Nothing says “the wrath of God” quite like a flood. And the floods we have seen covering parts of Texas and Louisiana as Hurricane Harvey came through have been enough to make you wonder about the power of God, and what it would be like to be required to endure the wrath of God. It would be reassuring today to come to church and hear the story of the rainbow that Noah saw as the great flood receded in the aftermath of God’s wrath; and to be reminded that that wrath was replaced by a promise never to do such a thing again, and in fact to give a lasting sign of the covenant of love between God and humanity in the brilliant colors of the rainbow. It’s worth remembering that promise and that covenant as we try to account for all the rain that’s fallen.
Few snippets of theological wisdom have worked their way into the modern consciousness with as much clarity and precision as the old trope that the God of the Old Testament is an angry, wrathful God, but the God of the New Testament (the God of Jesus) is a loving God. This kind of hogwash is repeated over and over again as if there was the slightest grain of truth in it – which there is not. It must make some Christians feel better to convince themselves that although the Scriptures report that God grew weary, impatient, frustrated, and angry with the children of Israel for their repeated backsliding, idolatry, sinfulness, and faithlessness, he harbors no such responses toward us – sprinkled, as we have been, in the waters of Baptism – when we engage in backsliding, idolatry, sinfulness, and faithlessness.
More to the point, however, some of us really believe, despite everything he tells us, that Jesus has brought with him a Pollyanna Gospel that has nothing but happy thoughts for us. Learning from our great forebear Thomas Jefferson, we have omitted and forgotten whatever portions of the Gospel don’t sit easily with us, judging our own wisdom (with a little help from the sage of Monticello) to be superior to whatever wisdom of God has been enshrined by the Church in the Holy Scriptures.
It is jarring, therefore, to come across phrases in St. Paul’s great epistle to the Romans that don’t sit easily with our common expectations of the cheery God of the New Testament, to wit these words: “but leave room for the wrath of God.” Admittedly, in this passage the words come in a highly specific context regarding God’s claim that vengeance is his and not yours, so you should leave well enough alone when your mind turns toward avenging yourself, your family, your friends, or your neighbors. And the passage in which these highly contextualized words appears is one that most of us decided to ignore long before we arrived in church this morning: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… live in harmony, do not be haughty but associate with the lowly… do not repay anyone evil for evil… live peaceably with all….” Insofar as we heed St. Paul’s advice at all, in our mouths these phrases may amount to the lip service we pay to our “loving” God, who can and will level no judgment toward us that could cause us any worry.
And yet, there remain those strange words: “leave room for the wrath of God.” How could St. Paul have failed to see how misguided he was – still looking backward at the ancient, angry, Jewish God? Doesn’t he know how outmoded his outlook is? Our God is a loving God; we don’t need to leave room for the wrath of God, since we have no more of that in the world… do we? Here we stand at the edge of a flood and we hear St. Paul tell us to “leave room for the wrath of God.” Is he kidding us?
Everywhere we turn these days we are confronted by wrath. If it’s not at home then it’s abroad. If it’s not about missiles and nuclear war, then it’s about a war on drugs, or poverty, or cancer, or some other foe against whom we have decided that war is the only answer. If it’s not the president, it’s the Congress. And if it’s not them, then it’s a gaggle of Christian folk issuing “statements” about things they really don’t need to be making statements about. There is always someone to be angry, and always someone to be angry with. We have wrath enough to go around. We don’t need the wrath of God any more than we needed a flood.
St. Paul knows that wrath is a sharp and a powerful weapon, and when he says to leave room for the wrath of God he is trying to take such a weapon out of our hands and leave it to God. In this passage, he is not so much telling us what God is like, as reminding us what we are like: haughty, presumptuous, willing to repay evil for evil, disinclined toward peacefulness, full of curses, and thirsty for vengeance. Wrathful.
Taking the weapon gingerly from our hand, Paul entreats us to let God handle that, especially as the flood waters are receding. Paul knows how ready we are to expect the worst of God and the best of ourselves, but he also knows that the reverse has always been true: that we should expect the best of God and the worst of ourselves. We’ll be surprised with much less frequency.
I don’t know what Jesus and Peter expected from each other. But in the famous exchange we hear today, Peter gets a bit of the wrath of God: “Get thee behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” It would have stung. For Peter wanted only to advance the cause of Jesus. But Peter here represents anyone and everyone who has ever suspected that he or she could show God how to do things a better way. Suffering, death, and resurrection? Peter must wonder. No! Let’s do it a better way! Peter does not yet see how different Jesus’ kingdom is, how distinct is the power of love, or how purposeful is the wrath of God. He does not know that Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Jesus had never heard of the Powerball. Jesus never imagined the Dow above 20,000. Jesus hadn’t anticipated Manhattan real estate being sold for $9,000 a square foot. All the same, he knew what a fortune was. He meant his question to be rhetorical, but it turns out that it is provocative: what would it profit me to gain the whole world…? Jesus never thought in numbers as big as we do, all the same he knew. We are deeply interested in what it might profit us to gain the whole world.
And yet the daily invitation of Jesus is to lose your life with him. This is why we come to the altar every day in this church to remind ourselves that the path of righteousness leads through suffering, death, and resurrection. This path looked problematic to Saint Peter, so you should expect it to look a little complicated to you and me, too.
I can’t possibly claim to understand the many and complex causes that led to a catastrophic hurricane like Hurricane Harvey. I am prepared to accept that human pollution of our natural environment has contributed greatly to the occurrence of weather events such as this. It is interesting to contemplate that one lens through which to view the national debate on climate change is a theological lens. Floods, after all, have traditionally been thought of as “acts of God.” But nowadays we are not so sure. And many of us see our own hands at work in the clouds that gather and the rain that falls, and the heat that scorches, and the snow that melts. Which is to say that many of us are willing to admit that we have been meddling in things that belong to God. Thus has it ever been.
If we see things this way, we might hear Jesus hissing in our own ears this morning, “Get thee behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!” We might peruse the front pages of the papers and wonder what it would mean to leave room for the wrath of God. Could God really do anything to us that’s worse than the things we’ve done to ourselves?
The headlines in this morning’s New York Times have replaced the news of the flood with news that “North Korea Says It Tested Hydrogen Bomb.” If only the wrath of God was our only worry.
Jesus is among us in his church to tell us again that the path to righteousness leads through suffering, death, and resurrection. But this covenant – that our pain is sanctified by his pain, that our death has been trampled by his death, and that our resurrection is assured by his resurrection is extremely difficult for us to hear, let alone to believe. Mostly, we would rather hit the Lottery, or at least own a few hundred shares in Facebook. We would like to exercise vengeance on our own. We would like to claim all the wrath we want for our own. We would like to do things our way. We would like to skip the pain, the death, and even the resurrection – it’s just not our way. We would like to set our minds not on divine things, but on human things.
I hear Jesus hissing in our ears, “Get thee behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”
And I wonder if anything less than the wrath of God will ever lead us to that path of righteousness that leads through suffering, death, and resurrection. Speaking for myself, I would rather be led there by love, which I think is what St. Paul had in mind, too.
So, I’m watching as the waters of the flood recede. I am looking to the heavens. And I am praying for a rainbow.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
3 September 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia