Sermon for Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 19, 2017, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Sermon Theme: “Does God Really Expect Us to Be Perfect?”
(Sources: Anderson’s Cycle A Lectionary Preaching Workbook; Brokhoff, Series A, Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Commentaries; Emphasis Online Illustrations; original ideas; “You Might Be a Perfectionist, FlyLady.net; Cowboy Classified.com; footnotes, Concordia Self-Study Bible; footnotes, Life Application Study Bible)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
My father was a perfectionist. The rest of us in the family were not. My father could never understand us, nor his peers, who weren’t. He was the only railroad section foreman in his Division of Sections who had a 45-year perfect record of accident-free maintenance: No derailments. No train wrecks. No bridge washouts. No buckled tracks. Obviously, he was the most sought-after section foreman in Texas.
Those of you ladies who are fans of the Fly Lady and read FlyLady.Net know that she often speaks about the pitfalls of perfectionism. In one of her columns she did a Jeff Foxsworthy spoof on perfectionism. Here’s what she wrote:
“You might be a perfectionist if you spend hours cleaning the grout between the tile with a toothbrush when there is a sink full of dishes.
“You might be a perfectionist if you put the children’s toys away while they are still playing with them because it looks too messy.
“You might be a perfectionist if you go to replace a light bulb and end up tearing the whole light fixture apart cleaning it.
“You might be a perfectionist if you don’t have eight hours to clean your house, so you do nothing.”
Whether a section foreman or a housewife, a perfectionist can be difficult to live with if you aren’t one. Some people believe we must all continue to strive for perfection; others believe it is absolutely impossible to be perfect. Last week, I saw this Quote of the Day on Facebook: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” That’s not what Jesus said, is it?
So just about the time we settle into thinking it’s OK to be fallible, to be less than perfect, we are faced with the last statement made by Jesus in our sermon text: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” No kidding? Does Jesus really mean that?
Well, look what our Lord says near the beginning of our text. “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Wow! He’s kidding?
But Jesus goes on. He also says, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Another “Wow!” Then He gives us that extra mile command: “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Then He says we’re to give to beggars and to lend to borrowers, and then He caps it off with, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Hearing Jesus say this causes us to stop and re-examine what He means by being perfect as God is perfect. We can do three things. We can skip this section of the Bible and move on. We can find a way to rationalize what Jesus said. Or we can examine this passage in light of other passages in Scripture and try to ascertain what our Lord meant. Obviously, we have to choose the last option.
First, we have to answer the question, “What is ‘perfect’”? Based on Scripture, we can rule out that it means “sinless,” because we are born sinful thanks to Adam and Eve. Paul says in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Even though there are good Christians who appear to be sinless, John says in 1 John 1:8, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We can conclude from this that if “perfect” means “sinless,” then we are definitely not perfect, nor can we ever be!
Well, Jesus said what He said, so let’s take another look at the word “perfect.” When Jesus says we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, the original Greek word He used is “telios”. “Telios” does not mean “without blemish,” but “complete” or “mature.” Temple sacrifices had to be perfect, which means they had to be “without blemish,” – a lamb with a flaw or blemish, like say an undersized head, could not be offered to the Lord.
The command is to be complete or mature, not to be without blemish or flaw. That we must be “perfect” then does not mean we must attain spiritual maturity before we are accepted by God. It’s like what the old bumper sticker said, “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.”
We cannot achieve Christ-like character and holy living all at once, but we must grow toward maturity and wholeness. Just as we expect different behavior from a baby, a child, a teenager, and an adult, so God expects different behavior from us, depending on our stage of spiritual development. Thus we can be perfect if our behavior is appropriate to our maturity level – perfect, yet with much room to grow.
We must do a balancing act. On the one hand, we must take Jesus’ call to completion or maturity seriously through the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, on the other hand, we must hold high the promise of forgiveness for all of us sinners who fall so miserably short of the mark. God’s command is for completion and maturity in holiness and love, and in the sense of fulfilling our purpose in life.
Scripture makes clear the difference between “justification” and “sanctification.” I hate to use theological terms like this, but the Bible uses them so we have to understand them. “Justification” is an at-once, one-time deal, discussed by Paul in Romans 8:10. We are saved by grace through faith alone. No one is righteous, not one, so we are reckoned “righteous” by means of Christ’s righteousness.
“Sanctification” is the process of becoming holy, of achieving spiritual completion or maturity, and it is a life-long process.
So, God has already justified us, — that’s a given. But this so-called “perfection” Jesus commands in the text is sanctification completed. Highest maturity level completed.
“Well, if that’s the case,” some folks might say, “we should just sit back and not worry about any of this stuff.” It’s kind of like what those critics said sarcastically of Luther’s ideas during the Reformation, “If God forgives all sins, and we are saved by grace through faith alone, then we should just enjoy sinning big, and let grace, faith, and God’s mercy take care of us!” Wrong!
It’s easy to take such an attitude, because what Jesus commands in our text is not natural, — it’s supernatural. Easy for Him, but not so easy for us.
It should be pointed out that Jesus is not rewriting the Old Testament Law in our text. By no means. Yes, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” appears in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, but it was not meant to encourage violent revenge, instead it was to put a limit on it. It was given so that judges would give just punishment according to what the crime called for. Jesus calls for us to go beyond that.
“You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” is found nowhere in the Old Testament. It was no doubt a popular secular proverb of the time, reflecting the attitude of a lot of people. So Jesus wants His audience to replace this faulty earthly thinking with Heavenly wisdom. After all, God already lets the rain fall and the sun shine on friends and foes alike. Love your neighbor means loving everybody. Self-sacrifice replaces self-interest.
You see, when a person applies for a position within an organization, the boss wants workers who will take the organization up to the next level. In the Spiritual realm, Jesus is calling for us to take it up another level. In Jesus’ day, most of the ancient Near East was still living under the brutal laws of retribution of both the Assyrian and Babylonian Codes of Law. Christians must be different.
Yet, being different is not natural, it’s supernatural. It will take a “supernatural” effort, which is why God gave us the Holy Spirit, otherwise taking Christian maturity and completion to the next level would be impossible. Because of our human weaknesses, which I’m sure God understands fully, it’s natural not to strive for betterment, for maturity and completion as we have defined “perfection.” Let us pray that God enables us to achieve this kind of perfection. Amen.