12th Sunday after Pentecost
It’s been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. That when we imitate someone we pay them a higher honor than if we were to just do so verbally. So, what does Paul mean then when he says, “be imitators of God?” We all have a sinful natures that think they know what that means. Many people in the world around us today, Christian or not, think that they know what it means to be an imitator of God. I can think of no clearer example of this than our wonderful world of Politics. Bitterness arises in hearts, that bitterness develops into a rage, and wrath, which spills out into a public clamor and that bears out all sorts of slander and abusive speech.
This happens when people elevate themselves over others, place their ideals first and act as judge over their fellowman. Trying to imitate God as judge causes man no end of wickedness and malice.
Expose the Problem
In Ephesians 4 Paul is advocating for a gut check on the part of that congregation, when he says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Remember that was a congregation divided between former Jews and new gentile Christians. Paul says in v. 32 to be kind to one another. The word Paul uses there in Greek for “kind” is an interesting one. It literally means, “be refined” to one another. That is grow together, cause no discomfort to one another, realizing that you all share the same experience of being humans and being sinners. Beyond that, he was writing to the believers in Ephesus, a city known for anger, brawling, slander and various forms of malice. In Acts, we read how when Paul stood up and preach about how the true God was one not made of wood or stone, silver or gold like the pagan God Artemis a riot broke out in the street and for 2 hours the people chanted, “GREAT IS ARTEMIS OF THE EPHESIANS!” Paul writes this to them as a reminder that if the Christians are bitter, bickering, slanderous, or malicious and the pagan sees that what might they think? They might think it’s ok to behave that way. They might ask, “You claim to preach a message of forgiveness? Well I certainly don’t see it! So, what in the world is the point of being a Christian then?”
Christians realize that the eyes of the world are on us. While we don’t have the “exact” same situation with Jews and Gentiles, these words of Paul call us to that same gut check. It drives us to think on this point – Who does God love more? Me or my neighbor? The American? The Arab? The Native American? The conservative, the liberal?
Who does he love more? Your enemy or you? When we’ve had an argument, a dispute, a disagreement – what is our first instinct? Is it not to stand on the outside and look down and judging the sin of others, asking that they might be forgiven or that someone would forgive them? “Oh, God might be able to forgive them, but I don’t know that I can!” Instead of realizing that we really stand shoulder to shoulder, my sinfulness next to theirs asking that we both might be forgiven.
But St. Paul isn’t being ignorant or naïve here, via the Holy Spirit, he’s not giving us pie in the sky philosophies or ideas. As sinners, this is incredibly hard to do, if not in some cases seemingly impossible! There are real people who’ve hurt us. People with whom there is a “history” and a past that gets dredged up, people who’ve hurt us in ways that others can’t understand. Someone who’s slandered us and destroyed our reputation, a person who’s cheated us or stolen from us, a person whose addictions have driven families apart. Don’t they deserve some of our wrath?
Paul says, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
Yes, there is a degree of righteous anger that we can feel at those situations, but how far does that GO? How quickly that changes to bitterness, wrath slander and malice – acting as a Judge over those people WE are not to imitate God in that way!
St. James writes in his epistle, “take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go”
And later he continues, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”
James’ point is simply that, the tongue, just like a rudder of a ship, though it be small, it can be hard to manage and if it is mishandled, it can cause a great deal of damage!
Ever heard the phrase that you are the only Bible that someone might ever read? I realize the saying limps on some level, but the concept is sound. Mother Theresa actually had a good one too, she said, “Preach the Gospel – use words when necessary.” The Holy Spirit does his work through you and me. He works through the Word and the faith that he’s planted in our hearts. It is he who sanctifies, and gathers, and builds up. How important then it is for us to abandon, depart from, get rid of – all bitterness, rage, wrath and all malice! A Christian who holds on to those things, not only puts their own faith at risk, but endangers the faith of others.
CLUE TO THE SOLUTION
Paul implores the Ephesian congregation saying, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Become imitators of God, as beloved Children.” No matter our differences, cultural backgrounds, whatever, we all share that same human experience. That it was not that we loved God. But that he loved us.
He didn’t love us because we were so good, so righteous on our own. Oh, there was a history there, in our relationship with God. We had hurt him in ways that we can’t even begin to understand. We were hostile and rotten toward him. But it was then that he loved us! As Paul says in Romans, “When we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In the depths of sin he sought us like a ray of light shining in the darkness he found us. At our worst moments he brings us back to him.
Paul says, So then, become imitators of God, as beloved Children. I can’t help but think of my son Otto, who tries to be like me in every way. How he will mimic my activities. He goes into my office with a piece of scrap paper and a marker, sits at my desk and “writes” his sermon. Which is a scary thought because I don’t know that any of us would want a sermon from Otto…
Anyway, Paul is advocating for a similar thing here when he advocates for compassion and forgiveness. Do as your father has done for you! Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Can we do this perfectly? Will we stumble about like a 3-year-old trying to mimic our Father? Yes. But look at what our Heavenly Father has given us in Jesus! He’s said you don’t know how to love, look to my Son and let me show you. You don’t know how to forgive, look to my Son and let me show you. You don’t know how to have compassion, look to my Son and let me show you.
This is what sustains us as a body of believers, this is what sustains a marriage, this is what sustains the relationship between parent and child. Seeing how Christ gave himself as a fragrant sacrifice for us. Christians are coated in the scent of that sacrifice. It clings to us like a perfume. And we can readily recognize that scent when we are in and amongst Christians. We all realize that we share that same experience, that we are all sinners but saved by Grace in Christ. Instead of looking down on others, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them – sinners together – asking that we might both be forgiven. In fact we just did that this morning when we confessed our sins at the opening of service!
What’s really amazing is when you recognize the scent of that fragrant offering clinging to Christians even from half way around the world. I heard of a story not to long ago about some Christians in Egypt, perhaps you heard of it too. That on Palm Sunday one of their churches was attacked and these unarmed Christians were slaughtered by a suicide bomber. People lost their husbands and wives and kids in the massacre. Not only was that church attacked but also many of their homes were sought out and destroyed. In the aftermath of that horrible event, the wife of one of the Christian men who died that day came forward to the Egyptian media and publicly forgave the terrorist organization who was behind the bombing. She essentially said the same thing that Jesus said as they drove the nails into his hands, the same thing that Stephen said as the crowed threw stones at him. “God forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” How could they? They don’t know the peace of the Gospel, they don’t know what Jesus did for them!
The news anchor, a Muslim man, who was listening to this woman was just dumb struck. How could she forgive? That sin, that atrocity is impossible to forgive! After hearing her message of forgiveness, after he saw her mimicking her Savior, he sat there silent with tears in his eyes, with dead air for about 20 seconds. Then he choked out the words, “Egyptian Christians are made of Steel.”
This is what it means to be an imitator, a mimicker of God. And only Christians really know what that means! That both our brothers and sisters in Jesus and the World would see his forgiveness for us, in us, his mercy for us, in us and his compassion for us in us. As Peter says in his 1st letter, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
Be imitators of God, be imitators of your Savior Jesus. He invites us to let go any bitterness and anger even if it seems impossible to let go of – but when we take in Jesus Word, the Word of forgiveness, that bread of life – we can overcome the impossible. Amen.