Here's a sermon I preached yesterday:
Philippians 3:7-14; Matthew 5:43-48
October 1, 2006
“A Perfect Love”
Christian perfection is the heart of the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. It is also the most neglected and misunderstood part of our tradition. This, in spite of the fact that every year at annual conference the bishops ask candidates for ordination the 19 historic questions that begin with “Have you faith in Christ?”, “Are you going on to perfection?”, “Do you expect to be perfected in love in this life?”, and “Are you earnestly striving after it?” The fact that these are the first four of these 19 historic questions tells us that they are of primary concern, particularly when we are preparing people for leadership and the care of souls. The problem is, of course, the word “perfect.”
We don’t seem to have a problem with perfection when it comes to our children, jobs, music, and sports. Parents want their children to be “perfect”, at lease when it comes to social behavior. We expect them to have perfect attendance in school. We work harder and harder to build the “perfect” life and live in the “perfect” house. We admire and are in awe of the musician who has “perfect” pitch. We celebrate the baseball pitcher who pitches a “perfect” game.
In all these arenas of life, we have no problem or discomfort with perfection. In fact it is the outcome we seek, work towards, and seek to be part of. But when it comes to our spiritual lives, our life with God, we become very uneasy with the notion of “perfection.” We joke about it and dismiss it as a silly, out-dated idea.
I suspect this is because we tend to have an unfortunate understanding of what “perfect” and “perfection” mean. When we think of it in terms of faith we imagine someone who has life all figured out, who never makes a mistake, and is immune to temptation. Such persons, we imagine, are self-righteous know-it-alls; sort of like to old Saturday Night Live character played by Dana Carvy some of you may recall, “the Church Lady;” or, to use a more contemporary example, Ned Flanders. We all know no human, other than Jesus Christ himself, is capable of such absolute perfection.
Fortunately, this is not at all what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:48.
Nor is it what John Wesley taught and preached.
Jesus gives us an important clue to the meaning of perfection in verse 44, “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.” Here Jesus helps us to see that perfection is ultimately about love.
John Wesley understood perfection as simply loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. He taught that perfection is a heart filled to overflowing with the love of God. It is the goal of the life of discipleship. If discipleship is a journey, perfection in love is the destination.
The love of God means loving those whom God loves, as God loves them. Jesus teaches us here that loving as God loves means loving not only those who are like you, those who will return your love with affection and kindness, it is also loving the enemy; those who hate, despise, persecute, and seek to do you harm. This is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural love. This love is completely selfless and self-giving. It expects nothing in return and desires only the healing, reconciliation, and blessing of the beloved. This love is the way and character of God. After all, when God loves sinners like me, God is loving God’s enemy.
Jesus illustrates this way of loving in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus shows us that our neighbor includes those who are enemies. You see, in Jesus’ day, among Jesus’ people there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.
In the parable Jesus tells his followers that eternal life can be theirs when they deny their cultural biases and fears in order to love all those whom God loves, including sworn enemies. He teaches that loving means seeking the good for all. Jesus teaches this because that is how God loves, we have within our reach the ability to love God’s way too.
This tells us that love is not about feelings, it is all about doing. Loving as God loves means treating all people, even the enemy, with respect, dignity, compassion, and justice. When we allow this love to flow in and through us for the world, we connect to the power of grace that moves us toward perfection in love. In fact, Scripture is very clear that we are created for such love (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-13). It can be ours, all we have to do is seek, embrace, and live it.
Of, course before we can even hope to love as God loves, we need to overcome a little problem called sin, and the damage it has done to our character and way of life. The good news is that in Jesus, crucified and risen, God has destroyed the power of sin and set us free to become fully the human beings we were created to be, in Christ. All we have to do is accept this gift of new life and the way of life that goes with it.
God gives us the grace we need to live this life and to grow up in loving as God loves. The gifts God has given for this way of life that leads to perfection are known to us as “means of grace” The means of grace is the basic practices of Christian faith and life: prayer, worship, Scripture, fasting, and serving in the world. These simple, basic practices and the community of love and forgiveness, known as the Church, equip us to learn how to love as God loves; to open our hearts to grace that makes it possible to love our enemies.
The means of grace help us to, in Paul’s words, “press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” These means of grace connect us to Christ and teach us how to love as he loves. As we grow in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, we become more and more like Christ. His life becomes our life. We become transparent so that Christ’s light shines through us for the world. In the process Christ heals our brokenness and forms our character into a copy of his. Charles Wesley describes this as “forming the Savior in the soul.”
Grace is the power of God that “forms the Savior in the soul” (see The United Methodist Hymnal, #385). Grace is the power of God that is overcomes the power of sin. Grace is the power of God that sets us free for love and to become grown up, mature, and completely human beings in the image of Christ. Grace is the power of God that equips and empowers you to become fully and completely the person God created you to be, in Christ. And that is what Jesus means when he tell us “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Let us plead for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies.
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers hell and death and sin,
Hallows whom it first made whole,
Forms the Savior in the soul.
Let us for this faith contend,
Sure salvation is the end;
Heaven already is begun,
Everlasting life is won.
Only let us persevere
Till we see our Lord appear,
Never from the Rock remove,
Saved by faith which works by love.
Charles Wesley, 1740