I thought I’d take a break from the lectionary over the summer and offer a series of sermons based on questions Jesus asked. When you listen to them closely, you’ll find that he asked some pretty profound questions; yet, each is concrete, practical and applicable to everyday life. My hope is that we’ll hear these questions as if they were addressed to us and, in our own way, make a faithful response.
The question for today is straightforward and to the point: “What more do you do than others?” The larger context reads like this:
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (5:46-48)
The meaning is clear: The life of a Christian ought to go beyond that of an unbeliever. There ought to be a clear, recognizable difference in the way we think, talk and act out our faith that sets us apart from others and presents a living witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. The implication is if we’re to follow Jesus, we must rise above the norm. We must exercise greater self-discipline, adhere to stricter moral standards and practice higher ethical values than the secular world in which we live.
When you think about it, society doesn’t expect all that much, only that you be civil toward one another: Be considerate, mind your own business, pay your taxes and keep your nose clean. That’s about it. For the most part, the rules of social etiquette are based on mutual reciprocity – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – and the law of mediocrity where the norm is to be just slightly above average.
But to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, that’s not enough, and a good question to ask before we go on is how does your life differ from the world around you? What effect does the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have on the way you live out your life – the priorities you set, the choices you make? Or, to put it another way: If you were on trial today for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? What more are you doing than others?
Now, I should hasten to say, this has nothing to do with winning God’s favor or, in any way, deserving God’s love. God loves us just as we are – zits and all. There’s nothing we can do to cause God to love us any more or to love us any less. God’s love is irrational and unconditional. We may grieve the heart of God by the things we do and say and the way we treat each other, but there’s nothing we can do to nullify God’s love for us. That’s a given.
Not everyone is able to make this distinction. I used to have a church member who refused to take communion because he said he felt unworthy. He said he didn’t think there could be a place at the Lord’s Table for a sinner like him. I tried to convince him otherwise. I told him that it was precisely for sinners like him – and like me – that Christ died. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get through to him. He just wouldn’t believe it, and so, when the invitation was given, he stayed put in his pew.
I hope none of you ever feels this way. When we serve Communion – as we did last Sunday – I hope you’ll receive the bread and wine freely with glad and grateful hearts.
I also hope you’ll never doubt the place God has made for you in his eternal kingdom. I’ve known good, hard-working Christian men and women who’ve fretted and worried over whether or not they’d go to heaven when they died because they were afraid they hadn’t done enough to measure up. And that’s a shame. We always need to be clear that our salvation is not based on the things we’ve done or failed to do, but on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote to the Ephesians,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
The bad news is good works can never overcome your sinfulness. You can never do enough. The good news is the lack of good works can never overcome God=s election to claim you as his own. The psalmist said it best,
“Like a father has compassion on his children, so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalms 103:13-14)
God loves us with an unconditional love, yet God calls us to let his love transform our lives, and that means to be a cut above. The two go hand in hand: The more you grow in the knowledge of God=s love, the more God gives you the ability to serve others to the glory of his name.
But Jesus wasn’t content simply to say, “Do more.” He went on to say, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
What did he mean by that? Nobody’s perfect. If they were, you couldn’t stand to be around them! Mac Davis capitalized on this notion when he sang, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” The truth is it’s actually refreshing to be around people who are as clumsy as you are!
So, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Be perfect?” He meant that we should love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we should seek the kingdom of God first and foremost. The key lies in the word, “perfect.” It’s translated from the Greek word, “τελιoς,” (telios) and it has to do with a destination or end product.
Think “telescope,” which comes from the same root. When you look through a telescope you’re able to make out objects far away. In this sense, to be perfect in God’s sight is to focus your heart and mind on God and the kingdom to which God is leading you and not be distracted or swayed by the influence of the world around you. One commentator put it this way:
“To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in devotion to God.” (Matthew, New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 196)
This is the goal of Christian perfection – so to lose yourself in devotion to God and service to others that you’re able to say, in the words of Paul, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.” (Galatians 2:20)
It’s not a goal you’re likely to reach overnight. It comes in small increments and requires taking one step at a time.
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When Bob Shelton first took over as President of Austin Seminary, he told a group of us that his goal was to take the seminary to the next level of excellence in higher education and theological training, and he went on to outline specific steps necessary to reach this goal.
Thinking back to that conversation leads me to wonder: What would it mean for us, as a congregation, to move to the next level of excellence in our devotion to God and service to this community and to the world?
We’ve made some significant improvements to the physical plant over the past couple of years. We’ve installed new carpet and tile and lights. We’ve also got a pretty impressive record of outreach and mission. Our Super Bowl of Caring food drive was a huge success. Yet, what more would God have us to do? If you were to look through a telescope and see the finished product, what do you think this church would look like in God’s eyes in the coming years? What’s the next step we ought to take? What more are we doing than others?
On a personal level, what would it mean for you to move on to the next level of excellence in your own devotion to God? Is God calling you to do something in particular to be of service to his kingdom? Are there destructive habits you need to let go of? Are there particular self-disciplines you need to adopt? Dare to peer into the telescope and take a good look at what your life, ideally, ought to look like, then ask yourself what are the obstacles standing in your way?
Again, I want to emphasize that we’re saved by faith, not works. Yet good works, when they’re done in the right spirit, make a life of faith enjoyable and worthwhile. The secret is to follow your passions – doing what gives you the most pleasure while meeting the needs of others.
In the mid-80s I served on the board of Faith Mission in Wichita Falls, Texas. Faith Mission was where homeless people and transients went for a free meal and place to sleep. We served three meals a day and could house up to sixty men, twelve women and three families a night. We also ran a clothing closet and a warehouse where we gave out clothes, furniture, appliances and all sorts of household goods. It was quite an operation.
To keep the mission going, we were always in need of things, and it just so happened that there was this old rancher who showed up one day out of the blue. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name – Charles, or something like that. Long story, short, he became our procurement officer. He’d drop by once a week talk to Pete and Sharen, the directors, about what they needed. If they said they were running low on canned goods, he’d find some at a bargain basement price. In a day or two he’d be back with a whole truck load. One day they told him we needed turkeys for the Christmas dinner. He persuaded the folks at the local Gibson’s store to donate a hundred and ten. We were still eating turkey when Easter rolled around.
I have no idea how he did it, only that he had a passion for getting things done, and he obviously got a big kick out of doing something worthwhile in the process.
Well, he’s not the only one. Just the other day, a former classmate of mine dropped by the church to pick up the surplus chairs we’d decided to give to Hope in Action. He told me he’d retired on disability a couple of years ago and needed something to do. He said he volunteered one day a week at Hope in Action. That led to two days a week, then three. He said the more he did, the more he enjoyed it and the better he felt about himself.
That’s the secret of striving for Christian perfection – you’ll never be without sin, but you can come closer to God by letting God use you as an instrument of his grace and love.
Jesus asked his disciples: “What more do you do than others?” What distinguishes you and sets you apart as a child of God for whom Christ died? Then he charged them, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That ought to be the goal of every man and woman who seeks to follow Jesus Christ.
Well, in closing, let me end with this thought: Noble goals, by their very nature, tend to be just slightly out of reach; yet, by striving for them we gain the motivation and direction we need for a fulfilling and meaningful life. In the end, whether we reach the destination or not is secondary to keeping the faith along the way. No one knew this better than John Greenleaf Whittier, who penned the words:
O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.
For he whom Jesus loved has truly spoken:
The holier worship which He deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.
Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him Whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.
Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.