Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.Ephesians 5:1-2
Have you ever thought about living your life in imitation of God? That is an interesting thing to think about, isn’t it? But what does it mean? All of us are created in the image of God. We know that. We all have the ability to be creative, like God. There would be no Middle Earth, for example, or Hogwarts, or Narnia, or the famous galaxy far, far away, if one of us did not imagine it, and create it. So we imitate God in that way, co-creating with our Creator. But is that what Paul means when he tells us to imitate God?
“Be imitators of God,” Paul writes, “as beloved children.” Perhaps the key to understanding what Paul means is in the words, “beloved children.” We are God’s beloved children, made so through our baptisms into Christ. And just like all children, we learn by imitating our parents. In this case, we learn by imitating our heavenly parent. We are God’s beloved children, and we should act like it.
It makes me think of the story of a woman who was pulled over by the police for aggressive driving. She had not done anything illegal. But she was tailgating, not letting people merge ahead of her, and simply driving in an unkind, aggressive manner. A police officer had been observing her driving, and pulled her over. When she asked why, pointing out that she had not broken any laws, the police officer told her that he noticed several Christian bumper stickers on the back of her car, and assumed that the car had been stolen, since the driver was clearly not driving in a Christian manner!
We are Christians. Baptized children of God. We should be acting like it. We should be imitating God. But, again, we might ask: what exactly does Paul mean when he writes, “Be imitators of God”? We can look at today’s second reading (Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2) and see five ways that Paul teaches us to imitate God. So I’d like to look at each of these with you this morning.
Bitterness, all malice → Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving
But I want to start with the last one that Paul mentions, because it is at the root of all five, and without this last one, we have no chance of imitating God. It is found in verses 31 and 32:
“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.”
It always starts there, doesn’t it? With kindness, and with love and forgiveness. Kindness is a basic way for us to imitate God. Because our God is full of kindness.
Think of how radical it is that we believe God to be kind. There are plenty of religions which do not believe or teach that. Which do not believe or teach that our Creator is kind. Think of what our worship-life would be like if we did not believe that; what our prayer-life would be like. Think of how awful it would be to go through life trying to please an unkind God.
This is actually one of the epiphanies that Martin Luther had, that gave birth to the Reformation. Luther grew up believing in an unkind God. He feared, and at times even hated, God. Until he came to understand, through his reading and study of scripture, that God truly is kind. God is not just loving, but kind. God’s Son is kind, too, isn’t he? Jesus demonstrates his kindness throughout his ministry. And we are taught to be kind, too. As we imitate God.
Put away bitterness, Paul tells us, together with all malice, and be kind to one another. Be kind on social media. Be kind on the roads. Be kind in stores and restaurants. At church. At home, with our families. Be kind to one another. Put away all malice. Be tenderhearted. And forgive one another, endlessly. It all starts there. And it all ends there.
Falsehood → Speak the truth
Okay. Once we have embraced the kindness principle, we are ready to go on to the four other ways that Paul teaches us to imitate God in this passage. Next is found in the first verse of this reading:
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
Or, as Paul put it earlier in this chapter, we are to “speak the truth in love.” Truth, as I have mentioned in other sermons, has fallen on hard times these days. Every news source seems to be biased. Social media is even worse. And we don’t know where to turn anymore to find the simple, unvarnished truth.
Well, it starts with us, doesn’t it? We are to put away all falsehood, and imitate God by speaking the truth. Hebrews (6:18) tells us that “it is impossible for God to lie.” We worship a God who always speaks the truth. Whose son tells us that he is the truth. There is no deceit in him. God does not try to trick us, or entrap us, or deceive us. God always tells the truth. And we, too, are taught to always tell the truth. In a kind way. In a loving way. But also in an honest way.
Anger → Do not let the sun go down on your anger
Imitate God, by being kind, and by telling the truth. And the third way to imitate God? It is a bit of a surprise. Paul tells us that we should “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”
The surprise to me is that Paul tells us to be angry. We shouldn’t be surprised to be told not to let the sun go down on our anger. But to be angry? That is often seen as a negative emotion, isn’t it?
But here again, we are imitating God. Because the Bible shows us clearly that God gets angry. Angry at sin, angry at injustice, angry at the way that the least among us are treated. Be angry, Paul tells us. Angry at the injustice that we see in our world. Anger can be a very powerful force, and throughout history has been a force that has brought about positive change. But also negative change. So, be angry, but do not sin. And do not let the sun go down on your anger. Don’t let your anger become a grudge. Don’t let it fester. And even when angry, don’t forget to be kind, and to be truthful.
One of my favorite biblical examples of the right use of anger is Jesus cleansing the Temple. The day before this happened, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” It was not until the next day that Jesus returned and cleansed the temple. He was angry, too angry to act right away. He needed to let the sun go down. And to pray about it, and sleep on it. And only then, did he return and drive out the moneychangers. Be angry, but do not sin.
Thieves → Work honestly to share with the needy
Okay. Two more. Next, Paul tells us to “give up stealing” and to “labor and work honestly” so that we have “something to share with the needy.” We are to give up stealing and work honestly, but not for ourselves, Paul tells us. It is so that we have something to share with the needy. That is how we imitate God. Not by working for ourselves, not by becoming wealthy, or powerful, although some of us might. But by working honestly, and so that we have something to share with the needy. Because there will always be those who are needy. We will always have the poor among us, Jesus said. And we imitate God by caring for the least among us.
Evil talk → Speak what is useful for building up
Be kind. Speak the truth in love. Be angry but do not sin. Work honestly to share with the needy. And then, finally, “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.”
So, what is evil talk? The word that Paul uses doesn’t literally mean evil – it actually means rotten or putrid. It’s a word used to describe food that has gone bad. That’s the kind of talk that Paul wants us to put away. Words that have gone bad need to be thrown away before they hurt someone, just like food that has gone bad. What kind of words are these? Words that don’t build up, Paul says.
Let me share one obvious example of this in our world today, which is complaining. Complaining rarely builds others up, and often undermines community. I once taught a bible study on the “seven secrets of a meaningful life,” and in that book, the author has a good bit to say about complaining. He writes that complaining is one of the primary weapons that Satan uses to destroy community. And when you think about it, it’s true. And it can happen in churches when we are not careful. So the author suggests a very simple practice, and here it is:
Tell yourself that you will not complain to anyone today. Verbally, by text, on social media. No complaining. And then, pay attention to yourself. And you will probably notice a number of times when you are feeling that temptation to complain. It’s true for us all. Change that one habit, and see what a difference it makes. It is a simple but powerful way to imitate God. Using words to build up others, and give grace to those who hear.
Closing → Be Imitators of God
Paul concludes this little passage by summing it all up with these wonderful words:
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”
Imitate God by living in love. Walking in love. Showing the same love to others that Christ showed to us. When in doubt, in other words, love. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love sums it all up. God loved us enough to send Jesus. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. And when we want to live our new lives in Christ, imitating God, the simplest way to do that is to love. When in doubt, love. Amen.