I Corinthians 3:10-11.16-23
People have always been trying to live up to the scripture that Jesus quotes at the end of our gospel story this morning – “Be perfect…”. The ways they have done that have changed with time and place. In our society, people don’t worry much about ritual purity, but we still try to be perfect either by doing things or by not doing things. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by doing things would be ‘recycling, driving a Prius, and being welcoming and affirming of others with different lifestyles’. A contemporary example of trying to be perfect by not doing things would be ‘not drinking, not smoking, not fornicating’. Both of those ways can and do produce some very cruel and self-absorbed people. The reason that happens is because we so often forget the second part of that quotation about being perfect – “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, be fully you, as God is fully God. Since God is love, and we are made in God’s image, it follows that to be fully us means to also be love.
The problem is, we all know that none of us ever is fully love. That is because we are so full of ourselves. We are not created that way, but we all choose to be that way, and we do it from the first time we are able to choose anything. And so we have rules to live by that help us curb our self-absorption and steer us toward loving actions. That is what our Old Testament reading was all about this morning. We often think of the Old Testament as being full of arbitrary rules mandated by a capricious God, and some of it is, but many of those rules were simply attempts to get people to do the right things toward others. There is a lot of love in the Old Testament if we are patient enough to look for it. We need to not be smug about our own ideas of morality, because two thousand years from now they will seem as barbaric to people as a lot of the Bible seems to us now. Instead of smugness, we need to take great care to make sure that all of our rules are geared toward loving ourselves, our neighbors, and our God. If we define love as the action of helping all to grow into the unique, beautiful individuals we are all created to be, then we need to make sure all our rules help us with those actions, not hinder us by causing us to be judgmental toward those not following our rules or interpreting them differently.
Aristotle gives the good advice that to become a virtuous person, one must do virtuous things. That mangled semi-quotation is only partly right, because to become truly virtuous action must be a follow up to desire – we must first ask God to heal us of our self-absorption so that we can be the loving persons that God made us to be. Desire and action can also be called faith and works, and there has been a debate about which of the two is more important for as long as the church has existed. Of course faith is the more important, because it needs to come first, but works are just as important, because they need to follow. Only God makes us perfect and holy, but only we can act perfect and holy. God makes us who we are, but we have the responsibility to live who we are.
Our second reading this morning talks about this in terms of our status as living temples of God. Jesus is the only foundation for our lives as temples, but we must be careful what we build on top of it. Faith and works go together. Even people who say they have no faith in God and yet live loving lives really do have faith in God – they just think they don’t. On the other hand, people who say they have faith in God and yet live unloving lives really have faith in something other than God – usually rules or Bible knowledge or doctrinal minutia. That last sentence should not make us worry every time we fail at loving – it doesn’t mean we have lost our faith or we are hypocrites, it just means that we have a lot of growing to do. We are not perfect without God. We cannot act perfect without God. God makes us perfect, but it takes a long time for that perfection to become apparent. Constancy and perseverance are both major constituents of both faith and works. If we have Jesus as the foundation of our lives, then no matter how often we fail in love, we can always try again. We can recycle, drive Priuses, welcome and affirm others, not smoke, not drink, and not fornicate, and all of those things can be instruments of love toward ourselves, our neighbors, and our God, if we do them in the spirit of Jesus. As our heavenly Father is perfect, so will we be. We are already now in God’s eyes, and we will be ever more so in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. We will be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. AMEN