Year A, Epiphany 7, Matthew 5:38-48
The Rev. Mark A. G. Huffman, Good Shepherd, 2017
Be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect
We are beggars. This is true.
The first the final word from Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading
Be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect
The second the final words from Martin Luther, who we commemorate every year on February 18, because that’s the day he died. And on his deathbed wrote,
We are beggars. This is true.
The first what sounds like an impossible demand. “Be perfect therefore as your heavenly father is perfect.”
You’ve perhaps heard the saying, “I wish I was the person my dog thinks I am.” But does even your dog think you are perfect.
I’ve been accused from time to time of thinking I was perfect, but as you might guess, my accusers had a slightly less exalted opinion of me.
The second Luther’s realization after a life of truly towering, amazing, world changing accomplishment – so astonishing, remarkable and far reaching that now 500 years later we are still quite literally singing his praises – that it wasn’t enough. Apart from the grace of God giving, providing, forgiving, accepting he had no hope
Luther who knew as well as anyone that the requirement was perfection, knew just as surely that he was far from perfect. He would and could never measure up.
As it says in one of the more famous prayers he wrote, for Luther God was the one of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.
And so, We are beggars. This is true.
And yet in that truth, that realization is the beginning of Luther’s hope. And ours I believe as well.
Luther’s hope of salvation. God’s intention for us of perfection.
One key to understanding how this is so is the full meaning of the word our English new testament translates from the Greek in which the New Testament was first written as “perfect.” The word in Greek is “telos” and as David Lohse writes it implies not so much moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. The word could also and sometimes is translated as complete, ripe, mature. All of which means we might paraphrase this passage to mean roughly, “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be. “
The other part of this is that this call to us of Jesus to “be perfect” is in what’s called the “future indicative” case. I know all you English majors know exactly what that means, but try to ignore that and listen to what it means to me.
The indicative case is command. So “Sit” or “Fetch” or “Do you homework” or “Be perfect” those are all indicative case commands
But it’s also the “future” indicative. So it’s really not so much “Be perfect” as it is “You shall be perfect as God is perfect. You shall be complete as God is complete. You shall reach your God intended destination.”
What I believe Jesus is saying is that this is what God is doing in your life, impelling, compelling, inspiring, forgiving, loving you into the beautiful and beloved child of God you were created to be, who can love even enemies and turn the other cheek just like God does.
It reminds me of what a colleague of mine used to say, God loves you exactly as you are. And God loves you so much he’s not going to leave you there.
As Martin Luther once wrote,
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” All is being perfected, made perfect,
And beggars that we truly are this is not our doing it is what God is doing in us, through us to us through Jesus crucified and risen entering our lives through water and the Word, transforming our hearts through his presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion that we eat and drink each week; guiding, guarding, directing, perfecting through the stories that we tell, the work of God we do with our hands, the love and challenge of living in Christian community.
Again as David Lohse writes, Read this way, Jesus words are less command than promise. God sees more in you than perhaps you do yourself. God has plans and purpose for you. God intends you for great and spectacular things – and nothing can or will be more spectacular than you being and becoming ultimately, completely, perfectly the person you were created to be and in so doing helping bring into being the world as God created it to be.
The fallacy of the eye for an eye system was pointed out by Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only ends up making the whole world toothless and blind.” And the truth is most of the time in our world it doesn’t stop with an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. Instead it’s, I perhaps unintentionally cut you off in traffic, you respond with a road rage attack forcing me off the road; I hit you. You hit me back twice as hard. I insult your leader. You fire a nuclear bomb at my county.
It’s not just a blind and toothless world that this system threatens but the end of world as we know it. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the so called Doomsday Clock by the Union of Atomic Scientists who were part of the development of the first nuclear weapons. The clock is meant to figuratively tell us how close we are to the midnight brink of an all out nuclear war that would destroy friend and foe, enemy and ally, us and them, you and me.
Based on their take on the fears, tensions and developments in the world on this just past January 26, 2017 the clock was moved forward another 30 seconds, and stands now at 2 and a half minutes to midnight.
Way back on that mountain long ago beside the sea of Galilee Jesus knew that someone had to start the stopping as my father used to say of tit for tat, eye for an eye retaliation or worse, that the world as God intended and intends and contrary to appearances is transforming it to be is based on a very different code of conduct.
Jesus calls this renewed world coming into being through him the kingdom of God. A world where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King Jr. captured the logic of Jesus kingdom come when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. “
And that is exactly what the light, love and grace of God for us in Jesus in doing to us and in us and through us for our world. Bringing into being a world where we love not just our neighbor but also our enemy. Where we pray not just for our friends but for those who persecute us.
We shall be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. Not through the strength and wisdom of our own effort beggars that we truly are. But through the hope, faith and love God in Jesus gives to us.
As Martin Luther wrote in his explanation of the third article of the apostle’s creed. “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”
It is said that St. Augustine at Holy Communion would invite people to “receive who you are” and then “go become what you have received.”
Receive this morning the good news that, beggars that we are, when you reach out to God for help and hope, God is there. God is here seeking to give you what you need. Receive the reality of God’s great love for you. Receive the truth that you are God’s beautiful and beloved child and the more fully and deeply you are you the more perfect you become and the more hope there is for this world however close to midnight it may be.
And then go be, become, and share what you receive in this place. Be the love of God – that seeks what is best even for the enemy. Become more and more fully the body of Christ in the world doing God’s work with your hands – feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick. And be yourself. That’s what God has given you to be more than anything else. That’s what this world is truly in need of, begging for. That’s your life task. Your life work. To be and become completely, perfectly your God created, God intended self. Amen.