“Jesus’ Beatitudes 4 of 4: The Search For the Perfect Christian”
Matthew 5: 38-48; Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook; Northwood United Church;
February 19, 2017
For the last four weeks, we have been focussing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, working our way through the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and this morning we come to the end. And the end of Jesus’ sermon, he concludes with quite the punch. Teachings like: “Turn the other cheek”; “go the second mile”; “be perfect as your God is perfect”; and that timeless challenge… “love your enemies”. A young priest was preaching on this text and began his sermon asking the congregation about loving their enemies. “Raise your hands, the priest asked, if you have many enemies” ~ many hands went up. “Raise your hands, if you only have a few enemies” ~ about half as many hands went up. “Raise your hands, if you have only one or two enemies” ~ way in the back of the congregation, one of the church elders, a 98 year old man stood up. “Father…I’m 98 and I have NO enemies”. The priest commended him for living such a virtuous Christian life and inquired about his secret. “My secret…I’m 98 years old, and all those (insert expletive here) have died!”
Does that speak to the impossibility of following Jesus? Just waiting it out? Is that what it will take for us to follow Jesus’ teaching? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is among the most challenging teachings of Jesus found throughout the entire New Testament. While it begins with a wonderful affirmation of our blessedness amidst our struggles and difficulties ~ blessed are the meek, the poor, those who grieve; the text quickly becomes exponentially challenging. Jesus warns his listeners about breaking the commandments and becoming least in the Kingdom of Heaven and calls them into a style of living that needs to exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. And last week it got increasingly more difficult as Jesus called into question the realities of human brokenness that manifest amidst the areas of murder, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of an oath. We came to the end of our conversation last week concluding that this high expectation style of living is only possible, only possible … with God ~ God’s power, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. For nothing is possible without God.
So, how do we embrace these last few verses of Jesus’ sermon? To consider Jesus’ calling to his listeners to be perfect, is it possible to be a perfect Christian? Is that possible? In Jesus’ time?…Or in our time, for that matter? If the truth were to be told, I think that most of us do not truly subscribe to these words we hear; we wish they were never recorded because they present deep problems; we believe that Jesus got this part of our human potential wrong and we generally explain Jesus’ teachings away. There are quite a few approaches. Perhaps we might look at these as a set of values to which his disciples should ‘aspire’. But they are only values to which we should aspire, and that is their point. By striving to live towards them, we live better than we would have otherwise and the world is ultimately a better place for our efforts. It is a ‘shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars kind of approach. Or perhaps you might have seen Jesus’ words as revealing the impossibility of human righteousness and words that prepare us for the advent of God’s grace. The very point of exposing our human frailty reveals the very need of God’s divine grace revealed in Jesus ~ that we are forgiven, that we are loved and that we are empowered to live into the ways of the Kingdom that we could never otherwise have done. Or perhaps we just shrug it off to irrelevant historical context that exists between a 1st Century Roman-occupied state and the complex differences of a 21st Century world with its myriad of complex relationships, global economics, and violent military threats. Simply put, Jesus’ words do not make sense in our day compared to his and do not have authority over us as they did over the original hearers.
The problem with all of these explanations is that they fail to deal with the essence of what Jesus is saying throughout the entire gospel of Matthew. That essence is that Jesus repeatedly insists throughout the gospel of Matthew that he means exactly what he says. In Matthew’s gospel, to follow Jesus is to do what he says. In my opinion, it is dangerous theology to ‘explain away’ these difficult sayings of Jesus’. Jesus provides a theological rationale for all his teaching and they work at several levels. In the case of the admonition of the ‘Golden Rule’, the disciples are to love their neighbours and their enemies just as they love themselves. The rationale is that in doing this they imitate God and become distinguished as His disciples. To be clear… this is not merely an obligation of the disciple, it is the very goal of being a disciple ~ “be perfect, as your God in heaven is perfect”.
And that verse, I would suggest, is the very key to understanding this final section of Jesus’ sermon ~ “be perfect, as your God in heaven is perfect”. Hence the reason for this morning’s reflection title: “The Search for the Perfect Christian”. The word we translate in english as “perfect” in Greek is the word ‘telos’ and it implies less a 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. And the telos of the Vancouver Canucks is to win the Stanley Cup (sorry I couldn’t resist – its’ just my hopeful nature). What this means is that we might translate this passage to mean, “Be the person and the community God created you to be, just as God, the One God is supposed to be.”
Interesting...read this way, Jesus’ words are less of a command than a promise. I believe that the hopefulness in this passage is found in the truth that God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you, even if you don’t see it. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular, even if you don’t believe it. And that wonderful purpose, that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be, and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and where hatred doesn’t always kindle more hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Can we do this? – turn the other cheek? love our enemies? pray for those who persecute you? To be honest…No, not perfectly. On some days we might not be able to muster it at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we really believe Jesus actually is bringing in God’s kingdom, and to realize that we get to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.
This approach doesn’t forget or even minimize the presence of brokenness and sin in us or in the world. But neither does it assume God is limited by our human frailty. Rather, it takes seriously that we are always being called by Jesus to be more than we thought we could be and invited to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved people as we live in the world. To be clear, Jesus’ message – returning hate with love, turning the other cheek, praying for those who stand against us – is incredibly counter-cultural. This will not win you an election, but it may help change the world for the better. And that is Jesus’ job ~ to change us. And Jesus has promised to do just that ~ to change us into his disciples. And as His disciples, we’re free to take care of the little corner we live in, to practice living like Jesus’ disciples throughout the week and then returning to church each Sunday to be reminded of Jesus’ grace and forgiveness and to be sent out once more to live as part of Jesus’ kingdom.
Language is very important in speaking about our faith. I have a deep concern with Christians who proudly announce that “they are saved” and understand that as an end point. Some, not all, but some who adopt this theology can recall the time and location of this experience. The problem is that God is never finished with us. The Christian life is not one that has an end point, but rather it is a lifetime journey in following in the Way of Jesus. Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. And St. Augustine at communion would invite people to “receive who you are” and then “go become what you have received.” The last few verses of Jesus’ sermon is a reminder / a reaffirmation to continue receiving the identity God gives us as being that potential of becoming who we have been created to be.
We are coming very close to the end of the season of Epiphany ~ in just a few weeks we enter into Lent on March 1st. Epiphany has been all about how God’s light reveals the truth for us to behold. Rev. Mary began the season as together with her you pondered Matthew 2 and how the brightest star revealed God’s gift to the world in a Bethlehem manger. We pondered the meaning of Jesus’ baptism ~ noting that God does not merely call Jesus the “beloved son in whom I am well pleased”, but that we too are called beloved. We pondered Jesus’ calling of the first four disciples and pondered our calls to live in the world. And then throughout the last four weeks of the season, we have been considering what that calling might look like. It is a curious calling; a perilous life; a dangerous decision the Christ follower makes. But we do not walk alone. We walk with a God who created each of us for the task ~ with all the gifts, talents and blessings to make a difference in the world. May we walk boldly ahead, following the light of the one through whom God’s Kin-dom will surely unfold.