7th of the Year ~ SMC 23rd Feb 2020
After a few years of learning French at secondary school we were streamed into abilities. It was a big school and so we had seven classes, determined according to ability and before you think it, no I wasn’t in the bottom class; I was in third set, which was pretty respectable and probably a rather over-confident reflection of my French. My best friend at school was however in top set, which of course led to him teasing me because it showed he was better than me and I must have been stupid etc. But I had the last laugh when those GSCE results came out two years later and my friend in top set had an A and I had an A*. Victory! Those of you have recently sat your GSCEs will probably need me to explain what an A* afterwards, which I’ll gladly do.
Our readings today try to piece together a little of the higher way to which we are called. It’s a very appropriate reminder as we baptise Danielle this morning that we are recognising God’s call upon her. “Be perfect, Jesus says, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48). We heard what that will look like and I will come on to those points in a bit. But when Jesus says, “Be perfect,” he didn’t say it to people who were better at being holy than we are. It wasn’t necessarily easier to be holy two thousand years ago than it is today. The people whom Jesus said it to lived a life with few rights, no talk of equality, where their home had been conquered by a foreign invading power and where so much of clean water supplies and ease of access to food and education did not exist.
So it is that Jesus says to us in this Mass: “Be perfect.” Be perfect even when there are fears about coronavirus. Be perfect even when someone has let you down. Be perfect even when there’s political uncertainty. Be perfect even when your neighbours are being too noisy. Be perfect when you’re updating your Facebook profile. Be perfect when no one’s looking. Be perfect. What Danielle receives today - what we have all received at our Baptism - is a call to perfection.
Let’s look at how that is particularly articulated in our readings this morning. Jesus says, “You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.” Jesus is trying to root out sin from the world and He will succeed when the end of time comes, the first fruits of which is in the Crib when He is born for us sinners and on the Cross when He dies for us. To root out sin we can’t make excuses for us sinning and so often we do blame others for our sin. We can’t offer resistance; we can’t say I’m sinning because of what that person did to me. This isn’t about letting ourselves be walked all over but will mean sometimes we just need to step back rather than lash out. As we begin Lent on Wednesday this week, our Lenten efforts will be about focusing on the Lord who, as He is led off to His Crucifixion, doesn’t offer resistance. When we long for that coffee we’ve given up; when we’re saying that extra set of prayers that really aren’t very convenient, then in that moment we are letting Jesus come through in our lives, Jesus who was led by His accusers unjustly to His death, even though He was the Innocent One.
“Offer the wicked man no resistance.” As Jesus unravels what this means he teaches us to go the extra mile. When the homeless person on the street asks us for some change; when we’re required to be at Mass every Sunday; when we resist the temptation to lie; we can go the extra mile. Don’t just give the homeless person fifty pence but ask them their name and commit to pray for them next day at Mass. Don’t just get to Mass every Sunday, come in the week too. Don’t just resist the temptation to lie but do it with a heart full of joy. “Going the extra mile” surely doesn’t mean we simply give people two of something when they ask for one; but it will mean we have a clear sense of what God’s ultimate purpose for that person is, what His call for us is and we will bestow blessing upon blessing by trying to make that heavenly reality more evident on earth. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Thirdly, “You have learnt how it was said: ‘You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’” My friends, how easy it is to hate our enemies and our persecutors! Sometimes, it’s not only easy but it gives us satisfaction. We’ll see this in our own life. We see on the TV and on Twitter when with sheer rage and hatred people are aghast at what others believe and think it incomprehensibly deeply wrong. In contrast, Jesus sees us fall in to sin and His response is not outrage but love: it must be a difficult love to maintain and were He not God of Gods and Lord of Lords who know what might happen to that love. But Jesus embodies the Father’s compassion and love; and we have to have that love determining our actions. “If you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit?”
So often Christians are labelled as hypocrites because we hand on the teaching of Jesus, “To be perfect,” and yet we are so clearly not perfect ourselves. You’re not perfect; I’m not perfect. We recognise that, of course, at the start of Mass and it’s one of the reasons it’s so important for us to be here at the start of Mass; because we begin by saying: “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned … therefore pray for me.” As Christians we are fully living out our vocation to be holy when we say that we are sinners and can articulate when we sin. Godparents should particularly try to model this for their godchildren because it is something human beings can be bad at. When Adam takes the apple in the Garden of Eden he doesn’t say, “I’m sorry, God, for doing what you told me not to do.” He says: “She told me to do it!” He blames someone else. We are all sinners but we cannot water down God’s call to perfection: we have no right to change that eternal call to holiness.
God is not being unreasonable in giving this call. There’s currently a debate within universities following the lecturers striking: how can students be expected to learn if their tutors are not there, and should universities therefore provide a refund for the lectures and tutorials missed? It’s not a debate I wish to wade in on but it’s in stark contrast to God’s generosity. God is not unreasonable. He has shown us how to live this life in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was tempted in every way as we are yet He did not sin. God has taught us in His saints the capacity that human nature has for goodness and repentance. God has not only taught us in His mercy and compassion, but He has also fed us. That which Danielle receives today is not just an instruction - Be perfect - she also receives grace so as to do it, indeed she receives all the grace she needs in this Sacrament of Baptism. The Lord is compassion and love, as we said in the Psalm earlier.
Because sin then takes an increasing hold in our life, we need to keep coming to the altar to top up, if you like, on grace, God’s gift to us His people. One of the ladders of this call to perfection is humility. Part of that humility will be to recognise we need to ask for help from others sometime, as I was trying to say in my email to the parish a couple of weeks ago. If you didn’t get that email from me, do make sure the parish has up-to-date contact details by writing them on a piece of paper and give them to me or someone else who will looks like they’ll know what to do with them! Part of that humility we need will be to receive grace from God during rough times rather than just soldiering on in our own strength. Sometimes being humble will relate to the way we receive that grace, meaning we’ll be content with receiving grace in the way the Church decides rather than in a way we have concocted ourselves. Humility will some times mean taking the insults hurled at us by others after the example of our Blessed Lord and so many of the saints, among them St Benedict who felt so much resentment from those whose lives he was trying to make holier.
Be perfect, my friends, and don’t be content with simply being better than mass-murderers and those we find it so easy to condemn on the front pages of our newspapers. Don’t be simply better than them. But be the best God has called us to be; be perfect. Amen.