September 18, 2011

Godly Perfection

Have you ever done something perfectly?  Think about it for a minute.  Don’t just fall back on the falsely humbly cliché, “Well nobody’s perfect.”  Has there ever been any task in your life that you accomplished with absolute perfection according to the standards of the relevant adjudicator?  I’ve shared with you my own blight of perfectionism before.  Any other perfectionists in the room this morning who are willing to admit it?  The deal with a perfectionist is that our own standards are always higher than those of anyone else.  In other words, we are always going to be the most relevant adjudicator.  I can remember doing a project in ninth grade geometry in which we had to construct a three-dimensional polygon.  I remember going home, getting my mom to buy me a piece of poster board, and setting to work.  I set about making a fairly complex polygon composed of alternating pentagons and triangles that I had seen in our book called an icosidodecahedron.  I carefully figured out what the shape looked like when cut apart and laid flat and with equal care drew this shape on the poster complete with tabs to glue it all together after cutting it out.  After several hours of work I had what I wanted.  A perfect icosidodecahedron.  Again, then, have you ever done something perfectly?  Even if someone is not driven relentlessly in an often futile pursuit of perfection, there is still something inside of us that celebrates at least a little when we meet with the expectations we have allowed to be placed on us.  This morning as we wrap up our primer on discipleship, we’re going to talk for a bit about how we can experience that celebration in not just isolated events, but in our entire lives.

As we come to the end of our series this morning, let me take just a minute to remind you of how we’ve gotten here.  We began back at the beginning of July by talking about the kind of life Jesus called His followers to live.  We are to be salt and light in a bland and dark world.  This means that we are to bring a positive relevance to the world around us.  The call of this world is to fit into the uncomfortable mold of sin.  There are some pleasurable corners in the mold, but on the whole it is a bad fit.  As followers of Christ, we are to demonstrate a better mold, one that is individually tailored to each one of us in the same way that salt reveals the fullness of the flavors of a dish or that light reveals the fullness of the world around us.  From this point, Jesus goes on to give six examples of what this might look like in our lives.  These examples are often called the six antitheses because in each one Jesus contrasts or present as the antithesis the life of the greater righteousness that gains one access to the kingdom of heaven versus the dark, bland life of this world.

These six examples dealt first with our interpersonal relationships.  These relationships cannot be marked by anger.  For anger can causing a great deal of trouble.  When unrighteous in its origin (which is nearly all the time), it can take us to the place of murdering the object of our anger in some way.  The next two examples came in one package and focused our attention on the marriage relationship.  The marriage relationship in particular, but all of life in truth, must be characterized by a radical faithfulness to the covenants we have made.  This means not seeking to have desires that should only find fulfillment in marriage fulfilled anywhere else.  It also means that with a few extreme exceptions, we should stick with that relationship even when it doesn’t make any sense.  Two weeks ago we saw how the greater righteousness impacts our speech.  Our speech should be unrelentingly honest.  Honesty for the follower of Jesus is not merely the best policy, it’s the only policy that makes any sense.  This is challenging at times to be sure, but it is right all the same.  Finally last week we dealt with Jesus’ famous call to turn the other cheek.  We discovered that regardless of how the world approaches us, our response should always be one of kindness.

Having made it this far in our journey, this morning we come to the last of the antitheses.  This is Jesus’ last example of how the greater righteousness might be played out in our lives.  Appropriately, it is also the hardest of the bunch and the one more believers have skipped out on than just about any other.  In fact, folks waving the banner of Christ (and in fact living under such a banner) have at various times in history equated devotion to Christ with blatant disregard for this particular call of the greater righteousness.  What we are going to take a look at this morning is Jesus’ call to love our enemies.  All of that said, this will not be the end point of our conversation.  Instead, we are going to look just beyond this (after a thorough examination of what Jesus meant) to the ultimate aim of the greater righteousness: perfection.

With all of that said, let’s turn now to this last thing Jesus says in Matthew 5.  Find this chapter once last time and let’s start reading at v. 43.  “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?”

Love your enemies.  This is something that probably everyone in this room has heard before.  Jesus told us that we are to love our enemies.  In truth, this is probably one of the more familiar sayings of Jesus.  On the surface it seems so simple.  We are to show love to anyone whom we might count as an enemy.  And yet, most of us, if we are honest, put this in the category of things Jesus said that are just too far out there to really be taken seriously.  This is one of those commands for super-Christians, but it’s not really something that Jesus’ “average” followers are actually expected to keep.  I mean, who actually loves their enemies?  We love friends.  We love family members.  We love our spouses and kids.  But enemies?  No way.  We don’t want to be all mushy-gushy with them.  We want to have them away from us.  As far away as we possibly can.  And if they should come close to us, we want to remind them by our attitude towards them that we would prefer them to be away from us all things considered thank you very much.

Indeed, this attitude is typical of all people through the centuries.  You love your friends and you hate your enemies.  Jesus reveals this right here.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  Now, for my Old Testament scholars, your minds might have instantly gone to Leviticus 19:18 and 34 which command the people to love their neighbors and strangers who are dwelling among them.  But as for hating enemies, try as you might you can’t think of a single verse that says anything about hating anybody.  Indeed there is not.  What Jesus is doing here is citing both law and tradition.  From whence came such a tradition though?  Well, think about.  God told His people: love your neighbors.  But He didn’t say anything specific about enemies.  Somewhere along the line somebody asked the question: “What about them because they ain’t us?”  The teachers of the Law gave this question some thought and then gave the most logical answer they could have: hate them.  God wants us to love our neighbors, but we should hate our enemies.  This is obvious.  They are our enemies after all.  They are opposed to our way of life, perhaps even our life itself.  They are different from us.  They have strange customs and cultures.  This all makes them natural objects for hatred.

But still, we have Jesus’ command here.  And so as professed followers of Christ, we try to give at least lip service to this practice.  The kind of lip service we give has been brilliantly illustrated most recently in the popular song by country artist Jaron and the Long Road to Love called “I Pray for You.”  In the song the main character has just suffered a bad break up and is pretty angry with his ex.  After going to church, though, and hearing this very passage preached, he has an epiphany.  He is going to pray for her.  He’s going to pray that her brakes go out running down a hill, that a flower pot falls from a window sill and hits her in the head, that her birthday comes and nobody calls, that she’s flying high and her engine stalls, that her dreams never come true, that her tire blows out at 110, and that she passes out drunk with her best friend only to wake up with his and hers tattoos.  There is also the famous line from Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye prays for God to bless the Tsar and keep him far away from them.  Humorous as these may be, they capture the darker point that in spite of Jesus’ call to the contrary, the natural thing for us to do is to hate our enemies.

And then Jesus comes along to mess things up again: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Now we’re supposed to pray for them too?  I suspect the disciples were ready to forego the next couple of chapters of the Sermon on the Mount and take Jesus to the funny farm.  Why on earth would we want to pray for our enemies, Jesus?  I mean, I barely have enough time to pray for myself and for the people I love.  How is this supposed to work?  (And Jaron and the Long Road to Love to the contrary, Jesus is not telling us to pray for God to get them.)  Well, in order to understand this, we have to make sure we are coming at what Jesus said here with a proper understanding of love.

As we have talked about before in this format, a pretty significant segment of our population has no idea what love as defined by God actually means.  When we think of love, most of us think first of the kind of mushy-gushy stuff that goes on between newlyweds like the couple I married off last weekend.  If not that, we think in terms of liking someone.  That’s natural right?  If we love someone we should like them, shouldn’t we?  Well, if you’re married or have kids you already know the answer to that.  We love without liking all the time.  So what on earth does it mean to love our enemies?  Well, if you can remember back to February I gave you a succinct definition of love.  Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become fully who God created them to be.  When we properly understand what love is, all of a sudden loving people we have never liked a day in our lives enters into the realm of possibility.  Here’s the truth: if we are following Christ and someone currently counted among our enemies becomes fully who God created them to be, they won’t be our enemy anymore.  The real question we have to answer for ourselves, then, is whether or not we are willing to give up having them as our enemy.

Let’s be honest, there are people in our lives who we get used to not liking and making a change to this kind of status quo is hard.  It’s much easier to keep hating someone than it is to make the shift to loving them.  This brings us to the hard part we have to deal with here: our attitude.  Think for just a minute about who some of the enemies in your life are.  And don’t fall back on that holy sounding, “Well I just get along with everybody.”  We all have enemies in this life.  Some are major.  Some are minor.  Some are far away and others are right next door.  These are the people you either actively don’t like or maybe would simply prefer to keep away from.  These are the people in your life whom you do not love.  You honestly have no desire, or even interest, in seeing them become fully who God designed them to be.  Let’s ask ourselves the hard question: do we want these people to become fully who God designed them to be or not?  If yes, what are we willing to do about it; how are we willing to involve ourselves in their lives in order to see it happen?  If no, why not?  Who would you rather them be?  An object of God’s scorn and judgment?  I’m not interested now in whether or not you think they deserve His judgment.  You and they will both face it someday.  I’m asking whether or not you would see God’s plans for their life fall short of completion.  Although the level of our actual involvement in seeing God’s plans for someone else come to pass is naturally going to vary depending on who the person is and how close we are to them on a regular basis (which is why prayer factors into things: we can pray for God to work successfully in someone else’s life even if we’ve never met them), taking the mental step of desiring to see it not happen is a serious issue.

Do you want to know why this is so?  Jesus gives us two reasons, one focused on God, one focused on us.  They usually get overlooked because of the attention given the first part of the phrase here, but Jesus spells them out pretty clearly.  Are you ready for this?  The first reason we are to love our enemies is that God loves us.  “Well of course God loves us,” someone might think.  “God is love.  He’s supposed to love us.”  Here’s what I mean.  God loves us and in fact loved us when we were His enemies.  God has never hated any of his enemies in this world.  He loves them the same as those who are His faithful followers.  Jesus’ example of this is hard to overlook.  God makes the sun rise on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  He makes it rain on both the evil and the good.  Think about it.  Think about your neighbor who is not a believer and not even a very nice person to boot.  Did his garden get the same amount of rain that yours did?  Did she get to enjoy the same beautiful sunrise that you did yesterday morning?  For Jesus’ Jewish audience it rained in Rome to make the crops grow the same as it in Jerusalem.  They have beautiful spring days in Tehran just the same as they do in Dinwiddie.  God is consistent to His character regardless of with whom He’s dealing.  A person may be the biggest jerk in the world and may treat you like dirt, but he is still one for whom Jesus died.  We are to turn the other cheek on the personal insults and work and pray for him to become fully who God designed him to be.  This is the call of the greater righteousness.

The second reason Jesus offers focuses more on us.  Jesus lays out this life for His followers because loving your neighbor and hating your enemy is the way the world works and we’re not supposed to be like the world.  Remember what Jesus later said?  We are to be in the world and not of it.  As followers of Christ we are supposed to stick out above the fray.  Showing basic kindness to a friend is something everyone does.  Even the most godless, bloodthirsty, pagan serial killer is kind to the people he counts as friends.  If as followers of Jesus we’re doing no better than someone like that then why on earth should anyone else follow Him?  Look at what Jesus says again.  If we are merely being nice and loving our friends and neighbors, what reward should we be expecting?  That kind of behavior is a baseline for human decency.  That kind of behavior is necessary for the advancement of the human species.  That kind of behavior is something common to all people.  That kind of behavior does not take us to the point of standing out as obviously followers of Jesus.  The point here is not for us to be about the same or even just a little better than our unbelieving neighbors.  The point is for us to go so far above and beyond what they are already doing that it is as clear as day that there is something different about us.  I mean, if loving our neighbors was the standard for heaven, everyone would get in.  Actually, strike that.  No one would get in because none of us were neighbors with God when Jesus died for our sins.  We are to love our enemies because we serve the God who gives extravagantly of Himself to all creation.  Can we not also follow Him in going above and beyond what’s merely expected of us?   The greater righteousness says yes.

With that, we have officially covered all six of Jesus’ examples of how the greater righteousness that can gain us access to the kingdom of heaven might play itself out in our everyday lives.  There is but one question remaining.  This is the question of vision.  This is an important question because without this piece of the puzzle, we are left running around in circles trying to follow all of these examples and thinking of a few more just to make an extra good impression.  This would send us spiraling down the road of legalism.  Indeed, legalism nearly always results from a lack of vision.  We don’t have a good idea where we are going so in lieu of this we make sure the style of our journey looks really good.  So then, where is all this pointing?  Well, I gave you the answer a little while ago.  The path of the greater righteousness is pointing to perfection.  Look with me at the final verse in chapter 5: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This is it.  This is the ultimate call of the greater righteousness.  The call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection.  Now, before all my non-perfectionists and folks who are otherwise convinced that they are perpetually unable to achieve perfection check out on me, let me make something clear.  The Greek word used here is perhaps better understood in this context as “complete.”  Jesus has been alluding to or quoting from the Law this entire journey and He doesn’t stop now.  When He tells us that we need to be perfect as is our heavenly Father, He is alluding to the oft-repeated refrain from the book of Leviticus: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”  When He said this, God was calling the people of Israel to take up the great task to reflecting His character to the fullest degree possible.  In other words, what Jesus is doing here is calling us to be complete in the image of God.

So why do translations so often use the word “perfection” here?  I was curious about just how pervasive the perfection language really was and so I did some searching.  I looked at 39 different translations of the Bible including at least five languages other than English and only three didn’t use the word perfect.  Let me read a couple of those for you.  First from The Bible in Basic English: “Be then complete in righteousness, even as your Father in heaven is complete.”  Next from the Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  As it often does, I think Peterson’s Message captures the sense of what Jesus is trying to say here.  The call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection, but Jesus is talking about our living life fully after His example which itself is the example of our heavenly Father who is perfect.  This shift from perfect language grasps the connotations of “perfect” in our culture.  You see, we understand perfect to mean completely without error—which it does—but we do not think primarily in a moral sense.  When we think perfect we think of someone who never trips over her own feet; of someone who got the highest score on the SAT; of someone whose car is immaculate on the inside and out; of someone whose house never has a speck of dust and whose yard is on the front page of Better Homes and Gardens every month; of someone who makes gourmet meals every night and has never once missed a date important to his wife; of someone who can make a flawless icosidodecahedron (which this is not).  We think first of perfect in a practical, worldly sense.  We hear Jesus tell us to be perfect like God, that the call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection, think in these terms we’ve been talking about, and remember: I got angry with my friend last week, let my eyes and heart drift a bit to the attractive person behind me in line at the grocery store this morning, lied to my kids yesterday, flipped off the jerk who cut me off two days ago, wished sincerely for God to go ahead and judge my irritating neighbor last Thursday, and glumly conclude that we’re never going to get there.  Then we get angry with God for demanding such a high standard and go off to do something morally imperfect to give God a spiritual raspberry.

So again, then: Why the language of perfect?  I mean, the Greek word Jesus used can be translated with words other than “perfect,” so why the irritating consistency among translations?  Why not just concede the point and follow the example of the BBE of the Message?  Do you want the simple answer?  Because that would let us off the hook.  People would see the word “complete” or “good” or some other acceptable alternative translation other than “perfect”, associate different cultural connotations with it, and content themselves with a level of behavior much lower than Jesus was aiming for.  This is a problem because there is little question that the call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection.  God’s standard is perfection in a moral sense.  He doesn’t care so much if we never trip over our feet or have clean cars and well-kept lawns if those things are done with an attitude that seeks to dishonor Him.  He cares that we are operating out of the place of His character in every interaction of our lives.  He cares that we are living up to the standards of the greater righteousness at every point so that we might be able to have unbroken fellowship with Him.  He wants for us to experience the thrill of knowing that we have lived up to the expectations of the adjudicator who is truly the most relevant.  Thus the language of perfection; because when we are complete in His image we are going to be morally perfect.  Now, are we going to reach such a standard in this life?  While some theological traditions lean towards an affirmative answer here, I don’t believe so.  But the vision of perfection is still important because with a lower vision we would aim even lower and achieve even less than we already do.  The call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection and nothing less than that will satisfy.

As we close this morning then, think about that for a minute.  Godly perfection.  It sounds like such a far off thing, but still, doesn’t it sound good?   Close your eyes and envision a place where your first inclination is never sin.  Ever.  Imagine letting the Spirit carry you to a place where you aren’t ever angry inappropriately, where you are totally faithful to all of your commitments, where your word is worth more than gold in today’s market, where you have fully released the need to seek personal vengeance when slighted, where you are fully committed to seeing every single person—enemy or friend—in your sphere of influence become fully who God designed them to be, where you have reached the standard of godly perfection.  Imagine what that would feel like.  Remember the thing you did perfectly that one time?  Remember how that felt?  Now take that feeling and multiply it by a billion.  The call of the greater righteousness is for us to experience that.  The call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection.  The goal of the greater righteousness is for us to experience the celebration that comes with meeting the standard of God.  And let me tell you: as a church, this is the vision God has placed before us.  We are a family church where spiritual seekers can find a place to belong, learn the Christian faith, and serve unconditionally.  The vision God has set before us is to become fully that church; to become fully a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ.  And in the next three weeks, we are going to talk about what this looks like for this church.  I am going to lay out for you once again the vision God has set before us of becoming fully who He designed us to be as individuals and as a full body.  The tools we are going to need are going to be particular to us, but the path we will have to walk is the one we’ve now spent six weeks laying out: greater righteousness.  As we follow this path we will come to not only see clearly the vision God has placed before us, but achieve it as well.  The call of the greater righteousness is godly perfection.  Let us be perfectly complete together.