The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

Perfection – mission impossible?

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Jesus spent much of his time teaching people, trying to help them to understand God’s will as revealed in Scripture. He looked at the issue of murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation and finally the treatment of enemies in Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. The Law of mercy and justice had become distorted in interpretation to one of vegeance. Jesus brings it back to a matter of love. The chapter finishes with a challenge: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The readings were Psalm 146, 2 Corninthians 8:1-9, Matthew 5:38-42.

I’m not sure if any of you has a background in counselling. If you do you will probably know something about Albert Ellis and his ABC model which explains how our emotional responses to events come about.

It’s very common to hear someone say something like, ‘When he said that it made me so angry I could have hit him.’ The person has heard something said and immediately credited that statement with their emotional state and their wish to react physically. The ABC model shows that this direct connection between an event and an emotion is not how things work at all.

In the model A stands for an Activating event (something that happens). B stands for our Belief about the situation. C stands for the Consequent emotion. It is not the event which brings about the emotion but the belief about the event.

Let’s take an example to show how it works:
The Activating Event: You are told by your boss that a recent report you did was of poor quality.
The Belief: I’m useless at this work.
The Consequent Emotion: Anxiety and depression.

In this the person has low self-esteem, believes the worst of themselves and so ends up feeling depressed and anxious.

The same event could have a very different outcome:
The Activating Event: You are told by your boss that a recent report you did was of poor quality.
The Belief: I tried hard with that even though it was not my area of expertise.
The Consequent Emotion: Disappointment but confidence that you can do better in time.

The ABC model shows that we are not helpless victims of circumstances, doomed to feel things because of what happens to us; we have a choice about how we feel. Counsellors help their clients to interrupt the beliefs that lead to negative emotions and help them to see things in a more balanced way, thus leading to different emotions. Changing emotions can also change the behaviour that may result from them, such as hitting someone!

The emotion being considered in the gospel passage is that of love. Jesus is commanding us to love. Some of you may think that it is not possible to experience an emotion just because we are commanded to do so. The ABC model suggests that our emotions are actually under our control at least to some extent so maybe Jesus was not asking the impossible.

This passage comes at the end of a section of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is spending time correcting misinterpretations of the Old Testament on various issues, although on the surface it looks as though he is contradicting the Old Testament. He is trying to move from legalism to the fulfilment of the Law. God’s hatred of evil is a central theme in the Old Testament as Psalm 5 verse 4 states: ‘For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.’ Nowhere does it actually say that we should hate our enemies although it can be implied from Deuteronomy 23:3-6 where God is speaking about how the people of Israel should reject those peoples who didn’t help them as they headed out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

It is possible to miss the mercy in the Old Testament laws. God originally designed a system of justice with mercy but gradually it had become distorted into a licence for revenge. Leviticus 19:18 actually states that there should be no vengeance but there should be love for neighbours. The Pharisees interpreted this as meaning that they should only love those who would love them in return. Proverbs 24:29 tells people not to pay people back for what they have done. Proverbs 25:21 goes further and tells people to give bread to a hungry enemy and water to a thirsty enemy.

There are passages that can be interpreted as meaning that those who embody evil are God’s enemies such as Psalm 26:4-5 and Psalm 139:21-22 but hatred of enemies is not commanded by God. God certainly hates evil but he blesses even his enemies by what is called ‘common grace’. By this what is meant is the blessings given to everyone rather than just to believers. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on all, giving harvests to everyone. The idea of this is to lead those who don’t believe to repentance.

Jesus calls for non-retaliation and that keeps us from taking the law into our own hands. By praying and loving we are about the business of overcoming evil with good. Jesus didn’t just advocate this of course, but demonstrated it when he was crucified by praying for those who were hammering in the nails. By choosing to love and treat well those who are our enemies we show that Jesus is Lord of our lives. We are behaving as children of our heavenly Father who loves all his creatures even if they don’t love or acknowledge him. God gives without thought of return and so must we. It’s natural to respond to some circumstances by wishing to get our own back but God helps those who have surrendered their lives to him. He delivers us from this natural selfishness and helps us to love those whom we find it difficult to love. Our loving is to be greater than that of such as the tax collectors because we are being transformed. Loving is a choice we make, an act of will, and not just a nice warm feeling.

The most challenging part of the Gospel passage is the final verse, telling us we must be perfect as God is perfect. We can see what God is like from the Scriptures where his will and his character are shown to us. Our job as Christians is to live in accordance with what we find in Scripture, to work towards demonstrating in ourselves the perfection of God.

There are three areas in which this perfection is formed. The first is in our character. It is simply not possible for us to have a flawless character but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to having one. Our aim in life should be to be as Christ-like as possible, working towards being morally perfect and sinless in our behaviour.

Second, we should try to be holy, very much like the Pharisees did, living by different values from those of the rest of the world. Jesus described this as being in the world but not of it. The most important thing in our lives should be what God wants rather than what we want. As we work at this we will be able to carry God’s love and his mercy into the world and so help show people what God is like.

The third aspect of perfection concerns maturity. We are not going to wake up one morning, look in the mirror and see a wonderful halo floating above our head. Perfection is a gradual process, a kind of growing up, not physically but spiritually. It would be so easy to be defeated by the command to be perfect. We know we are not perfect; we know we are not even as good as our friends think we are. In fact, I suspect that most of us are very pleased that our friends can’t see inside us and read all our thoughts or have an awareness of our less than desirable motives. Our perfection will be that which is appropriate for our stage of spiritual development. In the same way that we wouldn’t expect a toddler to behave as an adult, we cannot expect newer Christians to behave as more mature ones. On the other hand, it would not be right to try to remain as Christian toddlers all our lives in order to escape the demands of the Gospel. Lying on the floor kicking and screaming because we don’t like what we are being asked to do is rather unbecoming!

All the effort and giving up of our preferred way of doing things will be worth it in the end. We may get frustrated at our failures but one day we will be perfect like Jesus. Listen to what John has to say:
‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.’

Helene Milena – Lay Pastor

Author: Helene Milena

Lay Pastor of the Anglican Cathedral in Second Life. Teacher, counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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