[Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18 / 1 Cor. 3:10-23 / Matt. 5:38-48 - preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Sheboygan, WI]
So what’s your picture of the perfect life? Me, I’m a beach bum. I picture perfection as sitting on the beach in Mexico, sipping a piña colada, sitting next to my wife, watching the waves and thinking about nothing except how beautiful this world is. My sister-in-law totally disagrees. She’s not a beach bum at all. Not a fan of sitting in the sun or on the hot sand. Her perfect life is up in the mountains, the family gathered around a campfire in the darkening woods after a day of hiking, making smores, telling stories, laughing and singing. Then again, when you’re going through a rotten time – the perfect life is when it’s all over. For a cancer patient, the perfect life is being DONE with chemo, radiation, surgery; done with the sickness and weakness and all the interruptions and just beginning to feel “normal” again. Perfecto!
Yes, we all have our ideas of what the perfect life is. But our Lord thinks the perfect life is something majorly different. If we take to heart today’s Gospel, then the perfect life is turning the other cheek to the person who slaps you. The perfect life is making a gift of your coat to the person who just sued you for your clothes. The perfect life is cheerfully going the extra mile for the soldier who forcibly imposed on you. The perfect life is giving to whoever asks and not refusing to lend someone who wants to borrow.
And He’s just warming up. It gets even crazier. The perfect life? The perfect life is this above all: loving the people who hate you, praying God’s richest blessings on those who make your life miserable. Ordinary decent people totally get that you have an obligation to love those who love you – I mean, that’s only human. To return hatred to those who love is demonic. And if you greet – if you speak words of welcome and kindness – only to your own friends, your own family, your own people – isn’t that a totally ordinary human virtue too? What’s so special about that? Nothing.
The perfect life, you see, is perfect because it is filled up completely, to the brim, overflowing with love. That life then can do the shocking and miraculous thing: it can pour out love even on those who return that love with nothing but hatred. And Jesus makes no bones about it: that’s the perfect life and that’s the life He commands you to live: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You must have that perfect love that will not be overcome by evil, but instead overcomes evil with good. You must shine with that perfect love that casts out fear. You.
That’s what your life must be, Jesus says. And you know it isn’t. You know how many times you have failed. How when someone hurts you, you don’t want to turn the other cheek. You want to hit back hard. And when someone tries to take stuff, you don’t let it go. Instead you hold onto it like dog playing tug of war. And when folks impose on you and disrupt your schedule and expect you to serve them, you make sure that they and others know it IS an imposition and you want to be patted on the back for taking the time at all. And when people hate you and are vicious to you – you know how easy it is to hate them back in your heart and to call down curses on their heads, rather than blessing. “God damn them” rises far more naturally than “God bless them.” In short, who here today can hear those words of Jesus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect; loving your enemies, praying for those who persecute you, giving, greeting, letting go earthly possessions, turning the other cheek” and not hang your head for shame – or get angry with Him for such a ridiculous and idealistic way of looking at life. Why, if you did what He said, people would step all over you, take you for granted, use you and leave you trampled in the dust. Hmm. That, or nailed to a tree.
Yeah. Nailed to a tree. That’s exactly where that kind of perfect life led, isn’t it? And what was He doing as the nails were being driven in? Hmm? Praying: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” What did He do when they hit him? Stood still and let them him again from the other side. But nothing they did could shake His love. Nope. His entire Passion and Cross cry out to us: I don’t care what you do to me, you can’t make me hate you. I love you. I love you with every ounce of my being. I forgive you. I give myself for you. My very blood cries out not for vengeance and redress, but for pardon and mercy. I give my life that you may have my life and live with me forever.
This was His utter confidence: that a life that was 100% love was a life that no death, no hatred, no devil would ever be able to wipe out. And His confidence was vindicated on the third day when His Father raised Him from the dead for your justification. A perfect life. A life that is forever beyond the grip of the grave. A life that hatred couldn’t take down. That’s Jesus. He’s that perfect life. He lived it and He lived it from conception to death and from death to resurrection so He lives it still. Now that life shines in glory before the Father – a true human life that was offered in 100% unfailing love – and that life IS your righteousness. He pleads for YOU, for your forgiveness. His life is God’s gift to YOU. What you could never achieve with all your striving and trying ever reach such a love, your Jesus delights just to give you for free. He poured it out on you when you were baptized in His name. Washing away every one of your sins. And He works tirelessly through His Word, His absolution, and His Eucharist to strengthen you in that life.
In just a little bit, He’ll be coming to you again in His body and blood– they still are your forgiveness, they put into you His perfect life of love, and so death can never be the end of you and sin cannot hold you. Through their almighty power He would strengthen that life of His inside you, making it grow up and grow strong. Filling you with His love so that the words of St. John will come true: “We love because He first loved us.” Loving those who hate us, praying for those who make our life miserable, joyfully serving even those who impose on us.
So, what’s your picture of the perfect life now? Hopefully, not just the beach or the mountains or even that return to normal. Hopefully it is the Man whose love for you brought Him from Virgin’s womb to Golgotha’s tree; from stone cold tomb to Easter morn; from ascended triumph, to constantly advocating for you at the Father’s right hand and who will come again in glory on the last day when the fire of His presence will burn up once and for all everything that is not love, so that only His completed, perfect life can remain – the perfect life that everlasting joy of His people. You want the perfect life? You already got it. In Him. And for that all glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and unto the ages of ages! Amen.