Thomas J Parlette
Phil. 1: 3-11
Although its official name is the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, some people refer to it as the “Cathedral of Saint John the Unfinished.”
Even in its incomplete condition, at 601 feet long and 124 feet high, this Episcopal cathedral is one of the impressive landmarks in New York City, featuring at 230 feet the longest Gothic nave in the United States and the largest rose window in the country – constructed out of 10,000 pieces of glass. Besides the main sanctuary, there are seven chapels. The whole thing is an architectural beauty, with many more unique elements that we could cover in one worship service.
Construction of this colossal building began in 1892, with worship and other ministries taking place there since 1899, when only a portion of the edifice was usable. The church wasn’t opened end-to-end until 1941, but even then, there was much work waiting to be completed.
Over the years, the structure has been plagued by financial woes, changes in architectural plans, wartime delays, engineering problems and, in 2001, a destructive fire. Thus, today, 126 years later, this massive church is still sometimes dubbed “Saint John the Unfinished.”(1)
That word “unfinished” can be hard to swallow – especially if it applies to those Do-it-Yourself projects around the house that seem like a good idea when you’re wandering around Home Depot on a Saturday morning – but turn into way more than you bargained for by Saturday afternoon. Many of us have unfinished DIY projects around the house.
But there’s good news! If you’ve reached the point where something needs to be done, you can always call the DIY Network – they have a show called Disaster DIY that specializes in completing those unfinished projects around the house. On recent episodes the show has stepped in to fix a bathroom remodel run amuck; re-do a gutter replacement gone horribly wrong; and fix a deck that had become more of a death trap than a home improvement.
We all have good intentions, lots of ideas and ambition, but sometimes we’re not so good with the follow-through.
Of course, it’s one thing to have unfinished jobs around the house; it’s quite another thing to realize how unfinished we are as individuals – how far short we fall of the goal of being the people God calls us to be. We are in a very real sense “Christians under construction”, for the Christian life is not an arrival point, but a journey.
When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, commissioned preachers for the work of spreading the gospel, one of the questions he asked was “Are you going on to perfection.”
It might be tempting to answer, “Well, no, nobody’s perfect” – but the candidates were expected to answer, “I am, by the grace of God.”
Wesley’s next question was, “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?”
The expected answer was “God willing, I do.”
Even today, two centuries later, when Methodist preachers are standing for admission into the ministry of the church, they are still asked those two questions, along with several others first posed by John Wesley.(2)
The phrase about going on to perfection wasn’t something that Wesley just invented, it comes right from Scripture. The preacher of Hebrews said “Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God…”
The preacher of Hebrews wasn’t suggesting that we abandon the basic teachings about Christ in the sense of rejecting them for something different. Rather, he was saying that if we’re spending all our time talking about the basics of the faith – repentance and faith toward God – then we aren’t moving on toward perfection. And, of course, that connects to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where after commanding his followers to love their enemies, Jesus added, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Scott Hamley, who serves a United Methodist Church in Seward., Pennsylvania, explains going on to perfection this way: “When Wesley was talking about Christian perfection, he didn’t mean absolute perfection. He meant more of a practical perfection, being perfect in love. He meant people could come to the place where they were so in love with God that they would not sin knowingly. He didn’t mean that a person could ever be without sin in this life, but rather without intentional sin. Sins of ignorance are always going to happen. We’re always going to do the wrong thing from time to time because we don’t know what the right thing is. We don’t have perfect knowledge. But Wesley believed it was possible that by God’s grace, a believer could mature to the point where they would never sin on purpose.”
Hamley also says, “By the way, Wesley was always suspicious of anyone who claimed to have reached Christian perfection. He denied that he himself had reached it. And perhaps that’s part of going on to perfection, to recognize that you aren’t there yet.”(3)
He’s right; we’re not there yet. We are unfinished. With that in mind, hear Paul’s assertion in our reading from Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
“The day of Jesus Christ” in that verse refers to the time of Jesus’ second coming and is no doubt the reason the lectionary committee selected this passage as the epistle reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, a season of the church year that both celebrates Jesus’ first coming, in the Incarnation and anticipates his second coming at the close of this age.
But Paul’s point is, the completion point of the spiritual life is not until the end, and even then, it only comes with God’s help, In other words, our spiritual lives are not a Do-it-Yourself project. It is rather a God project. God will bring our spiritual lives to completion. In the meantime, however, we should not let the spiritual shortcomings in our lives derail us from going on toward perfection in love, from growing in Christ, from gaining spiritual maturity.
In this passage to the congregation that meant the most to Paul, Paul goes on to say that his prayer for the believers in Phillipi is that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help them to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ they may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” In other words, by the end of their journey, they will be completed in the full sense, with God’s help.
C.S. Lewis once wrote about this matter of God bringing us to completion. He said that when we seek Christ’s help in being the person God wants us to be, Christ doesn’t settle for giving us just a little bit.
As an illustration, Lewis explained that as a child, he often had toothaches and knew that if he told his mother, she would give him an aspirin to deaden the point. But he wouldn’t tell her until the pain got really bad because he also knew she would take him to the dentist the next day, and he didn’t want that.
“I wanted immediate relief from pain,” wrote Lewis, “but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took it all.”
Lewis went on to say that Christ is like the dentist. If we ask for help to deal with something about which we are ashamed or which is spoiling our life, he will give it, but he will not stop there, for he wants to make us perfect. Lewis pictures Jesus saying, “Make no mistake, if you let me, I will make you perfect… I will never rest, until you are literally perfect – until my Father can say without reservation that he is well pleased with you, as he is well pleased with me.” As Lewis says, “If you give Christ an inch, he’ll take it all.
It is true that we are not perfect yet. Recognizing the unfinished nature of our practice of faith is a good thing. It should help us to live with humility, recognizing that we aren’t all that God intends for us to be.
It should encourage us to beware of certainty. The unfinished nature of our knowledge means that our opinions aren’t the last word on the topics of life. God will have that last word.
It should encourage us to work on being perfect in love, to do the work of God now. Remember that although the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine is far from finished, ministry has been taking place there and from there almost since it beginning. Something similar can be true in our lives. Even though we are unfinished, we can be God’s person in good works, in acts of generosity and in faithfulness to the will of God as we understand it at this point.
And most importantly, remember that going on to perfection is not a DIY project. We don’t do it on our own. God helps us. For as Paul says:
“The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…”
May that be true for all of us gathered here in the name of Christ.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. HomileticsOnline, “The God Who Completes”, retrieved November 2018.