As per the church-wide email I sent out this past week, I need your help this morning as we begin into this sermon. I asked everyone to consider what a perfect congregation might look like. What are its character traits? What are the things it does? If you would, please share some of your thoughts this morning. Those of you who did not get this email, please, off the tops of your heads, share your thoughts about what character traits the “perfect” church has and what things such a church would do.
(Other notables from the first service responses: freedom to express one's view without judgement; people pray for each other [response from a 9 year old], people listen to the contributions of youth; outreach oriented; no quarreling)
O.K. So, these are the character traits and actions that those of us who are gathered here this morning see in a perfect congregation. There might be a few more that we could add, but let’s say that this indeed represents a perfect congregation. Now, let me ask you this: if this represents a perfect congregation, are there such things as perfect congregations around? Has there ever been a congregation which in actuality meets this vision?
Did you say no? I’d be flabbergasted if you said yes. You and I know there is no such thing as a perfect church or a perfect congregation. You and I know that sin pervades every aspect of our lives here on this planet and is inescapable. You and I know perfection is an unattainable reality until we pass the threshold of death. This is something we cognitively know. And so I must ask, if we know that we cannot reach perfection, why do we have a vision of it? Why does such a vision even exist? I mean if we can’t attain it, why even bother to think about it?
Last Sunday, our Gospel lesson began with these words from Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Jesus then shows what it means to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder. But I tell you if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment...You have heard it said to those of ancient times you shall not commit adultery. But I tell you if you look at a woman with lust in your heart you have committed adultery with her. You have heard it said you may write a woman a certificate of divorce. But I tell you if you divorce a woman you cause her to commit adultery and if you marry a woman who has been divorced you commit adultery. You have heard it said do not swear falsely, but I say do not swear at all, by heaven, by earth, or by Jerusalem. Let your word be yes, yes or no, no. Anything else comes from the evil one.”
Today, Jesus finishes out His sayings about true righteousness. It doesn’t get any easier. “You have heard it said an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth, but I say if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them your left also. Give your shirt as well as your cloak. Go the extra mile. You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemy and bless those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven. Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
There you have it. This is true righteousness. Perfection. Just as God is perfect, you be perfect as well. This concludes Jesus’ vision of what it means to be truly righteous. As I said last time, true righteousness consists of having one’s heart in complete and total alignment with God’s heart. True righteousness is a heart condition for out of one’s heart comes anger and lust and failure to commit and fear of saying simply yes, yes or no, no. Out of the heart comes the desire for revenge and retribution. Out of the heart comes the desire to hate one’s enemy. Only a changed heart can defeat such things. Only a heart that is completely and totally oriented toward God and toward what is good can accomplish what Jesus says in this Sermon on the Mount.
And as I said last Sunday, so I say again. We cannot do it. We cannot willingly make ourselves good. There is a part of us which seeks our own self-interest. There is a part of us which continually seeks to take care of our own selves and those closest to us at the expense of others. There is a part of us which puts our own ego; our own righteousness over others and sees others as less than us. This part is constantly in rebellion against God and is constantly unleashing all those things Jesus warns us against.
You know this. You see it all the time. You participate in it. We all do. None of us can escape it. So if this is the case... If we know we continue to have these things come out of our hearts despite our best efforts... If indeed our righteousness cannot ever exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees and then therefore we cannot ever enter the Kingdom of heaven...then what’s the point? If we cannot achieve perfection, then why does Jesus set it as the goal?
I think there are at least two very good reasons for this. The first reason is one I have articulated before, and it comes from sports. The record holder for the highest career batting average is held by Ty Cobb. His career batting average was, get this .366. This meant, he got a hit generally 1 out of every three times he came to bat. Mind you, he didn’t hit a home run every time he came to the plate–even though that would be the ideal. He didn’t get on base every time he came to the plate to bat–even that would have been awesome. He didn’t even get on base half the time he came to bat. 36% of the time he came to bat, he got on base. And he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame. Can you imagine giving a child a pat on the back for making a 36 on a test? Yet, that’s what folks did with Ty Cobb. They applauded him for his efforts.
Now, do you think Ty became disgusted with the way he played by batting .366 for his career? Do you think he became disgusted with himself because he couldn’t hit a home run every time he came up to bat? Do you think he thought of quitting baseball because he wasn’t able to get on base every time he went to the plate to face a pitcher? No. Of course he didn’t because there was always the chance to hit the home run. There was always the chance of achieving a little piece of perfection. There was the goal, dangling out there begging to be reached. Generally, we can approach humankind in a couple of fashions. We can set the bar low, and believe me, folks will reach it and then stop. Or, we can set the bar high and just see how close people come to reaching it. One of these ways will unlock greater potential. One of them won’t. I’ll let you decide.
The other reason for setting perfection as a goal is a little different. It isn’t about unleashing potential–it’s about keeping a person humble. You see, if God is the only one who can be perfect, and perfection is the only way to achieve true righteousness–true holiness, then I can never be holy on my own. I can never be righteous on my own. I will never reach the pinnacle of perfection. Every time I try to reach it, I will fail. By my own efforts I can never achieve it. If I realize this, where does this leave me? Where do I end up if I know I cannot achieve what is required of me? Well, I will probably give up. If it is something I want badly enough, I will probably get depressed and angry. I will probably shake my fist and have tears well up in my eyes because I cannot get what I desire so badly. And then I resign myself to my failure. At this point, and only at this point am I willing to acknowledge my need for help. At this point, God usually reveals to us something wonderful:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.
My achieving righteousness does not depend upon my work but on God’s work. My holiness does not come about because I am superhumanly good, but it comes about because Christ is superhumanly good. My salvation depends not on my righteousness but on Christ’s righteousness. Only in my humility can I recognize this.
When perfection is the goal, when the bar is set high, we reach for it and are challenged by it. When perfection is the goal, we are humbled by it and recognize our need for grace. We may never be perfect people. We may never be a perfect congregation, but we need that vision before us to challenge us, to humble us, and to help us live God’s Word daily. Amen.