It’s a sure sign of spring when our lawnmower goes to Ace Hardware for its yearly tune-up. I did that last week and soon I’ll get a call that it’s ready and we’ll be set for the summer. I trust the mechanic so I know it will be totally perfect. That doesn’t mean my mower dropped straight out of heaven, or that it’s the only perfect one in the world, or that I’m saying anything bad about your mower. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it up, it runs smoothly on all cylinders, I put it in gear and voilà, grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect. If I described it in New Testament Greek I’d say my mower is teleios. It does completely what it was created by its maker to do, no more and no less. It is what it is: a mower, exactly perfect in every way.
Which brings us to Jesus’ teaching today from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew presents Jesus as the authority figure to follow him and give first place in our lives. Matthew does this in some subtle and creative ways. Again and again he calls to mind key Old Testament people and events and connects them to Jesus. Here Matthew wants to link Jesus to Moses, the most important person to Jews. Jesus is on a mountain, like Moses when he receives the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. But here Jesus speaks with more authority than Moses. Five times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…,” and follows with “But I say to you…”
Clearly this Jesus is more important, a greater authority. His teachings on murder and anger, adultery and lust, vows and promises, revenge and enemies take us deeper – into our hearts and motives in a more radical way than a simple list of do’s and don’ts to stay on God’s good side. And the punch line comes at the end: we’re to be like God, the God Jesus shows us in his suffering love. Listen again, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s that word again: perfect, teleios: reaching your purpose and goal, aligned with God’s will and ways; grown up and mature with excellence in virtue, being all you were created to be. As another translation puts it, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Common English Bible) or as in Peterson’s The Message, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you;” or as Luke’s Gospel puts this teaching in somewhat different words, “Be merciful and compassionate just like your Father is” (Common English Bible; Today’s English Version)
Here’s Jesus’ call to us: we are children of God, so act like it. From the very beginning of the Bible story, that is who we are. In Genesis’ creation story God says, “Let us make humans in our image according to our likeness. So God made us that way and blessed us. And so to be perfectly who we were made to be, we are to be like God – loving, compassionate, merciful. As Leviticus says we are to be holy, like God is holy as we defend the weak and poor and watch out for those who have no one to watch out for them. When we live in the same wild and crazy way as this God who forgives enemies and is gracious and kind to both good and evil, we are perfect. We are who we are made to be: children of our Father in heaven.
But you say, “Preacher, we can’t do that! We’re not perfect and never will be; it’s crazy even to try.” But then why would Jesus expect this of us? Is he setting us up for some cruel, practical joke, like Lucy challenging Charlie Brown and always pulling the ball away to show that we’re chumps? Or does Jesus really mean it? Does Jesus believe we can be perfect?
John Wesley believed it. Our father in the faith often preached on Christian perfection or being made perfect in love or growing in holiness. Wesley said God would help us to become what God expected of us. Nothing is impossible for God so God can be trusted to help us become what we were created to be. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll always do the right thing, or get every answer right on an exam or know the Pick 6 numbers. But with the Holy Spirit’s help and power at work alongside our deep desire, we can in fact be made perfect in love; our every action and desire can be driven by the engine of love for God and others. Even when we mess up, showing love to God and others will be the aim and purpose. That’s what holiness looks like; that’s being made perfect in love. Today every person seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church still answers questions asked of preachers for nearly 275 years, “Are you going on to perfection?” “Yes.” Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?” “Yes.” “Are you earnestly striving after it?” “Yes.” In an earlier time every Methodist was asked those questions with the same expected answers. As the bishop who ordained me asked, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going?”
Now it’s true: on our own we can’t be perfect. We are sinners, flawed, imperfect, missing the mark no matter how hard we try. But we’re not on our own. Wesley believed God’s grace and Holy Spirit are always at work in our lives and God’s grace can and will do for us what we can’t do ourselves. So Wesley asks, “ Do you expect to be made perfect in love?” That’s God’s work, God’s promise; as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Wesley believed such transformation could happen instantly but for most it was a gradual process; he was convinced he’d met Methodists who were living in a state of perfect love and holiness. I think I attended the funeral of one of those folks; for many years Millie Sunshine Cooper was the Virginia Conference staff person for youth. In the testimony of those leading her service yesterday and in my own personal experience, this humble and dedicated servant of Christ was always motivated and inspired by love for God and love for others on the job and in her daily living up to her last days. Millie may have been somewhat unusual; Wesley thought most believers would be made perfect in love at the moment of death. As I’ve been around dying folks, I’m persuaded he knew what he was talking about; I’ve seen countless folks become one with God in love and mercy at their end.
But this morning I heard another report of someone who may be living in that state of holiness of life and perfect love. I assume Mohamed Bzeek of Los Angeles is a Muslim, and for the last 20 years he has served as a foster parent to terminally ill children. He has been by the side of nearly a dozen who have taken last breath in his presence. Who does such a thing? Perhaps someone hungry to be like God and to love others with that perfect love. (http://www.npr.org/2017/02/19/516064735/a-foster-parent-for-terminally-ill-children)
God wants to work this mysterious miracle in our lives. God is on our side, ready to coach and encourage and equip us to become like God, to become love and live in love, to be holy as God is holy. God is not our enemy but a friend; God doesn’t believe we’re just doomed to be what we’ve always been. In high school biology, no matter how long I studied, or how hard I tried I was doomed to D grades. I think the teacher early on decided I was a D student and almost seemed to delight in giving me Ds. And after awhile, I became that D student. I saw myself as that teacher saw me and I gave up, because what was the use?
I contrast that teacher to one I had in seminary as I studied to be a pastor. Every time I submitted a paper to that professor, there were always challenging questions, and a relentless push to do better. But each time there were also affirmations and encouragement along with new issues raised that made me think more and pulled me closer to excellence. And after awhile I became that student. I didn’t give up; in fact I worked harder, because I knew my professor was for me and saw something I did not see myself and would work tirelessly to get me there.
That’s the God we see in Jesus, the God who calls us to be made perfect in love, to be the children of God we’re created to be, to do what we’re formed to do – to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same mercy and compassion and extravagant grace God has already shown us. It’s a lifetime adventure; we’ll need tune-ups and sharpening and regular upkeep. God will do God’s part; and we have a part, receiving and using God’s sanctifying grace to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. My seminary professor tirelessly worked on me week after week, and slowly but surely, with guidance and help I became what I was created to be. In the same way God will work miracles in you and me, with help and guidance along the way. God helps through the church itself with our worship and scripture and prayer and opportunities to love even our enemies and put our faith on the line and into practice. We’re helped by small groups or soul friends who speak the truth in love, and challenge us to holy excellence. Every Christian needs such groups and a soul friend; none of us can make this journey on our own or alone. I didn’t know it then, but nearly 40 years ago here I first met my soul friend who still challenges and encourages me to be better, to be who I am created to be, to be a Christian in word and deed, to be like Jesus. And help can come through the Daily Examen, an ancient form of holy self-exam in the presence of the God who wants nothing for us but life and our good.** In God’s strong and loving arms, at day’s end we can take 15-20 minutes to be still, give thanks for God’s goodness, grace and guidance during the day, look back over a day and how well we lived for Christ or where we fell short, confess our shortcomings and our need for help, and look forward to tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. It doesn’t seem like much, about as exciting and routine as cutting the grass. But in such ways, miracles happen and sometimes we even learn holiness and perfection, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
** To learn more about the Daily Examen as a devotional practice, go to http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen