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So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Nathan is a typical five year old. He loves adventures. He thinks Kindergarten is one of the most amazing things ever. He really likes to color. And like most five year olds, Nathan loves to play. He screams and squeals with reckless abandon during a rousing game of tag with his neighbors. He can get lost for the entire afternoon while playing in the sandbox. He builds with wild imagination in the middle of his room with his Legos. And if you want to see his endless energy, head out into the apartment complex courtyard with a soccer ball.
However, Nathan's all time favorite activity is playing dress up. You have probably seen his like in the aisles of Target or romping through the play area in the city park. You know the ones. The children who seldom leaves his house without a costume. Well, Nathan has been seen in the grocery store as Superman. He can be caught in the mall as Batman. Or you may find him sitting on the front steps of his apartment building practicing his "spidey" senses dressed like Spiderman as each person walks down the sidewalk or yet another car pulls into the parking lot.
But today he is in his favorite costume. As his mom sits reading in the great room, Nathan slips down the hall to surprise her in his outfit. She pretends not to notice even though the clomping of shoes that are much too big for his five year old feet make his secret entrance anything but secret. Then, there he stands in all of his glory right in front of his mom clearing his throat to make sure he is noticed. As his mom looks up to take a good look she cannot help but smile at the familiar sight. Nathan fancifully clad in a grey fedora that threatens to swallow his head, a strand of faux pearls around his neck hanging to his knees accompanied by a blue and green plaid neck tie knotted loosely and hanging slightly off to the left, and his feet sliding about his mom's high heeled pink dress shoes.
Yep, this is Nathan. He loves nothing more than donning this wonderfully strange combination of his mother and father's wardrobes. He has even been known to make several such costume changes throughout the day.
Why is this his favorite dress up costume, you ask? Well, the answer is quite simple really. If you ask him directly, Nathan will tell you, "I want to be just like my mommy and my daddy when I growed up."
Imitation. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. And throughout his life, as Nathan continues the difficult task of becoming, he will discover that he indeed will take on many of the characteristics of the parents he loved to emulate as a child. We all do. As one author so eloquently put it, "We grow into the identities we choose to have."
In our passage from Ephesians this morning the author speaks into this becoming process to the fledgling faith community in Ephesus, the bustling first century Roman metropolis located in Asia Minor along the Aegean Sea. The author writes what on the surface appears to be nothing more than a check list of do's and don'ts. A legalistic script to follow, if you will, in order to know that we are faithful. It seems to play right into our human desire to have a way in which we can measure our level of holiness. It feels like a spiritual litmus test of sorts. Do this and don't do this. (as if pointing to a tally board)
Put away falsehood and speak the truth - yes, I do that all of the time, even when others don't want to hear the truth I have to share.
Be angry but do not sin - I definitely got that angry stuff down.
Give up stealing - did that a long time ago.
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up - hmm, well…not so bad…
Even if we find it personally challenging, such lists make is easy for us to rationalize our own bad behavior by comparing ourselves to others. At least I am not as bad as you know who…
The list continues, be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving - check, check, and check . I mean come on. Who doesn't think at least this highly about themselves?
But then…Then the list ends. And the author of Ephesians makes one of the most challenging statements that can be found in the entire Second Testament. The reader's, the hearer's, our comfort is abruptly interrupted by this powerful shift that calls us toward something that seems impossible. The author writes, "Therefore, be imitators of God." This phrase is unique to the letter to the church in Ephesus. It appears in no other place in the writings attributed to the Apostle Paul. And it sets before us the highest possible standard for life. And when we hear it, our ears perk up and our heart skips a beat with the impossibility of such a challenge. Be imitators of God?! The community of faith, not just the individual believers, in Ephesus and then us by extension are challenged to imitate God, in much the same way that beloved children, the Nathan's of the world, often desire to imitate their parents.
The word our author uses to challenge his hearers in the first century Greco-Roman world is a word that was used in the theatre, oration, and life. It is the word from which we get our English word "mimic". Of this idea, one author writes, "Teachers in the world that the writer of this epistle inhabited thought human beings to be mimetic beings, that is, those creatures who felt the urge to imitate their vision of the real through their actions in art and culture…Actions deemed worthy of imitation were 'grand' ones by noble, even heroic individuals played out on the stages in front of the gods and the gathered community for the instruction of all…The writer of Ephesians sees such an action performed by God" (Ward). Be imitators of God.
So what is it that this author is calling his readers to imitate when he writes, be imitators of God? What behaviors are we being urged to mimic? The biggest hint may be in the Trinitarian language found in the passage itself. If we look at the nature of the Trinity perhaps we may find our answer.
Of the Trinity, Shirley Guthrie, Presbyterian minister and Reformed theologian wrote, The persons of the Trinity "are not three independent persons who get together to form a club (or dance group). They are what they are only in relationship with one another. Each exists only in this relationship with one another. Each exists only in this relationship and would not exist apart from it. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live only in and with and through one another, eternally united in mutual love and shared purpose…There is no above and below; no first, second, and third in importance; no ruling and controlling and being ruled and controlled; no position of privilege to be maintained over against the other two; no possible rivalry between competing individuals. Now there is only the fellowship and community of equals who share all that they are and have, each living with and for the others in self-giving love, each free not from but for the other" (Guthrie 36-37). The Trinity - the prime example of community, of love, of equality.
Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children.
With the Divine Trinity as the example to emulate as well as the source of our lives we are to be a community characterized by love. Not the kind of love that is represented by saccharine sweetness and chronic niceness. No the love that is to characterize our community is a love that is born of commitment and covenant. It is a love that looks for the good of the whole. It is a self investing love. This is a love that is lived out in our words of grace, our acts of kindness, our tenderhearted spirit, and above all our forgiveness of one another as God has forgiven us in Christ.
The big mistake we make in reading this passage, and frankly, much of scripture, is to hear it only as words spoken to us as individuals. Let us remember that the texts we read and hear read each and every week were first written to communities to be read aloud to the entire gathered body. These words are not meant just for us as a group of individuals. These words are meant for us - all of us. This Christian experiment in which we are all participating is not about me. It is not about you. It is about everyone, beyond the doors of this sanctuary, this church, this community, this city - it stretches out even all of creation. This is difficult to remember in our world of increasing individuality and isolation. As Dr. Galloway reminded us last week, our unity is of utmost importance to our witness to one another and to our world. Without community, there is no church. Without the community, the message of the Gospel is diluted. And we are all diminished. This community has the opportunity to be a light to the world, an imitation of the God we claim to worship.
So perhaps this morning, the most pertinent question is, what does our corporate life say about the God we imitate?
With this as our backdrop, consider all that was said in the passage. Now the words that once seemed like a simple check list have a convicting and transformative power. They tell us what it means to imitate the divine.
The author says that a corporate life characterized by love should be lived out through our words, our words of grace spoken to one another. Our words should be a witness to one another of the grace we have received. Our words should be words that give life to those closest to us as well as to those who are far away. A life lived in imitation of the divine should be seen in our acts of kindness to those in our community faith, but more importantly to all of humanity. Our kindness must stretch out to the marginalized, the forgotten, the orphaned and the hurting. Our faith and our commitments should be evidenced in the tenderness of our hearts for those with whom we agree as well as with those with whom we disagree, for those we understand and those with whom we struggle, for those who are like us and for those we see as different. And above all of these things, we must strive to emulate the forgiveness we claim to receive through our prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. This may begin most powerfully with working to forgive ourselves and then moving toward offering the same forgiveness to those who have harmed us.
Such a life is one that goes beyond the self preservation of falsehood, bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, together with all malice as our author says. Within the community of Christ, there is no room for such actions. Noted theologian and scholar Mroslav Volf said, "However good it may feel in the moment, giving in to these tendencies is petty, unfulfilling, and destructive for individuals and, indeed, whole cultures. We are born for a higher calling, for a more satisfying pursuit, for more harmonious and sustainable lives" (Volf ). This call from the author of Ephesians is a call away from selfishness to lives characterized by investment of the entire self.
Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children.
Imitation. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. And throughout this life, as we continue the difficult task of becoming, as individuals as well as the church, perhaps we, like Nathan, will discover that we indeed have taken on many of the characteristics of the one we try to emulate.
By the grace of God, may our testimony be the lives we live together.
May we as the church grow into the identities we choose to have.
May our hope always be in the Lord. "For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with the Lord God there is great power to redeem."
And together may we strive in our becoming to be imitators of God.