Imitators of God
Last week, we entered into an exploration of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, by way of his admonition to “live a life worthy of that which you have been called.” Pastor Cathy suggested that one way to begin living such a life is to become aware of all of the ways that this world has managed to convince us to live lives that are too small— lives that keep us comfortably isolated into groups and tribes who look and think exactly like us, lives that keep us separated from the glorious diversity of God’s creation. She challenged us to life bigger lives— lives that reach out beyond boundaries, speak the truth in love, and strive for gentleness and humility in all things.
Well, friends, if you thought that was a tall order, then get ready, because Paul is about the up the ante and raise the stakes even higher. Our reading this morning picks up pretty much right where we left off last week, so let’s go ahead and listen to the continuation of Paul’s letter to the early church in Ephesus:
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, tender-hearted, 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. (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)
Now, some of you may have noticed right away that this week’s passage echoes many of the same themes we heard last week. We’ve still got Paul talking about the body and how we are all members of it. He talks about the characteristics necessary for life in community— things like honesty, mercy, encouragement, and kindness— all very similar to what we heard last week. The difference this week, perhaps, is that Paul starts to get a little more specific about some of the ways that we often fall short of our great calling as part of the body of Christ. We’ll get to some of those in a moment, but first, I want to skip to the end of the passage, because I think that’s really the heart of what Paul is trying to say. It also happens to be what is possibly Paul’s most challenging instruction in all of his letters— “therefore,” he writes, “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Now that, my friends, is a tall order— to be imitators of God.
I don’t know about any of you, but this is the kind of thing that’s hard to wrap my mind around. It’s the kind of teaching that makes my brain hurt if I think about it too long. I mean— I have so many questions! For instance, how can I imitate something I can’t even see? How can I imitate something whose form I cannot even comprehend? And even if I could somehow comprehend God’s form, whose version, or interpretation of God am I supposed to be imitating? Certainly in Christ, we have a model of how some of God’s attributes can be lived out in a human life—compassion that knows no boundaries, a commitment to speaking truth to power, caring for the poor and healing what is broken. And we all can do our best to imitate Christ, to ask ourselves ‘What would Jesus do?” “Who would Jesus love?” “How would Jesus respond?” And that’s all well and good, but I can’t help but feel that Paul is getting at something bigger here—something more than just attempting to mimic the things that Jesus did or said. Such an approach, I think, can far too easily turn into little more than a list of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and should nots— boxes we can check off on our weekly to-do list with little attention to the actual state of our hearts.
Not to mention, I think we can see today how such a approach can all too easily pit one group of Christians against another as we compete with each other, arguing about which group is doing a better job of being like Jesus. One group talks about reclaiming Jesus from another, as if any one of us could dare have the audacity to CLAIM Jesus for ourselves alone. I’ll put my money on the idea that we’re all getting it wrong in one way or another—we ALL have blind spots—which is why it’s good to have a healthy amount of that humility we talked about last week.
For me, when it comes to what it means to be imitators of God, I think we are called to aspire beyond a list of dos and don’ts, shoulds and should nots. We are called to aspire beyond superficial mimicry of a single individual—as divine in nature as that individual may be—in order to get to the very heart of oneness with God. I think the imitation of God requires a certain amount of deep connection with the very heart of God— for our hearts to be in rhythm with God’s heart—the beating heart of all creation. So how do we do that?
To attempt to answer that question, I want to turn for a moment to the world of literature. I believe that one of the most imaginative and creative of literary minds belonged to the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of you are probably familiar with Tolkien from his Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Hobbit. But beyond these popular books, in one of his more obscure works called the Silmarillion, Tolkien wrote a creation story for the vast middle earth universe he had imagined. In the opening chapter of this book, Tolkien describes the creation of the universe in a very unique way. He describes the beginning of all creation as being like a song. And at first, he writes, those who sang the song all sang independently of one another. It was hardly more than chaos and noise. But then, slowly, all the disparate voices in all the disparate lands of middle earth and beyond began to listen to one another, they began to tune to one another, to hear a common tonality and a common beat. And slowly but surely, they began to sing in harmony with one another. Diverse voices from diverse places, all singing one song together. Never before, Tolkien writes, had such glorious music been heard. I imagine that for Tolkien, the idea of Eden was a song being sung by all creation— perfectly in tune with its creator.
Now I’ll be honest with you. Despite all the classes I took in seminary, despite all the books I’ve read and sermons I’ve written, I can’t claim to know much about God’s pure form. At the end of the day, I can’t really to be sure how to imitate God—the creator of the universe. That’s just too big an idea to try and wrap my mind around. But I do know how to make music. I know what it means to have to listen to the other voices around me— even if they are very different than mine— in order to stay in tune with the song. I know how it feels when suddenly a group of individual voices and instruments are able to lock in tune with one another—becoming one body, moving to the same rhythm, all part of the same song. And just like that, many become one. One with each other, but also one with something deeper— a powerful energy that goes beyond words, beyond race, gender, or nationality, beyond any of our superficial human boundaries and borders. An energy that, dare I say, may just be divine.
Now I need to pause here for just a moment to talk about French Romantic music. And this is going to seem like a tangent but bear with me for just a moment. I want to talk about a 20th century French composer named Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was active in the European music scene throughout the 20th century, including during WWII. And as was the case with many European artists of that time, at one point during the war, Messiaen was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a work camp where there was little in the way of musical inspiration. There was also little in the way of practical access to usable musical instruments. But at that camp, Messiaen met three other musicians— a violinist, a cellist and a clarinet player. That’s what he had. And so he composed—for that particular group of musicians—one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written— a piece called ‘The Quartet for the End of Time.’ The premiere performance of the work was for a group of prison guards and inmates on a bunch of decrepit, broken down instruments. And it was heaven. Messiaen would later look back at that performance and comment that never before, and never again, did people listen to his music with such rapt attention.
Here’s my point—you don’t have to be perfect to be in tune with the song. You don’t have to be flawless, or flawlessly trained, to live a life that is in tune with God’s song of divine love. We don’t have to wait for the perfect conditions—for everything to line up and be just right. All we have to do is listen to the song that’s already being sung—and then, slowly but surely, we join in. Maybe tentatively at first, but little by little, the more we sing the song, the more confident we become of our place within it, the bolder we can be with our voices the more in tune we become with the song’s very source.
Back to Tolkien for a moment. In the opening pages of his creation story, Tolkien describes a glorious and perfect music—with all singing in harmony with one another and with their creator. But of course, you can guess what happens eventually, right? It doesn’t stay that way. It doesn’t stay that way, because eventually, there are some who become greedy or envious—who want to sing their own song or keep part of the music for themselves alone. The one unified song breaks down into factions and tribes as competition, greed and strife are added into the equation. It’s not that the one song isn’t there anymore, it just becomes a little harder to hear. Which brings me back around, finally, to Paul’s letter.
We all carry certain things around with us— things that make it harder for us to hear God’s song of divine love for all the world. Paul does a good job at naming some of those things— anger, bitterness, judgement, envy, greed and selfishness. These are burdens given to us by THIS world. And in order to be more in tune with God’s divine song, it helps if we can first lay these burdens down. It’s like we said in our call to worship this morning—we lay down deceitful words and action in order to sing truth, honesty and openness. “Be thou my vision and thou my true word.” We lay down our anger in order to sing songs of mercy, reconciliation and peace. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.” We put away greed and grasping for all we can get for ourselves in order to sing songs of generous abundance. “Come thou font of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.” We put down evil talk, mean words, insults, slander, and judgment of others in order to sing songs that build others up, songs that encourage, comfort, and offer hope. “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” We put away bitterness, revenge, and the desire to cause others harm, and instead, we sing of kindness, and tender-hearted attitudes. We sing words of forgiveness, just as God forgives us. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
In doing this, by laying down these burdens, little by little, we can begin to hear another song—a truer song, a bigger song— a song that’s been since sung way before we were even born and which will continue to be sung long after we’re gone. And the more we listen to that song, even if we feel like we are little more than broken down instruments, our hearts begin to beat with the rhythm of God’s divine song and we begin to live in tune with the song. We become one with the song and one with God. And maybe, just maybe, our entire lives can become a mirror that reflects God. Maybe, just maybe, we can then become imitators of God.