The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany; Year 7 (2/19/2017)

Lessons:Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Psalm 119:33-40 (33) 1st Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 St. Matthew 5:38-48

Prayer of the Day: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

5:38 [Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

St. Matthew 5:38-48, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Towards Perfection

There are some teachings in the Bible which are harder to embrace than others. I like to tease our Catechism students, advising them to pray the Lord’s Prayer with a certain degree of fear and trembling. I’ve sometimes asked them to whisper “and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” — inviting them to hope and trust with me that God’s inclination to forgive will not be limited by our capacity to forgive. So also in today’s Gospel. What sense can we make of our Lord’s command, to his disciples and to us, that we “be perfect, therefore, as [our] heavenly Father is perfect?”

Nobody, of course, can be perfect as God is perfect. We learn as early as the third chapter of Genesis that brokenness defines the human condition. The kings and prophets of Ancient Israel confirm this time and time again. (Just ask any of the StPLC members who are reading the Bible in 90 days what they have observed so far about faithfulness in the Old Testament…) The disciples and followers of Jesus prove this to be true over and over again. Martin Luther teaches us that, “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called us through the Gospel, enlightened us with its gifts, and sanctified and preserved us in the true faith…”

So why does Jesus demand that we be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect?

It helps, perhaps, to know that the Greek word translated perfect is actually τέλειοι (teleioi) which can mean perfect, but which also can mean finished, completed, fulfilled or accomplished. It is the same word Jesus uses in the 19th chapter of St. John when, dying on the cross, he cries out, “It is finished.” Finished, not meaning his life is finished and he is no more. But finished, meaning that he has completed what God intended in him. In dying, Jesus defeats the power of death so that in rising he can give us the gift of new life.

We become part of the completeness of the kingdom of God not when we live perfectly, but when the Holy Spirit calls us, enlightens us, sanctifies us and preserves us. When we become welcomed into the kingdom of God. When we find ourselves forgiven, renewed, and empowered to begin again as followers of Christ.

It is then that the whole of the Sermon on the Mount becomes both our desire and our destination. Grateful to God, we find opportunity to spend the rest of our lives striving to enlighten the world, to model righteousness, to honor and respect one another, to uphold marriage and family, to speak plainly and truthfully, to give of ourselves more than is required, to love both neighbor and enemy, to practice faithfulness with humility, to forgive without limits, to live without worry, to refrain from judging others… We may not achieve this perfectly. (In fact: we will not achieve this perfectly!) But as these faithful ideals take hold of our hearts, and redirect our desires, the work of Christ becomes fulfilled in us.

Be perfect, therefore. Created and sustained by God. Claimed and named by Christ. Inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. God’s broken, faithful people, hoping beyond hope that the words of Jesus might be fulfilled in us. Thanks be to God, who invites us into this life.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How might giving more than required or loving an enemy honor God?
  2. What do Jesus’ words here and in St. John 19:30 have to do with each other?
  3. Do we think of the “perfect faithful life” as a requirement, a goal, or a desire?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When has God called and/or enlightened me?
  2. How has God strengthened me to be more faithful than I ever could have been on my own?
  3. Which of my enemies (or opponents) do I think God is currently wanting me to love?