ON BEING PERFECT
I John 4:16-21
"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect."
That's a tall order! Being perfect, just like God is perfect! Yet that is what Jesus tells his disciples they should be. But how is that impossibility possible? Yes, I know some people think they are perfect, even though we all know they are not. And when we are sober, we also know we are not perfect, otherwise we would not regularly confess our sins. So what is Jesus talking about when he tells his disciples, and therefore also us, to "be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect?" We can, of course, simply shake our heads at this counsel of perfection and move on, thinking perhaps that Jesus' words are meant for monks and nuns but not for us. Can we really take them seriously? I guess we don't have to if we don't want to take Jesus seriously But if we do, then at least, we have to ask ourselves what Jesus meant, and what his words might mean for us, today?
John Wesley, the leader of the Evangelical Revival in England in the 18th century, and founder of the Methodist movement, wrote much about what he called "Christian perfection." Wesley took Jesus very seriously on the subject. And whether he espoused the idea or not, his teaching gave rise to what some Christians call "the second blessing," the idea that after conversion Christians can be made perfect by the Holy Spirit. Wesley had in mind some verses in the NT, as in the first letter of John, that "those who have been born of God do not sin," in fact, " cannot sin!" (I Jn. 3:9), and that if God dwells in us then his love is perfected in us. (I Jn. 4:17). Wesley's teaching on "Christian perfection" and "perfect love" has had a remarkable influence on the subsequent history of Christianity. It lead to the Holiness Movement which, in turn, contributed to the rise of Pentecostalism, and it influenced amongst many others, Andrew Murray Jr. here in South Africa, whose ministry left such a remarkable legacy. But however we understand it, the notion of holiness is deeply embedded in Christian tradition as it is in some other religions.
I recently spoke at the launch of Denise Ackermann's new book with the its intriguing title Surprised by the Man on the Borrowed Donkey. It is an excellent read, and I commend it to you. After many years as a theological professor and spiritual director, Denise shares with us what, for her, makes life worth living. She offers us nine beatitudes modelled on Jesus' teaching, but developed in contemporary ways in terms of her own experience. That person is truly blessed, Denise tells us, who is able to embrace contradiction, find freedom, listen with discernment, is grateful, knows when enough is enough, can chuckle at the incongruities of life, and is someone open to receive the blessing of birds! But there is one more I have not mentioned. The second of her nine beatitudes is: "Blessed are those who live into their holiness, for they shall be surprised by wonder." I like that, "Live into holiness" and be "surprised by wonder!"
But first, with Denise, we need to acknowledge that the "notion of holiness does not sit easily in today's world because it smacks of a sanctimoniousness that shuns the hurly-burly of everyday life." It is, in short, incongruous in our secular societies. So for most people those who are deemed holy are not real! Perhaps this is because most people misunderstand holiness. It has little to do with religiosity or unworldly piety or haloed people in stain-glassed windows whom we venerate on occasion. Holy people are real people, they are truly human, living fully in the life of the world even if some live in monasteries, as did Thomas Merton. Dag Hammarskjold the former Secretary General of the UN, once wrote, "the path to holiness is through action," And, he would undoubtedly have added, contemplation.
Speaking out of her own experience, her own struggles with "being holy," Denise came to the conclusion that becoming holy meant accepting who she was and learning to live in a way that was "directed towards God." "Denying my holiness," she writes, "was refusing to accept what God offers all humanity..." to accept that we are all "made in the image of God." In other words, to be perfect or holy means becoming what God intends us to be not according to some holiness-mould, but as Denise, or Peter, Paul and Wendy! To become perfect or holy is not becoming someone we are not, but being someone who is becoming more truly the person we are meant to be. In other words, to become whole or complete.
I am reminded of that remarkable French woman, Simone Weil. During her short life of 44 years she became a philosophy teacher, worked in a car factory and as a labourer in the vineyards of France, fought for workers rights, and briefly fought with the Spanish Republican army. Partly because of her Jewish background she left France in 1942 for America, but then went to London to serve in the French Provisional Government in England where she died within a year of TB. In some respects, hers is a strange story, yet many thoughtful Christians, including Pope John XXIII and the poet T.S. Eliot, have been influenced by her life and writings. Amongst them is a little book of letters and papers entitled Waiting on God in which she recounts her spiritual journey. She tells how on visiting a monastery in France one day she was encountered by Christ and filled with his presence. But she refused to be baptised and become a member of the church because she wanted to identify with all those outside of the church who honestly could not accept all its doctrines, but were struggling to live good, honest and heroic lives. In waiting on God, she came to believe that this is what God willed for, that this was her vocation. As much as she would have liked to become a member of the Church, for her to become the person God willed was her vocation. To live into holiness meant becoming the person God wanted her to become.
Yes, we are called to be perfect, to live into holiness, just as God is perfect and holy. That does not mean trying to become a saint like someone else; it means becoming the person God wills for each of us in terms of who we are and where we are. It all has to do with the direction of our lives -- towards or away from God. Only then will we be, as Denise says, surprised by wonder at what God has done and is doing in and through us. To be perfect is to be completely ourselves, just as God is perfectly and completely God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 26 June 2014