It being Advent, I am now seeing a slowdown in the number of Advent and Christmas-related advertising we receive at the church. It’s all very nice, and of course a lot of it repeats itself. Much of the repeating stuff focuses on the different themes that are given to the Sundays of Advent – hope, love, joy and peace.
When we focus on these ideas, sometimes we focus on them as abstract qualities that are designed to inspire people. And they can, a little bit, but as abstract qualities they don’t really offer anything all that deep. “Hope” by itself is, well, a good thing, but most of the time if we’re going to face anything really tough we find ourselves needing a hope in something. Rather than just a kind of cloudy noun, we need a verb that connects to something. Unless we’re hoping in something particular, it’s like we’ve been thrown a rope that doesn’t connect to anything.
So what is something we as Christians hope in or hope for? There are many things, I’m sure, but one that I have heard talked about a lot is the hope of growing closer to God and of being more like the person God wants us to be. The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, used the phrase “Christian perfection” or “being made perfect in love” when he talked about this hope.
We can balk at these terms, especially the word “perfect.” We automatically think it means something flawless or without fault, and we know that we don’t measure up to that standard. Plus, people who claim some kind of perfection for themselves are usually bragging or boasting about it and we know that kind of attitude has nothing to do with following God.
Wesley realized those problems, and he was clear what he didn’t mean when he claimed Christians could be expected to be made perfect or holy not only in the life with God to come, but in this one as well. Christians could not have perfect knowledge – there’s stuff we don’t know and there’s stuff we’ll probably never know. For decades, math teachers have been trying to find x, for example, and each year they have to ask a bunch of new students to hunt it up.
Seriously, though, we don’t know what goes on in people’s lives or their thoughts, as well as so many other things, so we will always have only imperfect knowledge. But even when we know something, we as limited human beings have only imperfect judgment about what to do based on what we know. We might think we should act a certain way when we learn something, but our action may not be what’s needed.
There are a host of other imperfections we have that Wesley said are parts of the human condition that we won’t overcome. But we can be “made perfect in love.” We can devote so much of our time and energy towards seeking God’s will that we sort of change our default mode, if you like.
Instead of automatically responding to something by seeking out our own best interests, we find ourselves asking how best to serve God. What action or what word will show the most love of God and love of neighbor? Most of us, most of the time, have to stop and think a little on that before we do something. But those who are “perfect in love” will find they have allowed God’s spirit to direct them so fully they reach for those loving actions without the stopping and thinking.
Think of walking. When we learn to walk, we are obviously processing every step when we take it. Even though we don’t have the words yet, we are thinking, “Left foot out, lean over, left foot down, right foot out, lean over, right foot down.” But after enough practice, we do that without thinking about it. Of course, sometimes we miss something in our path and we stumble, or our movement is off somehow and we might fall. In the same way, our “Christian perfection” might falter a little bit because – remember from earlier – we don’t have perfect knowledge or perfect judgment or perfect ability.
In Wesley’s day, “perfect” could mean flawless like it does for us today, but it could also mean “completed” or “matured.” James Bond villains, you know, always perfected their schemes or death rays – right before they crossed paths with 007, anyway, and that sense of the word is closer to Wesley’s understanding.
So what do we hope for in this idea of Christian perfection? We hope to become so close to God that we and God together “will one will,” using another Wesley phrase. And we know that this will depend far more on God than on us, so we find that even just hoping for God to work in us can be a way of drawing closer to him. Because we are not just hoping in some vague idea or concept. We are hoping in our Lord and Savior, and he does not disappoint.