As I was growing up, my mother had a number of pithy parental pronouncements that have stuck with me as an adult and as a parent. For instance, even today watching a freight train go by causes me to hear my mother’s voice in my head: “Always wave at the world; sometimes it will wave back.” She was referring to our habit of waving to the engineer on the train, but as was true of some of her sayings, it could be understood at a deeper level, too. We can’t control other people’s actions; all we can do is do what we should. Or when one of my daughters complains about some horrendous parenting mistake I’ve made by daring to impose a consequence on her actions, my mother’s voice sounds out: “Oh, well, that’ll be something to tell your therapist.”
Do you ever hear those kind of parental pronouncements in your own mind?
The Bible is filled with many such familiar pronouncements, but our readings today hit us upside the head with two doosies. In our first reading from Leviticus, God said to the Israelites,
You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (19.2)
And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount when he said,
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5.48)
Your mileage may vary, but I’ve often taken these statements in one of two ways:
We’ve heard Jesus’ commands so often that they hardly register. “Turn the other cheek.” Yeah – yawn – sure. “Love your enemies.” Sounds nice – why not? Be holy, be perfect. Sounds like a good idea. And out of our trained indifference we rarely think deeply about actually trying to follow them. OR
Whoa, totally unrealistic . . . why even bother? “Turn the other cheek.” Are you kidding?! And get treated like a doormat? No thanks! “Love you enemies.” You can’t be serious! “Be perfect”?!? Really? Who can do that . . . sounds totally unrealistic; sheer folly, idealistic sentiments that would be crazy to apply in the “real” world.
But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding, and he is dead serious about these commands. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. Which is why we need to take them seriously.
So perhaps, there’s a third response to these admonishments besides our bored indifference or our dismissive ignoring of them as unrealistic. Perhaps we can see them as something worth doing, realizing that we can’t fulfill this divine standard. Only Jesus will – it’s why he came, after all. This was Jesus’ point to his disciples early in the Sermon on the Mount:
I haven’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. (Mt 5.17)
Our living out this standard, however, imperfectly, is not our way of earning God’s love or of keeping the commandments. Rather, it’s our way of demonstrating our faith, of becoming God’s instruments of redemption and reconciliation in the world (2 Cor 5.17ff), and the way in which God shapes us more and more into the image of Christ (“sanctification”).
It might help to reframe how we hear what Jesus says. Not a command “Be holy, be perfect” but rather an invitation and a description of what will be: “You will be holy . . . you will be perfect.” The verb tenses in both the OT and Gospel reading are future (even though NRSV doesn’t translate it that way – shame on them!). The Bible is being descriptive, not prescriptive; it’s painting a picture of what will be as God works in us, maturing our faith, not making a demand of how things must be based on our actions alone. Do you sense the difference?
This reframing is helped by our understanding the meaning of “holy” and “perfect” in their Biblical contexts:
Holy in OT – heb. “qadosh,” meaning set apart; ordinary objects consecrated for extraordinary use. In the OT, all holiness is derivative – it comes from God’s holiness, God’s character, not our own.
Perfect in NT – gk. “teleios,” meaning something that is complete or mature, that has reached its goal or fulfilled its purpose. An almond tree is “perfect” in this sense when it is bearing fruit. You and I are perfect when we are living out our faith by doing what God has wired us to do. Perfect, then, isn’t a description of some sinless, pure, unblemished state we are to reach.
Can we hear in Scripture’s words “You will be holy” “You will be perfect” an invitation to be the people of God he called us to be? To be the community of faith called the church that we are called to be? That God established on that first Pentecost day?
Eugene Peterson’s translation of the gospel reading captures this spirit of “being perfect” well:
In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. (5.48)
Does that let us off the hook with all the other teachings from the Sermon on the Mount we’ve heard these past few weeks? Certainly not. But it does help us get to the root of the issue. We can only do these other things — repaying evil with good, forgiving and praying for those who harm us — to the degree that we can live into our God-given identity as blessed and beloved children. We can’t give what we don’t have, and so only those who have experienced love can in turn share it with others.
Which is why it matters who’s saying these things in the first place. It’s Jesus — Jesus, the one who not only talked the talk of love but walked the walk, treading steadfastly to Jerusalem, enduring the shame and humiliation of the cross, embracing death itself…all so that we might know, experience, and trust just how much God loves us and thereby — and only thereby! — have abundant life. This Jesus not only invites us to live as we are, he also understands, understands just how hard it is to live this way; to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than begrudge, to embrace rather than protect, to share rather than hoard, to heal rather than wound, especially when we ourselves walk so much of our lives wounded and hurt.
If Jesus is inviting us to live as we are, beloved children of God; to love as we’ve been loved; to forgive as we’ve been forgiven – and that’s what I understand Jesus is doing from this passage – then I also realize it won’t be easy. So many things get in the way. Past disappointments or hurts that still haunt us. Old grudges and wounds that are a long time healing. Painful memories that are slow to fade.
Given this, I wonder if you’d be willing to venture a zany idea? I invite you to use the index card in today’s bulletin for a simple exercise. I invite you to write down just one thing you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity. Something you’ve done in the past for which you haven’t yet sought or received forgiveness, or for which you need to make amends. Something someone else has done to you that still lingers unresolved between you. Some character trait or personal habit or outlook on life or . . . whatever it might be . . . you get the idea.
I invite you to write it down, and when you come up to communion, to place it face down in the baptism bowl. No one will read it as they come up to communion. Your name won’t be on it, and no one will see it to analyze the handwriting or to otherwise try to identify who wrote what. I’ll collect the cards during the final hymn and shred them so they won’t become public knowledge later.
By placing them in the bowl, though, we release one thing that is impeding our relationship with God, our growth in becoming more Christ-like. As we come forward, we give it to God, expecting Him to heal whatever it is that needs healing. Symbolically, we drown it in the saving waters of baptism, which washes away all our sins and renews our life. We can come to the altar, then, and receive Jesus’ body and blood, another tangible sign of God’s forgiveness, as well as the empowerment we need to live the life God desires of us.