As Easter people, we United Methodists believe that we are on a journey to Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. In Article XI of our Confession of Faith, we read that Christian perfection is “a state of perfect love, righteousness, and true holiness” and that it “should be sought earnestly by every child of God.” And in our reading from 1 John 4 this morning, the word “perfect” comes up three times.
Now, “perfection” is a word that scares off a lot of people. It sounds like works righteousness, like we can earn our way to salvation by working harder and harder. Worse still, it sounds really arrogant. But in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus commands us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). So I thought it might helpful to clear up what we United Methodists mean by Christian perfection.
The first thing we need to do is say what Christian perfection is not. Christian perfection is not saying we are all going to suddenly turn into little gods, unable to sin ever again, unable to make mistakes, or unable to die. As long as we live on this side of the resurrection of the dead, there will always be a possibility that we might commit some sin. And mistakes and death are certainties no matter how closely we follow Jesus.
Christian perfection also does not mean that we are going to turn into angels. We are not going to fly out of our bodies as free souls, wandering the world, appearing and disappearing. Our bodies are God’s gift to us, and we should not be trying to escape them as though they were prisons. Being an angel is good for the angels, but it’s no good for us human beings.
But Christian perfection does not mean that we human beings will have perfect health or perfect knowledge or the perfect ability to hit free-throws. Our bodies have not yet been raised from the dead.
Finally, Christian perfection is not just for an elect few, for the spiritual elite. Every single person who follows Jesus is called to pursue Christian perfection. We are all on a journey to holiness, to being more like Jesus, to Christian perfection. Because, as John tells us in this morning’s New Testament reading, Christian perfection is “[reaching] perfection in love.” Christian perfection is about loving more and more in the way that God loves us.
As John makes clear in this morning’s passage, love is not about a warm fuzzy feeling you have for God. That’s sentimental nonsense, and it’s much more likely to lead you down a path away from God than to bring you any closer to him. No, for John and for us, love is about three things, and they’re all related.
First, love is showing love for our brothers, sisters, and neighbors. John tells us that if we can’t love these people, then there’s no way we can love God. In the first half of chapter 4, which we read two weeks ago, John even says that anyone claiming to love God at the same time as hating a brother or sister in Christ is a liar.
But loving our brother and sister in Christ, and even our neighbor, is really only the beginning of this first part of love. As difficult as loving these people can be—and, let’s be frank, sometimes it’s really hard to love the people who are closest to us—in the back of our minds we always know that we’ll get something in return. Loving your sister in Christ by caring for her when she mourns her husband’s death is a noble and good thing, but there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll benefit from her love, too, at some point. Loving in a way that benefits us is less like God and less perfect than loving when we believe we won’t receive anything in return. So instead, the ultimate goal of loving our brothers and sisters is to love our enemies. Nearly every week in our confession before communion, we hear the reassuring words that God loved us while we were still sinners—while we were God’s enemies. Christian perfection in love means loving our enemies.
Second, love is about following the commandments of God: “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3). The law is not just some Old Testament relic that we can throw aside for freedom in Christ. And Jesus adds commandments of his own, including the commandments to love our neighbors and our enemies, the commandment to proclaim the good news and to baptize, and the commandment to maintain Christian unity. Loving God means following God’s commandments. And reaching Christian perfection means that we never deliberately disobey one of God’s commandments. There is always the possibility that we will forget something or that we will act out of ignorance, but all of us are called to obey the commandments, especially the Ten Commandments and the commandments of Jesus.
Third, love is about what John calls “abiding in God and God abiding in us.” “Abiding” does not mean “sitting still and doing nothing unless we absolutely must.” Abiding is active; it means we are seeking out ways to live in God all the time: not just waiting for opportunities but looking for ways to love our brothers, sisters, and neighbors; worshiping God regularly with our brothers and sisters in Christ; reading the Bible with our fellow believers; and coming to Holy Communion as frequently as possible. Abiding means praying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and then setting out to work for God’s kingdom and will. Abiding means learning to say each day, as Jesus himself said, “Not what I want but what you want, Lord.” So another way to say “abiding” is to say that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Christian perfection means that we find ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit and ready to lay down our lives, not just for our friends, but for our enemies.
So Christian perfection is loving our enemies, obeying God’s commandments, and being so full of the Holy Spirit that we would lay down our lives for our enemies. But it’s not a checklist. You can’t wake up tomorrow morning and say, “Well, I’ve got two out of three, I guess I better focus in on that abiding business!” In fact, the surest sign that you are still far from Christian perfection is believing that you have reached it, that you are perfect now, that there is nothing else for you to do. Remember: humility comes before love because love is a gift. You cannot be perfect in Christian love without humility.
All Christians are called to holiness. All of us are called to follow Jesus. And so all of us are called to Christian perfection. But none of us can earn it: it is a gift, the gift of God using us so thoroughly for the sake of his kingdom that we become—saints. So this morning I want to encourage you: make yourself available to God; be willing to be put to use for the kingdom of heaven. Remember January’s covenant renewal service? All of us present that day made ourselves available to God. Seize the promises you made! Live according to the covenant we have drawn up together with God!
Perhaps a couple examples would help. The lives of saints give us hope that God will one day give us perfect love to follow him fully in this life. St. Clare lived in the middle ages; like her dear friend St. Francis, she saw the excess and wealth of her world and knew that was not God’s way. She gave up a life of extravagance in exchange for a life of poverty. She started a new convent that emphasized simplicity and poverty for Christ’s sake and caring for the poor. She insisted on regular communion as a source of strength for her journey to perfection.
Or consider Saint Martin de Porres. A young man living in Lima, Peru, when Spain was the colonial power, Saint Martin joined a group of monks, even though colonial racism normally kept people like him out. He refused to allow the injustice of racism and prejudice to stand in the way of God’s kingdom on earth, and he ended up living among the very people who opposed his intent to serve God—his enemies, we might say. Saint Martin cared deeply for the sick, entering homes during epidemics where no one else would go.
Whether you know it or not, if you have decided to follow Jesus, your life is training in sainthood. The gift of Christian perfection may come to you as the call to sell your possessions and live in poverty for Christ’s sake. It may come as a sure knowledge that you are supposed to stand up against injustice, or that you are to care for those the world casts aside. Abide in God; obey his commandments; love your enemy. And be ready. Always be ready, for the call, the gift, of Christian perfection may come at any moment. Be ready. Love God; love each other. And be ready. God may even be calling you at this very moment. Amen.