There are many things Jesus said that challenge me, that vex me, that give not comfort, but trouble my soul. Among them is, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Be perfect? Seriously, Jesus? It seems utterly impossible to strive for perfection. It actually seems a little brazen, don’t you think?
We know that, by our own efforts, we cannot be made right before God. We know that we need the forgiveness of a God shown to us in Jesus to address our constant fall into failure and our rejection of the image of God planted deep within. So, what possibly could Jesus mean by telling us to be perfect?
Perhaps God’s grace is a place to start. Luther clearly tells us in the Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…” Notice that faith is a gift. So too are the enlightenment (knowledge) and holiness (bearing God’s image) gifts of the Spirit. The divine image is planted within us, and the Spirit beckons it to come to life, to express itself in our words and deeds. The path to perfection is a gift.
To become what God calls us to be is also a matter of practice. Just as playing Beethoven on the piano is preceded by lots of practice. To stop giving in to our emotions and reactions and replace them with the actions of God takes practice. James says it this way: You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. (James 1:19-21) How do we “rid ourselves” of our lesser selves and embrace the divine? Practice.
Paul comes at it by saying that the works of the flesh are obvious, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. (Galatians 5:19-21) Even if you are not sure what all of these mean you will no doubt recognize that we humans do these things without a thought. They are driven by emotions, reactions, and desires that control us. Rejecting these impulses takes practice and discipline.
Paul encourages us to embrace the gifts of the Spirit, to practice these things out of the strength that comes from God. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25) These things are not emotions or reactions they are choices we make and habits we develop through practice. To have love and joy, practice love and joy.
Think of someone you have trouble forgiving. Your emotions and reactions lead you to anger, maybe even hate. How do you become perfect? You practice forgiveness. If you are waiting for a moment when you feel like forgiving, it will never come. Forgive. And then tomorrow, do it again. With practice, the Spirit will bring you to peace and reconciliation.
How do you become faithful? Generous? Prayerful? Gentle? Practice. Let these push aside the “works of the flesh” more and more and you will grow into the person God calls you to be. You may be short of perfection, but we are all works in progress.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor