https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png 0 0 Tom James https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png Tom James2018-10-31 10:40:002019-10-08 11:16:36Perfection (Hebrews 7.23-28)
A few years ago, I watched a music video by a contemporary Christian group. The song was called “Flawless.” The striking thing about the video was a series of short video shots of people who were afflicted with various kinds of problems. Their afflictions were typed out in bold letters on the screen, and they included things like personality flaws, personal losses, health problems, and things like depression and anxiety. As the song progressed toward the refrain, “The cross has made you flawless,” the images were played again, and this time the letters spelling out their afflictions faded and were replaced by bold letters that spelled out the word, “Flawless.”
My reactions to the video were mixed. It was, on the one hand, quite touching. People from all walks of life and with all kinds of concerns and problems were equally upheld, supported, and comforted by a grace that includes all, not matter what. But, then, on the other hand, I wondered why we have to think of this grace in terms of being “flawless?” What is our obsession with flawlessness? It strikes me as an impossible and even inhuman standard to subject ourselves to. Why perfection? Why flawlessness? Wouldn’t it be better simply to accept that we are flawed people, and that God loves us anyway? That we can be whole and at least relatively happy, anyway?
Well, we come by it honestly. Our text from Hebrews this morning is consumed with the question of perfection. The problem with the Old Testament priesthood, we are told, was its imperfection. It was flawed in two ways: first, as I said last week, the priests were very much ordinary human beings, and that meant that they were flawed. And that meant that they had to offer sacrifices to compensate not only for the flaws of the people, but for their own flaws as well. And, second, the priests were mortal. That meant that they couldn’t continue to offer sacrifices forever, to cover the sins the people would commit in the future. They had to pass their priesthood on to another generation, and that of course offered opportunities for something to go wrong—perhaps the rituals would be incorrectly transmitted, or the system for training priests would break down, et cetera. So, the whole system of dealing with human flaws was fragile and imperfect. It was, in other words, flawed.
This is how the book of Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the provisions of ancient Judaism to deal with the human condition and the way of Jesus. Jesus is a high priest for the people, but he is fundamentally different, of a different priestly order, than the priests of the Old Testament. He is perfect, in two ways that correspond to and correct the imperfections of the old priesthood. First, he himself is perfect, flawless, so that he doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for his own sins, but can offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the people. And, second, because of his resurrection, in which he defeats the power of death forever, his priesthood is not limited by his mortality. He can continue to intercede with God on behalf of a flawed people. And that means that our future sins are covered, too.
So, we are back to the music video. We can pictures ourselves on the screen, with words spelling out our problems crumbling or fading away and a new moniker appearing brightly over our heads: flawless. The flawless sacrifice has made us flawless.
But, as I said before, isn’t this a strange and unnecessarily burdensome way of characterizing our lives? Isn’t flawlessness an impossible and even inhuman standard? Why not simply accept that we are flawed? In fact, isn’t our particular combination of strengths and weaknesses, abilities and failures, characteristics and quirks, that make us who we are, and shouldn’t we learn to treasure ourselves and each other with all of those things included? Isn’t that what grace is?
The word in Greek that is translated “perfect,” actually has another meaning. It could be translated “complete” or “mature.” So, if we were to plug in this alternate meaning, it would not be a matter of Christ being a flawless sacrifice so that our flaws can be removed, but of Christ being a complete or mature sacrifice, one who is our pioneer and completer (not perfecter), one who leads the way not toward our perfection but toward our maturity, our complete humanity.
But what is maturity? I recently found a kind of long definition that borrows freely from unacknowledged sources, but that kind of gets it, I think: “Maturity is the ability to control anger and settle differences without violence or destruction. [Could use a little of that, right now, correct?] Maturity is patience. It is the willingness to pass up immediate pleasure in favor of the long-term gain. Maturity is perseverance, the ability to sweat out a project or a situation in spite of heavy opposition and discouraging set-backs. Maturity is the capacity to face unpleasantness and frustration, discomfort and defeat, without complaint or collapse. Maturity is humility. It is being big enough to say, “I was wrong.” And, when right, the mature person need not experience the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.”
Maturity is the ability to make a decision and stand by it. The immature spend their lives exploring endless possibilities; then they do nothing.
Maturity means dependability, keeping one’s word, coming through in a crisis. The immature are masters of the alibi. They are the confused and the disorganized. Their lives are a maze of broken promises, former friends, unfinished business, and good intentions that somehow never materialize.
Maturity is the art of living in peace with that which we cannot change, the courage to change that which should be changed — and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The last part of this definition is taken from a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr, but he called it not “maturity” but “serenity.” In many ways, maturity is serenity, a spiritual practice of trusting God and having the faith and the courage to act on that trust. If Jesus was “perfect,” I think that is the kind of perfection he had. And if he leads us toward perfection, I think that is what perfection must look like.
As I grow older, I find that increasing age and experience can really help us make progress. But it certainly isn’t automatic, and there are many who are wise beyond their years. I recently ran across the story of a middle-aged Jewish woman reflecting on what it takes to sustain a marriage. She writes:
“In the years leading up to my debut in white satin, I avidly consumed reams of advice on the perfect marriage. Of course, since it was all largely irrelevant, it didn’t mean much to me, and didn’t quite penetrate.
Out of the multitude of tips, anecdotes and chronicles of suffering, I was left with but one ridiculous gem of information: Couples often fight about the toilet seat being left up.
Perhaps due to the surprising reactions to (what I thought was) an inconsequential matter, that little detail stuck with me for all those years.
And then, under the wedding canopy, I agreed to make this marriage work.
Admittedly immature, I was thrust suddenly into the uncharted territory of living, loving and accepting another human being—completely. I knew it would be tough, although I had no inkling of quite how tough. I knew it would be a challenge, demanding and draining, but ultimately gratifying.
I knew I couldn’t promise to make his needs my needs. That’s too grandiose a project for a slightly selfish young woman with the maturity of a girl. But oh, I wanted to reach that peak of marital bliss, that wonderful feeling of giving everything to the one you love. And I certainly didn’t want to be the one fighting over toilet seats.
So, I made a resolution. It was a small one, and I didn’t even tell my husband.
Whenever I left the bathroom, I left the toilet seat up.
And that small conscious act of putting his needs before my own made all the difference.”
This is a beautiful picture of a flawed human being who, in small and humble ways, is learning to embody the kind of perfection, the only kind of perfection, toward which Jesus leads us. It is a perfection of maturity, a wisdom of forswearing the grandiose and the sweeping for the sake of the small, the quotidian, the simple. The perfection of leaving the lid up, we might call it. Or putting it down, I would add, if you are the man in a male-female relationship. This is the kind of maturity that accepts one’s own and others’ foibles and flaws, and in small ways seek to infuse grace into life. Jesus ate with those hated mega-sinners, the tax collectors. He accepted prostitutes and defended adulteresses. He welcomed children. He touched the diseased. These were all small gestures that were borne not out of perfect holiness but simple grace. They are not lofty standards, impossible demands that we could never meet, but the nearest possibilities, the most humane and sensible possibilities, for us today.
The day after another mass shooting; amid the sounds of yelling and accusing and paranoia on all sides; with hate and intolerance, with ongoing racism and sexism and all kinds of exploitation and abuse; with leaders and pundits focused on the workings of our economic machine while paying little attention to those it grinds down; with technology always racing ahead while leaving important questions of how to use it frightfully behind; we could use a little of the perfection of leaving the lid up. In other words, in a world that seems falling apart, day by day, perhaps the best and most powerful way we can hold it together is through small acts of kindness and grace—acts that won’t make the world new all at once, but that may be able to put it back to together, piece by piece.
Jesus is our pioneer, and our completer. Let us go on, then, toward complete humanity. Let us trust our creator and sustainer to make us whole—not perfect, not flawless, but whole enough that we might serve as living testimonies to grace. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.