Sunday, April 24, 2016

What is left to be done to attain perfection?


Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.  James 1:17-18

THE good and perfect gift St. James refers to is none other than holy baptism.  By it we are born a second time.  Our first birth is of our parents, but that which is born of the flesh is only flesh and can be nothing more:  and that's a problem because "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God."  So by God's mercy we are born anew, into a living hope, by the Word of truth applied to us in holy baptism, "which is not plain water, but it is the water used according to God's command and connected with His Word."

St. James calls baptism a good gift because "Good" is biblical code for the works and the will of God.  What God ordains is always good, and whatever we do in accord with God's will must also be labeled good.  A warning is in order, however, because what the world calls good and what God names as good are usually direct opposites, so St. James begins this section of his epistle with the warning that we should not be deceived.

Baptism is good because it makes us sons of God for time and eternity.  It lights our way in this present darkness so that we can find the path of life.  In the primitive church baptism was called Enlightenment because in it sinners acquire spiritual eyes to see, spiritual ears to hear, the  mind of Christ to understand the things of God, as well as good affections and new strength to walk in the way of Christ.  Apart from baptism, these things are impossible, and we remain forever imprisoned by the opinions of the world, the oppression of demons, and the base passions of the flesh.

Your baptism is not only a good gift, it is also perfect, which in Scripture means:  something that has reached its final, God-intended state and that can advance no further, nor progress any farther, so in this world no person, no action, no final result can rightly be called perfect, because everything is compromised by sin, which is the ultimate imperfection, but there is an exception.

Adam, the first man was good, but he was not perfect.  Indeed St. Paul tells us that he was a "type" of the one to come.  Adam was good, but Jesus is perfect.  Jesus is the fulfillment.  His atoning sacrifice is perfect.  We know this from His final words on the cross, "it is finished," which should properly be translated, "it is perfect," which is to say that every saving promise God ever made throughout the long dark night of sin, has now reached its climax.  Salvation is won, the ruler of this world is judged.  Sinners are reconciled to God.  Universal peace is restored.  There is nothing more to do, nowhere to go from here.  All is accomplished.

His resurrection and ascension are likewise perfect for He returned to His Father from which He came and  now all is right in heaven.  The gifts He gives us by His departure, His Holy Spirit so lead us into all truth, His divine Word, His Sacraments and the assurance that our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).  These are all good and perfect gifts come down to us from the Father of Lights, and there is nothing higher, nothing better, nothing more to be desired or expected than these.

Therefore when our Lord says in St. Matthew:  be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect, it is not a command, but a benediction; one indicating that by His death and resurrection, and by our baptism into the same, that sinners stand perfect in the sight of God, but we  must know that this high standing is by grace, through faith and that not of ourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.  This is called the doctrine of justification by faith, and is our only comfort and hope of salvation for as long as we have sinful flesh, but we must be careful not to use this doctrine as a license to sin, so St. James goes to great lengths to show that faith without works is dead, and that faith, far from being in opposition to good works, is made evident by the very works that proceed from it.

He gets specific in his exhortation, and what he says to Christians then was canonized in Scripture, because it still needs to be said to Christians today, specifically that God's people would be swift to hear, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry because your anger does not accomplish the good purposes of God.  Further, that God's people must reject every sort of moral impurity and disown every manifestation of evil.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, the early third century bishop and martyr, reduces all that James says here to one word:  Patience.  He says that patience restrains anger, bridles the tongue, governs the mind, maintains peace, breaks the force of evil desires, checks violence, quenches hatred, overcomes temptation, endures persecution, embraces suffering, and guides all our actions so that we should walk in the way of Christ who suffered patiently for our sins, to leave an example for us.

These are the good and perfect gifts of God that are yours in Christ, who came from the Father, returns to the same, and gives you His Holy Spirit, so let us draw water from the wells of our baptism with joy, give thanks to Christ, call upon his name, make known His deeds among the peoples, and proclaim that His Name is exalted at His altar today.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

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