A Sermon for The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 12:16-21 – The Gospel, St. John 2:1-11
The Rt. Rev=d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The epiphany miracles in our lessons
In the lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, the miracle of changing water into wine in the gospel is paired with an epistle that describes another miracle Jesus performs in us. By his work of grace, Jesus enables us to respond to evil with good. As Romans says,
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).
In both miracles Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who changes things. He changes water, the water of Old Testament purification, into the new wine of the kingdom of God. He changes angry, unforgiving people into his new people who can respond to evil with good. By changing water into wine, Jesus manifested or revealed his glory. When we learn to do good to those who hurt us and hate us, the glory of Jesus is revealed in us and through us.
- Our outward behavior is the result of our own experience of grace
We can only respond to evil with good because God responds to our evil with his good, and this experience of grace changes us. Romans says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The grace of the cross comes to us continually in the Sacrament even though we still have sin. As we partake of grace, we become agents of grace.
The opposite is also true. Someone who has not experienced grace from God will have difficulty acting with grace towards others. People who are complaining and critical towards others typically feel criticized and judged themselves. We pass along our own experience. Our outward behavior reflects our own interior experience.
Our anger, our desire to make others pay, doesn’t magically vanish the moment we come to faith. We are not always able to immediately forgive those who have hurt us. Sometimes we will forgive only to discover that the anger returns, and we must forgive again. We grow into the experience of grace. Our progress will be measured by an increasing interior experience of love and grace from God that leads to an increasing ability to love and forgive others. This growth in grace and love reveals that Christ is at work in us. We must be patient without ourselves in the process of growth.
III. We must face the truth about our anger
Forgiving others and acting in love does not mean denying or ignoring our anger. In fact, Jesus cannot change us until we are honest about our thoughts and feelings. Anger and vengefulness are symptoms of our inner wounds. Healing requires that we look beneath these surface emotions and ask, why? Why am I so angry? We will usually discover pain and injuries beneath our anger; something was done to us, or we experienced something painful that makes us angry at others—perhaps even angry at God. We must let God touch this deep interior pain if we want to be healed.
There is a reason we avoid this work. It is easier for me to blame you. My anger allows me to pretend that my unhappiness is your fault. You can be my scapegoat. This is as old as the first sin. Rather than looking within himself, Cain blamed his brother Abel and took his anger out on him (Gen. 4). Conversely, if I look within myself I must face the truth that I am the one who must change—or who must be changed by grace.
This does not mean that we are all as guilty as Cain, whose offering was rejected because he did the wrong thing. Sometimes we are victims of malice perpetrated by others—and it was not our fault. Our relatively innocent victimhood is a door through which Christ enters our lives. For he was the truly innocent victim. As 1 Peter says, he “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). He took upon himself all the anger we feel for the wounds of our sin. As we unite our pain with his pain, our wounds are healed by his wounds; as Isaiah says, “by his stripes we are healed” (53:5). As we experience healing through the cross, we find the grace from God to say with him, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
- The rationale for responding to evil with good
Forgiveness is logical. To forgive is to give up our right of retribution. To refuse to forgive keeps us stuck in the timeless human cycle of injury and vengeance. When give up our right of retribution and commit the job of judgment to God, we refuse to let the evil of others determine our behavior. We set ourselves free from the tyranny of sin and anger. We allow our behavior to be determined by who we are in Christ, not by what others have done to us. We are free to do good no matter what anyone else does.
This keeps us from judgement. When we respond to evil with retribution, we invariably become subject to judgment ourselves. Our retribution is not always just. Our anger typically leads us into sin even we think it is righteous anger. It might begin as righteous anger, but it will become something else if we allow anger to have free reign. This is how the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. We respond to sin with sin and perpetuate the timeless cycle of sin, guilt, judgment, and death. Responded to evil with good breaks this cycle, and initiates a new pattern of grace, forgiveness, transformation, and life.
One point about forgiveness should be clarified. Nothing about forgiving others mitigates against the responsibility of governing authorities to administer justice for crimes. In Romans 13:4, we are told that the governing authorities are “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Nothing about forgiveness mitigates against the justice that God himself promises to execute. The epistle says, “Vengeance is mine says the Lord. I will repay.” Justice will be done. However, we are to focus on doing what is right and commit the task of judgment to God.
This is the final Sunday in the Epiphany season this year. Epiphany is about how Jesus is revealed. Today, Jesus is revealed as the Creator who changes water into wine and changes us from fallen, wounded, and angry people into new people who are being re-created in his image. Thus, as Romans says, “Repay no one evil for evil…. Do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).