Does He really mean what He is saying here? What does He mean by that statement? -- Robin was annoyed that she did not switch the readings to the Transfiguration before she printed the Orders of Worship. I had told her not to worry too much about it as all Scripture is good for us to ponder. Yes, it seems a bit disjointed with the Collect of the Day, but the last verse sure seems to have caused problems last week. A few of the inmates grabbed Larry about it last week, and it came up again Thursday morning at Bible study. So what is Jesus saying, and how is it any way inspirational for a baptism this morning?
For those of you absent the last couple weeks, allow me to place the statement in its context. Matthew has just spent a number of verses describing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes and reminded people that He did not come to abolish the torah. From there, Jesus has taught the crowds the original meanings of some of the commandments. Those are the “you have it said . . . but I say unto you . . .” statements of Jesus. Each of those restatements, of course, comes from the One who was raised from the dead, so we know His interpretations are correct. But he ends this long section with the statement translated in the NIV as “Therefore, be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What is going on? How can mere humans be perfect like our Father in heaven? I mean, if we could be perfectly righteous and holy, we would not have needed the torah in the first place! So what is going on? What does Jesus mean, and what are His instructions to us?
Part of the problem is a problem of translation. The words of Matthew are in the future tense of Greek, as in Therefore, you shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Were Jesus’ words a simple present imperative, what you and I think of as a command when our bosses tell us to do something or we tell our children to do their chores, we would be doomed to fail. There is no way that we can keep being perfect. We are, by virtue of our inclination towards sin, going to fail if the responsibility of being perfect fell to us. But by using the future tense, Jesus is setting a goal before His listeners and before us. We are to pursue the righteousness, the holiness, the perfection, that is our Father in heaven. That is our ultimate goal. Curiously, though, it is a goal which will require a great deal of help, as if the Perfecter of our faith did not know!
Jesus’ words are meant in three senses, all of which ought to remind us of our lives once we were re-birthed in our own baptisms. In one sense, Jesus’ words are a command. This ought not surprise us too much because He has been setting aside the mis-teachings of the Pharisees and Rabbis in lieu of the right interpretation. Husbands and wives are called to a oneness which reflects the unity of the Trinity; we are called not to be angry with our friends, neighbors, enemies, or anyone else because they, like us, are created in His image; we are called to suffer abuse, modeling the behavior the Son exemplified during His ministry on earth; we are called to love our enemies, to offer our other cheeks in a fight and even called to go the extra mile for those whom we should most despised. All of this is done not just for suffering’s sake, but for the express purpose of loving others into the kingdom of God. Our behavior ought to provoke curiosity. Our behavior ought to provoke questions. Why do you pray for your enemies? Why do you try to live peaceably?
In another sense, though, Jesus’ words to us are a promise. We are about to embark on the season of Lent. Part of the purpose of this season is to remind us of our sins and our need for a Savior. And though we enter the season of Lent perhaps hoping to mature a bit in our faith, we realize that the maturation process, what theologians call sanctification, is not up to us. Part of the reason for Jesus’ death, Resurrection, and Ascension was to baptize us in the Holy Spirit. Through His work, we are empowered to accomplish amazing things. But the first amazing thing where we get to see the Holy Spirit at work is in our own lives. Most of us, if we have been a disciple for some time, can look back and see our progress. We can see how that sin and that sin have been left behind. How? Through His grace. But, even though we have transformed in some areas, it is an uneasy comfort. With the perfection of our Father in heaven as a future goal, we realize our current shortfalls, our current sins. We may no longer be tempted by some particular sins in our daily life, but we are still sorely tempted in other areas. We realize that we are not yet perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. In this way, Jesus’ command that we shall be perfect holds out a promise for us. Yes, the process of sanctification will take time. Yes, we can always be critical of its process, knowing that, even if our friends and neighbors think us holy and righteous, our standard, our goal has not yet been reached!
Of course, were we never to reach our goal that Jesus sets for us, the perfection of our Father in heaven, we would likely become frustrated with our calling. If we thought we could never reach the perfection of our Father in heaven, how many of us would continue the struggle? How many of us would continue to be disciples? By phrasing the command the way He does, Jesus also gives us hope. Since He was raised from the dead, we know His words to be true. If He says that we will be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, then it must be true. God is not in the business of raising liars from the dead. He is in the business of raising the His Son, His perfect image. He is also in the business of raising all those who are in His Son. In that sense, Jesus’ words are a reminder that one day, one day we will be remade perfectly in the image of our Father in heaven. He will burn off the dross, reshape our minds, and cut the fat from our hearts. He will no longer need to teach us because we will understand fully. He will not need to lead us because we will see clearly those things hidden from us now. And we will share in His perfection for all eternity.
In a few moments, we will move to the baptismal font and begin the process of adopting Violet into His family. As a baby, the vows will be made on her behalf by Drew and Emily and her Godparents. They will promise to teach her what our Lord first revealed to His disciples nearly two thousand years ago. They will promise to help her continue in the fellowship of the Apostles. And they will promise to teach her to repent whenever she falls into sin. To those outside the faith, the statement may cause hopelessness because of its magnitude. For us, though, those baptized into His death and Resurrection, the statement is not just a command, but also a promise and the hope of amazing grace. We can look at our relationship with God and know that, through the work and person of Christ, we are redeemed. But we can look at that Person of Christ, the perfect image of our Father in heaven, and realize that the Spirit has much work to do in each of us. Though Violet’s journey of salvation will likely be full of potholes and failures as are ours, her journey is assured because He has promised. He has promised that, so long as we accept His offer of grace, one day all who are baptized into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect.