Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
It is puzzling that in the news recently we’ve heard leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron in England, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, and President Nicolas Sarkozy here in France conclude we’ve come to the end of multiculturalism. I’m not sure what they really mean, but it seems that we are in a time when the political value of diversity is on the wane. It is ironic that these comments come at a time when people in the Middle East, who more recently have been portrayed in the media as so different from us, are expressing their deep desire for freedom, democracy and a more just society. I think of the Preamble to the United States Constitution where it begins with the goal of a “more perfect union.” What is the communal ethic of perfection in a free and democratic society? Surely a more perfect union promotes and protects at least some expression of diversity and complexity over against simple conformity?
The French Academy was reinstated after the revolution by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805 to encourage more standardized communication. Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, describes how in 1807 Napoleon’s Minister of the Interior ordered all of the prefects of the departments of France to provide him with a translation of the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The results, in ninety different patois, predictably showed huge differences, even within the same group of dialects.” There will always be a tension between the values of cultural diversity and political union. The point is, a more perfect union is somewhere between maintaining unity and requiring uniformity.
I raise this issue not only because it is one of the G-20 meeting’s subtext, a hot topic politically here in France and in the larger European Union community, but also because Jesus makes the rather perplexing command in our gospel lesson today, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What does Jesus mean here by “perfect”? What is the Christian ethic of perfection?
The word in Greek that Jesus uses here is interesting: teleioi. It has a number of meanings, but among them is fulfilled, complete, finalized. You can get a sense of the meaning from two English words, “telescope” and “telephone” You move closer to what is far away (telescope), or you are brought near to someone who is remote (telephone)... But what are we called to complete, or bring near in our lives? The context of this passage is key. Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount in this section with instruction on how to deal with those people with whom you are in conflict. He clearly admonishes his followers to let go of simple justice, “and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” the old quid pro quo. In fact, that ethical standard was a merciful improvement over previous collective punishment and retribution. But what Jesus does is ratchet up the call for mercy. He commands a more radical love, not just for your friends and family, but for everyone around you, even your enemies and those who persecute you!
This is the most distinct and unique of all the commandments in the Sermon on the mount, and is what distinguishes “Christian” ethics from all other ethical systems in the world. Here Jesus refers back to the Levitical code whereby the law commanded God’s people to love our neighbors. That is hard enough, as any of us who have been in community will affirm. It is difficult to love even our friends, who sometimes neglect or fail us miserably. But what Jesus here commands is that we love our enemies. He commands that as his followers we are to maintain an attitude of respect and agape love toward even those who are different from us or who hate and oppress us.
There are some examples of this love for enemies throughout Christian history. I find many of the stories of Christian martyrs to be surprising if not incredible. The early Christians were regularly thrown to the lions. But they would pray and sing psalms of praise to God even as they were led to the flames. They were slaughtered, and burned and boiled. They were tortured in unspeakable ways. But we are called by Jesus “to turn the other cheek…” Perhaps the most inspiring legend is that of St. Lawrence, who was literally roasted alive on a gridiron. It was said that he told his torturers, “Would you please turn me over. I think I’m done on this side!” Both humorous and humbling…
The point is, we are called by Jesus to model life in the kingdom of God, where we do not return evil for evil, but good for evil. We are to live in such a way so that all people experience the compassion and mercy of Christ’s self-giving love. This requires nothing short of serious repentance and change in us and how we live our lives. I admit that while I think I understand the telos, or goal here, I feel hopelessly far from realizing it on any given day. I can get angry and mistreat even my loved ones with hurtful words and indifference. It’s definitely easier for me to imagine exacting revenge on my enemies rather than loving them or restraining myself from seeking vengeance.
So perhaps this is the first response that we must have to Jesus’ difficult command here to love our enemies. We need to admit how far we really are from where God calls us to be. We all know how to use a map, I assume. Whether you’re in a shopping mall, an airport, or on the road, the first thing you need to do is locate the little dot that says, “You are here.” I’m so thankful for GPS devices that quickly tell me where I am and will chart the course easily to where I need to go! It’s not quite as easy in the spiritual life. A regular part of the Christian life journey is stopping to review where we really are, and where God wants us to be going… Any map in the world, of course, is completely useless unless you stop first to identify where you really are on the map.
The word “morphing” comes from the Greek word for transformation, “morphoo.” Transformation is the goal of the spiritual life. But the question is, transformation into what? Whether you believe in the second law of thermo-dynamics, entropy or whatever, we’re all transforming. When I look at myself in the mirror at the gym, I realize I’m transforming more and more according to the laws of gravity! I’ve got the chest of drawers physique! You know, my chest is moving down into my drawers every year!
I would assert to you that the destination, the goal of the Christian life is a certain type of transformation. And to be more specific, we are to be transformed more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to be more the people God created and calls us to be; people who better love God and love our neighbors, even our enemies.
Real “morphing,” or authentic transformation, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s work in us. It comes not through more religious activity, but through belief in the gospel.
You’ve heard us pastors talking about the season of Lent coming up. We are inviting you to join a small group. Lent is a time to reflect on our lives, and to more intentionally engage the work of the Spirit in our lives. Lent is a time traditionally to repent of our conformity to this world, and to open ourselves up to the transforming work of the Spirit. This involves the daily discipline of repentance and belief; recognizing and confessing to God the ways in which we have tried to justify ourselves or make ourselves right by our observance of the rules instead of putting our faith in Christ and living by the Spirit.
It’s important to realize when we talk about practicing spiritual disciplines, it doesn’t mean we’re simply going to try harder to be good Christians. It means we’re going to train wisely in putting our faith into practice. Let me give you an example of the difference between training wisely and trying harder. My wife Kim is preparing for the Paris marathon in April. She has been training for months. She started out running a few miles, and this morning she ran 25 miles (35 k). Now, she has been training really hard and because of her discipline she will run the marathon. But me. I haven’t been training at all for a marathon. And I can try as hard as I like, but I will never run a marathon simply by trying harder. I may have a heart attack, but I won’t finish a marathon by trying harder. I would have to train myself and my body before I could run a marathon. You see the difference? The same is true in the spiritual life. Spiritual disciplines are to help us train… We’re going to train for different spiritual disciplines like simplicity, humility, generosity, compassion, creativity and fullness. (Easier to train with others…)
In May we have a guest speaker coming named Mark Labbberton. I heard Mark speak at a national pastors’ convention a few years ago. I’ll never forget a dog park that I came across outside of the Hilton Hotel in San Diego with a sign next to it: “Sit, stay, hea.l” I thought, this is perfect. Paradoxically, in order to go further toward maturity, perfection or completeness as Christians, the Spirit of God may call us to stop, and give a rest to what John Ortberg calls “hurry sickness.” Perhaps God, in order to begin working on our hearts, needs us to sit and stay for a while before we can experience God’s healing shalom-making, transforming power in our hearts…
OK, so let’s come back to the command that Jesus gives us to “Be perfect.” Hopefully by now you may have guessed that we are called to move toward a more perfect love, a more complete compassion. The measure of whether we are getting closer to our destination as the children of God is not religious, but relational perfection. The kicker is this, there are an infinite variety of expressions to perfect God’s love. God’s love is as diverse as each one of us. There’s only one of you. You have the only fingerprint like you in the world. You have the only beautiful eyes like you in the world. You even have a unique heartbeat! So how you show love and compassion will be different than anyone else, but it will always bring glory to your Father in heaven.
God is calling you into a deeper life in the Spirit, a more perfect union with Christ and his spirit of love. And I suspect as we open ourselves to the transforming work of the Spirit not through trying harder, but through patient training and trust, our thoughts, words, and actions will change also. We are not called to religious busyness, but a prayerful pursuit of genuine compassion for our neighbors and mercy for all who suffer in our world. For some of us that may mean learning to pray. For others it may mean learning to see people around us or going on a mission trip and having your heart broken for the homeless, the poor, those who suffer from disease or hunger. For some of us it may mean forgiving an old enemy, or showing a deeper love for our families. For some of us it may mean obedience to the call for Sabbath rest.
Despite the wonderful diversity and complexity of our community, whether or not you are a long-time brother or sister in the faith, or someone who knows you need a change… Jesus’ command to you is simple: “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
 Graham Robb, The Discovery of France (London: Picador, 2007), 62.