On the one hand, we are bombarded with messages encouraging us to be selfish, to be judgmental, to be mean-spirited, even to be violent. On the other hand, we see Jesus’ way of love, we hear Jesus’ teachings, we experience God’s call to us. It sometimes seems like popular culture pushes us in one direction, and Jesus points us in the exact opposite direction.
Nowhere is that gap between the way of the world and Christ’s call to us more visible than in the Sermon on the Mount, which is one long description of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.
As we have heard over the last few weeks, Jesus calls us to share in God’s own light and life so that we can shine in our world as beacons of hope, as examples of a better way, as beloved children of God called to share God’s love with others.
So Jesus tells us, over and over again, to live differently. Do not respond to provocation with violence. Be generous to those in need. Forgive your enemies. Love them. Pray for them.
Jesus’ vision of the good life is so counter cultural, so different than the value system of the world, so different than the value system even of Christian America, that it sounds crazy. Imagine seriously proposing any of that in Washington or at the Pentagon or on Wall Street.
The fact is, the values of our world mostly differ from the values of the Sermon on the Mount.
And so we are constantly confronted with a choice. Are we of the world? Or are we God’s people?
We know the right answer. And we all need to be reminded of the right answer. So we come to Church to hear again the Sermon on the Mount, to be reminded that we are called to be different, that we are called to follow Christ’s way, that we are called to be light and salt in the world.
And this morning, we hear this in our Old Testament reading: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus makes it even worse. As the culmination of everything he has said in the Sermon on the Mount to this point, Jesus says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Our calling is to be holy as God is holy, perfect as God is perfect. That is a high calling!!
But what does that mean? What does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to be perfect?
In the Old Testament, the root of the word “holiness” means being set apart, dedicated to God, removed from ordinary life.
So, for example, the cups they used in the temple were holy, which is to say set apart for use in the temple and only in the temple. It would be sin to drink from the holy cups at a regular meal.
Holiness was a bigger deal in Old Testament times than it is now, but we still think of some things as holy and set apart. We wouldn’t use our communion chalice for a casual drink. After all, our chalices are dedicated to God. They are holy. They are not for ordinary use.
What Leviticus is saying is that people can be holy in that same way. People can be specially dedicated to God and so marked off as somehow separate from ordinary life.
Indeed, that is what it means to be the people of God. When the Hebrews first arrived at Mount Sinai to receive God’s law, including our passage for this morning, God calls them “my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” God calls the Hebrews “a priestly kingdom.” God calls them “a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).
What was true of them then is true of us now. God calls us to be his people, to be in covenant relationship with him, to be dedicated to him.
And as the holy people of God, we are called to be defined by God, not by the world. That is why God repeats, over and over again in our passage, “I am the Lord.” As people called to be holy, our lives and our behavior are supposed to be shaped by who God is.
So, we do the things our passage says to do because God is the Lord, and we are God’s people. We leave some of what we have for the poor, and we judge with justice, and we love our neighbors as ourselves because God is the Lord, and we are God’s people.
The same goes for what Jesus says in his Sermon. We do not resort to violence, and we share what we have, and we love not only our neighbor, but even our enemy. We do those things, or at least we aspire to do those things, because God is the Lord and we are God’s people, a holy people, set apart, called to be different, called to shine with God’s light.
That is what it means to be holy.
And how about perfect?
Of course, we are not perfect. We do not always live holy lives. We often follow the way of the world instead of God’s way.
But here, too, it helps to know what the word actually means in context.
The root of the word “perfect” means complete or finished. When Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, Jesus is calling us to become a finished product, perfect in holiness like God is perfect in holiness.
And Jesus calls us to become a finished product because right now we are NOT finished. Right now, we are all works in progress. Right now we are all a complicated mixture of holiness and worldliness. Right now we are going on toward perfection.
In his Sermon, Jesus is holding up for us a goal, an aspiration, a destination. Jesus is pointing us in a direction and inviting us to go that way, to go his way.
Our job is to move towards Christ’s goal as best we can, with God’s help.
So we strive to live as the children of God that we are. We strive to live as the people that God is making us into. As we say in our baptismal service, we strive to live into the full stature of Christ by living Christ-like lives of love.
That is our distant goal: a people so totally dedicated to God that our every thought, word, and deed is shaped by God.
And one step towards that goal is to remember our call to holiness, to turn away from the distorted values of our world, to resist any voice that points us in another direction, away from God and our neighbor, towards our more selfish and mean-spirited impulses.
And whenever we begin to lose heart, as we all do sometimes, we take comfort in the good news that our God is faithful and merciful and loving. We take comfort in the good news that Christ came to forgive sinners and restore us to God’s image. We take comfort in God’s unbreakable promise to love us to the end. We take comfort in knowledge that in the end, God makes all things right and holy and perfect, even us.
Thanks be to God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us to true life. Amen.