I’d been feeling pretty good about myself. I haven’t been committing adultery, I wasn’t coveting my neighbor’s wife or donkey, nor had I murdered anyone, at least lately. I figured that God must be pretty pleased with how well I was obeying His instructions.
I was a bit less self-assured when I got to the part where Jesus takes the Ten Commandments and expounds on them. No, I hadn’t murdered anyone, but there was that time when that driver cut me off…. But calling him a fool was justified! Did you see what he did? Er, God?
So I was still fairly confident—until I came to Matthew 5:48. This is the verse where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perfect? You’ve got to be kidding! Nobody’s perfect!
And that, of course, was the point. God is perfect. We are not.
One thing I love about our church is that we take Communion almost every week. I know that in some churches, this is normal practice, but for us it’s a recent change. In view of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, I use the break in the service as a time of introspection—
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
The last thing I want to do is bring judgment upon myself!
So there I would sit, head bowed, examining myself, and the verse from Matthew popped into my head. I’m supposed to be perfect and I’m not. Then how could I take Communion with a clear conscience? I would quickly review the last week, telling God I’m sorry for all the times I’d screwed up, and promising to do better next time. (Yeah, right.) But what if I forgot to confess something? In desperation, I’d ask God to tell me what to confess, but most of the time He didn’t answer. Should I go forward for the crackers and juice, or stay seated?
Does this sound familiar? There are times that I’m so anxious and determined to please God—and yet I know I’ve fallen short. No big sins come to mind, just the ongoing struggle to let God be Lord in every part of my life. It’s so easy to let Him slip from my mind and live on automatic, doing the things I want to do, and in my own strength.
Thankfully, God led me to a verse that eliminated my angst. I no longer worry if I’ve confessed every transgression. In fact, I’ve learned that it’s not my job to convict myself (or my spouse!). John 16:8 says, “And when He [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment….” (Italics mine).
Today is Good Friday, when we focus on Jesus’ death for our sins. What a potent reminder that God knows we aren’t perfect, and never can be no matter how hard we try. No, we can’t be perfect, but God, who lives in us through the Holy Spirit, already is. So now when I take Communion, I see it as a symbol of God’s presence in me through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. No wonder they call it Good Friday.
The “unworthy manner” of eating the bread and drinking the cup in 1 Cor. 11 was especially the division in the churches where some were eating and drinking (to the point of getting drunk) while others (who came later) were left hungry (11:18-22). Thus some richer Christians were feasting early on and despising poorer Christians whose work caused them to come later.
Such despising of a “brother or sister” is also the point of Jesus’ teaching not to call a brother a “fool” (in Mt. 5:22). Like the “foolish” man of Mt. 7:26, the “fool” hears but does not do what Jesus says, and suffers God’s judgment. To call a brother, a true disciple, a fool is to condemn him, like those in Corinth who despised some of their poor brothers and sisters.
As for being perfect, Jesus was contrasting the Jewish law, which said love your neighbor (who, in Lev. 19:18, is defined as “the sons of your own people”) and hate your enemy (like the Gentile Canaanites, in Lev. 26:7) with his new command to love even enemies (Mt. 5:43-44). In contrast to the partial love of Leviticus, Jesus’ perfect love would include not only neighborly brothers but also suspicious enemies. Because it includes all of those, it is perfect. This is in fact the kind of love which is included in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Through the power of the Spirit, we can act according to Jesus’ perfect love. So “let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).