From my childhood, I have always had an image in my mind of what I should be; the kind of person I should be; the work I should do; what others should think of me; what I should think of myself. Now over time, the individual elements in my mind of what I should be may have shifted and altered, but the image itself of what I should be has never left my mind. It remains there today. And I have never once measured up to that image in my mind of what I should be. I was not a great success as a singer, no matter how hard I tried, so why try? I was never the great defender of truth and justice, so why strap on a gun and walk into danger? Again and again, I would imagine myself being the very best at what I did, and always found myself wanting. Even today, I work hard each and every day to be the best pastor I can be in serving God here in caring for this congregation; I work hard each and every day to be the very best I can be in service to God at the Institute of Lutheran Theology; I try each and every day to be the very best husband I can be. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot measure up to the image in my mind of what the perfect pastor should be; of what the perfect educator should be; of what the perfect husband should be. No matter how hard I try, I can never be as good as the ideal image I create in my mind. No matter how hard I try, I cannot be perfect. I would suspect the same is true for you. Do you measure up to the image in your mind of what you should be? Are you the perfect parent, or spouse, or child? Are you the perfect worker, or supervisor, or employer? Are you the perfect neighbor or friend? Can anyone one of us here ever measure up to the perfect image in our mind of what we should be? No? Well don’t feel to bad, nobody’s perfect.
Over the last three weeks, our Gospel text has focused on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, considered one of the most magnificent literary expressions ever created. Poetically beautiful, in this sermon Jesus paints the most incredible picture of what we should be, of what we should strive to be in our lives every day. This ideal of living is the purest expression of the heart of the law – God’s will for us His creation – ever conceived. If you ever want to know what it truly means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind;” what it truly means to “love your neighbor as yourself,” you need go no further than this Sermon on the Mount. This is the perfect expression of what it means to love God; this is the perfect expression of what it means to love your neighbor; this is the perfect expression of what it means to love yourself. It is entirely perfect and it is entirely unobtainable. In fact it is more than unobtainable, it is an entirely unreasonable expectation for life in this world. I would go so far as to say living as Jesus tells us in this sermon would be entirely wrong in this world we live in.
Think about it. Jesus says, “do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” A lovely sentiment, no doubt, but in practice in this world, its outcome would be horrific. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That sounds all well and good, but what if he slaps your neighbor’s cheek; what if he slaps your wife’s cheek; what if he slaps your child? What if he tries to kill you or them? What then? “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” That’s all very well, but what about when he comes for your home; what about when he comes for the very food from your family’s mouth? What then? And Jesus says, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Noble ideal, but how did that work out for the Native Americans; how did that work out for the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire; how did that work out for the Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s. Jesus tells us, “do not resist the one who is evil.” But this world is filled with evil and it must be resisted. How can we imagine that we love God if we do not stand against that which by definition is opposed to God and His loving will for us? How can we imagine that we that we love our neighbor if we do not oppose that which would seek to harm our neighbor? How can we maintain that we love ourselves if we do not stand up for ourselves? In this world filled with evil, how can it be right for us to stand by while that evil lays waste to God’s creation? Wouldn’t that make us evil as well? If we do not resist evil in this world when it confronts us, do we not become complicit in that evil?
When all is said and done, in this imperfect world, we simply cannot be perfect. And I think that is just what Jesus is saying here. If you go back to verse 19, you can hear Jesus Himself spelling this out.
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Just think about that for a moment. In that day, the scribes and the Pharisees were considered the very paragons of righteousness. The rest of the people looked to them as role models; they looked to them as the ideal for the keeping of the law. The scribes and the Pharisees were as close to perfect as it is possible to be in this world, and Jesus said that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And that is just not possible. You as an individual, on your own can only pass the borders of the kingdom of heaven if you can meeting the standard of the king. The kingdom of heaven is perfect, its king is perfect, and to live there, you too must be perfect. So if you have any illusion that you can move to the kingdom of heaven, I’m sorry to tell you that you can’t get there from here. You will be stopped at the border and turned away. Why? Because no one is perfect.
But I have a secret for you. Something you may have overlooked because I expect most of you don’t have the same experience I have with moving. Do you know that in my entire life – from birth until today – I have never lived in one place longer than four years. Throughout my life I have always been on the move. So if there is one thing I know about, it is moving. And that’s why I understand the secret for entering the kingdom of heaven. You see, every time I have moved somewhere new, there were two separate categories of things being relocated, persons and property. Whenever we moved somewhere new, we didn’t just get to walk in and sit down, we had to spend hour after hour unloading all of our property that we brought with us. We chose to bring our property with us and apart from our choice to pack it and load it and unload it and unpack it in its new place, it would have remained behind. You know, I have a t-shirt at home – it looks like one of those t-shirts you would be issued for gym class (I don’t know if they still do that) – and across the front of this t-shirt are the words “Property of Jesus.” And here is the secret to entering the kingdom of heaven. You don’t walk across the border, hand your passport to St. Peter and say, I have chosen to live here for eternity. For if you were to try, St. Peter would take one look at your passport and say I see no certificate of perfection here and without that certificate you cannot be issued a visa and you cannot apply for citizenship, you’ll have to turn around and go back, only people certified as perfect can enter here. But this is the secret. You don’t enter the kingdom of heaven as a person with a passport choosing to apply to become a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. You arrive there as property with a bill of lading stamped “Property of Jesus.” Jesus – God the Son – came into this fallen evil world and became flesh; He suffered and died on the cross to purchase us as His own; and when He rose from the dead three days later, He claimed us as His property with the stamp of faith. So though you – on your own – can be nothing but part of this fallen, imperfect world of sin and death; though you – on your own – can never measure up to God’s command of love; though you can never be perfect, you have been purchased and are the property of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior and His heavenly Father and through that stamp of faith placed upon you, your sins are forgiven and reside now and for eternity in God’s perfect kingdom of heaven.