Perfect love is hard to find, but God invites us to experience Christian perfection – being passionately in love with God and the world together.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. ~ Ephesians 4:32
The outdoor thermometer in my car read 97 degrees on a blazing, bright August day. As I opened the car door my glasses steamed over, clearing as the long, black cars pulled into place behind me in the cemetery. A brightly decorated funeral urn soon rested on a simple table next to some beautiful flowers, with a piece of plastic turf covering where it would be buried shortly. The family shuffled to the graveside, some in chairs, most standing in the shade of a large, long-branched tree nearby. A funeral for a mother of five and a grandchildren of many. A time for reflection, for expressing love, and for coming to terms with God’s promises of eternal love.
The memorial service at the funeral home had gone well, with warm remembrances of a mother who loved to sew, to cook, to care for her family thoughtfully and honestly. Limits to what she could do were lovingly acknowledged, and lovingly put aside for an overwhelming sense of having lost a centerpiece of generations of family life. Songs, hymns, scriptures and prayers celebrated her warm embrace by God, eternally patient with her family as they struggled to let go of their beloved mother. As we got ready to leave for the cemetery, though, things went a bit off track. One of the funeral home limos sprung a coolant leak. Cars were shuffled, nerves were frayed, but soon enough we were underway for a thirty minute ride to the cemetery.
What is “perfect love?”
In the scramble to get the car situation straightened out, I joined our Pastor in her car. “Part of the plan, I guess,” I remarked. “Or not,” she said. Plans changed, and I wound up in my own car on the way to the cemetery. I thought about the exchange with our Pastor. Was this mishap an imperfection in the day? Or, perhaps, was it part of God’s more perfect plan?
My thoughts were pushed on by an audio book version of John Wesley’s “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” playing in the car. Wesley’s words called out in the monotone rhythm of a computerised voice. Wesley acknowledged that even though the most “perfect” of Christians will have natural faults and sins, God’s grace invites us everyone to experience what God’s perfection is like in this life.
Wesley’s formula for doing this is simple, but hard. It is Jesus’ formula from the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-38) God loved us in Jesus perfectly in spirit and in flesh, possible only because of God’s eternal love resting completely and fully in Jesus. Wesley urged people to seek that perfect love in their own lives, so that they could have a taste of the joy and peace that God feels eternally – and that God invites us to in eternal life. Perfect love is real, as real as the heart that hopes for it in Christ.
Are the “busted” parts of life actually perfectable?
Along the way, we’re asked to perfect our love in situations that seem imperfect. Is a broken radiator hose at a funeral home an imperfection, or an invitation to understand how God might protect us from a worse trouble on the road? Grace from God comes not so much from things being perfect by our measure, but from our willingness to look at all things through the grace of God’s perfecting love. This is not just “positive thinking” – it’s thinking about where God’s love can be found every moment of every day. We may slip into our all-too-human habits, and then realise that God’s perfect love invites us to shake them off and to begin again as Jesus would. In doing so, we see many things that could be seen as negative through God’s lens of love.
This kind of perfect love is not something that we find sitting on some mountaintop as we grow long hair. We find it in the messiness of everyday living, much as the mother of this family found it in her everyday living. We get a handsewn dress from a loved one in an awkward color, and we put it on for them excitedly. We don’t lie to ourselves about its strange look, but we’re honest about how much we appreciate the love that went into it, and it becomes beautiful.
Or, perhaps, even more. The first memorial service I led was for a family that was quite different – they perceived themselves as a very broken and imperfect family in some ways. And yet, in the course of preparing and leading the service, they were able to share some of God’s perfecting love even in their own family. Their hearts started to heal and to grow perfectly, even if many of their broken character traits remained in their hearts, awaiting further perfection in God’s loving hands.
God’s perfect love, ready when we stumble.
In seeking a way to God’s love as a way to Christian perfection, John Wesley focused on the verses of Ephesians 4. Here the apostle Paul highlighted how the healing of hearts takes place in communities dedicated to healing them. Paul knew all too well how imperfect those people in the Christian community of Ephesus were, but he encouraged them to put aside the things that lead them away from the perfecting grace of God’s love in Christ: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Perfection on earth? It’s not changing who we are, but letting God change us into people who are ready to act as if we are already part of God’s eternal family.
As our Pastor and I concluded the graveside service, a family member’s phone began to murmur with a song in the final words of the closing prayer. At first it sounded like a ringtone. “Sorry! Bad timing. Just a moment,” she said. She attached the phone to a portable speaker, and it began to play an old popular song that their mother loved. The gentle music soared through the searing Summer air, quickly wiping away the awkwardness of the moment, and allowing everyone to love this cherished woman as she loved them. Perfect – as God would have it be perfect. Hands shaken, gentle words. On to perfection.