Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Theme: O Church, be holy/perfect for the good of the world.
The parallels between Lev. 19:2 “You shall be holy…” and Matt. 5:49 “Be perfect…” cannot be missed; which will require the preacher to unpack the meaning of “perfection”, for there is a danger these texts can be heard as a call to strive for individual perfection. Such striving leads to “works righteousness” thinking and a brittle adherence to the letter of the law. Such a reading does a disservice to these texts.
Two things in these texts, hopefully will, prevent the preacher from falling into that trap. First, Paul, in I Cor., writes that God’s temple is holy/perfect. God’s temple in this passage is not the physical body of the individual believer — rather the body is the church — the community of faith. (While God cares about the physical bodies of individuals, this passage is not about that concern.) The church is the temple that stands as a sign of God’s presence in the world. That is what temples do, stand as a sign of God in the world. And second, the community of faith in being holy/perfect lives a life of active devotion in the world. Holiness/perfection in these passages is communal and it is active.
In Lev. the active devotion includes leaving some crop in the field and vineyard unharvested so the poor can harvest food (people could enjoy the dignity of working to put food on the table); not stealing, cheating, or lying especially in business transactions and in relationship to employees; judgments of all kinds shall be fair; and patterns of life leading to vengeance and grudge-bearing were to be rejected. Within the community of faith there is to be profound care, fairness, and peace.
In Matt. we are reminded that active devotion is to extend to those outside the church as both individuals and the community respond with love and grace to the affronts others offer. (An aside: Note the text does not say “If someone strikes your neighbour on the right cheek…” Active devotion calls us to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.) Acts of aggression, physically or legally, are responded to with grace. The community of faith is a place where enemies are prayed for.
I Cor. reminds us this does not happen by our strength and power — but because the Holy Spirit is in us — in the church. Human leaders and human plans do not make the patterns of life Lev. and Matt. point to happen. This radical commitment to community inside the church and reaching out to the wider society comes from the work of the Spirit.
As Bruner says in the quote below, the church’s grace/mercy/perfection in the world is given to the evil and the good without evaluating the recipients’ worthiness of receiving the blessing. The grace is poured out for the good of the world.
Now it is not hard to see these as missional texts. God is pushing the church outside of itself into the world to live out the grace and love of God in the world, living it out as indiscriminately as the rain falls and the sun shines. God has given to disciples corporately — and by extension individually — the power of Holy Spirit to make us holy, living the wide mercy of Jesus Christ in the world. The ability to do good to the enemy comes from the power of the Spirit in us. Doing good to the enemy stands as witness to God’s grace in the world. The church witnesses to Jesus Christ — for that is what temples do, point to the one in whose honour they were built.
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. Confucius
“The kind of perfection to which Matthew’s Jesus refers, as the context shows, is the perfection of mercy, of whole- or wide-heartedness, not the perfection that we usually associate with strict behavior.”
Frederick Dale Bruner
“…to be teleioi (translated “perfect”) as our heavenly Father is teleios (“perfect”) is to be as indiscriminately good in society as the Father is in nature. Teleioi is a width word like mercy rather than a height word like perfect. Christian perfection is the width with which disciples are able to embrace others, it is not the height to which they themselves are able to climb.” Frederick Dale Bruner
One of the desperate needs of the church is to recapture this vision of what it is by grace, and therefore also what God intends it to be. In most Protestant circles one tends to take the local parish altogether too lightly. Seldom does one sense that it is, or can be, experienced as a community that is so powerfully indwelt by the Spirit that it functions as a genuine alternative to the world in which it is found. It is perhaps not too strong to suggest that the recapturing of this vision of its being, both in terms of its being powerfully indwelt by the Spirit and of its thereby serving as a genuine alternative (“holy” is the most holistic sense) to the world, is its single greatest need. Gordon Fee
Help us accept each other — Fred Kaan
They shall know we are Christians by our love
Be just in judgment, fair to all — Calvin Seerveld (Versification of Lev. 19:15-18)
The Church’s one foundation
Make me a channel of your peace
Brother, sister, let me serve you
Forgive our sins as we forgive — Rosamond Herklots
The Matt. text invites us to pray for our enemies – worship leaders could during the Prayers of the People leave a period of silence during which people are invited to pray for their enemies.
Prayer in Times of Violence and Fear
Almighty, all-merciful God,
through Christ Jesus you have taught us to love one another,
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
and even to love our enemies.
In times of violence and fear,
let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts,
so that we may not be overcome with evil
but overcome evil with good.
Help us to see each person in light of the love and grace
you have shown us in Christ.
Put away the nightmares of terror
and awaken us to the dawning of your new creation.
Establish among us a future where peace reigns,
justice is done with mercy, and all are reconciled.
We ask these things in the name
and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ From a collection of Prayers for Times of National and International Crisis and Tragedy, posted on the PCUSA website. http://www.pcusa.org/
Wonderful God, you call us to do the impossible:
to love our enemies,
to confront injustice,
to share bountifully with the poor.
You do not give us an inch:
you call us to be perfect in our imitation of you.
And yet, you give us everything:
the foundation of Christ,
and the gift of creation.
Bless us, therefore, as we depart this place:
give us the blessing of a faithful spirit, a willing heart,
and a kin-dom of grace. Amen!
~ written by the Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, , and posted on the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways website. http://www.ucc.org/worship/worship-ways/