Posted by: dacalu | 20 February 2011

How to be perfect

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

This is, I’m afraid, one of the most blatantly, egregiously, and erroneously

used ideas in the Bible – a book not noted for it’s clear

and consistent interpretation.

How many of you winced when you heard this?

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

For all the good press we hear about the sermon on the mount,

it can be a pretty challenging piece of scripture.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve heard chapter five of Matthew’s gospel.

(If you’re on the Revised Common Lectionary, today’s readings are Lev 19:1-2,9-18, Ps 119, I Cor 3:10-11,16-23, and Mat 5:38-48.)

First the beatitudes, which when looked at closely can be a bit confusing.

Then the salt of the earth and a city on a hill.

Then two full Sundays of talk about how exacting and unforgiving the law is.

All wrapped up in an admonition to be perfect.

One might be tempted to chuck the whole chapter and look elsewhere.

That’s not really my style, though, so let’s take a closer look

at what might be going on here.

I think we find the idea daunting,

because we’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

We want to judge God by some standard of goodness or perfection

and then measure ourselves against that.

We start with an idea of holiness,

and then try to compete with God for best in show.

But that’s not really what we want,

or what God wants.

Anytime you start with an abstract idea,

whether it be perfection, holiness, justice, mercy, or anything else,

you have to measure God against that idea

and God either falls short, or just gets pushed over to the edge of the spectrum.

So we start with this notion of perfection,

all rosy glow and spotless exactitude (and, frankly, personal baggage).

God gets placed way over on the side with the best of the best,

the cream of the crop, super fine, high grade, A+ goodness

or God gets placed with us somewhere lower down,

fair to middling.

So God gets to be wonderful or with us, but never both.

And that’s a serious problem.

If you start with the abstract idea – it will never work.

So let’s try this a different way.

What if we start with God and say that the whole idea is to be like God,

which is – in itself – perfection?

What if the idea is not to imitate God’s holiness,

but to realize that God’s Godness, when it rubs off, makes us holy?

See if the scriptures don’t hit you differently this time around.

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

Leviticus is hardly my favorite book of the Old Testament,

but we often lose out on the context.

Of the 27 rules that follow the statement to be holy,

18 have to do with loving your neighbor.

Most of them deal with social and economic justice

for those without power.

Six deal with love and respect for God.

And only three have to do with purity.

Israel had been called to be a community built around God,

and permeated by God’s sense of justice and responsibility.

What does it mean to be God’s people?

It means acting like God, loving God and neighbor.

Paul lays it out more clearly in I Corinthians.

The people seem concerned with particular leaders, ideologies, and doctrines.

And those are all important.

But Paul says we have to look at them in context.

“For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (I Corinthians 3:23)

Make no mistake.

The leaders belong to the people, but the people belong to God.

The doctrines belong to the people, but the people belong to God.

We don’t get to God through a priest, or an institution, or a belief.

We, having received God, express our relationship in terms

of institutions and beliefs.

Don’t get me wrong.

I love the church, and I love theology and doctrines.

I even think the priesthood has its uses on occasion.

But all of that springs from your relationship with God,

not the other way around.

When we say that Christ is the foundation, we really mean it.

Christ has a relationship with you

and the true church, the great cloud of witnesses, the ecclesia

comes from that relationship.

These past few weeks, I’ve been meditating on Sola Gratia

the idea that we are saved by grace alone – rather than works or beliefs.

And the more I think about it, the truer and more important it seems to me.

Christ is in you.  That is the foundation of all Christianity.

There is right behavior and there is right belief,

and it comes from those actions and thoughts that reveal

the love of God within us.

So yes, admonish your neighbor;

help her find grace within herself;

help him shine more brightly.

Just remember that the light begins within you,

with a connection you have already made.

Remember that justice and holiness are not ideas transmitted from God,

but very real fruits of the connection God has already made with us.

God first, people second, abstract concepts third.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus sums it all up in the Gospel.

“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.”

God is merciful to us, so we are merciful.

God is kind to us, so we are kind.

We are the kingdom built on God’s presence among us.

We share the ethics demonstrated in God’s actions.

I’m a scientist, so I hope you’ll excuse a science metaphor.

It seems to me that God is like a seed, around which a crystal grows,

or a collision that starts a chain reaction.

God reaches out to us, in a way that makes a connection.

We too, can reach out and make that connection with others

because of what we have received.

And so the crystal, the reaction, the kingdom grows.

And there is a terrible responsibility there.

We have been given a gift.

We must choose whether we will let that gift flow outward

through us into the world.

We must choose how to deal with the light in the darkness,

to obscure it our let it shine through our thoughts and actions.

We must choose whether to build communities of justice, mercy, and grace.

Not a single jot or tittle of the law has passed away,

but the law was made for us, and not us for the law.

God first, people second, abstract concepts third.

Heaven and hell, sin and redemption, creed and confession –

all wonderful, useful, and even Godly,

but not the thing itself.

Paul or Cephas, Rome or Geneva, Progressive or Conservative,…

The fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa said it thus:

“This is true perfection:

not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves;

not to do good because we expect repayment,

as if cashing in on the virtuous life

by enforcing some business deal.

On the contrary, disregarding all those good things which we do hope for

and which God has promised us,

we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful,

and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.”

No matter what the temptation,

Happy or sad, successful or unsuccessful, provoked or unprovoked,

love as you have been loved,

forgive as you have been forgiven,

accept as you have been accepted.

That is the mission

and the hope

of the church.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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Responses

  1. Oh, Lucas, this is wonderful. Thank you. 🙂

    On another note, Gregory of Nyssa is a bit of a hero in my book, or at least a muse. You use his quote beautifully.


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