February 20, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“[Jesus said:] ‘You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”
Perfection is a hard word. It isn’t difficult to understand. Neither is it tough to pronounce. Yet, it is hard. It’s complex. You know what it means: excellence, rightness, exactness, flawlessness. But you know that it is neither easy to find nor to accomplish. And yet, that is what the Lord Jesus requires of you: “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus’ statement is not novel. It is very similar to what the Lord demanded of His people in the Old Testament: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. . . .’” The concept is the same. The Lord has a certain character, and His people are to share it: He is holy; therefore, His people are to be holy. Likewise with Jesus’ statement: the heavenly Father is perfect; therefore, His children are to be perfect.
But how is this so? How does one exhibit perfection? That is what the Lord declared through Moses and what Jesus taught on the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s statements given to His people by Moses showed what the Israelites were to do. He gave prescriptions about their behavior: harvesting regulations, business ethics, social mores, procedures of jurisprudence. These commandments would govern the entirety of their communal life. Abiding by them, the people of Israel would reflect the Lord’s character to the world: they would be holy, as He is holy. The people were set apart from all the other nations in the world; their everyday lives would show that fact.
Raised in that faith, the Psalmist longs for the holiness that the Lord established. He knew the prescriptions given by the Lord through Moses. So he prayed to be shaped by them: “Lead me in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it. Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in Your ways.” The Psalmist’s desire was to be holy as his Lord is holy. His life was meant to reflect his Lord’s character. Salvation is found in what was spoken to him: “Turn away the reproach that I dread, for Your just decrees are good. Behold, I long for Your precepts; in Your righteousness give me life!”
Jesus preaches the same to His hearers. Like the Israelites of old, the disciples hear what is required of them. Jesus shows them the character of the Lord that their lives are to reflect. So He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Jesus’ statement sets a high bar for His disciples, just as the Lord did through Moses for the Israelites. Their behavior will show the heavenly Father’s perfection to the world.
What does that behavior look like? It was what you have heard the past several weeks in the Gospel Readings from the Sermon on the Mount. But it culminates with a great command to do what is extraordinary in this world: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” You and all of Jesus’ disciples are called to exhibit love to those who are opposed to you. You are not to consider whether an individual is friend or foe before acting for their benefit. No, your behavior is to resemble that of your Father in heaven. By your actions, you make known your identity as His children.
Recall what Jesus said about your Father in heaven: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” When dealing with His creation, the Father cares for it all. He does not send temporal blessings to His people only. No, the care for His creation is granted to all, whether they fear, love, and trust in Him above all things or not. His care is not like irrigation or greenhouse lamps that provide water and light to specific fields or plants. Instead, the Father’s providence is given to people as a whole, no matter their thoughts about Him. That compassion and generosity which the Father shows to the world is what should be seen in your actions. So you meet what Jesus’ declares: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus’ statements about loving enemies and praying for persecutors is followed up by comparisons to the way other people behave: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Tax collectors and Gentiles are not used as positive examples. No, they stand for all those who are opposed to righteousness and justice. They are not the “sons of your Father who is in heaven.” So what they do should not be your expected behavior. Loving friends and greeting relatives: that’s nothing. An adman may say: “It’s so easy, even a caveman can do it.” That type of behavior is the way of the world. But you have been set apart, given a new identity, so what you do should reflect that.
The identity that you have been given is from “your Father who is in heaven.” You have been made His children. St. Paul puts it this way: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? . . . God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. . . . You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” You are not like the tax collectors and Gentiles, because you have been made something greater. The Lord has made you holy, setting you apart from the other nations of this world. It isn’t an earthly citizenship. No, you are His people in this world and the next.
But how was that identity given? It was through the Father’s actions in sending His Son to be your Savior. In fact, what He did is what He calls you to do. Remember Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” That is what Jesus does, just as His Father wills it. It is what the Father accomplishes through His Son for you. You were enemies of God. You were separated from Him and His righteousness. You were under His curse. By nature, you knew nothing of His good will. You were rebellious against His order, against His commandments. And still, the Father sends His Son to redeem you. The Father in heaven loved you, His enemies. He reconciled you to Himself through His Son’s actions to redeem you, spending His capital to make you His people.
That generosity is extended further to you. It is seen in what you are given in the Church. Forgiveness of sins is granted when you ask for it. You beg and ask, and your Father in heaven answers you. You seek life—both temporal and eternal—and your Father provides it. He does not do so in exchange for goods or out of reward. No, it is given without any merit or worthiness in you or me. That is your Father’s character. He acts consistently with His identity.
So Jesus instructs you to act. Live in the identity that has been granted to you: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Those are actions consistent with what you are: God’s children. You have begged and borrowed from Him and He has answered your pleas. When the same is asked of you, the response should be like that of your Father in heaven: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” By so giving, by so loving, you show yourself to be His children. You are perfect as He is perfect.
That is the heart of Jesus’ words that conclude this section of the Sermon on the Mount. As you follow Jesus’ teachings, so you should abide by these statements. That abiding is not how you are made righteous before God. No, that is what He has done for you. Your works do not make you God’s children: they are the result of His adopting you to be His children, taking you from sinfulness and fault to holiness and perfection. But now in this world, you are given the opportunity to lead the lives that He has bestowed to you. Everything that you do is to show off your identity to the world, to display your sonship. It is what Jesus began with in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
This is the point made by Paul to the Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” You are built on the foundation of Christ’s death and resurrection. That is what made you sons of your Father in heaven. But what you build on top of that foundation matters: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” The work that endures is the fulfillment of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, summarized in His statement: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What Jesus declares about you is actually so: you are the sons of the Father in heaven. So you also are God’s temples, the ones in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and through whom He works. You are holy, set apart and differentiated from the other people in this world, just as your Father is holy and different. Let His character shine forth in your lives, acting like He does. Built on the foundation of His Son, Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, you will. Then what is true about your identity in this earthly life—that you are children of your Father in heaven—will be seen as true in life of the world to come.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.