Sermon: Frank Moritz-Jauk
Sanctification and Christian Perfection Philippians 3, 4b-14
Dear Congregation, I am referring to the text we heard from the Philippians. I find it to be a clear text from Paul.
Here Paul’s resolve becomes very apparent: Just as he was once ready to fight for the law and to persecute the Christian communities, so clearly is his change of heart, that according to him, this view is nothing but garbage. „Dirt“ is how it is translated in other bibles. In my old Lutheran bible from 1966 it is even translated at, “feces”. These hearty formulations of images show what Paul is committed to a faith, that has a focus point completely in Jesus and therefore with God.
We, as non-Jewish, not belonging to the chosen people, in reality do not stand before this, „either or“ question. Either justice which comes from law or justice which comes from believing in Jesus as Paul puts is so beautifully.
Interestingly enough, Paul introduces a pair of opposites which should have replaced Romans that had appeared three to four years earlier:
That it is even possible to be right through the law and with that through one’s own performances.
I do not know why Paul is doing this here, but my own conviction is that of Romans: It is completely impossible to do justice by keeping the law.
One could maybe maintain the commandments from Genesis 2 but by Genesis 5 – most people have reached their limits:
„You should love the Lord, your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and with all your strength”. Who can say this?
Now we have arrived at today’s main theme: The question concerning Christian perfection. “Christian perfection“, as John Wesley has called it. Teaching sermon 40.
The connection to today’s text is clear. Paul writes: not that I am already perfect but I do everything to become perfect. Short version.
Is this our goal today? Is this your life goal? Do you really do everything in order to reach this life goal?
During my distant study on the eAcademy I was asked to deal with the teaching sermon 39 from John Wesley. Basically, it is about ecumenical spirit of John Wesley, in which he tries to work out the traits of Christianity in order to be able to reach out to people of other denominations. So far so good. But in detail it sounds like this, „Is God the middle point of your soul, the epitome of all your yearning?“ or, „is your eye louder in all things, does it always straighten itself and always look up to Jesus?“, or, „is nothing as dreadful to you as the thoughts of passing you off in the eyes of his Majesty?“ The list could be extended by at least 50 other examples. The fact is: I would never have been able to or want to reach my hand out to Brother John.
This sounds hard but have you noticed how similar the selections of my quotations are to the commandment of Deuteronomy? In Deuteronomy it says, “with all your strength”. With Wesley, „is God the epitome of all your yearning.” Or “all your soul“ and again with Wesley, “always towards him, always to Jesus.”
This might be considered to be the ideal goal according to Paul or Wesley, but how realistic is it to do? Do I want to do it? No – definitely not for me.
I played tennis during my youth. I also played basketball. The reason why I never played in a sports club is because of the typical club character, the essence of a club: If you are a member of a club, then you are expected to attend each of the three or four weekly trainings. During the weekends you should participate in the competitions and if there is a big meeting or a charity event where cake is being sold, then it is naturally expected that you contribute something. When you get older then you can also take over the youth team training. My experience: clubs act as if there is nothing else in the world except them. Either you are in it 150% or not at all.
Therefore, I did not do anything.
Then I wanted to go to church, meet with friends and maybe join a weekend excursion.
With the „complete“ I also have my problems.
As if there is an, “always” to the, “whole”, then we have arrived in the life of a whole pastor generation. Always available, always working, always serving the Lord.
My difficulty is the idea of achievement, which shines through all these images. Therefore, I cannot very much appreciate the image that Paul uses, namely the course that must be taken to receive the victory prize.
The image from sports in reality has not just one but two problematic sides.
The first problem is the performance I have to bring in order to win. It goes so far that I have to cheat at some sports, have to dope, in order to have even the slightest chance. Not only do I have to invest all my time, my will power and my energy but at the same time I have to withstand my fear of what would happen if the truth would be revealed. But let’s leave it now for Christian perfection to say, that it is a matter of performance.
The second problematic image is that of the victory prize. Characteristic for sports is: there can only be one winner. There are only multiple winners at the Paralympics, the Olympic Games for persons with disabilities.
How does this image fit to a religion which wants to be social and congregational?
And one last thought about this: perfect people have never been a role model for me. Perfect people are scary to me. Yes, in a certain way they make me uncomfortable because I do not believe in the human perfectionism. So, when someone comes with the claim to be perfect, then I ask myself: okay – this is a perfect facade with this and that what you can apparently do really well, but what are your fears? You do not have fears? Then you should become friends with a machine or a robot but not with me.
So, summarize everything said about today’s theme Christian perfection, I would say: the term, Christian perfection is a term which causes too many misunderstandings to be appropriate for describing the essential of a Christian lifestyle. I hope that this was diplomatic enough.
Better is the concept of sanctification, which is also an old Methodist thought. The goal of the Methodist movement according to John Wesley was, „to spread sanctification across the lands”.
Even where there is the danger of the, „machismo/Machertum“, then I can deal better with the thoughts of Theodor Runyon who said, that sanctification is, „a growth in love“.
Now we are slowly heading in the direction in which I believe.
I believe, that love does not want perfectionism, no perfection.
I believe that the devotion to God is the process of opening up for the work of God’s love.
Therefore, I would put standing still before running.
With open arms towards Heaven.
This is the lifestyle that I tend to and strive for.
To hope for God’s love. To ask for God’s strength. And to attribute the success to his Holy Spirit, of which we can be gifted.
This might sound terribly pious but in reality, it is about the origins of our hope.
In conclusion, I will let Paul say it again: rather, as the self-acquired righteousness, I am concerned with the righteousness that comes from God and whose foundation is faith.