Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Home About Worship Music and Arts Parish Life Learning Outreach News Contact
Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Toward Completion

We are called today to bear fruit, to love as God has loved us.  We are not yet what we will be, but in our resurrection life from God we are moved to completeness, to becoming the love of God, the children of God.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Fifth Sunday of Easter, year B; texts: John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21; Acts 8:26-40

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Perfection is a daunting standard.  The elder who writes 1 John says today, “Perfect love casts out fear; . . . whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  Since most of us know fear, we can assume we’re not perfect in our love.  And that’s a problem, because four times in this short section (and five in the whole letter) the elder calls us to perfect or perfected love.  We get the sense that one is either like God or not, loving or not, perfect or not.

Jesus isn’t any easier on us.  In his sermon on the mount, he is recorded as saying “You, therefore, must be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matt. 5:48)  These are not unfamiliar words to us.  But were we seriously to consider them, we might despair, because perfection is far from our reality.  Well, how lucky for us, then, that we typically don’t take them seriously.  Rather, we have a convenient expression, “nobody’s perfect,” which absolves any of us from further discomfort or unease at our lack of meeting God’s expectations for us.  It’s interesting that even those who most violently declare themselves to be biblical literalists somehow dodge this pervasive claim on our morals, our lives, our love.

The only problem is that neither 1 John, nor Jesus in today’s Gospel when he six times refers to the fruit we are called to produce in our lives, a fruit which is the kind of perfected love the elder speaks about, neither of these teachers give any leeway to having a loophole here.  The elder says if we don’t love others but say we love God, we’re liars.  Jesus says if we’re not bearing fruit, we’re only suitable to be tossed in the pile of yard trimmings for burning.

What might be helpful for all of us would be a re-translation.

The word translated “perfect” in English in this letter and Jesus’ words is better translated “complete, mature.”  It’s a word derived from the word for “end” or “goal,” and implies the reaching of that end or goal.
So if we were to re-read these words now, they would go like this: “Completed love casts out fear; . . . whoever fears is has not reached completion in love.”  “You, therefore, must be complete, even as your heavenly Father is complete.”  And that sounds very different to me.

Instead of a standard so unattainable we can only consider dodging it, avoiding it, smooth-talking it away, we now have instead an understanding that we are not yet what we will be.  But that there is a possibility that one day, we could become this.

Here’s a way to think about this.  If you’re in a major building or remodeling project, such as our project here a couple years ago, or in your home, there are many points along the way it looks as if nothing is happening.  It looks a disaster.  If the only standard is the finished, perfect project, then the weeks and months of mess and slow going seem a huge failure.

But if you stop and see that you are perhaps 15% of the way, and look at what’s been accomplished, you can actually see progress.  You can start to say, “I can almost imagine what it will be like.”  There’s still 85% mess, but you can see where it’s going.  And as the project continues, that sense of what it will be increases.

And so it is with our lives.  If we look at the finished product which is our goal, that is, the loving, gracious life of our Lord Jesus Christ, we despair that we aren’t close to perfect love.  We barely seem to bear any fruit at all.

But if we look at this as a process of becoming completed, then even if we’re only 5% towards where God will take us, we can actually see that we are growing, we are moving toward something.

It seems to me that if we are to have integrity as believers, and as people who see the Scriptures as God’s written Word, we ought to seek to take Jesus, God’s Living Word, and the biblical writers seriously.  Saying “nobody’s perfect” and walking away hardly qualifies.  But when we understand this deeper meaning, we not only can take these words seriously, but can even envision a situation where they might become reality.  We can even see the progress God is making.

And in this we once more find ourselves in the same situation as those first disciples.  Once more, as it always seems to happen, our experience is like theirs.

In the days, weeks, and months following Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples had to re-think everything.

First, and most obvious, now that this beloved Lord and Master, brutally crucified, was alive, they needed to grasp the deeper meaning of that.  And what they realized is that death had no power over them, either.  That his resurrection meant theirs was assured.  So they started boldly preaching, fearing nothing, not even death.

But the other thing they had to sort out was what it meant for their lives.  How were they to live?  Certainly as witnesses, that they realized early on, and were commanded by Jesus.  But even more, they began to reflect on Jesus’ teachings and realized that there was a tremendous gap between the kind of lives they lived, and the love they had, and the life and love of Jesus.

He had commanded them to love one another as he loved them, to be willing to give their lives for each other.  This on the night of his betrayal, their worst hour as disciples.  And he had called them again and again to love of God and love of neighbor.  This, too, would be a witness, as much as their preaching, for it would be the sign to the world that they followed him.  Even when he called them to completion, in the Sermon on the Mount which I already quoted, it was in the context of loving even their enemies.  Love was what he asked of them; love was what he embodied for them.  And that, they saw in their lives, was not yet their reality.

So the writer of 1 John spends the whole letter urging his believers to seek a completed love, just as Jesus had.  Again and again he says things like “God is love.”  Or, “Those who live in love, live in God.”  Sayings like all those in 1 John can be reduced to nothing, mocked as overly-simplistic, not realistic, but for what we hear in today’s reading.

As it turns out, the link between Jesus’ death and resurrection and our lives as disciples is his death and resurrection.  The writer says it today: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  This is the completed love to which we aspire, the completed love to which Jesus calls us.  Our model is God’s willingness to lose everything on our behalf, even life, for love of us – what Philip helps the eunuch see today in Isaiah’s prophecy, God’s willingness to bear all our hate and wrongdoing out of love, and transform it.

And in an instant, what seemed trite and simplistic is now seen as profound and powerful, and in its own way, daunting.  That’s the completion we seek.  That was the goal of the disciples then.  It is our goal now.

But there’s something else to notice when we translate this differently: it is God who is working to make us complete.

When we think of a call to perfection, we despair because it seems as if it’s a standard we must reach.  And we clearly fail.  But throughout the New Testament we find this witness of the early disciples: As they learned what it meant that Jesus was alive, and pondered that gap between their lives and their Lord’s, they realized that Jesus was helping them close that gap.

Look at 1 John today: “Love has been completed among us in this.”  “If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is completed in us.”  Has been completed.  Is completed.  The risen Jesus not only commands us to love, to seek completion in our love.  He makes it possible.

That’s what he means about the vine and branches – the fruit of completed love cannot come from us unless we stay connected to our risen Lord.  In baptism we are joined to the life-giving Vine, as Clara is today.  In worship, in God’s Word, God’s Meal, as we live in prayer and with each other in fellowship, we are strengthened and made complete.

And that’s why this writer says completed love has no fear – we’re not only strengthened to learn that God’s love is ours no matter what we do, no matter how imperfect we are, but also to discover that day after day in God’s care we are being made complete in our love.  With both these gifts, we come to know there is nothing we need to fear.

Not death – that’s taken care of.  Not our inadequacies, or our sin, or our hateful thoughts.  For those are being changed slowly, too.  Not even disaster, or disease, or terror, or job loss – for we are together in the Vine as God’s family and we will always have each other, and our Lord’s love.

And that’s why we want to stay connected to our Vine, our Life, our Grace, our risen Lord who loves us and will never leave us.  And whose love transforms our love and completes it.

When I think of my life, and where I know God wants me to be, I find this all very comforting.

If I thought I was supposed to be perfect today, and tomorrow, and always, I’d collapse.  I’m far too aware of how little I meet that standard.  But now that I understand that what God seeks in me is completion, that there’s a goal ahead, and that God is helping me to that goal, it’s all different.  Now it’s about knowing if I think I’m going in the right direction, not if I’m there already.  It’s about discerning if I am growing toward God’s love or away, not whether I’m living it fully now.  And that’s a huge difference.

Luther once said, “This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being but becoming; not rest, but exercise.  We are not yet what we shall be,” he says, “but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished, but it is going on; this is not the end, but it is the road.  All does not yet gleam in glory but all is being purified.” (1)

That’s the hope.  That’s why we gather together.  Because we’re not there yet.  But with God’s grace, and with us together, God will complete our love one day.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

(1) “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” 1521, LW vol. 32, p. 24; but this is Michael Podesta’s translation.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

Copyright 2014 Mount Olive Lutheran Church