Sermon for the people of God at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa.
Reading today’s Gospel, I thought of the point in the Gospel of John where the disciples hear what Jesus is teaching, and they say “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” And many of his followers turn back and no longer follow him. (John 6:60-66)
The breaking point for most of them is when Jesus is talking about being the bread of life and the need for them to eat his body and drink his blood, but really, I’m surprised so many of Jesus’ followers made it that long, because Jesus is teaching some hard stuff!
Last week, it was that getting angry at someone is as bad as murder, and looking at someone with lust is as the same as committing adultery. This week, we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies, and to not resist evildoers.
If you’re not shocked and a little offended at what Jesus is preaching in this sermon on the mount, then I suspect it’s because you’re familiar with it. Because what Jesus is saying here is impractical, even offensive. If you’re trying to show someone the appeal of following Jesus, this might not be the passage to start with.
And then, in the very last verse of chapter 5, he lays it out bluntly. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Mic drop. That has to be the hardest command in the Bible.
Some of the hard commandments make sense. As Christians, we know we’re supposed to love our neighbors, even love our enemies. Giving to everyone who begs from you is tough, and often impractical, but it’s a good commandment to have. But be perfect? That’s just setting up for failure!
So what do we do with this reading? I have a couple of ideas gleaned from wrestling with this reading this week.
First, what sticks out to me is that it’s a command to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. That’s not the same as being perfect like the world sees perfection. God’s idea of perfection is unique..
For example, go back to the first reading from Leviticus for a minute, and we’re going to talk about how to be a perfect farmer. First, my disclaimer: I am not a farmer. Growing up, my parents had horses, so I know a little about taking care of livestock and I know you don’t get a day off when you have animals to take care of, but I know nothing about growing or harvesting corn. I’ve never been in a combine, and I don’t know a thing about fertilizer.
Still, though, I know the point of harvesting is to get the crops out of the field, and I imagine a perfect harvest involves getting all the crop in, not losing any or wasting anything. Generally, you don’t get paid for corn you grow but don’t harvest, right?
In Leviticus, the Lord says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.”
God’s idea of a perfect harvest involves intentionally not harvesting everything, and instead leaving some of the crop behind for people who can’t afford food. God’s idea of perfection involves more than looking out for ourselves, or our families, or even for our own communities.
Did you catch the bit about looking out for the poor and the alien, the foreigner in your land? That has something to say in our current climate where aliens and illegal immigrants are such a hot topic.
How does the world measure perfection? In farming, maybe it’s a record harvest, the best yield per acre. In sports, it’s by how many matches or games you win or lose, or how many records you break, trying to have the perfect season.
In business, it’s how much money you make, how good your quarter is, or how quickly you get promoted. In school, it’s how good of grades you get. Even in church, I confess I sometimes get excited when the offering is higher, or when attendance is up.
It is so easy to measure how well we are doing as a church or as people by comparing ourselves to others, on whatever standard we can find. We really like to measure ourselves against the world’s standards.
But Jesus says be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be perfect not by the world’s standards, but by God’s standards. God says perfection involves giving yourself away, loving God by loving your neighbors. Remembering the poor, not just greeting the people you know, your brothers and sisters, but greeting everyone. Seeing everyone as people God loves.
So first, when Jesus says to be perfect, it’s to be perfect by God’s standards.
Second, this whole difficult command to be perfect is a little misleading. The Greek word is Telos, and it’s actually not so much about moral perfection as it is about completion, reaching the intended outcome.
It’s about being who you were created to be. Author David Lose translates this verse this way: “Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”
It’s about living out our calling as Christians, being complete, being the people God made us to be. God didn’t design us to be selfish, or fearful, or angry, or any other kind of sin you can think of. We are all those things, but that’s not who we are created or called to be.
If we could be perfect, if we could be complete, we would be generous, secure in the hope we have in Christ, not needing to worry about ourselves. We would be who we are created to be.
I started by saying “be perfect” is the hardest command in the Bible. So far, we’ve talked about the command is to be perfect by God’s standards, not ours, and that perfect really means complete, being who we’re created to be. That can sound kind of touchy-feely, like Jesus is telling us to just go find ourselves, like the command is to go claim our destiny, or discover God’s purpose for our lives.
But what if “Be perfect” is not a command at all?
What if it’s a declaration?
What if Jesus isn’t saying “Go on a quest to find yourself, learn how to be perfect, and come back when you’ve got it figured out?”
What if instead—to quote theologian Barbara Essex—“Be perfect is not an indictment, but a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us — fully, richly, abundantly, and completely?”
If that’s true, living as a Christian isn’t about trying to get closer to perfection, but about living in light of God’s love. It’s about learning to live as if what Jesus is saying is true.
Your call is to believe that in God’s eyes, you are perfect, because God loves you. God has claimed you as you are. You are a child of God.
We still have plenty of room to grow into that identity, of course.
I’m much better at trying to collect everything I own and have a perfect harvest than I am at remembering to leave some for others in need, the poor and aliens. We can all get better at learning how to turn the other cheek, not in a way that allows for abuse or makes us doormats, but in a way that doesn’t harm others.
We’re not going to succeed at always being loving our neighbors, let alone our enemies. There’s lots of room to grow, but that growth comes from the foundation of God’s love, and I trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in each of us, helping us grow in faith and love.
May the peace of Christ, the one who has claimed you and who declares you to be a perfect child of God, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord today and always.