Sunday, February 20, 2011

Epiphany 7, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 20, 2011 (The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sentence pretty much sums up the section of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve been hearing from in our Gospel lessons the past few weeks. It isn’t good enough to keep yourself from actively and outwardly breaking the various Commandments, you must sincerely love God and your neighbor and keep the Commandments from that basis. It’s not good enough to refrain from outright murder, you must actively help your neighbor in his bodily need, and do so from a loving heart. And, as today’s Gospel lesson points out, that’s true even when your neighbor is trying to harm you or use you or walk all over you. If it truly helps your neighbor to let him strike you, let him strike you. If he forces you to carry his stuff, offer to help him by carrying it even after he relents. If he takes something you need, offer to help him in any other needs he has as well.

Again, like last week, there are of course other considerations that come into play. The neighbors whom God has given you first and foremost are those in your own household, your spouse and children. And if helping a random stranger would severely disable you from helping them, they do come first. But even a random stranger, even an enemy, even the boss who is a jerk or the demanding and unreasonable customer or the guy who nearly ran you off the road because he just doesn’t care about other drivers, are all among those God commands us to love and to help.

The whole point is that perfection, as God defines it, doesn’t just involve outward actions such as making sure you don’t actually kill somebody or cheat on your spouse or take something that belongs to someone else. It involves being as loving as He is, being as giving as He is, being as self-sacrificing as He is. It involves self-denial of the highest order. Even the sort of self-mutilation we discussed last week doesn’t do it, because if a person cuts off his hand or eye in order to get into heaven, he’s still thinking of himself and his own reward in heaven rather than his neighbor. And that’s true of anything we outwardly do for others as well. If it’s not wholly and completely motivated by love for God and the neighbor, if there’s even the slightest hint of a thought of our own reward, whether in this life or the life to come, it’s not perfect. And if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.

Actually, there was only one thing that a Man has ever done for his fellow men that is perfect. That Man Himself said so. He said, “It is perfected.” Actually, that’s usually translated, “It is finished.” I’m speaking here of Jesus on the cross. But “perfect” and “finished” are both basically the same word in the original Greek. God the Son became man, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent death for you and me and everyone else in the world. That’s the kind of love we are talking about here. Love that caused God Himself to die for us sinners while we were yet sinners. Love that sends forth His Church to proclaim peace between God and man even when the world doesn’t want to hear it and actively rejects it. Love that can only come from God Himself.

I should point out here that even though the English Standard Version, which is what I read from this morning, translates it as “you . . . must be perfect, the original Greek can also be translated as “you shall be perfect,” as a statement of fact rather than a command. And when God makes a statement of fact, He doesn’t lie. Even if what He says wasn’t already true, it becomes true by the power of His Word. The blind receive their sight. The deaf hear. The dumb speak. The lame walk. The diseased are cured. This sentence from the Sermon on the Mount is a command, but it’s more than a command. Commands from God are always more than commands. They are His creative Word. “There shall be light.” And there was light. “You shall be perfect,” and you are.

Of course, that perfection, that completion, came at a price. Only when the Son of God dies does he declare that our perfection is accomplished. Only then does he say that everything is fulfilled. His rising to life again on the third day, His ascension into heaven, and His being seated at His Father’s right hand, are all proclamations of the victory that has been won, but the victory itself came on that cross. And that also reminds us of the sort of perfection we are talking about here: perfection in love and service to God and the neighbor. It is precisely in His death for us sinners that He is perfect just as His Father is perfect. It is precisely in serving we who were still His enemies that He wins us as His brothers and His Father adopts us as His sons. And, because His Word does not return void, that’s what you are. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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