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Following Jesus in the Age of Rage

A JetBlue Airways flight bound for New York returned to the Dominican Republic in early February after a passenger refused to wear a facemask, threw an empty alcohol bottle and food, struck the arm of one flight attendant, and grabbed the arm of another.

This is only one of over 3,100 complaints of name-calling, bullying or violent behavior by airline passengers just since the beginning of the year.

A representative of American Airlines’ cabin crews recently said, “It’s out of control…. It’s really coming to the point where we have to defend ourselves.”

Similar experiences are being reported throughout society.

We are living in a world of rage.

To address how we are called to be different in this angry world, I’d like to pick-up on Paul Tellstrom’s message last week when he talked about Isaiah being called to carry God’s message into a corrupted world.

Isaiah 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

God healed Isaiah’s sins, and then immediately sent him into his corrupted world.

We are healed to be healers.

Being sent on a mission into a hurting world is knit into the DNA of our faith.

1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference He made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.

I don’t know about you, but I recoil from that phrase “holy people”.

It makes me imagine people thinking they are holier than thou – women wearing dresses below their ankles and everyone playing by a set of petty rules and pointing judgmental fingers at everyone else.

And even if I step back from that caricature, I look at my life and the years I struggled to get it together.

I can testify to the night-and-day difference God made for me—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted, but I feel anything but holy.

The cacophony of angry, lustful, resentful, judgmental thoughts playing in my own head are reminders of how far I have to go – I feel anything but holy.

But, when he says holy, Peter is just talking about people who have begun a relationship with Christ who want to step away from the world’s ways and live differently, to find their life purpose and to live in health.

So today I’d like to explore how we are a people set aside – that’s the meaning of holy – and then to think of our lives in terms of being a mission trip – not overseas but to our families, workplaces and neighborhoods that right now are under attack by anger, social conflict and depression.

Facebook, Twitter, angry media personalities and unhealthy friends cultivate an emotional contagion in which we “catch” one another’s anger, frustration, and angst.

Raymond Novac, a professor of psychology at UC Irvine, wrote that the convergence of multiple stressors like COVID, growing social conflict, and economic upheaval has turned America into what he calls “a big anger incubator” – and we’re seeing it acted out everywhere from road rage, to strangers shouting at cashiers, to domestic violence, to virulent attacks through social media.

Anger is a natural psychological tool for coping with the angst and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and social upheavals.

While being angry at something, you temporarily leave feelings of impotence and uncertainty and briefly experience a sense of certainty, clarity and confidence.

If we are united in anger at people of different cultures or politics we even get a sense of community: these other people share my rage.

You’re feeling anxious and uncertain, so you rage on Facebook, take it out on an idiot who cut you off in the parking lot or whatever, and you get a momentary shot of feeling in control – but after that passes, you have to go back for more.

It’s like the cycle of addiction: we are living in a world addicted to rage, and just like our addictive substance of choice it will eventually take us down.

Unchecked anger will destroy our relationships, our health … and now it threatens our society.

But to be a people set apart means that we seek to respond to the stresses and rage of our world differently than other people.

Romans 12:2 Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

So, when someone spews their anger on me, or if I see some inflammatory political post on Instagram, I can pause for a moment and see how my response aligns with my mission – to honor, serve and grow in Christ.

In fact, the more broken and sick the world becomes, the more attractive the peace and love of a true Christian community becomes.

Stars are most visible when the sky is most dark.

So the more our society acts outrage, racism, meanness, fear and disrespect, the more the Christ values will shine.

Christianity did not grow because people quoted bible verses at non-believers.

Christianity did not grow because people hid their hurts, habits and hang-ups so they could act all righteous to non-believers.

Christianity grew when people saw love and health among everyday Christians and so wanted to get on board with them.

Most people think that the early church took off during the first two hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, but that isn’t quite true.

In 252 AD a devastating plague hit the city of Carthage.

We’ve been through what amounts to a plague, but imagine that there were no hospitals or ventilators and that no one understood where the plague came from, what caused it, or that a vaccine would eventually immunize us from its horrors.

If cities heard that a plague had broken out nearby, they would destroy roads and bridges that might bring people into their city.

As their fear turned to panic, when someone got sick, neighbors would burn their homes and belongings – sometimes with the people still inside.

A family member struck by the illness might be abandoned and left to die on the edge of town.

But in the city of Carthage, a Christian bishop name Cyprian called all the church members to a meeting at the center of town.

He said if we’re going to do what Jesus did, then we can’t hide and flee like the others.

Rather, he said, we’ll care for the dying and give personal care, food and comfort to everyone in need – regardless of their faith.

He said we’re going to show the love of Jesus as ambassadors of Christ.

Christians became known far and wide because of their sacrificial love, and millions of pagans wanted to become part of that movement.

About a century later, the Roman emperor Julian launched a concerted effort to turn back Christian influence and reestablish traditional Roman religious practices.

He insulted them by calling them Galileans and labeled them as atheists because they didn’t worship the Roman gods.

He harassed Christians every way he could, but he couldn’t stop the spread of their faith.

In frustration he wrote, “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity. These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also, welcoming them into their agape.”

Were those individual Christians in Carthage still struggling with their own troubled marriages, their addiction to wine or any of the other things that humans do?

Of course, but they also got busy living their lives as a mission, doing their imperfect best to live Christ’s values where their world was under attack.

Did you notice that Cyprian didn’t just go off by himself to help the sick and dying in Carthage?

My guess is that he’d flame-out before long … that’s why Christ called us into community.

There are no Lone Ranger Christians; there are communities of Christ where we support and encourage one another along the way.

How many of you have wasted years of your life by living in a marriage or maybe in a circle of friends who were chronically cynical – putting others down, deflating your self-esteem, or chronically acting and speaking in anger?

Maybe you had a bigger dream, a dream of health, a dream of sobriety, a dream of living your God-given purpose, but your partner or friends pulled you down, kept you small or stoked your anger.

I have – but as a church, we aspire to be just the opposite of that.

We learn to be different, to be healthy, to live our life purpose, and then to carry that health to our own family, neighbors and job.

Paul uses the metaphor of garments in his letter to the Colossians that we may not quite understand 2,000 years later.

Colossians 3:5, 12, 14 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, …

Then he gives us a way of visualizing this change:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. … And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

In the Ancient Near East, men wore multiple layers of robes – so Paul’s description of taking off layers of old clothes and replacing them with new, each new layer being an attitude of Christ made sense.

Then they would hold all those layers together with a belt.

If they could afford it, their belt might be distinctly embroidered or colored, so the one thing you’d notice about someone coming toward you would be their belt.

So, he’s saying that to be a Christian is that the first distinct thing people notice about you is your love.

Putting aside malice, anger and the other things of the “world” is a process – none of us has it all together.

There are two things I suggest we build as personal habits.

The first is to pause before speaking, texting or acting.

Psychologists say that anger is a natural emotion that sometimes flares – we all know that.

But they also say that after 20-seconds we have control of it.

Thus, the counsel you’ve heard a dozen times to count to 20.

Ask yourself how your response would align with your values and mission.

Second, studies of the recent rise in anger reveal that the people most likely to display inappropriate anger – whether airline passengers, drivers, or customers – are people who feel the most entitled.

When people feel entitled, they feel defensive of their privileges and they feel above social norms.

None of us want to be that person, and one sure antidote to feeling entitled is gratitude.

We talk a lot about cultivating an attitude of gratitude, and here is yet another reason.

Pause.  Think.

What are you grateful for?

In the context of all you have, is this angry spat or is this unleashing of vial words really worth it?

Grateful, humble people don’t act out in the ways we’re seeing all around us these days.

When old habits nudge and gnaw at us, when the world’s rage enflames us, we can visualize ourselves as set apart from those destructive, demeaning ways and claim real life.

We can visualize shedding those impulses one at a time and putting on layers of clothes we know as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience – all bound together with love.

When someone spews their venomous anger, deadening cynicism, hate or put-downs, we can stop before responding and visualize putting on the belt of love … the one article of ancient clothing that would hold it all together and would stand out.