Third Sunday after Pentecost and of Matthew; Light, Peace and Wrath: One of these Things is Not Like the Others?

Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33; Psalm 127:1-2; Baruch 3:12-20

I continue to be amazed at the bracing realism of the word of God: at times we are brought face to face with sin and death; almost in the same breath, the word speaks of “the hope of the glory of God.” After all, that is what light does—it illumines what is there (not always a pretty sight!), as well as showing the way that we are called to go as we follow the One who is the Light of lights.

The images of light and peace, coupled with warning, are not new to the gospel and epistle (as we see them in our readings for the third week after Pentecost), but are foreshadowed in the OT. Consider, for example, the book of Baruch:

You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom. If you had walked in the way of God, you would be dwelling in peace forever. Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace. Who has found wisdom’s place? And who has entered her storehouses? Where are the princes of the nations, and those who rule over the beasts on earth; those who have sport with the birds of the air, and who hoard up silver and gold, in which men trust, and there is no end to their getting; those who scheme to get silver, and are anxious, whose labors are beyond measure? They have vanished and gone down to Hades, and others have arisen in their place. Young men have seen the light of day, and have dwelt upon the earth; but they have not learned the way to knowledge, nor understood her paths, nor laid hold of her. (Bar 3:12-20 RSV)

The prophet directs to the place where there is true light for the eyes, and peace — gifts that the prophet only glimpses. But after long centuries, this is the true Light brought by Jesus, the peace and reconciliation that St. Paul praises. In that light and in that peace, anxiety can be put aside, especially anxiety for the trivial things of this world that cannot satisfy—silver, fame, mere human authority. As our Lord himself reminds us in Matthew 6, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

He tells us what we really know by experience—the quest for silver, for wealth, for power, for externals, cannot really satisfy. We set our sights on these things because they seem attainable: but God has so much more laid up for us. But many continue to seek the glittering things—those things that reflect, sometimes falsely, the true Light. But that Light comes to enlighten the entire world, especially the eyes of human beings made after his image. “The eye,” said Jesus, ““is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23) What our eyes look at, what we gaze at, what we fix our attention upon, is an indication of our spiritual health: moreover, as we look at it, we will be transformed for good or for ill. There is a symbiotic relationship.

I remember when I was first inquiring into Orthodoxy how my spiritual father challenged me to think about what I really wanted. Coming from an evangelical background that greatly mistrusted the human heart, this seemed very odd to me. Surely I did not know what I really wanted, and could easily be distracted by many trivial, unworthy things: how could it be helpful to ask me such a question? In a way, to direct the seeker in this way is a risk—for the outcome can be good (“if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light”) or bad” (“if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”) But our Lord specializes in bringing back to light the tiny spark, in taking the tiny grain of seed, and making it into a lush plant. If there is the slightest opening, God will find a way, and the light will transform us, to the extent that we are able to bear it.

Yes, there is much that distracts: the love of money, luxury and power, the cares of this world, fear for our personal well-being, inordinate concern for our family. God knows all about our frailty, our distractible nature and our fears. So the Psalmist reminds us, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.2 It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2, RSV). But being reminded that we should not be anxious is like telling us not to think about a pink elephant with purple polka dots—anxiety and fear are just THERE, like the elephant in your head. The Old Testament gives us the diagnosis, but not the full answer.

What we perceive in God the Son is a glimpse of perfect, divine love—that love that condescended to take up our human life, and even gave up that life for us, when we were at enmity with God! Anxiety is a kind of fear that can be removed when we see, with purified eyes, the perfect love of God for us. From him comes light so that we can see, and then peace. But what about the other fearful matter that St. Paul mentions in our reading for today – the “wrath of God”? One of these things is not like the others! Some may try to make us feel better by saying that the Greek does not say “the wrath of God” but simply that we might be saved “from the wrath”—but this is not much help, since the full phrase “wrath of God” is found St. Paul’s letters. What IS helpful is to notice all the hopeful and joyful tones that surround this dark note: we have peace, we have access to grace, we have hope of sharing the glory of God, we are NOW justified (or declared to be in right relationship with God), we are reconciled. Indeed, on the basis of all these things that have come to us through the death of Jesus, we are told NOT to be afraid of “the wrath.”

In speaking of the “wrath”, St. Paul refers to the dread day of judgment, witnessed to in all of the prophets, anticipated by Jesus when he spoke of “that day” to come, and depicted vividly in the book of Revelation and in our icons. This is the time when God will right wrongs, shake the world once more, and, by purification, make all things new. We see a foreshadowing of this judgment in Jesus’ action in the Temple, where he was righteously angry that the Temple’s portico, the only place where Gentiles were allowed, was being made a place where no one could think straight, let alone come to know God. It is, in my view, splitting hairs to suggest that Jesus was only angry with the situation, and not those who were engineering the travesty. Further, the indictment against the Temple appears to have been a prophetic warning against those in Israel who thought that they had it all together, and were not prepared to received God the Son in their midst. God’s anger was displayed towards his people: but the anger was intended to bring about repentance. Similarly, our father St. John Chrysostom, in comforting Theodore of Mopsuestia after his sin, declared: “For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair….[B]ut even if he takes vengeance, he does this with tender care; wherefore it behooves us to be of much courage…For this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging himself, but by way of attracting us to himself” (To Theodore after his Fall 1.4) It may be said that God is justly angry; but it is not hatred, nor even “wrath” in the sense of self-centered and needy human anger.

So it is with the words about “that day” “the day of wrath” “the wrath to come” “the wrath of God.” God does not explode when he is not being worshipped—for he has no need or changeable passions, as we do. Yet, judgment truly is a fearful thing for those not prepared, and it is sane to be afraid of true reality when we are mere shadows, not fully human yet ourselves. But, Romans 5 reminds us of all that God has done already, agreeing with St. John that “perfect love casts out fear” because we know God loved us first (1Jn 4:18-19). And so St. Paul describes God the Father as the Initiator of Jesus’ action on the cross, not the exactor of a penalty. The Father and the Son are not at odds, as though the first exacts justice, and the second pleads for mercy. No, the Father sends the Son, showing the radicalness of his justice AND the depth of his mercy, at its height in the cross.

And there is more! The full gospel does not simply delight in a bare-naked salvation from judgment, but in a standing that leads us to hope in sharing the very glory of God. We “shall be saved, we rejoice in this hope of sharing the glory of God!” To our evangelical friends who ask us “are you saved” we can indeed say, “yes, I am saved by the faithfulness of God in his Son; and we are being saved, too, and will be saved. The Holy Spirit’s work is ongoing!”

We look back in faith, and forward in hope. And meanwhile, there is life. This life, the apostle reminds us, may bring us suffering, and may require patience and endurance. But if our eye is sound, then, eventually, our whole body will be filled with light. It is how we look at the challenges of life that makes all the difference. The Lord may allow chastening to come our way—in this, too, He is our strength and our song! (Prokeimenon before the Epistle)

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