The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)
Jesus said: You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
Last week, Matt and I went to dinner with friends at a delicious tavern in the city. Two of these friends are particularly knowledgeable about beer, and interested in the craft such that they have dreams of opening up their own brewpub someday, to sell their own craft brews. This meant that they hovered over the beer list in much the same way that I, a food-lover, hovered over the impressive dinner menu. As they read through the descriptions of the unique beers available to them, they paused when they arrived at a beer that ended its description with the words “the perfect beer.” And they took a moment to ponder what it might mean.
We have a range of expectations when we talk about perfection: we use the word “perfect” to describe pleasant weather, we shop intently for the “perfect” present for a loved one’s birthday, we tell our single friends that we have found the “perfect” guy or girl for them when we are trying to be matchmakers.
But it is not often that we turn that word on ourselves. When is the last time that you took a look in the mirror and, upon seeing your reflection, declared yourself “perfect?” When is the last time that you took a look at your daily and weekly priorities and considered them “perfect?” When is the last time that you took a deep look at your inner life – your soul, your mind, your hopes, and your dreams – and proclaimed them “perfect?”
So what on earth do we do with readings today that tell us to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy?”
Let’s take a step back for a moment, and take a look at where we are.
Here’s a trivia question for you: what is the maximum number of Sundays that can happen in the flexible season of Epiphany? The answer is 8. And here’s another question: how many Sundays does the church get to celebrate in Epiphany this year? That answer is also 8. It is rare that the church gets the experience of working through the whole of the season, but we are in one of those special years. We get to experience the whole shape of the season together. For someone like me, a former English major who thrives on things like themes and symbols and their development, Epiphany is, well, pretty perfect this year. (Wink, wink.)
If you think all the way back to the beginning of the season, the day of Epiphany, which is the end of the Christmas season, we read about the wise men who journeyed to Jesus by the revelation of a star. The wise men, foreigners, are in their own way a symbol for the church of the revelation of Jesus to the whole world. They show us that Jesus came to earth not just for a few, but for the sake of the whole world. And so, as we’ve been traveling together through the season of Epiphany, we have been hearing both about how Jesus has been revealed to us, and also about how we, the church, can fulfill our mission to show Jesus to all the world.
If you took the bulletins from the last three weeks, and then added this week’s bulletin to the stack, and if opened each of them up to the page with the Gospel reading, and if you were to read them one right after the other, you might notice that we have been reading one large continuous chunk of Matthew’s gospel. Specifically, we’ve been reading all the way through Matthew 5, which is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If you think back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began by calling down blessings on the people, and especially on people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves blessed. Then, Jesus called us the salt and light of the earth, urging us not to sit idly with the blessings we have been given, but rather to use those blessings to bless the world through our righteous living. Both last week and this week, Jesus gives us details about how to live righteously in the world, living out our blessing and our faith through our actions. Today’s reading and this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that has been focusing on right living culminates in the words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Just as a heads-up, next week’s Gospel reading is, as you might expect, from the another section of the Sermon on the Mount, and assures us that the God who provides for our basic needs is also the God who strengthens us in faith and promises us the kingdom even as we strive for righteousness in our daily lives.
See how nicely and neatly both Epiphany and our Gospel readings have told the same story? Christ, the incarnate Word who came to us in the manger, is good news for all the world, and we, the faithful, are called to share that good news in word and deed. We do this by recognizing our blessedness, and by striving to live righteously – that is, in right relationship with God and with one another.
So we are back to where we started: what do we then do with the encouragement to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect?”
Mark Suriano says that, “In our hectic, ego-driven world, this directive can become a spiritual legitimation for all sorts of Type A activity, from physical beauty and intellectual acumen, to spiritual heroics of all kinds….[But what Jesus actually has in mind when he talks about perfection is the idea that] to be perfect is to love in the way God loves, to practice the way of compassion and giving as God has demonstrated it to us in Jesus. Because this perfection has to do with love, which is self-giving, it is geared toward the other, and has little to do with our concepts of perfection. In fact, the perfect life might just be seen as the life of love for God, for self, and for others.”
Jesus’ good news for us is that we are released from the burden of striving for moral perfection under the law. By God’s grace, Jesus has first saved us and blessed us, and made us whole and complete, that is “perfect,” in order that we might then be able to bear fruit in the world.
Both of today’s readings talk about how the people of God can best show love for neighbors in the world, whether that be through providing for one another, being honest and just with our neighbors, refraining from hate, seeking reconciliation instead of retribution, and choosing to love even our enemies.
Can you trust that God has already made you complete? Can you trust that God has already accomplished his purpose of grace and salvation in you? Can you trust that God has made you perfect? Can you trust that God continues to empower you to seek right and loving relationships with your neighbors, your enemies, and your world? Can you trust that God has a purpose for you?
God has given you a purpose and an identity. God is working in you to help you become the person that he wants you to be. If it is hard for you to believe this – if it is hard for you trust this, or hard for you to live it out, I would invite you to think about what it is in your own life that is keeping you from embracing and becoming the person that God wants you to be. And I would invite you to write one thing down – a fear, a wound, a memory, a resentment, a struggle – on a blank corner of your bulletin. (Thanks, WorkingPreacher, for this!)
As we confess our faith together later in this service, I want you to think about how the God of our faith redeems whatever it is that is holding you back. As we pray together as a church, I want you to lift that struggle up in prayer. And as we gather for communion, I want you to tear that corner off of your bulletin and bring it forward to the table, exchanging your own struggle for the bread and the wine that are tangible gifts of grace that nourish you and strengthen your soul to be who God intends you to be.
For it is in the struggle of Christ that all of our struggles are redeemed, it is in the death of Christ that all of our own deaths pass away into life. Friends, hear from this Christ these words of assurance: “You can be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, for I have made you so. Go, therefore, and live the life that God has intended for you.”