To test Him. That’s what Matthew says. And Luke agrees (10:25ff). Mark has a different take (12:28-34). Mark says that the scribe, or lawyer, was really interested and was really asking. And when Jesus answered, the lawyer claps his hands and says, “Yeah, that’s what I thought; that’s what makes sense; cool; thanks, Jesus.” And Jesus is impressed by him, and says, “You’ve got it. You’re on the right track, almost there.”
“Almost there. Not far from the kingdom,” that’s what he says. What I wouldn’t give to hear that from Jesus. But whether it was a test or a genuine question, Jesus answers the same. What’s the greatest commandment? The number one law? The summation of the code? That is not really the question Jesus is answering. I mean, it is the question Jesus is answering, but not only that. It is not just a legal question; it is not just a doctrinal question. It is a life question, a living question. “How can I be alive?” That could have been or should have been the question that Jesus was asked. How can I be alive? Fully alive? How can I be perfect?
Hold on there, Sparky! You do not want to go there. You do not want to use the p-word. It goes against one of our treasured defining statements of life in general: Nobody is perfect! Yeah, we know Jesus told us to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. But surely he didn’t really mean it. Or he said it with his divine fingers crossed or a holy eye roll. Surely. Yeah, we know that John Wesley wanted to talk about Christian perfection as if it were something reachable. But he got a lot of flak for that. Then and now. And even he seemed to waver on his confidence about whether it was attainable later in his life and ministry. Perhaps he had been exposed to too many human beings and began to despair that Christian perfection was even in the same time zone, let alone in the neighborhood.
Yet he did not give up, old father John Wesley. He still preached Christian perfection, despite the overwhelming evidence of imperfection. That’s where we are now, in our series, the “way to heaven” path that we are on. We started with sin, the sin that cripples us, infects us, overwhelms us. Then we acknowledged grace, the grace that comes before. Before what? Before we’ve done anything, before we’ve responded, before we’ve asked, before we were even aware we needed grace, knew about grace, understood grace. It comes before all of that. Prevenient grace, that’s what it’s called.
But then we discover that we can respond to this grace that we’ve found, or that has found us. We can say, yes; we can say, please. We can say, “Give me some of that grace; I know I need it; I know I’m far from it; I know I’m lost without it. I want to be right again, right with the one who made me, the one who loves me.” Justifying grace. That moment of claiming and being claimed. A new birth, a new creation, a new start.
It is a start, just the start. It is the beginning of a journey, a lifelong journey of hope and joy, off living into the possibilities of faith, of being made more like Christ, of being made more alive. Sanctifying grace equips us for a life of loving like Christ loves, of loving God with all our heart and soul and mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Surely that’s it. That’s the journey, that’s our life. What else could there be? Perfection. Seriously? Yeah. But wait, it’s not what you think. Not the unattainable, not the infallible, mistake-free image of perfection that we have in mind. Wesley defined Christian perfection, or perfection in love, in specific ways. He says that perfection in love doesn’t mean perfection in knowledge. It doesn’t mean we will always do the right thing at the right time. It doesn’t mean that we will never have anything go wrong, that we won’t be subject to the ills of life and living. We are subject to the same viruses, the same calamities, the errors that everyone else is subject to. We do not become super Christians or spiritual giants. Neither does it mean that we have no room to grow, no development to engage in. There is room for more. More perfection? Not exactly. More likely, you are perfect as you are now, but you can be more in the future and perfect then too.
Wha....? Perfection, Christian perfection, or perfection in love anyway, is not a state of being. It is not a standard to achieve, not a behavior to perform. Instead, it is a singularity of intent. It is the desire to will the will of God in all things. And I can will God’s will now, knowing what I know, having lived the life I have lived to this point. But I can will God’s will in the future, when I know more, have lived more, loved more. Steve Harper, the author of the book The Way to Heaven, describes a parent who measures a child in development and declares that the child is perfect for a four-year-old. But not done, obviously. Not complete. There is always more to come, more to reach for, more to give and more to be. Even as we claim perfect love.
Not that I’m there yet. Not that I have been made perfect in love. Yet. Not that I love the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and my neighbor as myself. I want to. I really do. Sometimes. Now and then. On my better days. OK, the problem is my will. It gets in the way of God’s will in my life. I’m like the lawyer in the text this week. I’m asking, but not really asking. I want to know how to live my life in the best, most fulfilling way possible. But I’m not really making a commitment, yet. I’m testing the waters. Testing, you know?
The way to press on in this life of faith is to stand on these two guides, these two rules, these two descriptions of what a life of faith really is. Any other measure we might want to find is only valuable in that it reflects these two commandments. And even the word commandment gives the wrong impression sometimes. Can you command love? How about these two truths? These two fundamental truths about how to live life as God intended it to be, as we were created to be, are the foci around which everything we are and everything we desire circle.
We press on to embrace these truths, to make them descriptive of our entire lives. We can’t just be testing the waters if we want to press on. We’ve got to dive in. We’ve got to take the baton. We’ve got . . . how many other metaphors do we need? We press on in the strength of these two commandments.