Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday April 15 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale; “Is Perfection Possible?”
I John 3:6 ““Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.”
In 1777 the Reverend John Wesley wrote a startling book with a simple title “A Plain Account to Christian Perfection.” As you probably know, Mr. Wesley began his spiritual journey as an Anglican clergyman but after a thorough-going encounter with the grace of Christ was forced/compelled to form the new church known as Methodism. One of the signal encounters between Mr. Wesley and the Anglican Bishop Butler ended, apparently, with Bishop Butler telling Mr. Wesley, “Enthusiasm, sir, is a horrid thing, a very horrid indeed” – maybe a watchword of sorts for the ecclesia anglicana!
The book, not surprisingly, was out of print for decades doubtless due to both an embarrassment with its theme and its challenge to its readers.
The quest for “perfectionism” has been part of the church’s life for centuries and has led to countless rifts, separations and secessions.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (the great Baptist minister and preacher of the 19th century) was once approached by a member of his congregation who told the preacher he was leaving the church (The Metropolitan Tabernacle in central London). When asked why, the errant man said, “I’m looking for the perfect church.” To which Mr. Spurgeon replied, without missing a beat, “Well, if you find it… don’t join it… you’ll spoil it.”
The sharp humor of the story reflects the honest struggle we must have as we read today’s text – I John 3:6 “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” And the struggle becomes deeper as, perhaps, we remember these words from last Sunday – I John 2:8,9 “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Fortunately our struggle is eased, though not relinquished, as the text is read with better understanding of the original… “6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” With this more accurate reading, John is telling his readers that the day will come when we are set free from bodies of limitations, sin, facticities – when, after the grave, we are transformed so perfectly to become like Jesus. But John also is telling his readers that there is no pattern of behavior that need continue… any harmful, sinful practice done to ourselves, others or God need not have the last word. Though, perhaps, such overwhelming grace intimidates, compromises us and we surrender to what we think is inevitable and surrender to the lie?
Rather than presenting us with a demoralizing, discouraging message our text describes a context in which we are freed from both the tyranny and despair of sin – that which does harm to our relationships with God, with others, with our world and within ourselves.
As I wrote the word “sin” yesterday, I felt (to be honest) a qualm of uneasiness; how strange that in a world, in a nation beset with quite obvious human failing, it is a minister of the church that should feel uneasy about its mention. I wonder why? Oh, I’ll leave that to next Sunday’s preacher!
I believe that the writer of this Epistle (possibly John the Evangelist) is sharing good news with the early church in Ephesus. He is writing to share with them that sin/relapse need never have the last word and that wholeness/recovery is always possible; it’s never too late to begin your day again.
It is indeed a sword of Damoclean proportions (held only by a human hair) that hangs over us if we lose (or never even had) the joy and power of abiding in Christ, of knowing and seeing Him. To neglect or abandon this hope it is as if (Acts 3:14) we have chosen “a murderer rather than the Lord of life” to share our lives.
Our Gospel for today (Luke 24) and all the Gospel stories of resurrection, show us that followers of Jesus have always had an equivocal relationship with the fact and power of resurrection. We move, as did the first disciples, between different worlds of fearful doubting and joyful believing; to us, as to those first disciples, we need be told repeatedly “Peace be with you” and “Fear not.”
This seems to be par for the course, a spiritual inevitability that whenever we are faced with the power of resurrection/new life… be it in a virgin womb or a sealed tomb we experience fear as well as awe, disturbance as well as attraction.
I’m not convinced that I would want to live with, work with those who are perfect (present company excepted of course)… but to live with those who know the power and possibility of transformation is a wholesome and liberating experience.
Perhaps, then, Christian Perfection (this side of the grave) is to know that despite advances and setbacks, relapses and recoveries, there is a constant proces
6 Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.