Monday, July 17, 2017

Imitation of Perfection: a sermon for 16 July 2017

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23                                                                                                           

“To err is human; to forgive, Divine.”  Alexander Pope (18th century English poet), “An Essay on Criticism”

The sentiment behind Mr. Pope’s essay, and especially behind this particular point, is that forgiveness is something that does not come easily or naturally to mortals.  To be willing – and even able – to forgive someone takes an extraordinary measure of faith, the certain knowledge that some good will come from our willingness to let go of whatever gripe we may have, no matter how justified we may feel in holding a grudge.

Sadly, we often think of forgiveness as being weak, but there is more to it.  As Mr. Pope expressed, “to forgive [is] Divine”.  In other words, forgiveness is an act of the Almighty Himself.  Even if our very mortal and very human sense of justice demands satisfaction or retaliation, when we forgive someone, we are imitating The Lord Himself!  Think of it in terms of redemption written of by St. Paul; “Though we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

This incredible – and incomprehensible! - act of Divine Love had nothing at all to do with who we are, what we did, or how awesome and special we think ourselves to be.  We did nothing worthy of that measure of love.  The Lord did this thing for all of humanity – Jews and Gentiles alike – precisely because of who He is – and for the sake of who we can become!

Now, you may ask, what does forgiveness have to do with Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower?  There is nothing in the parable to suggest our need to forgive.  The word itself does not enter into the parable. 

In fact, this parable does not talk about an “end” but a “means” to an end.  The “means” to “be imitators of The Lord” (Ephesians 5:1).  This is our end game.  This is the plan of salvation in a nutshell; not just to be saved but to be sanctified, to become imitators of The Lord, as beloved children; and walk in love just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us”.

How can we imitate Christ Jesus if we do not have intimate knowledge of Him?  Remember Jesus spoke early on in the Sermon on the Mount that He is “the law and the prophets fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17).  St. John described Jesus as “the Word which became flesh” (John 1:14). 

It stands to reason, then, that lack of knowledge of The Word is lack of knowledge of The Messiah Himself.  As we study the Scriptures, we become more and more familiar with Christ Jesus.  One cannot know Jesus and not know The Word.  We can claim it all day long, of course, and some may even believe themselves – but they only deceive themselves.

So the importance of this parable to us is found in being given what we need to become The Word.  The Word must have deep root in sufficient soil to survive the elements of this world which can indeed destroy the very best of intentions.  The Word also cannot thrive while being choked out by the things we choose to pursue for the sake of personal happiness and satisfaction. 

If we are to know Jesus, we must know The Word.  Only by our knowledge of The Word can we hope to become “imitators of The Lord”.  This is necessary for disciples because Jesus Himself commands it: Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

We often declare we are not perfect and will never be perfect.  Yet our Lord not only commands it, but by His command conveys that such perfection is not only possible through Him, through The Word, but necessary to the fullness of Life to which we are called! 

Think about this simple statement: I am a sinner saved by grace.  On the surface we can find no fault in such a declaration; in fact, it fits nicely on a bumper sticker, don’t you think?  (Incidentally, a disciple has no use nor room for “bumper sticker theology”.  Too narrow and shallow to really fill the heart).  Besides, how much can a bumper sticker say if no one ever sees

The flaw in the statement, however, is found in the declaration, “I am a sinner …”  We must strive toward something greater than a simple acknowledgement of His Love in the midst of our failures.  Our profession and declaration of faith should be more about what we were against what we are striving to become … by Grace through Faith!

The Word must become who we are rather than merely a part of our lives.  This is achieved by our best efforts to become so familiar with The Word that we cannot help but to speak it and convey it – not just in memorizing key verses but in daily living hour by hour.  Above all this, of course, must be a desire to be “imitators of The Lord” and all that comes with it – including “the crosses we are to bear” for Him … and for one another.

It will not be easy.  It will not come magically, and it will likely not come immediately.  This is because we are, very generally speaking, already “good people”.  We are kind, we are neighborly, we are helpful, and we are responsive when we become aware of someone’s genuine need. 

Yet we have limits.  More often than not, these limits are self-imposed.  We will only go so far; and for folks we don’t really care for, we may likely not go at all.  And while, culturally speaking, we may still consider ourselves to be good, decent folk, we must understand that being given a pass by our human culture is not to be confused with being blessed by our Father in Heaven – especially if we are acting more like our neighbor than we are acting like the One who commands us to love our neighbor.

More than merely “imitating” the Divine Image, however, is “becoming” once again the very Image in which we are all created; living into the restoration of that which was lost so many generations before in Eden – the Divine Image in which we are created given up in favor of our human inclinations, our human limitations, and our desire for personal satisfaction or human acceptance according to cultural rather than biblical standards.

To live fully into The Word by our intimate knowledge of The Word is to awaken to the reality of what has been offered to us, what is revealed to us.  The “thorns”, the “beaten-down paths” everyone walks on, the “rocky ground” are the challenges we must face – not only in the ungodly but also in the unbiblical … those cheap preachers Jesus refers to as “false prophets”, “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who use cheap and easy slogans that are Bible-like but not quite biblical.   

We must not worry ourselves with being perfect more than appreciating the journey of “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1); moving beyond the basics and growing stronger in faith and in love with each passing day.  What Jesus is offering to us in this parable is the “means” to that Glorious End – the Day when we can look upon even our worst enemy and see them as Christ sees them; with compassion and with mercy.  That Day when our enemies can look at us and say, “So that’s what The Lord looks and sounds like.”

We rise above our humanness by The Word, and we become “imitators of The Lord” in The Word.  This is nothing less than the Life of Christ Jesus, and it is the Life we are called into – to the Glory of God and in the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

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