A sermon preached on June 20th 1999
St Saviour’s St Albans
Imogen de la Bere
It’s dirty, dusty road. The sun doesn’t give any quarter. Not a tree to be seen. A scruffy group of people, a real mixed bag of types, all pretty rough looking, are streaming behind their leader, a fierce young man, dark and uncompromising. He’s shouting, at the top of his voice, abuse against the authorities. They are trying to ignore him, but it won’t be long before they crush that bad-tempered little cockroach.
No, not a scene from Friday’s riots. A scene from one of my favourite films Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel according to St Matthew made in 1964. It’s filmed in black and white in the poorest part of Southern Italy, using mostly amateur actors. The script uses only the words of Matthews’ gospel, verbatim. Nothing is added. Pasolini was an atheist and a communist, but the film is not in any way anti-Christian. It is quite the reverse, in fact, it is profoundly moving and possibly will be regarded one day as a great religious classic.
It is also a shocking film, not shocking as a pornographic or violent film shocks, but shocking in the sense that it startles you out of a set of preconceptions about Jesus that most of us carry round in our heads, preconceptions left over from Sunday School. You remember? that soft-faced Jesus in a nightie with a perfect proto-hippy hair do , with the children of all nations clustered round him? He must have spent absolutely ages looking after his hair.
The Jesus that Pasolini shows us isn’t like that one little bit. He isn’t a handsome or noble or kind. He is scary, he denounces, he shouts, he is angry. He has terrible things to say to the authorities, to his followers, and every word he utters comes straight from the gospel. Our favourite line from film occurs from the scenes in which Jesus turns on the scribes and Pharisees. He does this quite frequently, Scribi e Pharisi, tutti ipocritti! He cries at them, you’re all hypocrites, tutti ipocritti!
And he doesn’t say it nicely at all. He excoriates them.
This is the Jesus of today’s gospel, the Jesus we try and ignore. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
That is plain awful. I have come to make you fight one other, he says – terrible angry words. We don’t know how to deal with this raging Jesus. We want our gentle Jesus meek and mild, not the one in the portrayed in Matthew’s gospel, we want anger banished, because anger, we have been taught, is a sin.
But is anger a sin?
Anger is natural human emotion, designed to fire us up with the energy we need to clear away blockages, to fight injustice, and to reform corrupt and antiquated systems. Anger makes us cry out loudly against oppression, and animates us up to do something about it. Anger protects us from being exploited by the powerful. Anger gives us the courage needed to think the unthinkable, to do the necessary evil. Anger is natural and anger is good.
After all, is not God constantly characterised as angry? You can hardly pick up the psalms without encountering God’s anger, alongside his justice, mercy and loving-kindness. When you, O lord, are angry, our days are gone; who regards the power of your wrath, who rightly fears your indignation?
So how is it that we have it firmly fixed in our minds and our moral sense, that anger is a sin? It’s one of the good old Seven Deadly Sins – along with Lechery, Gluttony, Avarice, Envy, Sloth and Pride. An ancient catalogue that still provides a good checklist if you’re undertaking a proper spiritual self-examination. We don’t regard Sloth and Avarice as good things, so how can Anger be in the list of sins and yet a natural and useful, or even a good, thing?
I think the answer lies in the nature of sin itself, in what sin really is at its core. Sin is perversion of something normal. The Seven Deadly Sins are evil twins of natural human behaviours. Lechery is the sick version of normal human sexual love. Sloth is the bad version of our natural and necessary human inclination to take things easy. Gluttony is the excessive cousin of our god-given love of food and drink. Even Avarice and Envy, such horrid things, are the warped burlesques of sensible Thrift and the useful desire to emulate others. And Pride – the greatest sin of all – is the hideous caricature of self-esteem – that human quality which we nowadays recognise as essential to our mental and spiritual health. It is necessary, we have found out, although this truth was known to religious teachers as far back as Benedict, it is necessary to love ourselves in order to love others. Pride is the perversion of self-love.
Anger alone of all the sins has no separate word to distinguish the righteous version from the sinful kind. We have to use the same word to describe the force that drives us to bomb the hell out of Serbia and the disgusting passion that drives a Serb paramilitary to kill a whole family of Albanians that had insulted him. Anger is evident in both sets of actions, but in our case, we hope, our anger is the righteous kind, and in the murderous Serb, is the sin.
So a definition of sin might be this: a normal human behaviour or passion which has taken us over, so that instead of controlling it, we are controlled by it -- controlled by it, to the extent that we disregard the needs and feelings of other people and the voice of God.
We are all sinners, it goes without saying, but sometimes it’s hard to know whether we are making any progress on dealing with our sin. Sometimes it seems as if in spite of all our prayers and efforts we are not getting any better.
But this is an illusion – because if you are here now, and thinking about the gospel and wondering with me about the nature of sin, you are already on the road to holiness, even if it looks just like a back street. Because when you stop and consider , the difference between them and us, is this: we are all sinners, those yet to be brought into the bosom of Christ, and we who are there already, but we Christians know we are sinners and are at least struggling with our sins, even if we don’t feel that we are winning. In the words of S Paul,
we know our old self was crucified with Christ so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
We know also that we are still sinners, tiresomely, repetitively committing the same old sins. But the difference that Christ makes, that the practice of our faith makes, is this: we are not enslaved because we are able to look at our sins and acknowledge them, to ask for forgiveness and know as a matter of certainty that we have received it.
The world is still enslaved by sin because it cannot do that – all the world can do is to declare that a thing is wrong in law, and the perpetrator must be punished. Outside the fold of faith a bad deed is either a crime or a personality defect. But we who are not enslaved by sin know that there are deeds and states of mind which are lawful but wrong, and that can be forgiven. We can examine ourselves and see when our righteous anger has tipped in its terrible cousin, when our thrift has become avarice, our self-esteem has calcified into pride. We have the means to identify sin and the opportunity to be forgiven. It does not mean, alas, that we stop committing sin, but it does mean that we are no longer slaves to sin.
How do we go about this evaluation? How do we decide, when we look at ourselves, whether we are embroiled in sin, or just being naturally human? How do I tell if what feels like justifiable anger is really controlling me? How do you know that your nice-easy-going lifestyle is not really pure slothfulness? How do you know whether your passion for fine wine hasn’t turned into gluttony?
As with all these thorny moral problems, the best way to find an answer is to look once more into the gospel. And what do we find?
whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Harsh, difficult words, and not on the face of it particularly useful in our current dilemma. But look again. To tell the difference between righteous anger and sinful anger, we apply the test of Calvary – is my anger or your love of wine hindering us on my long slow crawl after Christ? Are you dominated by your strident self or can you, now and then, once or twice, in the power of Christ, tell it to get lost? Is your horizon filled up by yourself and your likes and dislikes and hopes and fears and needs, or can you see other people, Christ among them ahead of you and around you?
Are you walking along all by yourself, or are you following along that stony and dusty road in the footsteps of love?