Before we need to get started, you need to stop and ask yourself - how much do you believe in God? How much do you believe of God. Today I'm going to stretch it right up to the breaking point. I'm going to tell you something that some of you will find impossible to believe. I'm not doing this because i want to. I'm doing it because I have to. Because, as a preacher, I have a responsibility to the best of my ability, to tell you the truth. And the truth is, I bet I take my faith in God and in God's grace a little further than most of you here today. Do you know how much I believe in God? I believe so much that I believe God can make you perfect.
Yeah. You. Not your neighbor, not your role mode (well, God can do it for them too, but that's not what we're talking about). We are talking about You. When folk's say "nobody's perfect" they've forgotten about you. You are on your way to perfection. Unless, of course, when I tell you that you are on your way to perfection you think "Obviously." If you think that, then you're so vain you thought this sermon was about you. And its not, at least not the part of you you were thinking of.
No. This sermon is about the part of you that exists by grace. This sermon is for the part of you that wouldn't even have looked for God if God hadn't looked for you first. And this sermon is for the part of you that has messed up, broken promises, and fallen short. The part of you that was clenched tight from fist to fistula until you heard someone say "You. Are. Forgiven." This sermon is for that part of you that has come to find comfort in saying "nobody's perfect," because it is a convenient excuse.
I'm hear to say that God's grace is bigger than you've dared to imagine. When we say the word grace, we define that as "the power of God, freely given, to transform us in God's image." And God's grace transforms us in so many ways. When grace gets hold of us, it always begins as prevenient grace, the grace goes before - it whispers to us of God and invites us to turn around, to repent and go in a new direction. We've also said that God's justifying graces goes alongside us - it is by grace that God witnesses with our Spirit, gives us the faith that we are forgiven, and it assures us that we are adopted as God's own children. But grace isn't done with us at the moment we discover our faith. Grace doesn't just go before us, and it doesn't just go alongside us; grace also goes on, and on, and on. Grace goes on all the way to perfection.
When I was being ordained, a bishop asked me three questions - the same three questions that have been asked of every United Methodist preacher ever made. These are the same questions that Pastor Sam will have to answer when she is ordained in about a month. Those historic questions are (1) Have you faith in Christ? (2) Are you going on to perfection? (3) Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? And in case you're curious, there's only one acceptable answer to those questions. You say "yes" or you get off the stage. When the bishop asked "do you expect to be made perfect..." I said yes.
Here's the thing, though. In this church, we don't ask our preachers about perfection because we want to make sure our preachers are really super awesome people. We ask because we want to make sure they're Christians. If you pause for a moment, you'll realize that all Christians believe in Christian perfection. After all, even folks who know almost nothing about what Christians believe still have some sense that we believe in a time or place called the kingdom of heaven, and that we Christians want to get there, and in that kingdom, everything is perfect. Scripture describes God's kingdom as the place where tears and sorrows cease. It's the place where there is no more war or violence, no more jealousy and no more broken promises. We all assume that in the kingdom of heaven, everyone is perfect, because otherwise, we'd just make as much a mess of heaven as we do of earth. So if we believe all that stuff we say about life everlasting, and resurrection, and such we also believe that one day we will be perfect. One day, you will be perfect - agreed?
So all I want you to consider today is that God would rather that day come sooner rather than later, and that God won't hold back any of the grace that could make you just who God wants you to be. Because ultimately, when I say that I expect to be made perfect, I'm not making a claim about myself. I'm making a claim about God. I know my own limits and weakness all too well, but I know God's greatness and God's power and that's what I'm betting my life on when I say I expect to be made perfect. This is what I mean when I say that grace is our word for the fact that God love's us just as we are, and God loves us too much to leave us there. We insist that God doesn't just want to forgive our sins, God wants to overcome them. When Jesus said "Be perfect," we think he meant it. And we think he wants to give us the grace to make it possible.
So this, then, is how grace finally changes us. Prevenient grace turns us toward God when we are running away; justifying grace gives us faith - it assures us that we are forgiven when we realize how far we are from God; and finally there is the grace that makes us perfect. We call this sanctifying grace, because it makes us holy - holy like a sanctuary, or a saint. Sanctifying grace is the grace that goes on toward perfection. And we insist that we don't have to wait until some glad morning, when this life is over. God can change us even now.
This is at the very core of who we are, and I want to close this morning as we've closed the last two sermons, by sharing some quick thoughts on the implications of our message of grace. I want to share why sanctifying grace is good news, and what comes from it, and how we can embrace it.
First our message of grace is good news because it saves us from having a faith that peaked in high school. You know what I'm talking about, right? You've known at least one person whose entire sense of self comes from what they did a long time ago? Maybe it was in high school, maybe in college, maybe it was some job they got, or award they received. The point is, it was in the past, and every time they mention it, it becomes clear that they're kind of disappointed with their present. Well, the only thing sadder than a grown-up who's stuck in their past achievements is a Christian whose story of God is stuck in the past. "I know I'm alright with God because once, back in when I was fifteen..." That kind of faith is deadly. The God we worship is alive today, and that God is still dealing grace with two hands. Don't tell me that "your time" has past in the kingdom of God, and don't tell me that you've come to faith too late to catch up. Sure, you may have a different experience of God than you once did, maybe you have more questions than you once did, maybe you have less energy, but grace goes on so don't you dare believe that God's love and purpose for you are any less than they were. I love to ask folks what God has done in their life, but I love even more to ask "What is God up to with you now?" If you believe that grace will go on to perfection, you believe there's always an answer to that question.
I remember sitting at the bedside of Ms. Clydie Flowers. Ms. Clydie was coming up on 90, and she had not had the easiest life - far from it. She had all manner of ailments and trials in her life - all manner of disappointments and heartbreaks in her history. She was in the nursing home after her latest fall, and she was starting to realize she probably wouldn't get to go home. As we came to the end of our conversation, I asked Ms. Clydie - "how can I pray for you?" Ms. Clydie looked at me and said: just pray that I love Jesus even more tomorrow than I do today. Well into her eighties, she thought that her love for God hadn't peaked. From that point on, whenever I visited Clydie, she was never in her room. She was always visiting another resident - encouraging them, swapping stories, bringing the love and fellowship of Christ to that lonely place. God wasn't done with her. God isn't done with you. Grace goes on and today, God is offering to bring you a little closer to perfection.
And what happens when you get there? What does perfection look like? Well, it looks like love. When we say that we expect that God will perfect us in this life, that doesn't mean we'll stop making mistakes. It doesn't mean we'll get every math problem right or never hurt someone and need to ask their forgiveness. It doesn't mean your body will never fail you The world is still full of God's enemies - we are surrounded by injustice, and oppression, and ignorance, and above all death - and these will not be comepletely conquered until Jesus brings the new heaven and new earth. But in the mean time, while we have imperfect strength and imperfect knowledge, we believe that God can give us perfect love. If we allow God to shape us and guide us, we can love God with all our heart, and we can love our neighbor as ourselves. That's what perfection looks like in this life, and we believe it is possible. Not because we are so great, but because God is.
So, how do we seek that grace? By seeking Jesus. We spend time in the places where Jesus hangs out. Jesus said, 'whenever you serve even the least of my brothers and sisters, you serve me." So we serve each other because serving is grace. God uses it to change us. We pray, "God, thy will will be done in us on Earth, in this life, with the same perfection that it is done in heaven." We give generously because God is generous, and we've discovered that the more we give, the more we realize that we already have. We offer the witness of worship so that our love of God can be set free, and we are present with each other in friendship and groups so that we can practice loving others. We cultivate the habits that God has said will change our hearts, and just when we think we've mastered them, we find that God's grace goes on.
Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
I can’t find any evidence that the director Peter Berg is a Methodist, but somewhere along the line he picked up a few things about sanctification. When he wrote the final locker room speech in his movie Friday Night Lights, he had his coach, Gary Gaines, explain perfection this way.
To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends.
Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could. There wasn't one more thing that you could've done.
Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart?
Can you live in that moment? Maybe you can, as long as you only have to love a few teammates for two quarters of football. If you try to live in that moment always - if you extend that kind of love to those who aren't like you. If you try to love your enemies with clear eyes and a full heart, you'll realize that you need grace. You need grace to live with love in every moment. This morning wonder if you think your moment has passed. Perhaps you look back with satisfaction, perhaps with regret. Doesn’t much matter. Today I’m here to tell you that tomorrow, your relationship and your love of God can be more complete than you’ve ever known. Perfection isn’t about what you can do, It’s about what God can. It’s about a relationship that goes on every time we embrace the next step in who God made us to be.
Would you pray with me?
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen