Perfection (Commentary on Matthew 5:43-48)

“We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let’s go to work.”

What a great scene. Coach Herman Boone is meeting his players in the gym as they are beginning training for their High School Football team in Remember the Titans. Coach Boone (played by Denzel Washington) demands perfection from these players from the outset of the season. Perfection.

Perfection is a word that many of us get caught up on. To some, it is paralyzing. To be perfect is impossible and yet we so eagerly feel as though we need to achieve it.

Perfect (as defined by Merriam-Webster) is being entirely without fault or defect or satisfying all requirements.

There may have been some of us that were then caught off guard by this week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus continues his Sermon in Matthew (5:43-48) and is speaking to love of not only our neighbors but our enemies, giving to everyone who asks to borrow something, turning the other cheek when we are struck. And to finish it all off Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Be perfect. Perfection.

This word perfect is translated from the Greek word τέλειοι which can allude to being mature and in this case, would speak to maturity of faith as an individual. Be mature in our faith and our understanding so that we show love rather than hate for our enemies and those that ask things of us. However, this word can also be translated as more of a sense of completion (to be complete) and that is where we can find immense grace in this passage.

Since we break the Sermon on the Mount into multiple weeks, I feel as though we lose track of to whom this sermon is given. As we preach, teach, and think about this text, it is so easy for us to hear this as individuals and get caught up in what we should and should not be doing, what we need to strive for and a need to be perfect and not to fail. When we hear this Sermon and take it in as individuals, it is just like the law of the Old Testament. A list of rules and regulations and that bar us from hearing the grace in God’s commands.

But, this passage is not given to individuals. He is speaking to his disciples, a community of people, a body of people.

What if this Sermon is not, “You as an individual, need to be perfect,” but it is, “You people, this group, this body, you all need to be perfect.” It is still daunting, but it changes the meaning.

It brings me back to the movie. The Titans are in the Championship Game. It has been a long hard fought season. The desegregation of the two schools resulted in the merger of one school where black and white students would learn together, play sports together, interact with each other. This led to a season of racial tension, fighting, scandals, cheating, and more conversations than either body had ever had before. And now, in the Championship, the Titans are losing to the legendary Coach Ed Henry and his all-white team (who have had none of those same problems) and it seems improbable that they will mount a come-back to win this game.

And so, Coach Boone talks to them at half-time, “It’s all right. We’re in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose… We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That’s all anybody can ask for.”

But Julius, one of the leaders of the team, responds: “No, it ain’t Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it’s all the same to you, Coach Boone, that’s how we want to leave it.”

Each of these students and coaches have slipped up, fallen, made mistakes, and failed, but together, as a team, they were perfect.

That is the beauty of Jesus’ statement to this group of disciples. As a group, they are perfect.

As a Church, a group of people, we can be perfect. At our best, a group can hold each individual accountable, can comfort them and lift them up when they fall. As a body of people, the church can love our enemies, give away what we have to those who need it, turn the other cheek and take the pain that results from speaking the Gospel in a world that has so much trouble hearing it.

The church is a body of people, the body of Christ. When we work as the Body of Christ to hold each other accountable, to lift each other up when we are down, to call out poverty, injustice, oppression, racism, sexism, heterosexism, both out in the nation and world but also within our own walls and in our own body, then we as a group, are perfect.

As individuals, we’re going to fail. As individuals, we are prone to sin and will fall. We have been told that, and we know that from life experiences. And I will not belabor that point further.

But, as a group, as a body of people that gathers together in the name of Jesus Christ, we are called to something greater. As a body, the body of Christ, we are called to be perfect. We are called to give our time, talents, and treasures, to the service of God. We are called to love our enemy. We are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to work against poverty, injustice, oppression, and voices that seek to destroy the humanity of others. We are called to hold each other accountable, call each other out, be there for one another, and see Christ in every living thing in this world.

People of God, be perfect and don’t try for anything less.

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