(Part II of a sermon preached by the Rev. James A. Rhone on July 27, 1986.)
The problem we face as disciples of Jesus are not unlike that of the golfer who needs to improve, to become better. We know that the trouble is not with the design of the course of life, it is not that the teachings of Jesus are unrealistic, they make perfect sense. The trouble is with us, the Christians. We need to grow.
Turn the other cheek – we hear Jesus say – but in the fray we strike back in revenge. Walk the second mile – He says – but we yield to our pride. Love your neighbor, your enemy, forgive, do to others that which you would have them do to you – He asks of us – but we harbor our grudges and nurse our wounds and resentments, and we miss opportunities. We land in life’s sand-traps and roughs. So do we quit? No. We are baptized, we are Christians – Christians what e’re betide.
I do not wish to belabor the point. Jesus summer up parfor life in these words: “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is, it is God’s intention for us to be God-like in our dealings with others.
There are two ways we might look at this saying of Jesus. Some see it as a continuing ideal not unlike that popularized in the best seller, In Search of Excellence, that broadside against the tendency of persons like ourselves and institutions like churches and universities and corporations to succumb to the menace of mediocrity. In this sense, perfection is a lofty ideal beyond our entertainment but, when pursued with vigor, results in the next best thing: excellence. It is a kind of straining to give our best human effort to attain the unattainable. Some may say, “What’s the use?” But many others have agreed with Robert Browning in. his observation, “Ah, but a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
In a period of shallow religion served up in large portions in popular Christian literature and by popular Christian television wherein Christ’s Gospel is made appealing by reducing the Master of life to a servant of what we call successful living, it is refreshing to be reminded that truly great living has been and can be inspired by the vista of the unattainable. It is far better for us to have ever gleaming before us an unattainable aim to which we progressively approximate than to set up an incomplete ideal which takes the hearty out of the quest for it. This is the testimony of scores who refused to surrender to the seemingly inevitable and as a result achieved the seemingly incredible. It is on theirtombstones that could have been written these words found on the marker in an English church yard: “She hath done what she couldn’t.”
The lure of the rock too high for us enables us to do better the tasks on our reachable level, and when we are tempted toward impossible perfections, we are helped to perfect the possible. Of course, we are not called to make the attempt in our own unaided strength. We are like the boy who was sure he could climb a certain mountain, but by and by, as the path grew steeper, he sank down exhausted. Then came his father with his supporting arm to help him to the top. So with us: we are not left to climb that mountain alone.
But a more likely way to understand Jesus’ call to perfection is suggested by the translation found in the New Jerusalem Bible: “You must set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none on His.”
Rather than a reference to giving our best shot at the unattainable, it speaks of a possible perfection, for it is the character of God we are asked to emulate. A perfect round of golf would not be to score eighteen holes-in-one, but to achieve par for each of the eighteen holes – no more, no less – a possible perfection.
Next week, the final Part III