A Sermon from Sherborne

The anger and the love

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 4 March 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


I have been thinking about the anger of God in the light of this morning’s Gospel [John 2.13-22] which has Jesus going into the Temple and, with a whip he has fashioned for the purpose, driving out those who were buying and selling in the Temple precincts, upsetting the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons, and roaring “Take these things out of here! Stop making my father’s house a market-place!”

Only John records this incident at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. The other Gospels place it at the end. All sorts of theories have been put forward to explain this, one even suggesting that he did it twice. I think it is simply a matter of how the Evangelists chose to arrange their material. What they all recall is his furious anger. It is tangible. And of course he could be just as furious with the religious leaders of the time, frequently excoriating the “scribes and pharisees” as hypocrites and “whited sepulchres”.

Of course we are familiar with the many places in the Old Testament where God appears horribly offended by the slowness and the laziness of his people, by their moral and spiritual idleness. Often he is represented as wrestling with his own anger, a struggle sometimes dramatically portrayed. Think of the great disaster scenarios, where God floods the earth because it is utterly corrupt, or wipes out the Cities of the Plain, or sends scorpions to chastise the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. His anger is constantly at boiling point, and in constant tension with his love. His justice wrestles with his mercy.

But we liberal-minded western Christians too often tend to overlook the offence of the hard words of Jesus Christ. We gloss over his anger and his indignation, the urgent warnings of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. And yet always there was in Jesus a fierce impatience to call people to account, to make them aware of the great danger they were in. He calls them to repent, to turn back, before it is too late. With a frightening clarity he sees the inevitability of judgement for those who persist in their wilful, selfish, journey to destruction.

And yet – the terrible judgements of Christ and his most withering denunciations are immediately succeeded by a gentleness, a tenderness, a heartbroken pity and yearning for us in our lostness. You sense the overwhelming force of his desire to gather us into his arms as a hen gathers her brood under her wings – and we would not. It is an agonising paradox, and yet in Jesus we feel ourselves to be at the same time totally rejected and utterly accepted. In him, somehow, we come close to total loss and to total gain.

And this truth about Christ is mirrored in the Church. It explains how a parish priest can seem to swing between anger and love for his people: he is impatient for their holiness, their sanctification, and at the same time he is possessed by love and tenderness for them, a complete acceptance of them as they are. It explains why Christians are so often torn between wanting to proclaim the divine Law as recorded in the Bible and needing to practise the divine Love as demonstrated in the Bible. The trouble really begins when one group decides to champion the divine Law and another the divine Love. Where does the Bible suggest these are an “either/or”? They are an “and/and”.

What we need to remember, all the time, is that the Church is not the divine Judge, is not God, and priest and primate and pope alike have to learn to come before God with nothing left in them except deep, deep love and compassion for all their people. Their job – my job – is not to judge but to plead: it is the Church’s job to plead with the divine anger on behalf of the divine mercy. And above all our job is to explain how the apparent conflict between love and judgement is resolved in Christ.

For resolved it is. Not in anything Christ said. His words are still that agonising mixture of ambiguity and paradox upon which we attempt to impose patterns in vain. Never join in the barren and destructive exercise of firing the words of Jesus backwards and forwards between Christian people like machine-gun fire, or lobbing texts at one another like hand grenades. We can all make words mean what we want them to mean. The thing to grasp is that Christ’s words are not all that he left us. It is as if he realised that his words alone could not save us, and so he stopped speaking. The voice that entranced us with tender acceptance and withered us with towering denunciation was stilled. There was silence over all the earth. And a silent word, the Word made flesh, was spoken in Christ’s dying. The divine love died to bear the divine anger. What could not be resolved in words or formulae, Christ brought together on the Cross.

And so, it seems to me, the last and most enduring word of Christ is forgiveness. But it is not a cheap word. The terrible demand of God remains, and so does our failure. The divine anger is still directed at us. We cannot be at ease in Zion, and certainly not in Sherborne, because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But in the end the divine anger is overruled by the divine love, overruled in Christ’s body on the tree. The final mystery is forgiveness; forgiveness is the crowning mystery of God. We dare affirm it not because of what Christ said, but because of what he has done, done for us. And so it is in awe and trembling that we should come to the altar, in awe and trembling but also in overwhelming gratitude and praise, when we hear those solemn, costly, joyful words:

Draw near with faith. Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you, and his blood which he shed for you. Eat and drink in remembrance that he died and lives for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 04/03/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne