Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

We Believe in Perfection
April 12, 1981

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ROMANS 12:1-2, 9-21

Yesterday we took the 2-1 group on a trip to the Biblical Gardens in Grass Valley. I've never been there before. I commend the trip to you. The biblical gardens are really beautiful and inspiring with plants and trees from the Holy Land, a rushing stream, statues and verses depicting scenes in the Bible—very impressive. We had a wonderful time. The 2-1 group is one of the newer groups in the church. We have started it for persons who are widowed, a support group for persons who have lost a spouse. I told one guy that we were a new youth group. We had a great time, great time eating. George told me that I was doing a great job of getting my weight down. In fact, he said I got my weight down to my waist and it just seems to sit there. I told him it was a disease. The Palo Alto kids told me I had Dunlops disease, which is when the belly dunlops over the belt. We had such a good time we were afraid that the word might get out to the rest of the church and some of you might be shooting your husbands or wives in order to qualify for the group. 

As one lady left the van she said, “This has just been a perfect day.” What is perfect? A doctrine of perfection is a unique belief, and an emphasis of our tradition that has been very controversial. It was very controversial in Wesley's day. He had controversy with those outside his movement and he had controversy with those inside the movement about perfection. Wesley believed there is a second and even more acts of God in our lives. The first act of God in our life is our redemption. And then Wesley believed that God still works in our life, and works in such a way to make us perfect. Other words have been used to describe this belief, words like second blessing, holiness, or sanctification. When I was a youth and went to the Red Rock Camp Meetings in Minnesota, we had holiness preachers who preached about the second blessing and called us forward to the altar to be sanctified and receive the Holy Spirit to be made perfect. 

But, the controversy in Wesley's day with this doctrine was essentially a controversy between those who had a very pessimistic view of human nature, contrasted with Wesley's optimistic view of human nature. The pessimists in that day were called Calvinists, little relation to the John Calvin of 200 years before. The Calvinists of Wesley's days believed in total depravity, original sin and predestination. People were predestined to live the kinds of lives they were living, some predestined to heaven and some predestined to hell. And of course, the Calvinists were among those predestined to heaven. The attitude or the response, or the logical conclusion to such beliefs is complacency, acceptance of your lot in life, and telling the other fellow to be accepting of his or her lot in life. 

Wesley opposed that pessimism. He believed that people can be changed. He believed that society can be changed. He believed that God works in human hearts and human lives, and he believed God is bringing us to perfection, to the ideal. He believed that this preaching was very important in the movement, that it was central to the movement. He said God raised up the Methodist movement in order to preach this doctrine, in order to preach it to all Christianity. He said it is difficult to remain in the grace of God, to retain the grace of God. He said where this doctrine is not preached, believers grow dead and cold. Maybe some modern Methodist churches qualify being dead and cold. He said you could fall out of grace as easy as falling into it. In fact, he had an exit policy for those who were not going on to perfection. People were dropped quickly from the rolls and from the class meetings when they did not fulfill the expectations, when they did not exhibit in their lives that they were earnestly seeking and desiring sanctification, perfection from God. 

Well, what does it mean to be perfect? What did John Wesley mean by perfection? He said being perfect is to be perfect in love. Perfect does not mean never making a mistake or never making an error. It does not mean never sinning. The goal is to be made perfect in love where love is the sole principle of action. We had that kind of perfection on this trip yesterday. It was all loving concern for one another with the canes getting up and down the hills, sharing lunch, a genuine concern and love for each other and enjoying God's creation. There was nothing negative. Nobody griped or complained. Nobody picked anyone else apart. No one hurt anyone else. There was no evil. It was a perfectly loving day and experience. 

I discovered this week in a newsletter some definitions of people. Which of these are you? Some people are like wheelbarrows. They don't go anywhere unless pushed. Some people are like canoes, they need to be paddled. Some are like kites, keep a string on them or they fly away. Some are like kittens, more contented when petted. Others resemble footballs, no way to tell which way they'll bounce next. Then there are the balloons full of air and ready to blow up. Some are like neon lights, they flash on and off. Then there are those few who are like good watches—open faced, pure gold, quietly busy and full of good works. Watches —open-faced, pure gold, quietly busy and full of good works —perfect people according to John Wesley. Perhaps the best definition of what he meant by perfection is the hymn we will close the service with. Listen as I read the verses, and as we sing this hymn, may you let these words speak to you, written by Charles Wesley, John's brother, who composed 6500 hymns in all and this is one of the best loved.

Love divine, all loves excelling,

joy of heaven, to earth come down,

fix in us thy humble dwelling,

all thy faithful mercies crown.

Jesus, thou art all compassion,

pure, unbounded love thou art;

visit us with thy salvation;

enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving Spirit

into every troubled breast;

let us all in thee inherit;

let us find the promised rest.

Take away the love of sinning;

Alpha and Omega be;

end of faith, as its beginning,

set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty, to deliver,

let us all thy life receive;

suddenly return, and never,

nevermore thy temples leave.

Thee we would be always blessing,

serve thee as thy hosts above,

pray and praise thee without ceasing,

glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;

pure and spotless let us be;

let us see thy great salvation

perfectly restored in thee:

changed from glory into glory,

till in heaven we take our place,

till we cast our crowns before thee,

lost in wonder, love and praise.

When ministers are ordained elder in our church, one of the questions the bishop asks is, “Are you going on to perfection?” That has been a very uncomfortable question through the years. Sometimes the ordinands mumble. Sometimes they don't answer. Sometimes they mouth the words. It’s a very uncomfortable question—are you going on to perfection? But, the opposite is even more uncomfortable. Turn that question over. If you are not going on to perfection, what are you going on to? What is your direction? What is your goal? Jesus said, “Be perfect as our father is perfect.” The apostle Paul wrote, “I press on to the upward call in Christ Jesus.” I press on. If you’re not going on to perfection, what are you going on to? Or are you not growing at all? Is there no desire in your life to grow? Or are you already perfect.? And if you are already perfect, I suspect you're in reverse because there's no such thing as standing still. 

Let's take an inventory. Take a challenge. Picture yourself leaving your body, coming up here and looking back at you. Picture yourself looking at how you've been these last few days. And ask yourself this question. Am I a more loving person today than I was last week? Am I a more loving person today than I was one year ago? Or five years ago? And take this inventory from our scripture lesson from Romans chapter 12. Ask yourself these questions out of this passage. Are you more respectful to other people? Do you have more joy? Are you more patient? Is your prayer life deeper? When someone hurts you or disagrees with you, do you live in peace, taking no revenge but loving that enemy? Is evil defeating you, or are you increasingly conquering evil with good? Are you going on to perfection? Is God working in your life? And Paul says in verse two, “Know the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing to him and is perfect.” Do you know more of the will of God today than you did one year ago? 

How are we made perfect?  In our scripture lesson from Romans 12, especially the first two verses, Paul tells us how we can know the will of God, how we can know the perfect will of God. There are two things we do, and then God acts. First, to be made perfect, do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world. The Jerusalem Bible translates it, “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you. Make a complete change of your mind.” Let Jesus be your model and not the world. Let the values of Jesus be the goal and not what the world thinks. Let God change and fill your mind. Don't hold on to what we think is so right and to be so sure. Hold the style and the values of Christ above and ahead and make Christ the model and make a plan of how to get there. What is the next thing you need to do in your life to achieve that goal.? 

Secondly, Paul writes, “Offer yourself as a living sacrifice to God,” Usually we interpret that very symbolically as not meaning a literal sacrifice, as if there are no longer any Christian martyrs. Actually, what it's saying is to be willing to give up your life when Christ calls. Be willing to give up everything you have for his cause. In this day and age as it was in the past, perhaps your very life is required. There are more martyrs today in the name of Jesus Christ than at any time in history. Last December, four women missionaries, nuns of the Maryknoll Order of the Roman Catholic Church were shot and murdered in El Salvador, just last December, four sisters. They sacrificed their very lives. 

And not only did they give up their lives, now they are giving up their good names and their reputations. They are losing their reputations. Even our own government is involved in smearing their name and their reputation. To serve Christ in this day, and age requires everything, even your good name. Even our Ambassador to the United Nations and our Secretary of State, have accused these nuns of being subversive and using their church as a front for leftist political activities. Our government is placed in a very uncomfortable compromising position because it insists on supporting the regime of El Salvador, which murders women missionaries, and which slaughters its own civilians. And our government insists on supporting that kind of movement and so they smear these women's names and subtly hint that they're communists. 

What happened down there? From what I've been able to read, these four nuns ran a military roadblock. They refused to stop. Why? Because they were ministering to the displaced persons and the refugees of that violence. They were on their way to feed the hungry, to take blankets and medical aid to those who are suffering. They were ministering. And I can just see those women, can't you. “I'm not stopping for your military roadblock. I've got something to do. There are people in need.” And the minds of politicians just cannot understand motivation based on love. They just can't understand a motivation that is not based on some political movement or not based on getting rich for oneself. They just can't understand people ministering in the name of love. The head military officer of that area is quoted as saying, “These church workers are subversive because they side with the weak.” That was their crime—they supported the poor and the displaced. And so now they're called communists. 

All who would serve Christ in this day and age, whether you're called to the missionary field, or whether you’re called here, there is always the danger of losing your name, of sacrificing your reputation if you're going to stand up for people, if you're going to stand up for love. What is the loving thing to do is the question to a Christian. Not what is the political thing to do, not what will give you prestige or make you money, but what is the loving thing to do? That sacrifice is perfect love. Paul says when you do not conform to the standards of this world, and when you sacrifice your life for Christ, then God will transform you inwardly and you will know the will of God, what is pleasing to him and what is perfect.

© 1981 Douglas I. Norris