Be Ye Perfect
by Andy Saur
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 5:48
As a good Protestant, I have always read Jesus' words captured here in the Gospel of Matthew as a call to righteousness—a proclamation to get my act together, gain control over my sin, and live a holy life. Recently, however, my pastor suggested that what I had always read as an adjective might be better understood as an adverb. That is, what Jesus is inviting me into here is not necessarily holy living, but living wholly. Or put differently, we might do better in this passage to define perfection not as "righteousness" but as "completeness." Be ye complete, even as your Father in heaven is complete.
I admit this redefinition of the passage sparked my imagination. Not because I'm now excused from pursuing righteousness, but because it helps me better understand God's heart—what he's longing for in my life. He desires that I would be whole, complete, just like my Father is complete. This intuitively feels like a right goal for my life but begs a bevy of questions about what in the world a complete version of me might look like.
As a gay Christian, I find that a lot of people both inside and outside the church think they know exactly what would make me a "whole" person. Some say I should find a same-sex partner, get married, and settle down. Others say that my completeness lies in celibacy, in living a holy life with God. Still others have come up with variations on these themes of marriage and celibacy (such as a mixed-orientation marriage or a committed celibate partnership) and believe such a variation would be best for me.
I sometimes laugh (or cry) when I contemplate the fact that everyone else seems to know how I should best live, be complete, but I myself have no idea. I do know that I have a body and it needs attending. And I have a soul, which too needs care. Yet I often don't understand how to tend to one without causing harm to the other. If I do enter into a same-sex marriage and provide for some of the needs of my body, could I be injuring my soul? If I eschew marriage and stay celibate, do I deny my body? I'm not sure there is a "right" way forward here, but perhaps there is a better or worse way to move ahead.
Clearly, we can acknowledge that to live with a schism—a split between body and spirit—is not the "whole" life to which God is calling any person. God the Father is complete because he is one with the embodied Son and the Holy Spirit. How then can I similarly be complete?
It seems that one answer may be found in reading the verses that precede Matthew 5:48. We might make a strong claim that to live a "complete" life is to abide in the fullness of community—even with one's enemies (v.44). If someone forces you to go a mile with them, go two (v.41). Give away yourself, your shirt, and your coat (v.40), even your dignity (v.39), and do not turn away from those who want to borrow from you (v.42). Is it possible that I am most complete when I am devoid of everything except a life shared with others? In what way is the way toward wholeness and holiness for all people—gay, straight, or otherwise—found in the pouring out of ourselves in community?
Is it possible that as long as we remain solitary seeds, we will never be whole; but that when we die, a new entity is created through us (a head of wheat with many grains, a mustard tree with many birds) that is community, that is our completeness?
In John 12:24, Jesus says that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Elsewhere, Jesus describes a mustard seed that, when buried, grows into a tree in which the birds of the air nest (Luke 13:19). Is it possible that as long as we remain solitary seeds, we will never be whole; but that when we die, a new entity is created through us (a head of wheat with many grains, a mustard tree with many birds) that is community, that is our completeness?
What does it look like to "die" in such a way? Do you give away all our possessions and join an intentional community? Do you serve at a homeless shelter in your neighborhood or start a new ministry at your church? Do you marry a same-sex partner or restrain from doing so? Yes, certainly these things and other things too—anything to which the Spirit of God and the Body of Christ is calling you.
It seems to me that a good place to start practicing the kind of death Jesus calls us to is through vulnerability: to tell someone something true and difficult about yourself—for example, that you have no idea what you're doing in life or where you're going; that you can't seem to shake a desire for your neighbor's wife; that you can't stop eating to fill the hole in your heart; that you're afraid to die. I will admit to you here that I don't know what I'm supposed to do with my body, and not knowing scares me, and I need your help—not so that you can tell me what to do, how to fix it, or get it right, but in the hope that you will abide with me, listen with me, offer your perspective, search and share Scripture with me, discern with me what the Lord may be saying in his whispering, kind voice.
My completeness depends on you just as yours depends on me and ours together depends on Christ (Eph. 4:4-6). Don't tell me how to live; instead, invite me to die with you so that in our mutual dying we can live together unto the Lord. Perhaps then, we shall be perfect.
Andy Saur works for The Colossian Forum, a ministry which seeks to help Christian communities transform divisive cultural issues into catalysts for authentic spiritual growth. He is also an Oriented to Love alumnus.