Nobody’s Perfect? – Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

Anybody here like kosher pickles? How about kosher beef franks? As Gentiles, my guess is that we don’t think much about what “kosher” means, beyond its application to certain foods. The reading we heard from Leviticus earlier today gives us the origins of the word “kosher.” It comes from the Hebrew word kedosh, and it means something that is holy, or set apart.

“Be holy (kedoshim) because I, your God, am holy,” God tells his people. (Leviticus 19:2). God’s holiness might never be a question for us, but how can we be holy? Jewish rabbis point us back to Genesis, reminding us that we are made in God’s image, and this image is not so much a physical picture as it is a reflection of God’s character.[1] Our passage from Leviticus introduces the how-to manual for living a kosher life. It teaches us how to be holy as God is holy, through godly behavior in our everyday living. Telling the truth, treating others fairly, taking care of our families and the poor, protecting the weak and forgiving those who have hurt us – all these choices contribute to the spiritual discipline of holiness outlined in Leviticus. So, where did it all go wrong? How did following the rules in the manual become more important than living a truly holy life?

As Jesus spoke to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount, he was trying to teach them what it means to be truly holy. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus announce that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Last week, we heard him describe how living into the spirit of the Law requires more of us than simply following the letter of the Law. Jesus talked of obeying the laws by practicing a more rigorous observance of God’s intent behind each of the rules. “Of course God doesn’t want you to kill each other,” Jesus is saying – “God doesn’t even want you to be angry with each other! Of course God doesn’t want you to commit adultery. He knows that such a betrayal of trust can lead to pain and divorce, and God’s deep desire is for marriage to reflect the loving relationship God has with his people. Of course God doesn’t want you to make idle promises and use his holy Name to give them greater importance than they deserve. Let your word stand on its own: say Yes, or No, and mean it.”

Today’s passage brings us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus continues to teach us what it means to be truly holy, the focus is on reconciliation instead of retribution. Here the Word of the Lord, as given to us in Matthew 5:38-48.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Jesus continues to teach from a three-part formula. First, he offers the common understanding of Levite law. Second, he gives the law a new twist, by outlining higher expectations for applying it to Kingdom living, and third, he explains God’s intent for the law in practical terms and examples. So far, so good. Jesus gets an “A” for three-point preaching outlines. But at the end of the lesson, Jesus is asking more of us than we think is possible. “Be perfect,” he says. We know Jesus likes to use hyperbole, exaggerating a point to make it stick, so we’re hoping this is another case of overstatement! But it isn’t. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How are we supposed to do that?

It starts with right relationship. The Law made allowance for justice that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Give as good as you get, in other words. But in that system, everyone goes around half blind. Rather than retribution, Jesus says, seek reconciliation. Rather than demanding fair treatment that hurts everyone, be willing to go the second mile. Literally.

By Roman law, a soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack for one mile, or 1520 paces. But at the end of that mile, the soldier was required to take the pack back, unless he wanted to be punished for forcing a civilian to carry it further. Jesus was actually challenging Roman authority, by encouraging his followers to exceed the demands put on them by their oppressors.[2]

You may remember that, when we heard Luke’s version of the teaching about turning the other cheek, I explained that striking someone on the right cheek was a way of establishing superiority. It was a back-handed insult. A fight between equals would require hitting the left cheek with an open palm or fist. When Jesus tells us to turn our left cheek to someone who insults us by assuming superiority over us, he is telling us to affirm our own value as a beloved child of God. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I refuse to accept your arrogant insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”

Instead of retribution, Jesus tells us to seek reconciliation. Instead of accepting oppression, Jesus encourages us to remember that we are God’s own beloved children. Since we have been so deeply loved, we are called to be agents of love in the world. But when Jesus quotes Leviticus this time, he doesn’t exactly quote Leviticus. Yes, the Law tells us to love our neighbor, but nowhere does it say to hate our enemies. Perhaps Jesus is quoting the way that particular law had been re-interpreted by the culture of the day. Or maybe Jesus was trying to emphasize what loving your neighbor really means. English author and mystery novelist G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”[3]

But in this case, Jesus is not talking about the person who lives next door to you, or even on your side of town. Jesus is not talking about the people who are most like you, the people with whom you most closely identify. Jesus is talking about the Other. With a capital O.

It’s easy to love the people you choose to love. It’s not so easy to love the people God puts in front of us every single day who are not like us at all, who don’t share our values or our tastes or our educational backgrounds, or our ideas about money and politics. Love your enemy, Jesus says. Love the Other.

Jesus is not talking about an emotion or a sentiment. He is talking about loving the way God loves. If you think back to the words we heard last week, the theme of reconciliation is running just under the surface of the whole passage. Back in verses 23-24, Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf describes the process of reconciliation through something he calls “the drama of embrace.” There are four steps to this drama:

  • First, I open my arms to welcome the Other into my personal space, making myself vulnerable to the Other.
  • Second, I wait, allowing the Other to decide whether or not to accept my embrace.
  • Third, we step into each other’s open arms, and close our arms around one another. We are each distinct, with our own identities and personal boundaries intact, yet we have welcomed each other into our personal spaces, eliminating the distance between us. We remain in the embrace long enough to give it meaning – but not too long, or it becomes a stranglehold.
  • Fourth, in opening our arms, we release each other back into the world, giving freedom to one another.

But we have been changed by this embrace. Neither of us can ever be the same again, having welcomed the other into ourselves.

This transformation, this change of self, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross for us. He opened his arms, welcoming our sinfulness into his own perfection. As we accept that welcome, and step into Christ’s embrace, we are changed. But Jesus does not hold us against our will. Instead, he releases us back into the world, to be salt and light to others, welcoming them into the embrace of faith.

How has God been working in you and through you this week, to be salt and light? (I’ll bet you thought I had forgotten your homework assignment – I didn’t!) Turn to a neighbor, and keep in mind that your neighbor might be someone across the room from you, and share with one another one way you’ve seen God changing you, or changing the world through you. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

You see, God is working among us. Last weekend, I showed the Church Council a TED Talk by Simon Sinek that explained “It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you do it.”  Back in Leviticus, God states the reason behind the rules for godly behavior at least five times: you do these things “because I AM THE LORD,” God says. But what is our reason for being here, as this congregation? When I asked the council, “What are we leading people toward? Why are we here?” the first answer on the board was, “to know Christ.” Other good answers followed: to develop a close relationship with God, to live lives of integrity, caring for others, and many other good ideas. But if the only thing we ever did at First United Methodist Church was to help people to know Christ, wouldn’t that include developing a close relationship with God and living a life of integrity and caring for others? Because, to know Christ is to be changed. To know Christ is to be transformed into a new creation. To know Christ is to be … perfect.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus says. This is one of those statements we hope Jesus doesn’t mean literally, and the good news is that the word translated as “perfect” really means something more than our English language can convey in one word. Telos is the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” It’s more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose, becoming complete. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates it, “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” Moral perfection may be beyond our human reach, but our telos is our goal, our desired outcome, what happens when we are completely mature and have found our identity in Christ alone.

Being perfect isn’t impossible; it’s what we’re made for. Being perfect isn’t even something we can do on our own – it’s something God does in and through us, as we allow him to transform us. Jesus came, not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Just as he transformed the way people heard God’s Law, he wants to transform us into the perfect children of God we were created to be. Reconciliation more than retribution, loving our enemies as well as our neighbors – these are how God’s transformation is shown to be completed in us. That’s our telos.

We are people who have experienced grace. We know what it is to receive God’s unmerited favor, love we couldn’t possibly earn. God offered his grace to us before we knew we needed it. When we accept that justifying grace, made real in the person of Jesus Christ, we begin the transforming journey toward perfection that marks us as holy, set apart, completed in God’s eyes, and welcomed into his family. This is the essence of Wesleyan theology. It’s why we are here.

But we aren’t there yet. Perfection seems a long way down the road sometimes, doesn’t it? What is preventing us from being perfect, from becoming complete? Right now, I invite you to write down just one thing you believe is holding you back from living into your God-given identity. There’s blank space on the back of your Grapevine, so use that. Write down just one thing — one fear, one memory, one hurt, one resentment — that keeps you from embracing and becoming the person God wants you to be. This week, as you check the Grapevine for events on the calendar, pray over that one thing. Ask God to help you turn it over to him, so you can be transformed, changed, made perfect.

God only wants one thing for each of us, and that is to be transformed into his likeness, to become perfect and complete, as God is perfect and complete. I invite you to share your life in this community of faith with people who are not in this community of faith, not so we can fill the pews – because those numbers really don’t mean anything – but so that you can experience what happens in you when you do that. Just as it is true that teaching someone else how to do something we’ve just learned will solidify that learning for us, and help us internalize it, sharing your faith with others will deepen that faith within you. And that’s what I’m eager to see. Not numbers, but change. Not more bodies, but deeper, richer, more complete faith. Then together, as we let God work on us, we can join the United Methodist Church in its mission to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Amen.

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