“You Don’t Have to be Perfect Here”
Take a guess. Who said that the most important thing they have learned is, to try “To find out what is the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly.”
Who said this? Was it: Donald Trump at a South Carolina rally this week?
Maria to her Reverend Mother before she is told to leave the abbey in the musical Sound of Music?
Or the Apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys?
Who thinks it’s Trump? How about Maria? What about Paul?
It’s actually Maria in Sound of Music.
But it could have been Paul. He tried really hard to find out what was the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly. That is not a bad goal of our Lenten journey. But a challenging one for perfectionists.
We went over some demographic data at our strategic visioning task force meeting this week and discovered that our area is full of perfectionists. Imagine that. Perhaps there are even some in this room this morning. For perfectionists, the desire to do things for them and their children just right is strong. There can be frustration when things don’t go as planned.
The Apostle Paul was a perfectionist. He spent his life trying to find the will of God and to do it wholeheartedly. Like Maria’s Captain VonTrapp he was into rules. He was obsessed with fulfilling the law of Moses. He became frustrated when he was not successful. Like someone swimming in quicksand, the harder he tried to be perfect the more frustrated he became.
As discussed last week, Jesus spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, he became a follower of Christ and it changed his whole outlook. It freed him, and so then the word he brought on his journeys, as our scripture this morning describes, became a word of grace. Let us pray. Gracious God, as we walk the journey of Lent, draw us to Christ, so that we might be freed to enjoy our relationships in faith and our ministry in the world. Amen.
After Paul’s dramatic encounter, Paul took a decade in prayer, study, and contemplation before beginning his missionary work. He and his friends then began to do something extraordinary, they traveled spreading the gospel. As Acts 13 and 14 tell it, around 49a.d. Paul began his first missionary journey. Paul and his group left the city of Antioch in Syria. They headed for the port city of Selecia and from there across to Cyprus, where he preached at least twice. From Cyprus they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, a coastal province in another part of modern day Turkey called Pisidia. There they could not preach at first because Paul was sick, contracting some type of malaria.[i]
From there they went to another city called Antioch. It’s historically confusing that there are two Antiochs. One in Syria and one is what is now Turkey. Paul kept moving inland, setting up churches and spreading the gospel. They were often threatened, harassed and their lives put in danger by people who opposed what they were saying. So they had to stay on the move. Eventually they retraced some of their steps, sailing again for Antioch in Syria and arriving home around three years after they left.
Paul grew up in Tarsus. Much of his first journey was to towns to the northwest of where he had lived in what would be south central Turkey today. Paul knew the area and he understood the lives of both Jews and gentiles.
In Antioch in Pisidia, Paul was invited to deliver a sermon in a synagogue. Our lesson contains his words, the longest complete sermon that history has from Paul. A sermon delivered to both Jews and gentiles.
In it, Paul argues that Christ’s coming is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel. He went over the history of the Jewish people from Exodus to David and argued that it all culminated ultimately in the life of Christ. Theologian William Barclay suggests[ii] that Hindus argue for reincarnation. Buddhists for a desire to get out of the cycle of life. Stoics believe that history was doomed to keep repeating itself. But Paul argued that history was heading somewhere specific. That it was going forward all according to the purpose of God. That Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of old.
Secondly, that when God came in Christ, the people missed it. We humans too often follow our own desires and missed the presence of God in the world.[iii] That happened with Christ.
Third, that while humanity missed God in Christ, God has not given up on us. Instead, the coming of Christ proves that God is not deterred.[iv] Paul traces the life of Jesus from the prophecies of John the Baptist through the resurrection.
The conclusion of Paul’s sermon is unique, distinctive and critical. Paul had been trained as a Pharisee, a Jewish religious leader. Theologian Albert Winn of Louisville Seminary argues that as a Pharisee, “the heart of Paul’s religion had been a desire to keep the code of Moses down to its most minute detail.” Winn writes that “every failure to do so had added to the weight of his sin, sin for which he tried to atone by an even more rigorous keeping of the law. The law thus became a burden on his life.”[v]
So Paul expressed that the coming of Christ was the coming of grace. Try as we might, humans cannot fulfill the law of God. So we are guilty. But Christ sets us free from guilt for real relationship with the will of God. In Christ, Paul found freedom from sin and the burden of the law. And he couldn’t wait to tell everyone about it.
The title of this sermon came from this week’s conversation of our strategic visioning task force. As we discussed how to reflect our inclusive nature as a church, one of the members of the group said our tag line at Bradley Hills should be “You don’t have to be perfect here.” That is essentially what Paul was trying to get across in his sermon.
Paul had been unhappy and that unhappiness came out in his persecution of those who seemed joyful. The more frustrated he got the more difficult Paul became.
He felt captured by the need to fulfill the law. Our Adult education series is lifting up the important topic of mass incarceration. For Paul, who grew up an ethnic minority, was often harassed for his uniqueness and would eventually spend his last days in jail himself, this issue of freedom and captivity was a prophetic metaphor.
The Greek word for freed he uses here, literally means justified. In Christianity, one does not need to be perfect. Christ justifies us. For Christ gives us what we lack. Christ makes up the difference. Christ atones for our sins. Christ is our model. Christ is our hope. Paul found that liberating and exciting. That is very good news for us.
Part of the challenge and opportunity of this time of year is we seek to focus in Lent on giving things up.
Giving up certain activities or foods has long been a tradition of Lent.
As many of us might remember, or some in my family are trying to forget, I gave up shaving last year. Our kids had a fun time debating the question of who looked shaggier, Daddy or our retriever Callie? It’s generally not good when your appearance is compared to the family dog. I took some heat for giving up shaving for Lent as people said giving up shaving doesn’t seem all that much of a sacrifice.
Sometimes we try and give something up but don’t succeed fully. There is a story about a man who went into a candy store and ordered 3 chocolate bars and went over to a table in the corner by himself and ate them all. After doing this routine for several days the shop keeper asked him why he was doing this. He said, “Well I have two brothers, we all used to enjoy candy as kids but we’ve grown up and they moved out of town and so now I do this to remember our time together.” One day the man walked in and ordered only two chocolate bars and went to his table and eat them. The shopkeeper went over and said, “I see that you got only two bars, I’m really sorry that you lost one of your brothers.” The man replied, “Oh no, I didn’t lose anyone, these two bars are still for them, I just gave up chocolate for Lent.”
Giving something up for Lent can be a meaningful spiritual practice.
But Paul’s experience and message is that we don’t have to obsess about giving up our shortcomings as much as we should focus on what we are adding.
When we give up something for Lent, the inner work should lead us to Christ, not to stay focused on ourselves.
Paul’s found the more he focused on himself and obsessed about his behavior, the worse he felt.
The famous philosopher John Stuart Mill observed “those who are happy are those who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of humankind.” Many traditions, including ours, holds that simply doing acts of kindness for others produces happiness. [vi] As part of our Lenten journey we have the afternoon of March 20 as a Lenten day of service, and weekly devotions to help us move out of ourselves and focus on someone else.
This Sunday we celebrate our 2nd graders who receive their hymnals. They completed their worship workshop. Corporate worship helps us get out of ourselves, our needs, our feelings, our desires from the week, to be attentive to something much greater.
In all these ways, in societal focus, kindness, services, devotion, and worship, our Lenten opportunity is also to add Christ. Paul’s first ministry journey was not about himself. As the quote on our bulletin cover indicates, his ministry was about Christ’s agenda not his own. It was about spreading the Gospel, supporting churches, helping people, living its life for the sake of others. All of history moving in his direction.
The more we explore God during Lent the more we realize how selfless God is. God loves us so much that the life of a beloved son is given during holy week. God holds nothing back and gives all, to show that we are loved unconditionally.
Winn wrote that the heart of Paul’s religion had been following the law. That was his past. The heart of his faith going forward was the grace that flowed from God’s heart.
The church is often referred to as the spouse of Christ. Duke’s William Willimon once said, “Jesus has many admirers who feel he married beneath his station.”
The church is not perfect because it is full of imperfect people. But it is full of people whom Christ loves perfectly.
One more quiz. Who said, “The perfect ‘me’ is gone, I’m free.” Was it the Apostle Paul or Princess Elsa from the Disney movie Frozen? Its Elsa. But it could have been Paul.
Now you might remember Jesus words in Matthew 5 “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” But the word there for perfect, is teleios. It doesn’t mean without flaw. It means complete. Be complete.
It means to accept what we are missing and to accept that we are loved completely anyway. This is the revealed will of God that we can follow whole-heartedly.
Like Paul, we find what we are missing in Christ. We were not meant to be without flaw. We don’t have that capacity. Jesus does. Paul encourages us to claim our identity in him and Christ’s love. For the most liberating power in all the world is the power of affirming love.
Paul’s message then is his message to us this morning. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t go it alone. We have Christ, who through grace and forgiveness makes up the difference and justifies us.
Let us realize that we are loved completely so we can love as Jesus loved from an inexhaustible supply which flows from the heart of God.
What wondrous love this is! Claim it. And be free. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. Acts of the Apostles. New Daily Study Bible. P. 114.
[ii] William Barclay. Acts of the Apostles. New Daily Study Bible. P. 114.
[v] Albert Winn. Layman’s Bible Commentary p. 81-82.
[vi] This section inspired by writings of John Buchanan, a Chicago pastor I used to listen to regularly during graduate school.