start worrying that God will be angry with us if we do or don’t do x, y and z. And this causes us to lapse into a kind of transactional way of thinking about religious life, in which we tell ourselves that if we put an extra pound in the collection, or go to Evensong as well as the morning service, then God won’t be angry with us anymore. Now of course I would encourage everyone to put an extra pound in the collection, and indeed to attend Evensong as well as the morning service, but we should do these things out of love rather than to placate some imagined grumpy old man in the sky. It’s easy then to see how the projection of human experiences of anger onto God can lead to both spiritual and psychological unhealth, and also, when unscrupulous religious leaders are in the mix, to spiritual and psychological abuse.
All of that said, I still think the wrath of God is an important concept in Christian faith – yes, one that must be handled with extreme care – but vital nonetheless. We say that God is almighty, eternal, wise, good. We say that God is loving and merciful. We say even that God is love. What should the response of a good and loving God be to human wickedness? How does pure goodness respond to a human being who has committed themselves to the pursuit of enslavement of others, and who has chosen violence to achieve his ends? Do we really expect God to be indifferent in the face of the cruelty, dishonesty and complacency of the human race? Do we want a God who just shrugs and says “oh well nevermind” in the face of profound wickedness?
We must not kid ourselves that God is indifferent to injustice. The God of the bible is profoundly a God of justice, and the wrath of God in the face of human wickedness appears too frequently in the bible to be breezily dismissed. But despite our inability to measure up to God’s standard of goodness, there is hope.
In the Easter Vigil we celebrate the Exodus accomplished by Jesus for our liberation. Jesus passes through the waters of death, and the enemies that lurk within the human heart are defeated and destroyed in the purging flood. Death itself is vanquished. The deliverance from slavery in the first Exodus finds a completion and fulfilment in the deliverance from the slavery of sin and death in the new Exodus that we celebrate at Easter.
And just as God’s justice is also a part of the first Exodus, so too at the Exodus of Easter. The bible speaks often of God’s justice and of God’s wrath, and yet there is also a recognition that God’s justice is tempered by mercy. As the psalmist puts it, “O Lord, correct me, but with judgement; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing”. In the person of Jesus Christ, truly Divine and truly human, and most especially on the Cross, the wrath and the mercy of God are perfectly revealed and resolved; and through the Cross, we are liberated from transactional religion driven by guilt and fear and shame, and enter instead into life in the Spirit, our devotion motivated by the generosity and abundance of love.
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.