The Rev. Frank Logue
Becoming Like God
We continue this morning with our look at Paul’s often neglected First Letter to the Thessalonians. As I have mentioned the past two Sundays, this letter, written in the year 51, is the oldest written evidence of Christianity. In First Thessalonians, we get our earliest glimpse at what it is like to be a Christian.
Paul concludes this chapter asking the Lord to make the Thessalonians increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Finally, he asks God to so strengthen their hearts in holiness that the Thessalonian Christians will be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Blameless. Spotless. Without sin. Paul wants God to strengthen the hearts of these folks until they become perfect. Isn’t that a bit of a lofty goal? Yes, Jesus lived a blameless life, but he had the advantage of being both fully God and fully human. The same does not apply to the Thessalonian Christians. Surely Paul exaggerates.
I don’t think so. Paul holds out the goal of perfection, of becoming blameless, and in so doing he stands in a long line of Judeo-Christian tradition that goes back as far as the Garden of Eden and looks ahead to the end of time.
Adam and Eve lived blameless before God. Genesis tells us that all humanity was made in God’s image and likeness. Each of us have the ability to bear God’s image and to become like God. God has never stopped holding out that ideal for all people. Though sin created a gap between God and humans, God has always been working to bridge that gap anew.
In Leviticus chapter 19, verse 2, God made the ideal plain in telling Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The rest of the many commandments of Moses’ Law are aimed at giving guidance on how humans can achieve this goal.
You would hope that Jesus lowered the bar a bit. Surely, Jesus did not insist on this Old Testament notion that we humans should try to be holy. Not exactly. Jesus restated it as “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5: 48).
Oh great. We are left with no less a goal than before. Jesus however did not give hundreds of commands to follow in the quest for perfection. He said all the commandments are summed up in these two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. To be perfect as God is perfect, we need only love God fully and love our neighbors as ourselves. How likely is that?
First, let me take a bit of the pressure off. God does not ask you to be holy so that you can get into heaven. A blameless life is not the ticket to the hereafter. When you come to faith in God through the person of Jesus, you are in. Though you are not worthy, God counts Jesus’ blameless life as yours. Then, God gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s spirit dwelling within you to complete your sanctification, your becoming perfect.
So perfection is not a goal to strive for in hopes of winning God’s approval. God already loves you. Perfection is what you spend the rest of your life working on in thanksgiving for all God has done for you. The process itself is not a chore, but a gift.
The Orthodox Churches, like the Greek and Russian Orthodox, have done a better job of holding out this goal of perfection than we in the west. In the Protestant Churches, the emphasis is on salvation, coming to a saving relationship with God. But, in the Orthodox Church, they have always held out that salvation is the beginning of a relationship, not the end. They call the process of growth that all Christians should continue to go through Theosis.
Theosis means deification—becoming divine. It is a thought not expressed much in churches, that we are to work toward becoming divine. I think we are a bit allergic to the idea. After all, wasn’t it wanting to be like God that caused Adam and Eve to sin? Wasn’t it trying to build a tower to the heavens to be like God that got all humanity dispersed at Babel? Trying to become like God seems risky at best and blasphemous at worst. But if you think about it, this is the ideal Moses held out in saying God wants us to be holy as God is holy. This is the same ideal Jesus held out in saying be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. And it is the same ideal Paul holds out for the Thessalonians as he prays for God to strengthen their hearts in holiness so they may be blameless before our God.
Theosis means becoming like God, not becoming God. Unlike salvation, theosis is not something accomplished in a moment, but a goal. While you can never fully accomplish theosis in your lifetime, God still holds it out as a goal worthy of your efforts. In fact, the imitation of God is held out as the only goal worthy of our efforts. We are to work at being increasingly holy as God is holy and perfect as God is perfect.
The Orthodox teach that theosis is impossible on our own. Not only do we need God, but we also need Christ’s body, the church. The Orthodox saying is Unus Christianus—nullus Christianus, meaning one Christian—no Christian. You cannot really strive toward becoming like God on your own.
For the Orthodox, the idea of theosis is nonsense without a community of faith worshipping together. Through the liturgy, we all come together as the Body of Christ to be nourished by God’s presence in Word and God’s presence through the bread and wine of communion. It is in this shared experience of God that the Holy Spirit calls us to greater holiness. And it is only in through this shared experience that God nourishes us toward theosis. A communion service is not something you can do alone. For communion is not the work of the priest alone, or even of God alone. Communion happens through the combined prayers of all present acknowledging the presence of God among us and in each other. So it is through communion, a shared experience of God that we are drawn to being more like God.
But if the goal is perfection, how can we hope to achieve that, even working together? Let me give you an example of what this really looks like. When I graduated from Georgia Southern in 1984, I went to work as a photographer for the Warner Robins Daily Sun newspaper. I loved photography and really wanted to succeed at my new job. My first day was the Fourth of July and there were lots of events to photograph. I threw myself into the task with abandon, covering not just all my assignments, but two news stories along the way. The next day I had 18 photos in the paper and the editor hung up the tear sheets on a bulletin board in the newsroom. He circled all my photos and bylines and clipped a note to the front saying “Welcome Aboard.”
The editors and reporters all seemed pleased with my work and I was eager to improve. With all that affirmation, I pushed ahead giving my best to my work and constantly trying to improve. The editor continued to hang up good work by reporters and the other photographer along with my work. From time to time, all good work got recognition from our boss.
Then one morning as I was working in the darkroom to get out the prints for the paper, which went to press each day at 11 a.m., a call came over the scanner. An apartment complex was fully engulfed in flames. I went out to the newsroom looking for orders and was sent to the fire with a reporter and the news editor. It was 9 a.m. the deadline was looming close and the clock was ticking. We got the story, I got some gripping photos and we made the deadline. By noon, the newspaper was hanging on the newsroom bulletin board, with all our bylines circled and a note pinned to the front with just one word on it, “Perfect!”
Later in the week at a staff meeting, someone questioned the editor about the word perfect, naming some ways our coverage could have been improved. There were no errors in the reporting, but the person was sure that any work left room for improvement. The editor wouldn’t hear it. He said, we did the best we could that day with resources at hand. On that day, we were perfect. Another day it might take a higher standard to be perfect, but nonetheless it was perfect. From time to time, other articles or photos were deemed perfect. Yes, they could have been better in some perfect world, but in the real world we worked in, they were the best we could do and that was perfect for our editor.
I think about that newsroom bulletin board and I hear the grace in a call to perfection. God does not hold out some worthless ideal like, “Whatever you do is fine by me as Jesus paid the price anyway.” God holds out nothing less than that we should be the best we can be on any given day as we attempt to be perfect as God is perfect.
Today that standard may be low as we are take baby steps. If we can just fail to give in to road rage in traffic, then later we can actually try to be polite. If we can just not publicly cut down our enemies, later we will work on loving them. God does not strengthen our hearts in holiness all at once. It is an ongoing process. That is the ideal the Orthodox call Theosis.
To nourish that spark of divinity glowing inside you, you need to surround yourself with a church family, a group of fellow imperfect Christians who are on their own spiritual journeys. We encourage one another one our own paths toward perfection.
Here is what perfection may look like in your life. When you see someone else hurting and in need, passing them by misses the mark entirely. But stopping to listen, really listen, to what is going on in someone else’s life is perfect, especially if you don’t know what to say. Because what you say matters less than the fact that you are willing to be present in someone else’s suffering. That’s what God does. God is with us, comforting us, and listening to us in our sorrows, so when you listen to someone else, you are being like God, and that is perfect.
God holds out to you the highest of all goals, perfection, because God loves you and wants what is best for you. Even though you will never be perfect all the time, you can still have those moments, where you own words and actions are perfect as God is perfect. I pray that those times will increase for each of us as God strengthens our hearts in holiness so that we will stand blameless before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526