What Does the Lord Jesus Mean When He Calls Us to Be Perfect?
As we’ve ended the first week of Lent the Gospel passage for Mass shakes me to the bone. It is a call to complete transformation, beginning right now – and right where we are. It is a call to be perfect.
It is a call to become saints in the stuff of the real world. In everyday life. In the mess of daily living. It is right there, right where you are, where that transformation can take place. Daily life presents the very material which is used to recreate us more fully into the Image revealed perfectly in the Sacred Humanity of Jesus.
In its dogmatic constitution on the Church entitled Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations) the Second Vatican Council affirmed the teaching of Jesus Christ, the clear teaching and witness of the early Church and the consistent teaching of Church Councils throughout the ages – holiness of life is not an option, for any member of the Church.
We are all called to Christian perfection, “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect” (Lumen Gentium, Light to the Nations, 11).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (CCC #2013) Christians are saved from sin, death and separation from God, through Jesus Christ. But it does not end there, it just begins.
We are called for holy living.
We are called to live differently – beginning right now- because we can actually live our lives now in Jesus Christ. Because we are Christians, followers of the Christ. We are able to love differently, because we are given the grace to love differently, in Jesus Christ, and with His Love. And all of this is made possible, as we cooperate with this grace, this free gift of God’s Divine Life. And, it begins right now.
The character of Jesus Christ is being formed in each one of us as we say yes – and choose to cooperate with the Lord who is making us new, every day.
As I grow older, the words from today’s Gospel become even more sobering:
“Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 43-48)
Can can we be perfect?
This admonition from Jesus to be perfect is repeated in other Gospel accounts and developed in the New Testament Epistles, those letters in the back of the Bible. Those letters were written to people just like us – Moms, Dads, grandparents, and people in every walk of life. Our question should not be “is it possible?”. Rather, it should be “HOW is it possible?”
How will we respond?
Perhaps our problem is rooted in understanding – and responding – to this call to be perfect. Perhaps it is because we confuse the meaning of the word, “perfect“. Filtering this word through our linguistic limitations, we often fall for a false translation and, as a result, not even attempt to respond to the admonition.
But the admonition – to be perfect – does not go away by pretending it is not right there, in that Bible. Jesus has saved us from sin and death – and saved us for a new way of living. We can tend to focus on what we are saved from and forget what we are saved for. We do not yet comprehend who we are to become in Jesus Christ.
What Does the Word Perfect Mean?
In Greek, the word often translated perfect is telios. It refers to something being completed, brought to its full purpose, potential and intended end -and vocation. For example, in the world of objects, a hammer is telios or perfect when it is hammering a nail.
In the world of subjects, things are telios or perfect when they are fulfilling their nature and purpose. In our Western minds, we can limit this word “perfect” and thereby fail to grasp its promise and potential.
We think of it mathematically rather than relationally.We fail to understand it is a work in process, and so are we. The call to follow Jesus Christ, to be a Christian, involves our entire life and opens up into eternity.
The God who is Love fashioned us in His Image. We are made to love as He loves. In Jesus Christ, we are now also being capacitated – to use a term frequently used by the early father and Bishop Ireneaus of Lyons – meaning made capable – by the grace of His Redemption – of actually loving with God’s love, and living differently.
“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16).
Jesus was perfected?
Notice that the concept of being “perfected‘ is also applied to Jesus by the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. We read in chapter 5 verses 8-9:
“Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Jesus was made perfect through what He suffered?
Yet, Jesus was without sin. How then was He possibly perfected?
Again, the meaning of the word unlocks the mystery meant to be revealed and lived.
Jesus came into the world to redeem us from the consequences of sin, to transform us by a saving life, and a saving death, and a Resurrection of Perfect Redemptive Love. He fulfilled His purpose when He presided over the new creation from the Altar of that Cross.
He was perfected when He robbed death of its victory by bursting forth from a tomb – which could not contain Love Incarnate.He was thus “perfected” by fulfilling His mission and making it possible for us to be born anew.
We can now Live in Him
We can live in Him – right now – as we live our lives in the heart of the Church – for the sake of the world. The Church is not so much a Some-Thing as a Some-One. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are members of that Body. Jesus is the Head of the Body. He continues His mission now, in and through His Body. The Head and the Body cannot be separated.
We are being made perfect, made holy, as we cooperate with the continual invitations from Jesus Christ to conversion. We are invited to live our lives in the Communion of His Body on earth, the Church.
We are capacitated to love as He loved, by His grace which is at work within us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us we are being made into a new creation – in Christ. By actually believing this – and then beginning to live differently – we prove ourselves to be Sons and Daughters of His Father, who by the power of the Holy Spirit, has become Our Father.
Christianity is not just about going to heaven, but about living differently beginning right now and helping to bring “heaven” to earth.
When we follow Jesus a dynamic process happens within us, an ever deepening conversion and transformation begins to take place, a process which is called perfection.
We “participate in the Divine Nature” the Apostle Peter tells us. (2 Peter 1:4). We are perfected in charity, by grace – and through faith.
Every Christian, no matter what their state in life or even our particular vocation, is called to this holiness of life. God’s Divine Life, and its dynamic work within us, is meant change us into the new men and women that Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to become, beginning now.
We can walk this way of holiness by living in His Body, the Church, of which we are members.In that new set of relationships with Him, and in Him, with one another, we grow and change. As we pray, read and study His Word, the Bible, receive the Sacraments and begin to actually live as Christians, we begin to change. We become those “new creations” the Apostle Paul referred to. (See, 2Cor. 5:17)
The Church is the seed of the kingdom which is to come.
The Church makes the kingdom present in a world waiting to be born anew. Only when the King returns will the Kingdom be fully established. Then, upon His glorious return, the entire creation will be reconstituted by love, made perfect, and handed back to the Father as a gift of love.
However, the Church is a sign, a sacrament of that Kingdom. We are seeds of that kingdom, scattered into the world as into a furrow. We are called to become saints and refashioned through cooperation with grace, and then sown into this age to transform it from within.
Called to become saints, right where we are
The Saints we honor as Catholic Christians are given to us as examples to emulate as well as intercessors to assist us in responding to our vocation. They are companions on the journey; men and women like us who responded to God’s invitation to become like Jesus.
They pray for us because we are joined with them in the eternal communion of love. They put legs on the Gospel, showing us what holiness looks like. However, if we stop there, we miss the mark. Missing the mark is the translation of the Hebrew word often translated “sin” in the Old Testament.
We are called to become saints
That happens as we are perfected in charity and to grow in holiness. Not only are we called to holiness, it is now possible through Jesus Christ. In the Gospel text which will be read at tomorrow’s Liturgy for the Second Sunday of Lent, we will hear proclaimed the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus from the account offered by St Mark.
What we also need to remember about this account is that Jesus is also revealing who we are called to become – as we continue on the road to redemption and follow the way of perfection which will only be complete (perfect) when we too are raised from the dead.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council point to this scriptural teaching in their often quoted 22d paragraph found in another of their profound documents On the Church in the Modern world (Guadum et Spes, Joy and Hope, #22) with these words.
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.
I close with words from the Apostle Paul which help to open up the meaning of our vocation in Jesus Christ – and the call we each have to progress, to be perfected, in Him. They are expounded upon with great beauty and insight in the paragraph from Gaudium et Spes which I quoted above.
I urge my readers to go to the source and read it for yourself. Here are the words of the Apostle addressed not only to the Colossian Christians but to you and to me:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
“He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
“And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which has been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23)
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