“Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NRSV). Unfortunately, this word perfect does not have the existential meanings of the Greek or the corresponding Hebrew word. The biblical concept represents more of a complete fullness, an innocence in Christ. In our faith walk this dynamic of time is held in tension, and that tension is echoed in out liturgies, like the “Gloria Patri”, also known as the “Gloria, Glory Be to the Father”, a doxology that is used in morning or evening prayer services, usually following the reading of a psalm. “Glory to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever”. The praise accentuates the trilogy of the Three in One, but it also points to eternity as something that transcends time. “As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever”.
We see this continuum process in the “Memorial Acclamation” sung or recited after the institution narrative of the Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again”. Let’s build on this theology more broadly. As the Gospel of John starts out: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God”. (John 1:1-2) Then if we couple this passage with Revelation 21 and 22, we envision a place and a timelessness of something we refer to as heaven, or eternity.
What does this word heaven mean? The biblical references contain words and phrases of heaven as “elevations,” “high places,” “heights,” “clouds,” “firmament,” “paradise,” “heavenly Jerusalem,” “a better country,” and “eternal kingdom”. Heaven is also referred to as a place of “life everlasting”, “a place of bliss” and “an eternal weight of glory”. Heaven is described as a place that is exempt of all suffering, a place where evil does not exist, and a place that is prepared for us, as mentioned in Hebrews 11:16)
So, now that we have looked at the destination of our spiritual journey, let’s talk about what this word perfect means from a biblical perspective. John Wesley described growing and maturing in Christ as perfect love, a work of sanctification and transformative change that happens in our lives as we respond to the process of growing in Christ. The concept of perfect here does not mean we do not make mistakes, or that we have no flaws. You will notice that in our opening acclamation when we began our service today with these words: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Let’s examine this phrase, “that we may perfectly love you”. If the word perfect means we are already perfected, then we would have no need to ask for ‘cleansing from the thoughts of our hearts’.
The Prayers this morning will be followed by a “prayer of confession”. In this confession acknowledge things we know we have done wrong and for things we have done wrong without knowing. And, then we ask for forgiveness. Then we hear these words: “Your sins are forgiven”.
We have all heard or perhaps even used this excuse: “Well, nobody’s perfect”. That’s true in the English understanding of the word, but not in the deeper existential understanding of the concept of perfect wholeness.
I lean to the Apostle Paul to help us understand this concept of being perfected in faith: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And, the life I live in the flesh, I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me” (Galatians 2:20). Here we have this eternal concept again, the idea that we are saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved”. Our faith is perfected in Christ, yet we are instructed to grow in this faith, ‘to be built up”, “to put on the full armor of Christ”, to mature and to “die daily” as Paul phrases this process called sanctification or transformation.
In the First reading this morning in Deuteronomy, we are instructed to love the strangers, by providing for them food and clothing, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The concept here is that they were strangers on a journey, and this journey’s destination was not Egypt, but the Promised Land, the land of ‘milk and honey’. (Deut. 10:17-21)
In our second reading today in Hebrews about the heroes of our faith, beginning with Abraham, who is described as someone on a journey, just passing through. All those listed were referred to as strangers and foreigners. They were seeking and desiring a homeland whose builder and architect is God. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, instead he has prepared a city for them”. (Hebrews 11:6-16)
Naomi grew up in Muskegon, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some of the roads in Muskegon tend to go make turns and even circles, because they were built to coincide with the big lake and bays that kind of circled much of the city. I remember once when we were visiting, the boys and I dropped Naomi off to do some grocery shopping, and we decided to visit a sporting goods store. I can’t remember why. As we pulled out of the parking lot of MC Sporting Goods, we asked for directions from someone that appeared to be a local resident. This was long before the days of GPS or cell phones.
I remember he gave us some detailed instructions that had to do with several turns. We did our best to follow the directions, but to our dismay we discovered that we ended up again at MC Sporting Goods. We sort of knew at least the direction of the grocery store, and so we set off again on our own. We made a few turns, and guess where we ended up? Yes, MC Sporting Goods”! So we set off again taking a different route, and I kid you not, guess where we ended up? MC Sporting Goods! We decided to ask someone else for directions, and the directions we got were completely different than the first set of directions. And, we finally found our way out of the circling maze. So, whenever we would get lost in the future, our famous expression was “Oh no, MC Sporting Goods!” So the moral of this story should be, be careful about who you ask for directions.
I don’t know if you have ever done this, but I can remember times when someone going down the road, rolled their window down and asked for directions, and then I would give directions, only to realize after they drove off that I left out something really important, like to turn right instead of left, or to turn at the third light when it was really the fourth light. Ever done anything like that? Well a rule of thumb is to probably never ask me for directions. That’s really not my strong point, but when I am driving I am quite familiar with U-turns.
As we journey on this pilgrimage to our heavenly home, we join the prophets and all those that have gone before us looking for a city that is prepared for us, journeying to our eternal home
On this journey we see, but yet we don’t see fully, we understand, yet we do not understand fully. We experience the joy of the Holy Spirit, the bliss of the kingdom of God here on this earth, but we do not see like we want to see. We know God, yet we do not know him as well as we want to. As St. Paul describes this’ stammering of knowing, yet not yet knowing fully’: “For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”. (1 Corinthians 13:12, NRSV) “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18)
A picture of this city whose builder and architect is God is found in Revelation 21 and 22. Revelation 21 paints a picture of the holy City of God, a place where there will be no more suffering, death or evil of any kind. And then Revelation 22 paints a picture of a river that is flowing out of the city. It goes something like this, and I’m quoting from a lovely song that Naomi wrote from this passage.
We shall see the river, the river the river of life.
Coming from the throne of God, and the throne of the lamb.
The tree of life with healing,
Healing for all who will come.
And Jesus will end our curse,
Well serve him forever, amen.
And, we shall see his face, his face.
His name will be our joy.
And, there will be no night there,
Neither the need of a light,
For Jesus will be our light,
He’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright.
He’ll reign and he’ll shine ever bright. (Rev. 22)
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen