Today's post is both a reflection on the Daily Office readings and also appears as the cover article in the weekly newsletter of St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, please click here.
In the small town in which I grew up, one of the local banks offered to give students money for doing well on their report cards. I cannot imagine that such a practice exists in today’s world, where interest rates pay even less than all As, but, as a marketing practice, it seems to have been successful as I still feel a sentimental attachment to my childhood bank. Students who had all As (or in the lower grades all Gs for “Good”) were given $2, and students who had all As and Bs (or Gs and Ss for “Satisfactory”) were given $1. Everyone knew to strive for all As, but the difference in the monetary reward drove the point home in a tangible way.
As anyone who has received a piece of handwritten correspondence from me can attest, I do not have good handwriting. Honestly, to call it satisfactory would be a gross exaggeration of my penmanship, yet my teachers consistently rewarded the efforts of this performance-focused student with an S. As she handed me a crisp one-dollar bill, the teller at the bank congratulated me on my accomplishments, but for me that S was nothing but a blemish. It was a tragedy. It was the one thing that represented how I had missed the mark—how, despite my struggles, I could not seem to get my hand-formed letters to touch both the bottom line and the top line of my handwriting paper with the grace that so many of my peers seemed to exude effortlessly. Like a condemnatory epitaph on the gravestone of a notorious criminal, that single dollar was a testament of my life’s failure—my utter imperfection.
In the New Testament lesson for today (Hebrews 13:17-25), the author pens one of the most beautiful exhortations in all of scripture: “The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant: Make you perfect in everything good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight; through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” In that quotation, which I pull from the burial office in the Book of Common Prayer, I use a slightly edited version of the biblical text, but the meaning is the same: through Christ may God make you perfect in all you do. Perfection, it seems, is what God can accomplish in us through Jesus Christ, but the word “perfection” can be misleading.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your heavenly father is perfect.” In Philippians 3:12, Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own.” In our culture, perfect is a powerful word and an even more powerful concept. It comes with a bright red “100% A+” at the top of our paper. After bowling 12 strikes in a row, it comes with a celebrated score of 300. In baseball, it occurs when all 27 batters who make a plate appearance are retired in order without reaching base. Rarely is an Olympian rewarded with all 10.0s, but, when it happens, the athlete’s name is recorded in the annals of outstanding accomplishment. Can the same be said for the Christian? Do we ever have a perfect day? Can we possibly be as perfect as our heavenly father?
Perfect, in the biblical sense, is not a mere expression of correctness; it is a statement of completeness. Perfect means whole. It means finished. It means complete. Those of us who enjoy the nuances of grammar and language might prefer to think of perfection in terms of verb tense. Imperfect verbs are those actions that occurred in the past but still continue on into the present (e.g., John was running to church in order to hear the preacher’s riveting sermon). Perfect verbs are those actions that are already completed (e.g., John stormed out of church when he heard the preacher say something he did not like). When Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews envision our perfection, they are not asking us to get everything right; they are inviting us to strive for fulfillment. In other words, the goal of the Christian life is completing the test not achieving a perfect score.
You are not perfect. There are blemishes on your life’s report card. Some of us carry imperfections that more visible than those of others. Many of us hide our deepest failures where no one can see them. Still, we feel the agony of missing the mark. Yet God is not asking his children to be faultless. He asks that we be made complete—that we achieve wholeness in Jesus Christ. Does that mean that he calls us to a life of holiness? Absolutely. But we are made perfect not as a condition of receiving that call but as a people who have heard that call and are answering it. God makes us perfect. God makes us complete. We cannot achieve perfection on our own. Only God, working in us the power of his love, can make us whole. Perfection is not merely our aim. It is God’s aim for us.