There are two very different ways of understanding what Jesus is trying to teach us in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:48):
“You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(in the Jerusalem Bible and the Revised Standard Version)
But no one is perfect – and we never will be. Here’s another translation:
“Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God has lived toward you.”
(in The Message: the Bible in Contemporary Language)
The second translation tells us that our goal (our télos) is not personal perfection but union with God.
A little Greek lesson
The word translated ‘perfect’ in English Bibles is teleios in New Testament Greek:
the noun is télos (matured, having completed its growth process) and the adjective is teleios (full-grown, having reached its goal, with every part complete).
Our télos – our goal
If we study Scripture without really understanding what God is trying to give us – grace, love, forgiveness, relationship, union – the Bible is a wineskin that hasn’t yet been filled with wine. So Jesus teaches his disciples that there is an Inner Knower that we call the Holy Spirit, who will ‘teach you and remind you of all things’ (John 14:26). With the aid of that Inner Knower, we can read the Bible differently.
We begin in the Garden, where Adam and Eve walk with God (Genesis 2:25). Once they seek their own knowledge rather than God’s guidance, they begin to hide from God – and start scapegoating.
All this sets the plot for the entire Bible, which aims to return us to the Garden. By the end of the Bible (Revelation 21-22) we have come to the New Jerusalem. Finally, the prophet’s vision (Ezekiel 37:27) has been fulfilled: we have been reunited with God. There is no need for a religious building, because the Garden itself is the temple.
The Garden is the symbol of unitive consciousness: life is one sacred reality.
Objectively, we cannot be separate from God; we all walk in the Garden whether we know it or not. (In our deepest selves, we already know this. Authentic spiritual cognition always has the character of re-cognition. As Jacob put it when he awoke from his sleep: “Truly, Yahweh was always in this place all the time, and I never knew it” – Genesis 28:16).
There are recurring biblical texts of fall and recovery, hiddenness and discovery, loss and renewal, failure and forgiveness, exile and return. Note the clear pattern in Jesus’ teaching: his parables of the treasure, the pearl, the dragnet, the weeds and the wheat, the lost coin, the lost son and the lost sheep. In almost every case, the end of the parable is a party of celebration.
The whole movement of the Bible is toward ever-greater incarnation and embodiment, until the mystery of mutual indwelling is finally experienced – even here, in this world and in this life. We then move on to the banquet that we call eternal life or heaven.
Henceforth we know our true and lasting life in the new ‘force field’ that Paul calls the Body of Christ, and not in individual or private perfection. It becomes more important to be connected than to be privately correct.
The clear goal and direction is mutual indwelling, where ‘the mystery is Christ within you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). In this mutual indwelling we no longer live as just ourselves, but in a larger force field called the body of Christ (Galatians 2:20).
In the complexity of life’s journeys we all begin to forget. As we get older, the patterns become too complex, and eventually we don’t even expect a pattern any more. That is probably the loss of faith we see among so many today.
How strange that we have the capacity to not see what is taught so clearly by Jesus, our Teacher! How can we learn that we abide in God, who already abides in us?
We need to learn how to live a simple life, not taking more than our share, which makes communion and community possible.
We need to learn contemplative disciplines – methods that can move us beyond the mind.
Eucharist as contemplative discipline
In the eucharistic meal, Jesus gave us a contemplative practice, saying, Do this:
After I leave, just keep doing this until I come back again.
Take your whole life in your hands, as I am about to do tonight and tomorrow.
Thank God, because your life is pure gift.
Break it (your life), let it be broken, give it away and don’t protect it.
Now chew on that, drink that!
Eat and drink together until I return, and you will have the heart of the message,
a new covenant based on love and divine union.
When you ‘do this’ you offer your own body for everything that Christ still needs to accomplish (Colossians 1:24).
When you ‘do this’ you are eating and drinking your own death, in loving union with Jesus. You are walking right into the mystery of death and, like Jesus, trusting that the other side will be resurrection.
The Eucharist is the ongoing Incarnation, continued in space and time, and bringing us to God’s télos. You can see this promise and cosmic hope growing throughout the Bible, but perhaps an early Christian hymn sums it up best (Ephesians 1:9f):
God set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth. It is in Christ that we find out who we are, and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. (from The Message)