Nurturing Elders & Others:
Imperfect Signs of Perfection
By the Rev. Paul Graves | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Why is “10” a sign of perfect physical beauty? Why is 100% the perfect number for “giving it your all”? “Not a hair out of place” might be the sign of a perfect haircut or perm.
In a “perfect” world, shouldn’t there just be one sign of perfection?
I hear “perfect” so often casually used to describe all kinds of spiritual exercises and religious practices. I hesitate to ascribe perfection to anything we do, labeled “spiritual” or “religious”. I hesitate because “Christian perfection” is so different from what we assume it is.
I invite you to consider this radical thought: At the deepest level, we are already “perfect,” but we either don’t know it or don’t even believe it.
John Wesley speaks of us “going on to perfection.” But how do we know when we’ve arrived at “perfection”? In the game of golf, “perfection” has an end-point – the ball is in the hole.
What do you imagine the end-point of Christian perfection to be? The pious, orthodox answer we usually give is, of course, “heaven.”
But as I read Wesley’s words in his little book “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”, I see him emphasize an earlier, earthier experience of perfection. He spoke of having the mind of Christ, helping us walk as Jesus walked. That’s an earthly image, folks. Heaven can wait!
Wesley spoke clearly about loving God with all our heart, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Hmm…
That’s sounds vaguely biblical. It should. Beginning in Mark 12:30, a scribe asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Jesus reminds people of the “Shema” (Hebrew for “hear”) in Deut. 6: 4-9.
“Hear, O Israel. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might.” Then Jesus adds, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, my friends, is what “going on to perfection” is all about! Heaven can wait!
Let’s try this from another angle. The Greek word teleios is used almost 20 times in the New Testament to describe our word “perfect.” “Be perfect as our Father is perfect.” “Perfect love casts out fear.” And so on.
But that word isn’t talking about moral perfection, friends. In fact, Jesus challenged Jewish religious leaders for their fanatical pursuit of religious and moral perfection. (I think we stand under the same judgment when we nit-pick our way through the moral morass we sometimes reduce “church” to being.)
Biblical perfection, teleios, has more to do with our effort to be the human beings that God created us to be from the beginning. A perfect hammer is a tool that is used to pound nails and extract nails from wood…but a perfect human being? That’s more difficult for most of us to describe.
Jesus simplified the formula for us. Or did he? Love God with all your heart, soul, and might; and love your neighbor as yourself. Simple? As a formula, maybe. As a daily practice, not so much. It is so often too difficult for us to love God and others as we love ourselves.
So we settle for something supposedly easier: the pursuit of moral perfection. (At least it’s easier to expect of other persons than of us.) So again, let’s remember Jesus challenges us to strive after moral perfection. Why? Maybe because it leads so easily to separating people into “moral” and “immoral”. We celebrate God’s Incarnation at Christmas. This is our reminder that Jesus’ humanity intends to remind us what being human is really about.
He showed us how we are more perfectly human, more complete as persons. It doesn’t happen in those moments when we push each other away. It happens when we reach out to each other in love as perfect as we can offer in those moments. We do what we can, and leave the rest to God. Perfect!
Mark 12:30 NRSV
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 NRSV
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.