The following is a filled out manuscript of the sermon I preached in chapel at Perkins School of Theology yesterday (April 28, 2011).
The Scripture passage for my sermon was 1 Peter 1:13-16: Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
My favorite part about eating Chinese food is by far the fortune cookie. No matter how great the food tastes, I can’t help but look forward to the moment when those plastic-wrapped brittle cookies arrive. On one occasion in particular, the waiter brought the cookies on a silver platter of promise. I was handed a cookie, ripped open the package, broke the cookie open and read: “You shall soon achieve…” Could this really be my fortune? I had to read the words again: “You shall soon achieve perfection.”
Now that is a fortune cookie! Since that day, I have wrestled with the meaning of “soon” since I received this fortune about a decade ago. Aside from my fortune cookie, it seems that we usually do not have positive association with the idea of perfection. People are often given the advice, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” And when we hear of a moral failure of a celebrity, politician, church leader, or friend or family member you will almost certainly hear someone say, “Nobody’s perfect.”
So what are we to do with the questions that The United Methodist Church asks those who will be ordained? Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it? For many, these questions are embarrassingly naïve and we squirm in discomfort as the next generation of pastors answers the questions affirmatively. Or, as is often related, the body of ordained elders and deacons – who have already answered these questions – laughs nervously.
Why do we ask these questions? Nobody’s perfect, right?
What if our discomfort with the idea of being entirely sanctified, or being made perfect in love, is actually a reflection of our own preoccupation with ourselves and our unwillingness to be captivated by the grace of God? What if it reflects a realistic assessment of our own capabilities, but fails to recognize that God is in the picture too? What if what is at stake in whether we affirm, defend, and preach about the possibility of being cleansed from sin and actually becoming holy as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are holy has nothing to do with our ability? What if what is at stake is our faith in the power and sufficiency of God’s grace?
In our Scripture reading for today, the author of 1 Peter exhorts his audience to “set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” At a basic level, then, the instruction is to have hope because of the grace that is coming when Christ returns. As one scholar has paraphrased verse 13, “You have been born to a living hope; therefore hope. Live out your call.”
The content of the hope that verse 13 speaks of is further illuminated by verse 3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” As Christians, we have hope because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The one who was crucified and died, that one, Jesus of Nazareth, he lives! Because of the resurrection, we have the right to have hope in the face of seeming hopelessness. On Good Friday, there was no hope. Jesus was dead. But just when the story seemed to have been concluded in the most final way possible, the period at the end of Jesus’ life exploded into the most amazing and wonderful news possible – Jesus lives! And among other things, for Christians this means that God’s grace is bigger than sin and death. God’s grace is more powerful than sin. Even in the face of death itself, because of the resurrection, we can say “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The resurrection has implications for every part of life, and it is good news. And the world is desperate for this kind of hope.
1 Peter continues in verse 14, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” In the light of the hope that we have in the resurrection of Jesus, the writer seems to be imploring us – there is no necessity for sin. And yet, the resistance to the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification often sounds like we are making the case that sin is necessary, that no matter what has happened, sin exists and cannot be extinguished. Nobody is perfect. We can’t do that. We shouldn’t expect pastors to affirm that they expect to be made perfect in love in this life. But if holiness is about what God is able to accomplish in us by the power of God’s grace, then why wouldn’t we expect pastors and laity to affirm that they expect God to accomplish in us what God’s wants to accomplish?
Perhaps there is a deeper issue. Perhaps we are afraid or unwilling to be transformed in the ways that God wants to transform us, rather than it being the case that God is not able to operate in our lives in these ways. It may be that we continue to be attracted to sin in ways that we are unwilling to acknowledge or recognize. It may be that we are afraid at what complete freedom for obedience to God would do to our lives as they currently exist. But do we really want to argue that sin is necessary for those who have been forgiven and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
What do we think Jesus meant when he said that the greatest commandment was “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” I am convinced that by the grace of God, the children of God are truly able to keep these commandments. And expecting any less is not because we have accurately assessed God’s ability or God’s willingness to enable us to be faithful. Rather, it is a failure of our imaginations and our hope in the saving power of Christ. Or, it is another sin that God wants to free us from!
But someone will say, Is Christian perfection only about avoiding sin, or avoiding breaking a commandment or rule? Thanks be to God it is so much more! As our Scripture passage for today ends, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” Christian perfection is about holiness. It is about being renewed in the image of God so that we actually love God and love our neighbors. And in this passage, it is not offered up as a polite suggestion or an option. It is an imperative, a command, “Be holy!” As one scholar has put it, “A holy God demands a holy people, just as a God of hope creates a hopeful people.” (NIB, 258) Thus, this passage suggests that a stubborn refusal to believe in the possibility of deep holiness is not a polite and proper modesty or humility on our part, rather it is a sinful refusal to respond to God’s grace.
I know not all of us are Methodists, but for those of us who are, this is of particular urgency! Holiness and entire sanctification are in our DNA! In fact, John Wesley, believed that Methodism was raised up by God to preach and spread the doctrine of entire sanctification, the possibility that God is able and willing to save us to the uttermost!
In the sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation”, here is how Wesley himself made the case for entire sanctification: Before we say anything else, we have to be clear that the foundation of sanctification and entire sanctification is faith, just as justification or forgiveness is by faith. The faith that saves from sin and perfects us in love, then, is faith that God has promised this in the Scriptures. Secondly, it involves faith that God is able to deliver on God’s promises. Third, it is a faith that God is able and willing to do it now. And finally, it is faith that God actually does it. Wesley ended this sermon with a powerful plea:
By this token may you surely know whether you seek it by faith or by works. If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now! To deny one of them is to deny them all: to allow one is to allow them all. Do you believe we are sanctified by faith? Be true then to your principle, and look for this blessing just as you are, neither better, nor worse; as a poor sinner that has still nothing to pay, nothing to plead but ‘Christ died.’ And if you look for it as you are, then expect it now. Stay for nothing. Why should you? Christ is ready. And he is all you want. He is waiting for you. He is at the door! Let your inmost soul cry out,
Come in, come in, thou heavenly Guest!
Nor hence again remove:
But sup with me, and let the feast
Be everlasting love.
Is there something within you that is stirred by Wesley’s words? Could that be the Holy Spirit, inviting you to such faith, such hope in the amazing grace of God? 1 Peter calls us to “be holy in all we do because God is holy.” This holiness is rooted in the hope that we have in the grace that has drenched the world in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is risen! Sin no longer reigns. Even in the face of the continued presence of sin, Christians can proclaim that there is no inevitability of sin. It is allowed to continue to the extent that we invite it into our lives, but God through Jesus is able and willing to free us from the power of sin and free us for joyful obedience.
When we pushback against this understanding of Christian perfection, I wonder if part of it is that we feel like this is just another idea that reminds us that we are not measuring up. That we are not good enough. That we are not focused enough, disciplined enough, or whatever enough. But, like the gospel itself, any understanding of Christian perfection that seems like it is bad news is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding. Christian perfection is not intended to be another item to add to our spiritual to do list. It is a blessing that God wants to freely give to us. The only catch is that God will not work without our assent. Grace makes us able to recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit, but still allows us to decide whether we will respond.
On second thought, that was a pretty Wesleyan fortune cookie! And perhaps the questions that we ask ordinands are neither embarrassing or naïve. Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it? Note that the second question is not, do you expect to make yourself perfect, or even become perfect in love in this life? No. The question is, do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? The answer to each of these questions can be and should be, “Yes, by the grace of God!”
Holiness is about God’s grace, not our goodness or our works. But we worship an all powerful, all loving God who desires to renew the divine image within each one of us, so that our lives are no longer plagued by the stains of sin, and so that we are able to enter into full communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. May the Triune God give us each the faith to believe that grace is bigger, more powerful, and more capable of transforming our lives than anything else. May we be holy as God is holy, even today!