Nobody’s Perfect

Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church — July 16, 2017

Romans 8:1–11 (CEB)

8 So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. 5 People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. 10 If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. 11 If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.

Of all the things John Wesley wrote and said, perhaps the most misunderstood is his teaching about “Christian perfection.”

But then again, the balance between works and grace has always been a source of debate and misunderstanding.

In the middle ages, the church put emphasis on works — but not necessarily the kind of works that Jesus emphasized. The church at that time was more concerned with arcane rules, and with money. By the time of Martin Luther, the church was selling what were called “indulgences” — basically, forgiving sins in return for money. Luther was horrified by this and it became one of his chief complaints about the church, which led to the Protestant Reformation.

Too many of us fall prey to this legalism. We think of people as good or bad based on whether they say the right things, or whether they’re in church every time the doors open, or how many Bible verses they’ve memorized. This kind of legalism is what the Pharisees followed, and it’s why Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was so critical of them. They claimed to be righteous based on how well they followed the rules.

Because he was responding to the legalism of his age, and the arcane requirements of the church in which he’d been raised, Luther — and those who followed him — put a great deal of emphasis on grace. We cannot earn our salvation; it is a gift that is given to us. It was paid for by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.

Luther was so dedicated to the idea of grace that he really didn’t care for the letter of James in the New Testament. James talks a lot about works, and about faith. Luther actually said that if it had been up to him, James’ letter would not have been canonized, would not have been made a part of the Bible.

Luther’s followers included a German sect called the Moravians who had an early influence on John Wesley. Some Moravians were concerned that any emphasis on the believer’s piety was the first step on the slippery slope towards legalism. At one point, those Moravians practiced something called “stillness,” which meant giving up every effort to outwardly please God and simply waiting for God to reveal himself.

The Bible is clear that grace is something given to us, and not anything we can earn. And yet, there are also passages in the New Testament that emphasize the importance of the lives we live in response to that gift. Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 has the clear message that how we treat other people is a determining factor in whether someone is righteous and whether or not they will receive eternal life.

John Wesley clearly believed in grace, and he clearly did not believe that we could earn our way into God’s favor. But he also believed that true Christian faith could not help but have an impact on how we conduct our daily lives.

Wesley, in the early part of his ministry, had his own struggles with whether or not he could be convinced of his own salvation. He struggled with whether his own heart was fully attuned to God — and since he’d been an ordained minister in the Church of England for years at this point, his self-doubt was kind of puzzling to those around him, including his brother Charles.

Eventually, though, Wesley reached an understanding that if someone is truly in a relationship with God, that person will have a different set of priorities. That person will live their life in a way consistent with Jesus’ teachings, and consistent with the way in which Jesus has commanded us to love others.

This passage in Romans lays out beautifully the relationship between the old legalism, the new grace, and the idea of a Christian life.

“So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul begins. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

The laws of Moses were a legalistic expression of the relationship between God and man. If you wanted God’s favor, you had to be circumcised, and you had to offer up sacrifices, and you had to avoid eating certain foods, and so on. But what the law taught people was that no one is capable of completely following the law. That’s where grace has to step in. Picking up the passage:

“God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us.”

On our own, we are incapable of entering into a relationship with a holy and just God. We can’t earn that relationship. But Jesus sacrificed himself so that we could have that access.

That relationship brings change. If you and I become friends, true friends, I’m going to want to do things that will please you. I’m going to want to take your wishes and interests into account. It’s the same thing with God. If we are really and truly in relationship with God, that relationship is going to have an impact on the way we live our lives. It’s going to pull us out of ourselves, out of our sinful nature.

“Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness,” writes Paul. “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.”

The author Stephen Kendrick, in his book “The Love Dare,” writes this: “Almost every sinful action ever committed can be traced back to a selfish motive. It is a trait we hate in other people but justify in ourselves.”

I’m sure many of you have seen the movie “Hoosiers,” about a very small-town high school basketball team in Indiana, in the days before size classifications, which ends up winning the state championship. The movie begins with a new coach, played by Gene Hackman, taking over the team, and he realizes they aren’t playing very much like a team. So he sets a rule going into one particular game — no one is allowed to shoot a basket until they’ve passed the ball three times. The parents watching the game think the coach and the players have lost their minds, but the players are learning a very important lesson — they can’t win a game focused only on themselves.

At the end of what is probably my all-time favorite movie, “Casablanca,” the two main characters, Rick and Ilsa, played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, realize that they can’t pursue their love affair because it would hurt a third character, a great freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, played by Paul Henreid, whom Ilsa married before she met Rick.

Rick breaks it to her this way: “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

There are a million other examples from a million other stories. Greatness comes from being able to look beyond yourself and see the needs of others — not because you’re trying to prove anything to God, but because you are responding in gratitude and love to what God has done for you.

“But you aren’t self-centered,” writes Paul. “Instead, you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you.”

This is what John Wesley meant by “Christian perfection” — a change in attitude, a change in priorities, in which people are looking outward, at God, and at what God wants them to do for their fellow human beings.

The term “perfection” was, perhaps, an unfortunate one. “Perfection” implies that we never sin, and John Wesley did not believe that he, or any other Christian, was without sin. We continue, on a daily basis, to fall short. We do things we should not do. We leave undone things that we should do. We cannot, and must not, look down our noses at anyone — whether that’s another Christian, or someone who is unsaved. We have to always be aware of our own flawed humanity and our own capacity for sin.

But in the big picture, a Christian’s life should be transformed. If the Christian’s life is not transformed, if there’s not a difference between life with God and life without God, you have to question whether or not that Christian is in a true relationship with God. A true Christian doesn’t do good works out of a sense of guilt, or in order to impress people. A true Christian does good works because God loves them, because God loves other people, and because the love of God compels each Christian to love other people.

God is not impressed by your perfect attendance pin, but God wants you to have a heart filled with worship, a heart that takes joy in Christian community, a heart that comes for worship not because you have to but because you want to.

Most importantly, God wants us to have hearts that are concerned with bringing people into the circle. If you truly believe in God, if you truly believe that the gospel is true, than you must truly believe that there are people out there who need to hear the message. You must truly believe in sharing your faith with those around you — not by lecturing them, not by standing on the streetcorner with a bullhorn (unless God has called you to do that), but in real, loving conversation. In order to share, you have to be able to listen. If the way you share your faith is to throw it at people, that’s just another form of self-centeredness. But it is important that people around us know what we believe and how it’s affected our lives.

One of the other Bible passages in the lectionary this week is the parable of the sower out of Matthew 13. The point of that parable has to do with bearing fruit. Some of the seeds in that parable represent people who bear fruit, and some of the seeds in that parable represent people who wither away.

For us, bearing fruit means showing people God’s love, treating them with God’s compassion, and bringing them into God’s kingdom.

Andy Stanley is a megachurch pastor and the son of Charles Stanley, perhaps the second-most-famous Baptist preacher after Billy Graham. Andy Stanley angered some of his fellow Christians a couple of years ago when he said that if the church were to take a break from the “culture wars” for a year and concentrate on how we, as individual Christians, live our own lives, it would have a much bigger impact on society.

There used to be a car dealer in Nashville who did his own commercials and who made a big deal around the holidays of telling people to go to church. I don’t guess there’s anything wrong with that, although sometimes when religious messages are used as part of advertising I get a little queasy, and I wonder if it’s really sincere or if it’s just a marketing tool.

Well, I know of at least one person who was very nearly cheated by one of that man’s dealerships. And then, at some point, he was arrested for domestic assault in a dispute with his wife. He stopped appearing in the TV commercials after that.

Things like that don’t spread the gospel. They don’t produce fruit. It’s important for us to make sure that we’re living the Christian life if we want to be able to share the Christian gospel. Because if we’re treating people badly one day, and then getting up on our soap box the next, we’re not going to get very far when it comes to winning people to the Lord.

I think that’s what Andy Stanley was trying to tell people; we have to get our own houses in order. We need to make sure our priorities, and the way in which we treat others, are reflective of true faith in Christ. If we live Christ-like lives, we may find people coming to us to ask about it. It may take a while for them to notice, of course; a truly Christian life is a life of humility, a life that does good things behind the scenes rather than calling attention to them. But eventually, people do notice a truly Christ-like life.

At the very least, if we have a Christ-like attitude and actions we’ll find people a lot more receptive when we try to talk to them.

John Wesley, with the word “perfection,” set a high bar for us to reach. But what he’s really describing is not a life without error, but a life transformed, a life focused on God and on others. And if we don’t see that in the mirror, it’s time to turn back to God and ask for his grace. Because it’s only through God’s grace, the spirit of Christ living in us, that we can possibly live that life.