Perfection: A Donut Theology
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5: 38-48
“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.” Winston Churchill
Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, because your Heavenly Father is perfect.” That is what Christ has to say to us this week. At the apex of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we are told exactly what is expected of us as disciples. Perfection. Teleios in the Greek.
Hearing this, we are tempted to jump right to acknowledging the impossibility of this expectation. For as Romans (3:23) confirms for us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I admit I was tempted this week to write a sermon on forgiveness instead of perfection.
But. I think we can be brave in the face of un-attainability… and consider that there might be something to this notion of perfection for God to reveal to us today.
Let’s take a moment to bless this imperfect sermon on perfection:
Lord, we approach your Word with the heart of a student. Help us to learn, to grow. Place in us an openness of mind and a softness of heart for we wish to understand your truth. Lord, bless this time of message today, might it be redeemed for your glory! Amen.
Now… for the task of pondering perfection I present to you… a visual aid.
(unveil a plate of donuts)
I have been looking forward to this sermon all week… (take a bite.). A greater example of perfection I have yet to encounter.
Did you know that the most popular donut in the world is the simple/ classic glazed donut? I prefer one with a bit more pizzazz as you can see from my sprinkled selection. (Take a bite.)
This may be a cause for debate… but my sources say that donuts originated in the 16th century Holland. And they were so greasy from the oil they were cooked in that the Dutch called them “oily cakes.”
The Pilgrims, our Spiritual forbearers, who had lived in Holland, brought the cakes with them when they came to New World. It is hard for me to picture Puritans indulging in sweets… but if you read it on the internet it must be true, right?… Their version was a round doughy ball about the size of a nut… thus the first “doughnut.” (Take a bite.)
The origins of the donut hole is particularly intriguing. Captain Hanson Gregory, in the 19th century was eating a doughnut while sailing through a storm… And suddenly, the ship was rocked violently and he was thrown against the ship’s wheel impaling his poor cake on one of its spokes!
(Take a bite)
Seeing how well the spoke held his cake… Captain Gregory began ordering all his cakes with holes in them. Which made them rather convenient for snacking…
I should probably stop there, but I have one more donut story: Doughnuts were popularized in the US after the Salvation Army began feeding them to the troops during the Second World War! The Salvation Army folks had doughnut cooking stations assembled out of garbage pails and they served them to the soldiers by looping them over the end of a bayonet…
(Take a bite)
The Soldiers got so hooked on them that they were called “doughboys.” And in my research this week… I wasn’t sure if that was in reference to the cakes or the soldiers… probably both.
(at this point the whole donut has been eaten)
Now for the riddle… So, what is left of the donut?
The donut hole, of course…
To say that “perfection” is the same as being sinless is like saying that a donut is the same as the hole.
(Grab another donut). I’m not going to eat this one…
Is this donut real? Yes. Is the hole real? …
The hole exists in relation to the donut.
The hole exists only if the donut exists.
And now, because I ate the donut, our donut hole no longer exists.
No donut, no hole.
The donut hole represents my perfection, and yours. It exists only in relation to the actual perfection of Christ. Christ being the donut in this illustration, of course.
We, as human beings, are not capable of perfection…
Although, Pelagius did dare to believe that perfection was achievable. Back in the fourth century the doctrine of Original Sin was all the rage. And this theologian taught that contrary to this Original Sin idea humanity was untouched/unwounded by the sin of Adam. It was his thinking that humanity was perfectly able to fulfill the laws and teachings of Scripture without divine aid if they were just dedicated enough. To Pelagius, the grace of God was an unnecessary charity for the faithful. Something pitiable almost.
But, what does he know! Pelagius was labeled a heretic by the church and exiled to the deserts of Egypt for this “doctrine of self-sufficiency.”
We know we aren’t perfect… And so, It is hard to hear the command, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” So much so that we want to immediately discount it and move on.
But, Scripture also tells us that there is perfection to be found in Christ – and for us, in our relationship to Christ.
The donut hole exists in relation to the donut.
The Greek – Teleios, appears often in the New Testament (48 times). Teleios is translated as perfect (as we read here), as mature, complete and persistent.
The root of this word does not come from blamelessness or sinlessness or even purity- the root is in the concept of maturity or a developed wholeness.
“Be mature, as your Heavenly Father is mature.”
“Be complete, as your Heavenly Father is complete.”
“Be persistent, as your Heavenly Father is persistent.”
Our Teleios is something that becomes. Our perfection is something that is sought. It grows though practice and activity.
So the obvious question is, what practices and activities develop perfection?
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other… If anyone sues you and takes your shirt, hand over your coat as well.. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go two.
You have heard it said, ‘Love you neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Our perfection comes in putting the teaching of Jesus into action.
– We are to surprise the angry with our peace.
– We are to defuse a bully with our humility.
– We are to be so generous that our behavior encroaches on recklessness.
– We are to discount our very human gravitation towards fairness in exchange for mercy.
– We are to love even when it challenges our boundaries of what is/ who is lovable.
The way you are perfect is by the way you live, living in a way that is different/ in a way that is countercultural/ living in a way (even) that may seem counter-instinctive… in a way that is holy (set apart for God). And for what purpose? Jesus.
Our job as Disciples is to rain down mercy, compassion, kindness, peace and radical loving action – because… Jesus. Because of the Emmanuel. “God with us.” The end goal of growing our perfection/is to bear the Emmanuel to the world.
Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person.” That portion of this passage always stops me in my tracks. It just doesn’t seems to jive with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. How are we to live into our instructions to be a people of integrity, and justice, and truth… if we are not to resist/ to stand up to, evil? How can that possibly be a teaching of Jesus?
As frustrating and as powerless as this sounds: Evil is not ours to conquer. It is only God that can really squash evil.
But, as my preaching professor in seminary once told me. “Jesus is sneaky. He is Sneaky Jesus.” In our discipleship/ in our living out the gospel, Emmanuel is made present. “God with us.” The Kingdom of God is revealed- its light and hope breaks through.
Evil is resisted not by us alone. Evil is resisted in God made present in this world.
We are the hole to Jesus’ donut.
In our perfection in discipleship/ in our persistence at being good disciples/ in our effort to be complete disciples… God works.
It is in these effort that love is conquers the evils of this world and the Kingdom of God is made manifest.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Discipleship can be difficult and costly. When all we want to do is meet anger with anger, Jesus demands that we be better than that. When all we want to do is remain blissfully unaware to injustice, Jesus invites us to draw close/ to open our eyes.
Discipleship often costs us our bliss and our pride, and our desire to get the last word in in a fight. It costs us our calm and our comfort.
The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes, a vision of the Kingdom of God. A reality where the poor in spirit are filled, the mourning are made glad, the persecuted are released and the peacemakers are uplifted. A reality that God intends for our world. Jesus is not asking us to be perfect, as in without error. But Jesus is asking us to be persistent towards bringing the Kingdom of God to bear. So we must ask ourselves… is it worth the cost?
It was to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When essay “The Power of Nonviolence” he wrote:
We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is non-aggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.
And this a little later:
Another thing that we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding… The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.
The end if the Kingdom of God.
Our discipleship is costly and can be difficult. And in our attempts hindsight often has much to teach us. But our perfection (our persistence) is not ours alone. Persistence belong to the one who went to the cross for me, for you, for the the world.
And in the effort and actions that we are able to offer… perhaps it is at least a shadow of the ‘pefection’ Jesus demonstrated in his living and suffering and dying on our behalf. That was the truest example of perfection- to love that much is what it is to be perfect for our heavenly father is perfect.