The collect and readings for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 5:38-48.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
I spent last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at the annual meeting of our diocese. On Thursday morning a young woman walked by and smiled. She looked familiar but I could not recall how or from where I knew here. I smiled back. What else can you do when a pretty lady smiles at you? Friday afternoon she passed by while I was speaking with another priest and said, “Hi Mike.” I quickly looked at her name tag but it had turned backwards. I still did not know who she was. Saturday morning she came up to me and said, “I was at a retreat where you spoke about the sacraments.” “Yes, now I know,” I said. “I remember you and our conversation afterwards.” She then send to me, “Axios!”
She has carried that word, axios, with her for the last six or seven years since that retreat. It is, I suspect, more than just a word. It has become for her a new reality, a new hope, and a new path of life.
Axios is the Greek word meaning worthy. I had used it in my talk about the sacraments. On the one hand, I explained, the sacraments are God’s gifts recognizing that we are already axios, worthy, of God’s life and love. On the other hand the sacraments are God’s gifts that make us axios, worthy, of God’s life and love. It is both at the same time. That is why at the invitation to communion I often say, “These are God’s holy gifts for you, God’s holy people. Behold what you are; become what you see.” That is the invitation to live the reality of our God-given worthiness. It is the invitation to a shared life with God, what Jesus calls perfection.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Behind this invitation is our axios. This call to perfection is the good news that offers us a new reality, a new hope, and new path for our life.
Some, perhaps many, will hear Jesus’ words as an impossibility. They will hear his words as a demand for moral perfectionism; a demand to always say the right words, always make the correct choice, always behave appropriately. Such demands leave no room for mistakes, brokenness, or uncertainty and consequently, no room for mercy, forgiveness, or second chances. If that is how we hear Jesus’ words the Christian life quickly becomes overwhelming and intimidating and our humanity becomes a barrier to God rather than a means. Perfection will seem unrealistic. “After all, we are only human,” will become the justification for how we live.
So what does Jesus expect from us? I think one of the first things Jesus expects is that we stop using our humanity as an excuse, as a reason for being less than who we really are, and realize that our humanity is a means to God. That realization underlies Jesus’ call to be perfect. This call does not change the fact that you and I can name the things we have done and left undone, the ways in which we have turned against God and our neighbor. Too often we have offered retaliation instead of the other cheek. Our thoughts, words, and deeds have sometimes been filled with violence rather than love, mercy, and forgiveness. Sometimes we have offered the beggar judgments rather than help.
Jesus’ call to perfection does not deny that these things are often a reality of the world and our lives. It denies, rather, that they are the ultimate reality. That is not how the story has to end. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus sees more for our lives than we often see for ourselves. He sees all that we are and all that we can become, children of God.
This is not so much about becoming something that we are not but about becoming what God has always intended and envisioned for our live. It is about becoming who we really already are. This means we become like God, live like God, love like God, pray like God, forgive like God. This is not, however, simple imitation, copy catting God. It is, instead, union and oneness with God. A shared life with God is our truest vocation and salvation. It is the purpose, goal, and intention for our lives. That is the perfection to which we are called.
Perfection is really about growing up into the fullness of who we already are. We behold that we are like our heavenly Father. We become like our heavenly Father. In the end this is about becoming fully human. In some way Jesus is saying, “You are children of God, now act like. Be who you are. Be perfect like your Father in heaven.” This perfection is not, however, an escape from the world or ourselves. It is the means by which we are to engage the world and ourselves. Growing up, becoming perfect, happens in the chaos, pain, and messiness of relationships with our enemies.
“Enemy” is a strong word and often we do not want to admit we have any enemies. “Enemy” certainly includes but is not necessarily limited to mean enemy in the usual sense, an invading army, or a group or individual with whom we are fighting and trying to defeat or kill. It can be as simple as those who are not on my side; those who look, think, speak, or act differently than me; those who have hurt or betrayed me; those who when I see them make my stomach turn, create butterflies, fear and anxiety; those people I would rather not see, listen to, or deal with.
These are the ones we are to love and for whom we are to pray. That doesn’t mean we are to pray that they see the error of their ways, that they change, or that they would simply go away. It doesn’t mean that we love them if they change, if they apologize, if they act they way we think they should. We are to love them and pray that God would grant them all the good things we want for ourselves and those we care about most. Isn’t that what God has done for us? Even when we act like enemies towards God he never stops loving or praying for us and our well being.
Recall an enemy, one who has hurt or betrayed you, one who brings back painful memories, one whom you would like never to see or speak with again. Do you see their face? Do you remember the event, the words that stung like a slap across the cheek? Feel the weight of the hurt? Pray for them. Love them.
Loving and praying for our enemies may not change them. It may not bring about world peace and probably will not make everyone get along. Loving and praying for our enemies changes us more than them. It will grow us up and make us perfect like our Father in heaven. We will know ourselves as axios and as the beloved sons and daughters of God. Behold what you are. Become what you see. Perfectly perfect.