February 23, 2014, Epiphany 7 – Becoming Perfect
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Today we finish reading the long teaching that we began two weeks ago. Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law completely. But obeying the law isn’t what you’ve been taught, he told them, just following a bunch of rules about what you can or can’t do. Obeying the law always begins in the heart, with love and purity and truthfulness and generosity and selflessness; there is no obedience at all, without obedience of the heart first. No matter how spotless your life might look from the outside, he told them, you haven’t even begun to understand what true holiness is. And at the very end of the reading today, here is his conclusion: therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When we try to imagine perfect people I think most of us picture people like supermodels or straight-A students or real bona-fide saints. But for ourselves, the idea of perfection just seems kind of laughable, really. Who can be bothered to even try to be perfect when it is clearly impossible?
But the Greek word that Jesus is using doesn’t mean never making mistakes, and it doesn’t mean being flawless. The word is “teleios”, and it’s not a word about grades or impossible standards. The word that is translated “perfect” here means “Having attained the end or purpose, complete”. A perfect person, in this sense, is one who is fully developed, or all grown up. It’s perfect like we would use the word to describe a perfect peach, picked at the peak of ripeness and sweetness and juiciness – absolute, perfect peachiness. Perfect, teleios, is something you become, something that you were destined to grow up into. When Jesus tells us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, he is telling us, “Grow up to be like your Father, who is the only one who is truly perfect.”
A lot of Christians think that God has called us to set very rigid and unbending standards for ourselves and others, and I think that idea of human righteousness drives people away from God rather than bringing them closer to him, because it is a burden too heavy for any of us to bear. It is true that God is absolutely good, that he is light and there is no darkness in him. God hates evil; he is grieved by the brokenness of his good creation. And for that very reason, the Bible is one hundred percent realistic about sin.
The apostle John wrote, If we say that we are without sin, we are just fooling ourselves, and we are big fat liars besides. But if we confess our sins, if we lay our hearts open to the light of Christ, he is faithful to forgive us and to cleanse us.
And in Romans, Paul wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I keep on doing.” It’s like there’s a war, he says, going on in within himself – and is there anyone in this room who doesn’t understand exactly what Paul is saying? How often do we say to ourselves, especially lying awake at night, “Why did I say that? Why did I do that? Why DIDN’T I say or do something? What’s wrong with me?”
And that’s exactly what Paul is describing here, when he says, “Wretched man that I am! I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Isn’t there anyone who can help me? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.”
The call to be perfect is the call to a way of life, that abundant life that Jesus promised to all who would put their trust in him. And it is not abundant because Christians are “good” people who never do anything wrong. It is abundant because it is a life lived openly before Christ and it is abundant because in Christ we are growing up and being re-made in his image instead of being thrown away as hopeless cases. Have you ever felt like a hopeless case? Then remember – Jesus called you to be perfect exactly because he was determined never, ever to give up on you.
After Carroll’s father passed away, his mother moved up from Texas to live with us, and she lived on our farm with us for a few years. In the process we inherited a lot of her things, and one thing was a strange wooden object shaped sort of like an egg with a handle. A lot of you probably know that is called a darning egg, and it’s for mending socks. When your socks, or your husbands socks, or your kids socks, got a hole in them – which they always do – you could stretch the sock over the wooden egg and repair the hole with yarn. I have to confess that sock-darning is pretty much a foreign concept for me. When our socks get holes in them I never get out that nifty darning egg. I put them back in the drawers until the hole gets really intolerably large, and then I throw them out.
We live in a disposable world, and throwing things out when they get holes, or break, or don’t work as well as they used to, is what we do. In the case of our socks, it is wasteful in a small way. But we have become a whole disposable society, to the extent that throwing things or people away has become the go-to method of dealing with problems. We manufacture things specifically to be thrown out – things like paper products and plastic wrap and those little cups for the new coffeemakers. But we also churn out cars and appliances and clothing and furniture whose quality is so poor that we take it for granted that we’ll have to replace them on a regular basis, adding them to our ever-growing mountains of useless rubbish.
We throw out our unwanted stuff and our unwanted animals, and even worse, we also throw away our unwanted people. Human relationships are too often disposable commodities, fun while they last, but tossed out and replaced when the going gets rough. Older, skilled employees are shuttled off to make room for younger and cheaper labor, and elderly people are tucked away and forgotten in nursing homes. As a people, we have grown accustomed to throwing things away, and to being thrown away. I have heard so many people tell me they don’t want to be a burden to anyone as they grow older.
But Jesus is telling us here that we were created to grow up and to become whole, and wholly ourselves. You are not disposable. Jesus is not saying, “Shape up or ship out.” He looked out upon his disciples, and the crowds who were hanging on his every word, and he knew their hearts, just as well as he knows our hearts. He knows that we are sinful, broken people. But his purpose for us is that we don’t stay broken. The call to be perfect, as intimidating as it seems to us, as impossible as it seems to us, means that we are worth keeping. Jesus tells us that our salvation is worth the work, his work of coming to live with us and to die for us and to continue to live in us, and our own hard work as we practice righteousness by following him step by step.
Ultimately, God’s purpose for us is that we grow up into wholeness and completeness. His purpose for us is that we grow up to be like our perfect Father, who created us in his image, who saved us by his grace, who loves us. Our Father calls us to live with and for him, not after we can get ourselves straightened out and flying straight, but today, and tomorrow, and always.
The good news is that Jesus’s call to us to be perfect doesn’t drop us into a stagnant pool of guilt and failure and leave us there. Instead, it is a call into a life-long journey that leads us through the clear flowing stream of God’s mercy and grace, where our faults and impurities – and we all know there are so many of them! – are washed away, day after day after day, until the day we stand before our Father, washed clean and made whole and all grown up into the people he created us to be, each and every one of us perfectly and completely the person he called us to be, by name, before we were even born.