“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”
I was reading an article the other day by an American pastor called Amy Butler, whose church, like us, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Not all of her article is relevant to us, as she lives in the United States, and the culture there is somewhat different to ours, of course, but this first bit is, and I’m going to quote it directly:
“In these weeks after the Epiphany we are hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ famous teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Last Sunday in worship, instead of preaching a sermon I had written, I decided to “preach” the entire Sermon on the Mount – two full chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus.
In coffee hour after worship, several people came up to me to tell me they really did not like or agree with some of the parts of my sermon that day. Two chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.
Most of us really like certain parts of the Sermon on the Mount – the parts about the lilies of the field and where your treasure is there will your heart be also. But there are lots of other parts of the sermon, and frankly, many of them are quite onerous. There’s the love your enemies part, direction about not being a hypocrite, hard words about divorce, and a warning against religious leaders who smile too much. If you listen to the whole thing instead of picking and choosing the passages you like, I will guarantee you’ll feel uncomfortable …” (https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/)
And I don’t know about you, but the verse “Be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect” really, really, really makes me feel uncomfortable!
How on earth are we going to be perfect? No matter how hard we try, no matter how fiercely we discipline ourselves, we are never going to be totally perfect.
Look at the Pharisees, for instance – they really wanted to be God’s people, and thought that they could succeed by doing. The trouble was, that they were so busy trying to act correctly that they forgot all about what God had said about looking after people, things like we heard in our first reading this morning:
“When you cut your crops at harvest time, don’t cut all the way to the corners of your fields. And if grain falls on the ground, you must not gather up that grain. Don’t pick all the grapes in your vineyards or pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. You must leave those things for your poor people and for people travelling through your country. I am the Lord your God.”
The Pharisees were so busy trying to tithe everything, even the product of their herb garden, that they forgot to look after their elderly parents or the travellers. They didn’t mean to be unkind; they just got rather self-righteous about things. They were too engrossed in how holy they were being that they didn’t have any spare energy to help their neighbours. And Jesus picked them up on it, pointing out, as I’m sure you remember, that it didn’t really matter how you washed your hands, or what you ate – what mattered was what you thought and felt inside, and how that expressed itself in practice.
Being perfect, in Jesus’ terms, appears to be more about who you are than what you do. We are told in John’s gospel that if we believe in him we are not condemned, but have passed from death to life. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we can enter God’s presence with boldness because of what Jesus has done. The whole thrust of Paul’s letters is that we should rely on grace, not on the law. Jesus has taken the law to a whole new level; it’s not just about what you do, it’s about who you are.
Of course, who you are is going to inform what you do. Jesus reminds us that his people will love their enemies, as well as their friends; they won’t fight back when they are abused; they will pray for those who treat them badly, and in return, treat them as they would wish to be treated.
That’s not to say that God’s people are going to be doormats, letting others walk all over them. And it’s certainly not to say that you never pull up someone you see doing wrong. Remember our first reading?
“You must be fair in judgement. You must not show special favour to the poor. And you must not show special favour to important people. You must be fair when you judge your neighbour. You must not go around spreading false stories against other people. Don’t do anything that would put your neighbour's life in danger. I am the Lord.
“Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbours. But tell them openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
“Tell them openly what they have done wrong”.
Of course, like any of these things, it can be misused. We all know those people who like to “tell you the truth in love”, which invariably means they are going to be incredibly rude about something that’s none of their business.
But, by and large, it is not incompatible with loving our neighbours, of course. Look how we discipline our children, and remind them of the standards of behaviour we expect from them. Look at the demonstrations, the petitions, the upsurge in popular feeling that’s taking place in America at the moment, and to a lesser extent here. Many people feel that the attitudes and actions of Donald Trump and his government are not those that they can condone, and feel the need to stand firm against what they perceive is wrong. Many of us feel that our own government’s refusal to receive immigrant children who have lost touch with their families is very wrong indeed.
And, of course, there are others, equally sincere Christians, who hold just the opposite view to us. Especially, it seems, in the USA, where Christianity is very often allied to extreme right-wing views, extraordinary though we may find this. And, sadly, the extreme right seems to want God to be judgemental, harsh, unloving – the kind of God who says “You must be perfect” and condemns you for not being.
Well, I don’t believe God is like that. If God says “You must be perfect”, there must be a way of being perfect. The Pharisees thought it was about hundreds of very detailed rules and regulations which, if you kept them perfectly, would keep you right with God, but Jesus said it wasn’t that. Jesus said, so often, that it was who you are, not what you do, that matters.
John Wesley very much believed Christian perfection was a thing. He didn’t think he’d attained it, but he reckoned it was possible in this life. He preached on it and it’s one of the sermons we local preachers are supposed to have read – you can find it on-line easily enough. Anyway, he said about perfection was that it wasn’t about being ignorant, or mistaken, or ill or disabled, or not being tempted – you could be any or all of those things and still be perfect. Wesley reckons – he goes into all sorts of arguments here, mostly putting up straw men and demolishing them, but by and large he reckons that the closer we continue with Jesus, the less likely we are to sin. I believe he didn’t reckon that he’d got there himself, but he did know people who had. He said even a baby Christian has been cleansed from sin, and mature Christians who walk with Jesus will be freed from it, both outwardly and inwardly. I hope he’s right....
But the point is, we simply can’t be perfect in our own strength. You know that, and I know that. Trying to be will only wear us out and make us either give up in despair or become one of those harsh, unloving Christians who worships out of fear rather than out of love. We become Biblical literalists, and try to dominate women and feel it’s all right to hate people who are not like us.
No, the only way to become perfect is to allow God the Holy Spirit to make us so. To allow God to fill us with his Holy Spirit right up to overflowing. To let go, and let God, as they say. Amen.