February 19, 2017, Practice Makes Perfect – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000009
This is our fourth and last week reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Three weeks ago, we read the Beatitudes, those unexpected qualities that define a true disciple of Christ: not the kind of qualities you’d expect from a prominent Christian leader, like a great reputation and a dynamic personality – not even a squeaky-clean lifestyle – but things like humility and compassion and single-mindedness.
Two weeks ago, we read that Jesus told us we are the salt and light of the world – that we, poor and humble and despised as we are, we are his plan for keeping the world from going blind and giving in to the rot of fear and self-serving – if we follow in his ways and not the ways of the world.
And then, last week, we talked about the demands of the law – how obeying the law doesn’t just involve our actions and words. It starts in our thoughts and our intentions; obedience, Jesus told us, is essentially a heart thing. Which could be an intolerable burden on us, because which of us can ever hope to be in perfect control of our thoughts? But the thing that makes that burden light and pleasant to us is that we are called to obey within the freedom of love, not the slavery of legalism. Thus far the reading of this greatest of all sermons ever.
And that brings us to today: today we read that Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect, perfect in the way that God himself is perfect.
At which point we might be tempted to give up on the whole thing – because perfection sounds great but admit it, that’s way too idealistic for everyday life, right? Some theologians have suggested – and it seems like maybe they’re right – that the Sermon on the Mount is the theological equivalent of the priceless china on display at a museum. It’s beautiful, and we love to looks at it, but nobody in their right mind would ever even think of actually trying to use it. Perfection is just not practical.
The first thing to know is what Jesus does NOT mean by perfect. The word Jesus uses doesn’t mean Pollyanna perfection, as in never doing bad things, morally spotless: it means perfect as in complete, whole, all grown up. Jesus is calling us to become whole people, just as God is whole and perfect in himself. And the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount – indeed the whole point of everything that Jesus ever taught and modeled for us – is that being whole people, growing up in him, means putting the Law into action in a whole new way.
So here’s the question: the Jews had built their whole lives around obeying the Law: the clothes they wore, the food they ate, how they cut their hair, the way they prayed, how they raised their children, what they did when they got sick, how they raised their livestock and grew their crops, the penalties for breaking the Law – the Law was their guideline for every little detail of life. So what was it that was still lacking; what was it that Jesus brought that would not just make the Law reflect God’s holiness perfectly, but would make the people of God grow up into his perfect character?
The short answer to that question is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law. ” Love, Paul wrote, is what real obedience is – not following the rules and checking off the boxes, but a living relationship of love, like a long, faithful marriage. Love is absolutely the key to all perfection and wholeness.
But there is more that needs to be said about that, because when people talk about ‘love’ they might mean a lot of different things: romance, lust, loyalty, patriotism, friendship, and on and on. But the kind of love Jesus came to teach is not something that we understand naturally. What we read about love in the Sermon this morning run absolutely counter to every natural human instinct. But they are at the heart of the kind of love God has for us, the New Testament love that is so different it has its own special word – agape love.
First, Jesus talked about that law we are all familiar with, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Some people like to quote this to show how violent and primitive the Old Testament Law was, and some people quote it to support being tough on crime, but they are both missing the point entirely. God wasn’t approving of brutality and personal vengeance in the Law of Moses; and this Law was the opposite – this law was given to set limits for what people could demand in return for their injuries.
In the days of Moses, in all the surrounding nations, laws allowed for very cruel penalties, especially if the injured party were rich and important. A thief might have his hand chopped off, or a poor man who dared to strike a rich man might be put to death. The intention of this provision of God’s law was to set limits on punishments, and particularly to set limits that applied to rich and poor alike. If two people fought and one man lost a tooth, or an eye, the Law of Moses required that the punishment could not be greater than the crime, no matter who the two people were, rich or poor, king or commoner. So this Law original purpose was to provide for a measure of justice and fairness.
Jesus came to teach that justice and fairness are very good things, but only love is perfect. “You know the teaching about “an eye for an eye,” Jesus said, “but I say to you, if someone smacks you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.” Perfection doesn’t stop at the natural rightness of justice and fairness, perfection calls for the supernatural, love that goes beyond justice and fairness. Love doesn’t respond to injury with cruelty; instead it responds with humility and with patience and with kindness. It is just and fair to set limits on the punishment that can be given for evil that someone has done to us; but love does more. Love answers evil with good. “If someone robs you of your coat, give him your cloak, too. If someone begs you for money, don’t refuse them. If someone demands that you help them, do even more than they ask of you.”
To fulfill the Law – not just obey it – calls for something far beyond outward obedience. It calls for acting with the kind of love we see in God, who shows kindness and grace to the rebellious as well as the faithful, who gives us what we haven’t earned and certainly do not deserve. Jesus responded to the violence and cruelty of the cross by praying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” That is love. That is how the Law is fulfilled. That is what it means to be perfect.
But I can’t teach on this Scripture without putting up a huge, giant warning sign, because Christians have sometimes misunderstood and misused it in cruel and destructive ways. When Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, he is not teaching that there is any kind of godliness in being a doormat. There is no godliness in remaining in an abusive relationship of any kind. There is no godliness in not doing what you need to do to get away from your abuser and be safe. Being a victim is not love. Allowing another human being to continue behaviors that hurt you and make them less human is not love. Real love is always an act of free will. Real love always seeks the good of the other person, not just what keeps them happy. Real love proceeds from strength, not weakness. It is important for us to know the difference between the powerful love of the Cross and the self-hatred of victimhood.
Love that turns the other cheek doesn’t come naturally to us human beings, but the second teaching of Jesus that we read today is maybe even more un-natural. “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’,” Jesus said. Well, that should sound familiar to us. It’s the most natural thing in the world to love those who are in our camp, as it were. It’s in the air these days. “America first” – we’ve got to take care of our own. And America didn’t make it up. That’s how the Rabbis had interpreted the Law of Moses, too; it seemed right to them, just like it seems right to us. Family first; friends first; community first: it is perfectly natural. That’s how the world works – “even sinners love the people that love them” Jesus said. But disciples of Jesus Christ aren’t called to be perfectly natural; we’re called to be perfect – and that is supernatural. So, Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ But I say – love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.” We are called to love everyone, friend or foe, just like Jesus taught in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – and to love them with the perfect love of God the Father, who loved us all even when we were his deadly enemies.
Jesus taught that love – real love, agape love – is what makes us whole people, growing up into the perfection of our heavenly Father – not just the natural love of our ‘own kind’ but supernatural love that returns kindness for cruelty, that is generous to those who take what is rightfully ours, that gives more than what is demanded of us, that earnestly seeks the good of those who count themselves as our enemies.
It is un-natural, and it is very, very hard; but it isn’t the least bit theoretical or impractical. We have opportunities to practice supernatural love every single day, to love people who demand our time and attention by setting aside our own priorities and taking time to be really be present with them; to love people whose political views or lifestyle make no sense to us by listening to them and seeking the face of Christ in them; to love people who treat us unkindly, or who hurt the people we care about by treating them with kindness and gentleness as we have opportunity, and by forgiving them; and even to love people we are afraid of, people who threaten us – the soldiers of ISIS, men of violence in our own country, all those we fear: to love them by praying for them, that God will be good them as we want him to be good to us. There may even be times when we will have opportunity to love those we see as our enemies in more direct, tangible ways; God only knows.
Jesus told his disciples, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But the thing we have to remember is that perfection is not something we do or don’t do on a one-time basis. Being perfect is not something we check off on our to-do list. Being perfect is something we are growing into as we practice loving with the kind of supernatural love God shows to us every day. Essentially, disciples of Jesus Christ are like little children working beside our father in his workshop with our little hammer and saw, working very hard in our clumsy way, bungling things time and time again, but always keeping our eyes fixed on our Dad. And our greatest hope is that he is committed to making sure, indeed, he has promised us, that the day will come when we will have grown up to be just like him, perfect as he is perfect.
I would urge you some time this week to sit down and read the whole of the sermon, slowly and prayerfully: Matthew, chapters 5-7.