“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
In the early 1960s, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to prominence at the helm of the Civil Rights Movement, he consistently advocated non-violence in response to the violence done to African Americans. He actually believed in Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, not as passive acquiescence to injustice but as the highest form of resistance, a refusal to cooperate with evil and the retaliatory patterns of hate and brutality it breeds.
One evening, King was to speak at a rally before hundreds of people. As he appeared on stage, a man from the audience jumped up and attacked him. In the split second when King had time only to respond by instinct, he raised his arms and did not resist his attacker. Those who witnessed King’s response realized that he practiced what he preached. He had translated his convictions into reflex, surely in response to a daily temptation to do otherwise. He had been slandered in the press; his family had been threatened; his house had been bombed; and he regularly received death threats. Through it all, his response was the same: clear, resolute non-violence.
If you’ve been in church these last few weeks, you know that we’ve been slowly making our way through Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Though the sermon begins with affirmations of blessing, it quickly moves to the realm of challenge. Some of what Jesus has to say may strike us as deeply offensive. Last Sunday I preached on the potential “trauma triggers” found in this sermon and what they have to teach us. This coming Sunday, we’ll be confronted with Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” as our heavenly father is perfect.
We can debate what Jesus meant by perfection, but surely he wasn’t saying that he expected his followers never to make a mistake or to be totally free from sin. In another gospel, Jesus says “Be holy, as your heavenly father is holy.” But what does holiness look like?
For Jesus it looks like this: that we do not respond to violence with violence, but instead turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who ask from us, and yes, love our enemies. It’s a tall order. He’s asking us, in essence, to learn to love as God loves–the God “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
The world isn’t divided into some people for whom loving as God loves comes easily and the rest of us for whom it is impossible. Learning to love like that takes daily practice, and we do well to start small. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, better to start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Holiness isn’t about grand gestures and pious prayers. We’re holy whenever we’re kind to those around us; when we don’t make life more difficult for those who struggle; when we refuse to gossip or hold a grudge. Holiness is about treating all people with the same respect and dignity, regardless of their stature in life, or even how they’ve treated us in the past. It involves guarding our tongue, so we don’t say things that needlessly hurt other people or shows disrespect to God. It means being willing to acknowledge when we’ve failed at love, ask forgiveness and try again. It’s the stuff of daily life, and our behavior today, in the words of Brian McLaren, determines what kind of person will wake up in our bodies tomorrow.
What kind of people do we want to be? If we’re following Jesus, he’s given us a path. It’s not an easy one, but the good news is we can start small. Our daily practice is to love in ways within our power to accomplish. For that allows Jesus to lead us toward the ways of love well beyond our capacities except through his grace working through our practiced deeds of simple kindness.