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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon


25th May 2008

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity I

‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

The perfect body, the perfect home, perfect children, a perfect job, perfect grades; we live in an age that encourages perfection. We are bombarded with digitally enhanced images of perfection, excess fat, blemishes are all removed. The life of the poor, the underclass is hidden by the outward signs of wealth & success. It is no wonder that people are crushed by a sense of failure, no wonder that they become depressed.

If we are prone to perfectionism or if we reject perfectionism as an unobtainable goal then we will be disturbed by Jesus’ words from the end of Matthew Chapter 5 -‘Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ It is part of Jesus’ teaching on the mount, including the beatitudes, now directed especially at the disciples.

One of the features of St. Matthew’s Gospel is that it contains many hard sayings of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus seems harsher, more judgemental than say St. Luke’s with his stories of a compassionate Christ. I can remember its appeal to the black & white mentality of adolescence and also its guilt inducing. I can remember such feeling being reinforced by Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship’. His commentary on the sermon seems very unyielding. It is - but not just in the way we might think. Written during the Nazi era it was very subversive. It attacked the Protestant ethos that allowed Hitler to come to power.

So does Jesus mean us to be perfect and if so how? If he does, we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, ours is to be the perfection of Love.

Jesus outlines the nature of such love. No more eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth. No more are we to seek the revenge our fallen nature so often desires. Instead we are to turn the other cheek, give our coat, go the extra mile. From now on we are to love our enemies & to pray for our persecutors. Everyone loves those who love them but more is required.

Such is the new ethic – one we can admire, aspire to even but also doubt in the hard light of reason & better experience. In saying that we can note that the teaching of Jesus belongs to his experience of the world of violence & evil, the world in which he suffered & died. We can recall that Matthew’s Gospel was written against a background of persecution and suffering and that it came out of a process of deep reflection on the person of Jesus and on a brutal world. Thus the teaching of Jesus is no milky idealism, it is tempered by realism.

At its heart is the word love. We all want to be loved and we all want to love. We all desire the perfect love that Jesus speaks of and lives & dies in. How can it be ours, how can we be perfect?

The short answer is that we cannot. We cannot achieve perfection by our own efforts. The perfect body will still age and die. The perfect job will end, the perfect home will date &c, &c. Neither can we achieve moral perfection. The liberating realisation is that we are sinners who fall short of perfection, who fall short of what God intends us to be.

We cannot achieve perfection but as Christians we are being perfected by God, as a work of his grace in our lives. The end of the Christian life is to be with God in eternity to be perfect in his love. The process of being made perfect is a lifelong pilgrimage. The ancient tradition, if non-biblical idea of purgatory suggests that it can continue after death when we will be further purified from all that keeps us from God.

Christian perfectionism is very different from worldly perfectionism. It begins with the acknowledgment that we are not perfect, that we are sinners who fall short from the glory of God. Christians are those who are called to perfection, who are perfected by God’s grace at work in us through the life, death & resurrection of Jesus. Christian discipleship is a life long journey in God’s love. Perfection is its end and goal, not its beginning. Only by God’s grace can we begin to live out Jesus’ teaching in our lives.

‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

Amen

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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at webmaster@stmatthewsoxhey.org.uk Last updated 22/05/2008 08:30 Author: David Shepherd