When I was ordained an Elder in The United Methodist Church, I had to stand before all of the clergy in the Oklahoma Conference as the bishop asked me the 19 historic questions from John Wesley.
Near the top of the list is a tough one to understand: "Are you going on to perfection?"
This seems like an easy question and most people think that the logical or humble answer would be "no."
However, the word "perfection" was loaded with all kind of meaning for the 18th century and strangely enough, the correct answer is "yes."
Christian perfection is a doctrine of Wesleyans that has been lost due to atrophy. You may hear it spoken of as sanctification or in terms of sanctifying grace.
The third historic question is, "Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?" and once again, the correct answer is "yes." Fortunately for the married candidates, the spouses are not present when the affirmative is given! (Clergy couples being the exception)
The key to understanding what Wesley meant by perfection is the prepositional phrase "in love."
As a post-enlightenment culture, we like our perfection to add up. We think that we can know when something is right or wrong and perfection is not something we ascribe to human beings.
For Wesley and for Methodists today, we see that perfection in love is more about our intent toward others and our use of time. If our intent toward others is love, we may fail in practice but succeed as we confess our sins and seek to do better. If we can learn to return love when we've received hate, we are getting closer to perfection in love.
This concept does not mean that we are without sin. It means that we are striving to seek the best for all people - even people we may not particularly like.
I'm certainly not perfect - have you seen my desk? But I do believe that I'm getting better at loving other people - that I want what's best for all humankind. Sometimes I have to check my cynicism at the door but I think I'm making progress.
This Sunday, we'll be looking at what this concept means for us today. Is it realistic? Jesus seems to think so. Check out this Sunday's reading from the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:38-48. The last verse is a doozy.
This song by Alanis epitomizes the negative connotation of being perfect. Generation X especially pushes back against this as an expectation. Can we re-define it?