I almost always forget to floss. I haven’t been to the gym in a month. Sometimes, especially when I’m tired, I snap at my kids. And most waking hours I wish I had not said something that I did, though I rarely wish I had said something that I did not.
In other words, I am not perfect. Not even close. I’m not perfect now, and I have a strong suspicion that I will never be perfect, at least not in this lifetime.
But I think perfection has been something that has been set before me for my whole life, by parents, by the media, by the education system, that I should strive for perfection.
If you get an A, you should try for an A+ the next time. If you’re on a diet, you should try to get to your “ideal” weight. The goal is always to do better, to achieve more, to get closer to perfection, in everything you do. And the message that goes with it is, get perfect, be happy. If I could only reach the level of perfection everything would be great.
So what does God have to say about perfection? what does God expect? what does God want for us?
In the beginning.
In the beginning God.
In the beginning God created.
But what did God create? God started with the heavens and the earth, but the earth was a formless void. God created the earth as a formless void. And then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
And God stepped back for a moment of reflection and evaluation. And what God saw was that the light was good. Not perfect. Not finished. Good. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
It seems to me that the creation story in Genesis gives us room to wonder about what is perfect in the eyes of God. God, who could create anything, and could create anything in any way that God wanted to, chose to create first a formless void, a blank canvas. God did not choose to create everything all at once, knowing ahead of time (as God probably could) that it would be perfect.
Instead, God chose to start with a blank canvas, and then add some light. And God’s evaluation was that it was good. And that it could use some work. So then God continued to add to the creation. So stars here, some firmament there, some earth and seas, vegetation, animals, every kind of living thing, and then finally, humankind.
And all of it, as God went along, all of it God saw and said it was good. Even very good. But God never said it was finished. In fact, at the end of this creation story, God basically says to the humans, “Look, I’ve set it all in motion, but I could use your help to run things.”
When God tells humans to subdue the earth, the word that is used in the Hebrew means something along the lines of “bring order out of continuing disorder.” In other words, God’s command assumes that the earth was not finished at the 7th day of creation. God’s command assumes that this is all going somewhere, and that we humans are part of the project. It seems that what God thinks of as good, very good even, is not exactly the same as what we consider perfect. We imperfect, unfinished humans, God seems to think, are the perfect ones to help God move project earth forward.
And in case you weren’t sure whether this meant you, let me refer you to the sacraments.
In case you weren’t sure whether God had in mind you, individually, personally, the you that sits inside your clothes, God has given us the sacrament of Baptism. The sacrament in which God calls you by your name, and says to you, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
As Jesus is figuring out who he is, he goes to the Jordan river, and John the Baptist dunks him, and as he comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open, and the spirit descends like a dove, and a voice addresses Jesus to tell him just who he is, to tell him the most important thing about himself. “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This is the baptism that we share.
This is what has Paul concerned in our reading from Acts. He comes into Ephesus, and he learns that the disciples there have been baptized with John’s baptism. We might be inclined to say, so what, what’s the difference, John’s baptism was good enough for Jesus, so why not for those who come after him? But it’s not the same.
Jesus’ baptism was different.
Jesus’ baptism changed everything. And, as Paul insists, Jesus’ baptism is the baptism that we share.
You see, John baptized with the baptism of repentance. In other words, John’s baptism was a baptism under the law.
Quick Lutheranism 101 moment: the law is a good thing, a gift from God. It is the set of rules and guidelines that God has given us to help follow that first command, the one given in Genesis. By following the law, especially the ones that Jesus lifts up to love neighbor as self and to love God, by following the law, we are helping God to bring order out of continuing disorder. We are following God’s intention for us.
But what we humans usually do with the law is to set it up as a litmus test: if we can be perfect under the law, we tell ourselves, then we will have God’s approval. If we can be perfect under the law, then we can finally subdue the earth, we can finally quell the chaos, we can finally be all that God wants us to be.
But notice something: God saw that humans were good, very good in fact, before ever giving that first command. We already have God’s approval, before we have ever even begun. God’s approval, God’s love, comes first. The law is given to help us live into that love, not to achieve it.
But when you hear that John’s is a baptism of repentance, you immediately start thinking, don’t you, of all the ways that you have failed to be perfect under the law. You start listing off the failings: I don’t floss, I don’t exercise, I snap at my kids, I wish I hadn’t said xyz to my spouse, etc. That is what a baptism of repentance means to us:
we repent, we change our ways and start seeking after perfection again.
And there is a place for that – John was right –we need to examine ourselves, we need to ask ourselves how we are not living up to God’s call for us. But this repentance, this self-improvement program, that is not the Gospel. Because we know, don’t we, that we will never be perfect. We can try every moment of every day from now until Kingdom come to live up to the law.
We can try to be perfect, and we can and should repent daily. But we do that, not as a means to God’s love, but as a response to it. Because what God has to say about perfection, what God expects of us, is that we cannot get there. God knows us, each one of us, as a mother knows her child. And God knows that we cannot get to perfection on our own.
A baptism of repentance is good, and we should consider how we can turn towards God each day. But God knows that our turning will be incomplete. And so we share baptism in the name of Jesus, in the name of God come to us; we share baptism in the Holy Spirit, in God who sustains us in relationship, in love, through our imperfect perfection.
God knows that we cannot be perfect, God expects that we will fall short, and knowing that, God names us and claims us and says to each one of us:
“You are my child, my beloved. In you, I is well-pleased.” That is the baptism Paul shared. That is the baptism that we share.
Each week, as you come to the Table, it is reiterated in the bread and the wine, in the body and blood of Christ given for you, and you are individually blessed again. But maybe you don’t hear it that way, maybe you don’t hear the individual blessing, the words “for you.”
So right now, I would like to take a moment for you to hear it, so that you start this new year with these words ringing in your ears.
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to turn to the person next to you, or go find someone, and share these words. I ask you to call that person by name and then to make the sign of the cross on that person’s forehead, and say to them, “Imperfect person, you are a child of God, you are God’s beloved. With you God is well pleased.”