Not What You Should Do, But What You Can Do. A Sermon by the Rev. Nancy A. G. Vogele, February 19, 2017, Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

This sermon was preached on February 19, 2017, Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and the Baptism of Lucille B.  The Gospel reading was Matthew 5:38-48

Can I just say that I would have really preferred a little easier Gospel reading for this morning, especially for this baptism.  A passage like where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them…” (Matthew 19:14)  Instead, we are given a very difficult text commanding us to do seemingly impossible things:

You know, I can actually see Jesus challenging his followers about most of these – as tough as they are.  It fits into his radical ethic of love, but “be perfect”?  He, more than anyone, knows we aren’t perfect.

Most of the time, I don’t even make it over the low bar – the bare minimum.  How am I supposed to be perfect?

Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).  i.e., no one is perfect.  A little later in this same letter, he got more personal and lamented, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am!”

If I weren’t already committed to Jesus, I might just want to get up and leave after hearing his command to be perfect.  Or I would sit there and mentally will the preacher to dare to preach on it.

Seeing as I am the preacher, let me try.  Is there a faithful, life giving way to understand Jesus’ words?  And if so, what is it?  For the Jesus I know and love does not seem like an impossible task master – He doesn’t seem like someone who beats you down or continually points out all the things you’re doing wrong – He doesn’t seem like he would get angry at you for not measuring up.  I have known people like that and I don’t think Jesus was one of them.

So what are we to do with this phrase, then: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”?

Well the first thing I did was ask God, “Lord, please open up this phrase for me.  Let me understand it as Jesus intended it.”

Then, I looked up the word “perfect” in my Concordance to see where else it is used in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.  I was a bit surprised to see that many of my favorite Bible verses also contain this word –

Romans 12:2 which we read just two weeks ago when we installed the 2017 Council: Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In the first letter to John (2:10-12) we read, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Hebrews 12:1-2 – Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…

I like those verses.  So I looked up in my Greek Lexicon to find out what the Greek word was that got translated as “perfect” in the passage from this morning? It is TELIOS – which is also translated as “complete” or “mature” or “full” or “to reach the end” or “to reach a goal” …that towards which we are headed.

With this in mind, I looked up scripture that used the same Greek word – TELIOS – but had gotten translated into one of these other English words or phrases:

1 Corinthians 13:9-12 which we read just yesterday at Connie’s funeral –

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete (or perfect) comes, the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Phil. 3:10-12 – a sort of watchword verse for me for many, many years:

Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal (been made perfect); but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Remember Paul’s words about doing what he didn’t want to do and not doing what he wanted?  His profoundly despondent cry, “Wretched man that I am!”?  Fortunately, Paul didn’t stop with “Wretch man that I am!”  And thank God that God didn’t either.

Paul cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  His response? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-25)

This is the Gospel that we proclaim and this is the Gospel that little Lucy needs to know:

Without Christ, we can do nothing.  But thanks be to God because, with Christ and in Christ and though Christ, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

It’s like the Dartmouth student years ago who was in a Bible study with me.  One day in the middle of our group’s discussion her eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “Oh I get it.  It’s not that I should but that I can!”

Why?  Because Jesus is the perfecter of our faith – not us.  God’s love – not our own – living in us, is what is perfected in us.

Of course, I am not perfect.  I know that.  You know that.  Paul knew that about himself – he admitted that he had not yet reached the goal.  But he knew something far more important – that, even though he hadn’t yet reached the goal, Christ Jesus had already made him his own.

Or as in 1 Corinthians.  “We see only in part.  We know only in part.”  We all know that! Or we should.  What faith teaches us – what the Gospel proclaims – what the Good News is in all this is that – even if we know only in part, nevertheless, we are already fully known – and already safe – and already loved – and already God’s beloved.

It’s not that we need to be perfect for God to love us.  God loves us and his love enables us to be perfected.

It’s what gives us the courage and confidence to keep getting up when we fall, to keep asking forgiveness when we sin, to keep loving even when despised, to keep forgiving, to keep blessing and not cursing.  To keep at it, knowing that he who has begun a good work in us is faithful and will see it to the end.

I am not implying that in Christ, no hardship or pain will enter our lives.  It does, to one and all.  “In this world you will have strife,” Jesus said.  “But be of good cheer,” he added. “For I have overcome the world.”

The Gospel tells us that we are already beloved children and the difficulties of this life aren’t indications to the contrary.

The Gospel also assures us that we are here for a purpose – there is an aim or end – or perfection – in mind to our belovedness.  And that is so that all may know God’s love for them – that they, too, are beloved.

Our call – our command – is to live more and more fully into this absolute grace.  To accept it as pure gift – not to be earned but to be received.

Matt and Julie you are beloved children of God. Accept your belovedness as pure gift in order to be able to help Lucy and Josie know that they, too, are God’s beloved. Alex and Rick (on behalf of your son, Brian), you are God’s beloved children.  And as Lucy’s godparents, accept your belovedness as pure gift in order to be able to help Lucy know that she, too, is God’s beloved.  All of us are beloved of God, cherished in his eyes – Receive that gift so that, in supporting Lucy in her baptism, she may know it too.

We are called to live our lives with that end – that perfection – that TELIOS – in mind.  We aren’t there yet, but we press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has been us his own.

Story of couple at St. Matthew’s

Bill: “I’m so glad you want God’s blessing on your marriage. Let’s go into my office to talk about how you can participate in that blessing.”

By bringing Lucille Rose to the waters of baptism, you are saying that you want to participate in God’s blessing.  That you are ready to claim the good news that you are God’s beloved.  That you have been saved by grace and that, in Christ, it is not about what you should do but about what you now can do because of what he has already done – taken hold of each one of us and called us his beloved.

In the Name of Jesus, in the Name
Of Jesus, we have the victory;
In the Name of Jesus, in the Name
Of Jesus, Satan will have to flee
Tell me who can stand before us,
When we call on that great Name
JESUS! JESUS! Precious Jesus
We have the victory.

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