Getting Out of Ourselves

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

The words of that last sentence of today’s Gospel lesson in Matthew 5:38-48, are compelling, to say the least.  The irreducible nature of Jesus’ words in that sentence, and the conclusion into which they seemingly force us are, at 1st, or 31st glance, an impossible demand.

Talk about raising the bar!  Not only would seekers who come to find hope be perplexed, but even lifelong Lutherans are taken aback by the abrupt bluntness of the words:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Even I, having more than a clue where Jesus was taking all of that, still want to rush to the exchange between Peter and Jesus in Matthew 19:24-26:

24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’  26Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

We will get to that question and the almost instantaneous realization of the Apostles in that exchange.  Today’s lesson is very thorny to wade through – no give or take – here it is, deal with it.  Verse one of Chapter 6 (there were no chapter or verse indicators for some time after Christ was on earth), double down on the idea:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Sweet Jesus!  Out of the proverbial frying pan, into the fire.  First comes “Be perfect . . .” – followed by “don’t give anyone else a clue.”

If the Beatitudes, and these verses in particular, are somehow “Good News,” it takes a pretty good stretch of the imagination, or maybe some overzealous translator used “perfection” when the actual text really said something else.  Except, well, no – because the word used for “perfect” in Greek is τέλειοι” – and, well, in the Greek it means “perfect.”

Well, that doesn’t help us in our quandary.  Not especially we Lutherans, who confess daily (or should!):

“Heavenly Father, I confess before You that I am sinful and unclean, that I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed – my sinful thoughts, my many words, and my uncaring actions – in my concupiscence – my very original sin.  I have not loved You with my whole heart, I have not loved my neighbor as myself.  I justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

Youch!  Be perfect?  Oi!  Fr. Larry Peters, who writes a daily meditation, put it in even more succinct terms about us Lutherans – we are either “all in” in the Faith, or not.  There is no in-between.  Yikes – we might as well just shrug our shoulders and give up.  Me – righteous?  Yeah, when pigs fly!

Or maybe, just maybe, our hope and solution in – not from – the demand to be perfect made by Jesus is really there in Jesus’ words, as he said elsewhere, more – for those “who have ears – hear!”   For the word for hear in Greek means to hear with understanding!  Aha!!  Maybe now we are getting warm.

And what is it we are supposed to hear?

Back to our first word – perfect.  Just what is Jesus really saying?  How can we, who are anything but perfect, somehow achieve perfection?  Let me answer that with another of Jesus’ words – the two words by which he called the Apostles, and everyone one of us – “Follow Me.”

Now I am sure more than a few are thinking – “Geez, Pastor, that leaves us right back where we start!”  No, not true!  It asks us get away from “our” mode of thinking as sinners, and thinking and into, as St. Paul said oft-times of believers, “Let us have the mind of Christ!”  So – the first order of business is to hear, realize, as God told Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The word for perfect in our text – τέλειοι – carries with it the connotation of “complete; whole”  – as we find the word in Colossians, Chapter One. While you’re there, read all of Chapter One – what a glorious description of all that has taken us from death and hell to the fullness, the completeness of being children of God!

Okay. now we can go back to the question of Peter “Who then can be saved?”  Answer to his question from Jesus  then also answers our text for today: “Be ye perfect, as My Father in Heaven is perfect.”  Jesus answers:

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

It is the work of the Holy Spirit, which Luther understood and in magnificent words, described this way in the Small Catechism:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Q. What does this mean?

A. I believe that I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ by my own intelligence or power. But the Holy Spirit called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers together, enlightens and makes holy the whole Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus in the one, true faith. In this Church, we generously forgives each day every sin committed by me and by every believer. On the last day, He will raise me and all the dead from the grave. He will give eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. Yes, this is most certainly true!

Clearly there we find the the very reason we use Liturgical Worship, receive Holy Absolution at the Confession of Sins, hear the Words of the Called Servant in Christ – in Law and Gospel, and make us perfect in God’s eyes through His Word and His Blessed Sacraments – His Means of Grace.  And what makes us perfect?  What comes to us in Faith that we might be made perfect?  Again to Luther on the 2nd Article of the Creed, in words one of our most beloved theologians in the Missouri Synod – Professor Norman Nagel, once said are the most beautiful words any man has ever written! –

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Q. What does this mean?

A. I believe that Jesus Christ is truly God, born of the Father in eternity and also truly human, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord!  He redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, bought and won me from all sins, death, and the authority of the Devil. It did not cost Him gold or silver, but His holy, precious blood, His innocent body — his death! Because of this, I am Christ’s very own, will live under Christ in his kingdom and serve Christ righteously, innocently and blessedly forever, just as Christ is risen from death, lives and reigns forever. Yes, this is most certainly true!

Now we can explain God’s perfection AND our own, and make perfect sense of our verse.  Faith in Christ, no matter how lowly or humble, is “perfection” in God’s eyes, for we who by faith have been washed in the Blessed Waters of Holy Baptism, hear the Word and especially the Gospel preached by faithful Pastors, and partaken of Christ and Him crucified in the Blessed Body and Blood of the Eucharist, have put on Christ, taken on the mind of Christ, and God no longer sees us in sin, but sees, as Luther put it so lovingly – “Little Christs.”

We have been made perfect by faith in ChristWho takes us out of ourselves and, Who IS God, and thus perfectly holy as is the Father!  Let us close this day with the words of our post-Communion canticle:

(chant)

Thank the Lord and sing His praise, tell everyone what He has done.

Let all who seek the Lord rejoice and proudly bear His name.

We recall His promises, and lead His people forth in joy

With shouts of thanksgiving, Alleluia, alleluia.

Amen

 

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