Preached on Sunday, 19.02.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
There was recently a captain of the Australian rugby team, admired by all, who always seemed to know the right thing to do, and was always able to do it. His nickname was ‘nobody’; because ‘nobody’s perfect’.
‘Perfect’ for most of us, however, is a problem. We can remember perfect days (or, perhaps, perfect dates), or eat a perfect dish, or hear a perfect performance, or see a perfect sunset. A ‘perfect storm’ has clichéd its way into our language, a ‘perfect crime’ is constantly being imagined. We use the word loosely, or easily, or perhaps generously: ‘thank you for the gift – it was perfect’. But if we’re told that we are supposed to be perfect, that is a problem. And it’s a problem because we know we’re not perfect; and it’s a problem because, actually, we‘re not really sure what ‘perfect’ means, or is; we’re confused about perfection. We’re not sure we could recognise perfection if we met it. And some of that is because perfection is defined anew in every age and in every place. We don’t decide it by act of parliament, or by referendum, but we do decide it – and we do so collectively.
Take, for example, ideas of physical perfection. Beauty, or what is generally accepted as beauty, changes. The recent attempt to illustrate how Jane Austen might have imagined Mr Darcy, the man with the perfect country estate and the perfect £10,000 a year, which together so perfectly overcome the previously apparent imperfections, actually illustrate that, in those days, the perfect man did not, after all, look like Colin Firth. Hard as it is for some to imagine, Mr Firth has not always been the epitome of desirability. And the strange thing is that that is not something anyone has decided on their own; the definition of perfection has changed, not while no one was looking – but while almost everyone was looking.
So here’s the next confusion about perfection – it is the opposite of change. Perfection cannot, by definition, be improved upon; so perfection is the end of the road. So the idea that the definition of perfection can change ought to mean either that we have moved away from perfection, or that we had never reached it in the first place. Because perfection does not change, we think. And then we stop, and we think again, and it doesn’t take long before the doubts set in.
Doubt number one has to do with the idea that perfection has to develop – if we do not develop with age, our imperfections will only grow. Doubt number two has to do with the difference between the social norm approach and the individual approach. To return to ideas of beauty, no matter what the generally held view of beauty is at any given time in any given age, our own individual thoughts on beauty and attractiveness will vary enormously. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and the ephemeral nature of fashion does not change that. And most of us will be grateful that we are not as individuals judged by other individuals against a standard of perfection we have no hope of achieving.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The church has had a history with the idea of perfection; and it’s an idea that, like the idea of beauty, changes over time and place. From the Hellenistic culture in which the early church grew there came an idea of perfection that was bound up unhealthily with sex. Perfection became equated with purity, which became equated with virginity – and thus perfection became something that resided in, or was represented by, a celibate priesthood. And, somehow, over the years, we have had to struggle our way out of that idea.
Perhaps even more fundamental, at least theologically speaking, has been the idea of perfection as meaning a lack of change. It has infected the church’s thinking in all sorts of ways, but has been a gift to all those for whom tradition is all. For them, the church is instituted by the perfect and unchanging God to be perfect and unchanging – and, as in the hymn, all change is interpreted as decay.
Perfection has also been thought of as related to law (the perfect and unchanging law about which Psalm 119 speaks). And so perfection is measured in terms of obedience to the law and, very often in the church, in terms of what we do not do. Perfection is contained, then, in the phrase: ‘thou shalt not’. Perfection is found not in what is done but in what is not done, not in commission but in omission, not in adventure but in safety.
And that is when we need to remind ourselves of Jesus’ repeated binary phrase, a phrase which we heard last week, and have heard again this week: ‘you have heard it said … but I say to you’. Jesus’ interpretation of perfection insists on movement, on development, on doing more and better than the law demands. The law is not sufficient; those who would follow Jesus will be taken on a journey beyond the land mapped by the law, beyond the known horizons, beyond what is safe or conventional or even uncontentious. Perfection is not the safe option; perfection is not for the faint-hearted; perfection is a risk.
So let’s look at the particular passage we read earlier. This passage is all about how the followers of Christ are to relate to those with whom they do not agree – personally, theologically, politically, whatever. The law, which Jesus is basically saying is inadequate, is inadequate because it imagines a people who are all the same, ranged against a world which is, in some way, ‘other’. That world is ‘not us’, it’s different, strange, antagonistic, threatening. The law, at least as it is being interpreted, deals with ‘us’ – and that is why it is inadequate, why it is not enough, why more is required.
And, when you look at that passage, what might grab your attention is the word ‘therefore’; it’s a word that relates what has come before to what comes after. And, in this case, it takes the refusal to resist an evil-doer, the turning of the other cheek, the giving of unrequested garments, the walking of the second mile, the refusal of nothing to anyone, the loving of enemies, and prayer for those who persecute us, takes all that and relates it not to us – but to God.
The relationship has been signposted already, of course: doing these things is what makes us God’s children – they are what show us that we are following in our father’s footsteps. And those are the footsteps of God because, exactly because, God (says Jesus) is not the possession, not the private talisman, not the exclusive terrain, of the community of faith. God, says Jesus, is God of all the world and all its people. We do not qualify for God’s love by being somehow ‘on the inside’. Sun shines and rain falls on everyone; and those who understand themselves to be the children of God do not, cannot, huddle together behind the walls or the locked doors. The children of God are to be like God, open to the world, open to all. Then comes the ‘therefore’: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
The ‘therefore’ tells us what the word ‘perfect’ means, how the perfection to which Jesus calls us is found, is followed, is enacted. He has just explained – so ‘therefore’ everyone should understand, everyone should just get on with it. This is the perfection of our heavenly Father. It’s not about a community of faith where nothing changes; it’s not about a world of faith obsessed with sex and sexuality and exclusion; it’s not about faith in a law of prohibitions. Perfection comes not from keeping the people of the world out unless they can pass tests that the people of the church set; perfection is about the steps that must be taken to make sure the people of the world are welcome, and about the recognition, and the expression, of the oneness of humanity.
And it seems to me that we should not be put off by the undoubted fact that so many have so often, and in so many places, seen perfection quite differently. It is not really worth our while spending a lot of time asking why – though there are answers available in an analysis of power, or in the influence of the societies in which the church has existed. It is much more important to look to moving forward in a faith that understands God as God of all creation, and not only God of those who would describe themselves as God’s people.
And to do that we need to look to those who have, in the distant past or in the recent past, felt themselves to be excluded – those who thought that the church was not ‘for the likes of us’. And in the news in the past week has been a debate within the Church of England, and a banner held outside the meeting that particularly struck me: ‘I am proud to be gay; make me proud to be Christian’. There have been, and still are, many other exclusions for which the church needs to give an account – but perhaps this exclusion can, for today, stand for all the rest.
The debate, it seems to me, was about perfection – and not only about who more closely approaches it, but about who has and exercises the right to define what it is. The Synod was discussing a report about who can be married in church, a report which basically said that after much discussion and soul-searching the traditional law ought to remain. The bishops voted unanimously in favour – once you correct the vote of the Bishop of Coventry, who in the excitement inadvertently pressed the wrong button. (I presume we can work out where he was sent!) The laity voted in favour; but the clergy voted against. And in the voting system of the synod, that meant that the report was not accepted – and the bishops were sent homeward to think again.
Essentially, one side said that the law has been the same for centuries and, being perfect, had no need to change. The other side was saying: ‘you have heard it said … but I say to you’. But also, under the surface, though not far under, was another word about perfection – a word that said that the love between a man and a woman was the only true and perfect love, the only love that can be recognised within the church. And there was a word that said: ‘you have heard it said … but I say to you’. And the brandisher of the banner may not yet feel proud to be Christian, but may at least feel that the day may come.
That was the Church of England. The Church of Scotland will discuss the same issue this May at the General Assembly. We do not have electoral colleges, just a vote, and a majority – at least of those who are there, and I know of people on both sides of the debate who have asked to be there simply for that debate and that vote. The last few months have seen other conversations about how to conduct and to count votes, about electoral colleges and majorities. We sometimes struggle to know how to do it well, how to move forward together, or how to move forward at all. It may be that we struggle with votes for the same reason that we struggle with ourselves – nobody’s perfect.