If I were to graph my relationship with God through my life I suspect it would look something like this (red line). At the beginning as a newborn infant I do not believe it was perfect and I certainly do not see that it has been a steady climb of getting closer and closer to God through trying to follow Jesus.
In fact I have probably been pretty generous with how well I have gone since there have been times for me of deep doubt and even depression.
Given this is how I perceive my relationship with God is going, a series of peaks and troughs, it is difficult to read this section of Jesus sermon of the mount from Matthew which ends with the words:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I know I am not perfect, I have a sense I am far from perfect, even though I had a colleague once who used to call me Perfect Flaming Peter. If we put a line on my graph that demonstrates perfection we can see just how far I might be from perfection.
And if we consider the readings from both Leviticus and Matthew this morning there are enough personal faith challenges in the teachings here to occupy a life time. “Turn the other check”, “Walk the extra mile”, “Love your enemies”. Really, I think I struggle to do any of these with any level of competency let alone all of them perfectly!
So the gap between me and “being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” seems insurmountable. As a young adult I was acutely aware of this gap and wondered what it might mean that I could not follow Jesus and God the way this passage appears to be suggestion. The guilt I felt was immense, even though I knew about forgiveness. Was I a good Christian or not? Was I going to go to hell for my failures? Was I a poor witness and follower of Jesus? There can be a great deal of pressure applied to people when we begin to think this way about our faith.
So how do we deal with this conundrum? How do we reconcile this gap between my life and perfection?
For me there are two things that help deal with this issue and for each I have a simply saying..
The first is: My life is hidden in Christ!
Whilst the second is: God expects maturity not perfection. That is what I believe God expects from me personally as a Christian: maturity.
If we go back to my life graph the straight line running across the top at 100 per cent is Christ’s life, and therefore my life hidden in Christ.
What is impossible for me has been made possible by God in Christ. When God looks at me and you God sees us through the lens of the perfection of Christ’s life. We do not have to be perfect because in Jesus incarnation, his life, his death, and his resurrection as well as in his ascended ministry Jesus has made us right with God.
As an aside when we share the peace in church this is part of what we are recognising, we have peace with God and other because God has made our relationships perfect in Christ.
If we look to Jesus life we do see Jesus turn the other check and go the extra mile and so on.
This gift of perfection though comes with an invitation to respond. From right back to the beginning of the church the question has been asked, “If I have been made right with God then does it matter what I do?”
Put simply the answer is yes. Unconditional grace is what it is unconditional, but the invitation of Jesus is to life life in its fullest by responding maturely to this gift.
Which brings me to the statement: God expects maturity not perfection!
When we trace this passage from Matthew to its original language the word which we translate as perfection could also mean something like “purpose” or “maturity”.
So whilst there is an expectation of perfection which is met in Jesus, Jesus challenges his followers to live maturely and to see God’s life as an example. Of course, the life of God we interpret here is Jesus own life.
Looking back to the graph, despite all the troughs and peaks, there is a growth in the maturity of the relationship which I believe is occurring. And this is pragmatically important for us in our life as Christians in the world and our participation in Christ’s mission.
You see in general when people judge God they generally do so through looking at the imperfect line of my life in relationship with God, or our life, or even our corporate life as the church.
Let me share some examples of how this works from the week that was.
This week I heard on the radio the unfolding drama of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse and the interview of a Principal from a Catholic school in which abuse occurred less than a decade ago. If we consider the injunction to love the neighbour and care for children it is clear this is one of the troughs in the life of the church.
We might try to shrug it off and say that was the Catholics not us but such a response is naive on two levels. Firstly, because for many who are not Christian we are one group so the brand name is irrelevant. Secondly, because as I Uniting church minister I am aware we too will be going before the Royal Commission for things which occurred whilst children were in our care.
On my graph this is certainly a trough in our relationship with God and begs us ask the question what is a mature response of faith? Possibly confession and lament? Changing our own practices to protect children better?
If we look at other significant events unfolding in the Central Republic of Africa there has been a shift in power and the now ascendant Christians, linked tribally, are committing atrocities against Muslims in the country. And I read in the gospel “love your enemies”.
What is a mature Christian response to these events? In neighbouring countries maybe we can pray it will be Christians who reach out to offer shelter to those Muslims fleeing for their lives.
Once again closer to home I found myself lamenting for the life of Reza Barati the Iranian Asylum seeker killed at the Manus Island detention centre. Reza was in the care of our country, as were all those others who were injured.
The issue of asylum seeks impacts Indonesia just as much as it impacts Australia but what is a mature Christian response, how do we love our neighbour and our enemy in this situation?
These issues may seem distant and far away but in the life of we who follow Jesus issues of justice and love are always before us.
No doubt if we look into our own lives and relationships we might be able to ask many questions of our own maturity in our relationship with our family, our friends, our colleagues and our community.
We will not be perfect in these things but I do believe as we follow Jesus God expects maturity not perfection!
This maturity involves honesty and seeing how Jesus loved.
Maturity is enough of a challenge in our imperfect spiritual journey and when confronted by our inadequacies we should not judge ourselves or others too harshly.
Consider for a moment a well worn saying “Love the sinner and hate the sin”. This saying traces its roots back to St Augustine and is found in Ghandi’s autobiography.
The big problem I have this is which sins we like to name as hating whilst leaving others alone. Moreover, it can seem we are implying that somehow our imperfect journey is less tainted than another person’s. I recently heard an interview in which the American evangelical Tony Campolo suggested that at best we could infer from Jesus teaching “Love the sinner and hate your own sin.”
This is not an invitation to amorality but just a sober reminder that as Paul wrote all have fallen short of the glory of God, which, in my mind, is exactly where I started this sermon with the graph.
The idea of perfectionism within our spiritual journey can lead to guilt and depression internally and sometimes judgmentalism and exclusion externally. In hearing Jesus words about perfection we should always remember My life is hidden in Christ!
But in receiving this gift of perfection we should also remember that as we respond and follow Jesus God expects maturity not perfection!
Take a moment of silence read again the passages from Leviticus and Matthew. Receive the gift of perfection and contemplate where are you being challenged for greater maturity.