Matthew 5:43-48, 1 John 4:9-12 (Watch on YouTube)
They were fed up with living under a system that treated them as second-class citizens. They were tired of enduring laws and policies that kept them firmly anchored in “their place” and watching others enjoy rights they couldn’t exercise. Eventually some of the offensive laws and policies were eliminated, but these minor changes didn’t address the underlying factors that determined where they fell on the social and economic ladder.
Finally, they’d had it. They began protesting in front of places that were emblems of the injustice they faced. One night, when no any meaningful response to their concerns seemed forthcoming, some of the protesters (many of whom were young people) entered those places and destroyed the goods inside. Three hours later, the equivalent of 342 shipping containers full of private property, weighing more than 45 tons, had been destroyed. In the face of continuing refusal to take the protesters’ concerns seriously, a second protest with more destruction of property followed, and that protest sparked others around the country.
You know the name of that protest. You know where it happened and why it happened. It was the Boston Tea Party. Less than a year after that destructive protest, the first Continental Congress met. Soon after, “the shot heard round the world” was fired, and the American Revolution began.
In preparation for becoming an independent nation, the Continental Congress created the Articles of Confederation. But, they soon proved to be inadequate for the growing American states. So, in 1787, the Constitution of the United States was ratified. It begins with these words: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Those words—“a more perfect union”—have been much on my mind the last few weeks. In part, it’s because I’ve been thinking about how our nation is still striving to become a more perfect union by building on our successes and correcting the failures of the past which still shape our present. But, more than that, it’s because I’ve been working through a little book published by John Wesley just a few years before the Revolution began. It’s called “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.” You could call it a handbook for Christians who desire a more perfect union—a more perfect union with God through Jesus Christ.
The certainty that Christians can and will be “perfect” is a distinctive part of our Wesleyan way of understanding and living out our faith. We don’t talk about it much. I think it’s because we’re uncomfortable with that word, “perfection.” To describe ourselves as perfect, or even as becoming perfect, sounds a little egotistical to our ears; it has that “holier than thou” ring to it. Unless you’re some kind of narcissist who can’t admit any weakness or flaws in yourself, you’re all too aware of how far from perfect you are. You readily admit to what you can’t do. You’re able to own your mistakes and errors in judgment, at least part of the time. You’re generally willing to learn from your missteps and try to do better, but that’s a long way from being perfect.
But that’s OK, because perfection in the Wesleyan sense isn’t about being able to do everything without flaws. It’s not even about being free from mistakes or errors in judgment. Instead, Wesley describes it this way: “Christian perfection is nothing higher and nothing lower than the pure love of God and human beings. It’s loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.”
Christian perfection is both a destination that we reach and the process by which we reach it. It’s the process of becoming perfect, and it’s likely to last our entire lives. It’s possible that some people may become so infused and powered by love that they are made perfect long before their earthly lives end. After all, if God can make us perfect at the end of our lives, why not now? But most of us have a long road ahead of us. We aren’t entirely perfect—entirely sanctified—but we are on the way. We are “being sanctified.” We are “being made holy.” We are “being made perfect in love.”
Perfection in love is what every Christian has the opportunity to experience and the responsibility to pursue. The responsibility comes from Jesus’ own words. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he said. That would be a pretty high bar if Jesus expected us to achieve this perfection on our own. But Jesus made it possible. In his life, he taught us what perfect love of God and neighbor looks like. In his death, he showed us what it looks like. In his resurrection and ascension, he gifted us with the Holy Spirit’s presence and power which enables us to undertake the journey toward perfection in love.
When we’re justified—when we accept the gift of salvation in Christ—our sins are forgiven. Jesus moves them aside, as a bulldozer clears a blocked roadway, so that we have a clear path to a renewed relationship with God. This is the work that God does for us. The New Birth sets us on that newly-cleared path of Sanctification—what God does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our destination on that path is the entire perfection in love that Jesus calls us to.
If we truly desire a more perfect union with God, we can have it. It happens as our love of God and neighbor takes up more and more room in our hearts and becomes more and more the single driving force of all we do, think, and say. It happens as we do those things that open us to God’s love—when we search the Scriptures—not just through casual reading but with a real attention to how they help us know God’s love better. It happens as we do good works because, as we serve, we grow in our love for others. It happens when we come to the table and are nourished by the grace embodied in bread and cup. It happens when we worship together—as we grow together as a community. It happens when we pray—when we pray without ceasing, offering our worship, our service, our study, and our very lives as prayer.
As we grow in this grace-enabled perfection, the signs of it appear in our lives. Wesley describes these “fruits of the spirit”; they are “love, joy, peace, always abiding within; invariable endurance, patience, obedience; gentleness, triumph over all provocation; goodness, kindness, sweetness, tenderness of spirit; fidelity, simplicity, godly sincerity; meekness, calmness, a well-balanced spirit; temperance, not only in food and sleep, but in all things natural and spiritual.” Just as works are the evidence of a living faith, these fruits are the signs that we are being perfected in love—however gradual the process may be.
But, if we are continually being perfected in love, why, then, do we still make mistakes? Why do we still misjudge, misread, or misunderstand? It’s because, for as long as we live, we live in our human bodies, with all their frailties and limitations. We don’t have complete knowledge. As Wesley reminds us, mistakes are “a natural consequence of the soul’s dwelling in flesh and blood. Our thinking is dependent on bodies and organs that are subject to injury and disease. They are fragile and unreliable. Therefore,” Wesley concludes, “until this perishable body puts on imperishability, we cannot avoid sometimes thinking wrong.”
We also deal with the sin that is in us, even as we are being perfected. Through Christ, we are saved from the power of sin, but it’s by the process of perfection that we grow in our ability to resist it. We are tempted, even as Jesus was tempted, by all those things that are in direct opposition to the love we are growing into—the temptations of selfishness, of self-righteousness, of our unwillingness to love those who are different from us or whom we might even call our enemies, of withholding a part of our lives or ourselves first from God and then from others.
Nonetheless, in each of us, grace kindles a desire for a more perfect union with God. For each of us, Christ died to make that more perfect union possible. For each of us, God raised Christ from the dead so that we might continue to enjoy that union, now and after our earthly deaths. In each of us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God continues to sanctify and perfect us in love, drawing us ever closer and restoring the perfect image of God in us.
In the United Methodist ordination service, ordinands are asked a series of questions which have been asked of Methodist preachers ever since Wesley’s time. They include these three: “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?” These questions aren’t asked because ordained clergy are in some higher class of Christians. It’s because in our Wesleyan tradition, they are questions that every Christian should be able to answer with a “yes.”
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus said. We can trust him not to ask something of us we can’t do or be. We can trust him to help us do and be what he asks. By the grace of God, we can affirm that, “Yes, we are going on to perfection. Yes, we expect that we will be made perfect in this life, whether early or late. And, yes, we do so want a more perfect union with God that we earnestly strive after it, using all the means God has given us.” On this weekend, as we celebrate our nation’s past, present, and future striving to form a more perfect union, let us also strive for a more perfect union with God as we are sanctified and perfected in love. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young