Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 9, 2015

2015.08.09 “Imitators of God” – Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2

Central United Methodist Church
“Imitators of God”
Pastor David L. Haley
Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2
August 9th, 2015

ImitatorsOfGod

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. – Ephesians 4: 25 – 5:2, the New Revised Standard Version

While on vacation in Los Angeles last week, we were driving the Santa Monica Freeway, when Anna noticed we were being passed by a black Cadillac Escalade with the license: “B. Pitt.”

Could it be? Brad Pitt on the expressway? The Escalade was doing about 80, so I accelerated – weaving in and out of traffic – until I was alongside. At this point the girls (both young and old) begin screaming, “OMG, it IS Brad Pitt.” I never looked over – while driving 80 and wanting to remain cool – until finally I did.  He looked at me and I looked and him, and yeah, it looked like Brad Pitt.

But does that make sense to you? Unless they are complete narcissists, most movie stars seek privacy, and for this reason are always punching out paparazzi. Would Brad Pitt really drive a car that says “B. Pitt” on the license plate?

Later I “googled” it, and on TMZ there was a discussion of this car and another car – a Hummer – with this plate, who had dazzled others on the Santa Monica Freeway as well as a celebrity photographer. But the conclusion of the article was that it was not Brad Pitt, but a Brad Pitt imitator, who incidentally also did a rotten job parking, something the real Brad Pitt would never do.

But wait – isn’t this even more inconceivable? That there are people in the world who devote considerable energy and expense not to be themselves, but to imitate a celebrity like Brad Pitt, to the point of buying a vanity license plate and dressing like him?

I tell you this story, because – believe it or not – to be an imitator – as inconceivable as it may be – is exactly what St. Paul challenges us to do in this morning’s reading from Ephesians. Except who Paul asks us to imitate is not Brad Pitt or even Elvis, but to be imitators of God, to do no less than God has done in Christ. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Watch what God does, and then do that.” What could Paul possibly mean?

To place it in context, we have now moved from the doctrinal part of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – or as we should say – more characteristic of Ephesians – the doxological part, since that’s what Paul has primarily done, sing God’s praise, in chapters 1 through 3.  Now we have come to the ethical part of the Letter, about what we should do in the light of what God has done, chapters 4 through 6.

As we proceed, it is helpful to know that there is a controlling image for what Paul has to say in today’s reading.  Remember, we have heard previously that what God is doing in Christ is to create a new humanity, breaking down the barriers that separate us. Now Paul says that God is doing that not only outside of us, but inside of each of us, and he describes it in a familiar image, like casting off old garments and replacing them with new ones: “Put away your former way of life, your old self . . . and clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Do you know that in the early liturgies of the church, baptismal candidates faced the west and renounced the forces of darkness, words we still speak in our baptismal liturgy. At sunrise, they turned to the east and proclaimed their allegiance to the light of the world. Then they literally stripped off their old clothing – it doesn’t say if changing rooms were provided – and put on new garments, symbolic of being adopted by Christ as children of God. This is what Paul says we figuratively do; not just at our baptism, but every day, casting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self,” becoming God’s new humanity. Perhaps we should remember this image each morning, as we put away yesterday’s clothes and get dressed for a new day.  Or we simply another day older, or are we in each new day, casting off the old and putting on the new, which God is creating in us?

Then Paul throws out a few examples. Something tells me they weren’t randomly selected, but situations on the ground in the First Church of Ephesus, in all churches on that circuit, in all churches everywhere.

“Cast off the old, which is lying and pretense; and put on the new, which is speaking the truth in love.” Paul is not talking about speaking the truth about our neighbor’s hairstyle, nor the color coordination of their clothes; that will get you more trouble than truth. What Paul is talking about is speaking the truth about things that matter, and only in a gentle and appropriate way at that. Nothing rips the fabric of human community like lying and half-truth and pretense.  Even in the church, even in our families, we have to be careful how we talk about and to each other.

Or how about the next one: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Note that what St. Paul does not say, which is “Do not be angry; because anger is not Christian.” There are some things we ought to be angry about; even Jesus displayed righteous anger. The problem for us is that when we are angry, it easy for our judgment to be clouded, and we wind up saying what we don’t really mean or doing what we didn’t intend to do. As Paul puts it, “do not make room for the devil,” who is too often standing nearby with a pile of baseball bats; or – in our society – with a loaded gun.

According to Paul, the best time to deal with our anger is today and not tomorrow (before sundown). Because anger – especially the slow-burning, passive aggressive kind of anger so often manifested in families and churches and organizations – eats at us more than it does those to whom it is directed. Did you know that Amazon.com lists more than 40,000 religious titles that touch on the subject of anger, which testifies to our difficulty with anger? Anger management! Not me!

“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.” Were there Christian thieves? Or is Paul saying the point is not to live a life of selfishness and covetousness and greed; but rather, one that is productive and generous and compassionate. Where, not “what’s mine is mine,” nor “what’s yours is mine,” but rather, “what’s mine is ours.”

I have to say I was troubled by this last week, as we stayed in Santa Monica, a city of extremes. I never saw so many sports cars, like Porsches, but also, so many homeless people also. I don’t care how much I have, I find it difficult and wrenching to walk past and sometimes almost “over” homeless people in the streets.  While we are for the most part a civil society, we have a long way to go to be a Christian society, which is what some Christians long for, though not in the same way I do.  Personally I am less concerned about prayer in schools, than I am about poverty in homes and in the streets.

Or how about his one: “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.” I don’t think St. Paul was talking so much about “foul language,” like cursing (although it could include that), as he was talking about the caustic, non-cautious use of language. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can break our heart. Words of cruelty and hatred and prejudice implant themselves in our hearts, where they bear poisonous fruit and become mutant monsters.

Somebody once said that the sign that encourages us to “THINK” before speaking should be hung up in offices and kitchens and classrooms everywhere:

T – Is it true?

H – Is it helpful?

I – Is it inspiring?

N – Is it necessary?

K – Is it kind?

If we consulted such a sign before speaking, this might help us use only speech that is edifying, to help build up the church, the body of Christ and not tear it down.

Up to now most of us may have sat and silently cheered as Paul went after the liars and thieves and trash talkers, clearly not us. But now he addresses all of us: “Put away 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.”

We sometimes forget how corrosive and destructive of human personality and human community these things can be. Far more Christian communities and churches have dwindled and died due to bitterness and rancor, than through heresy or disbelief. No wonder Paul exhorts us to cast off these old reflexive responses, like dirty garments, for the new garments of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, which are the signs of the new community in Christ.

Hearing these words that indict us, we are reminded we are a work in progress. The German Reformer Martin Luther once said, in words as true now as they were when he spoke them:

“This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (“Defense and Explanation of All the Articles”, transl. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works, Volume 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), 24.)

In conclusion, what are we to do? We are to do what I told you at the beginning. Yes, some people may imitate Brad Pitt; but we who want to follow Christ; we are to imitate God. Says St. Paul:

“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.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with God and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us.  Love like that.”

Let us imitate God and love like this, not only in church sanctuaries, but on the front lines of life; not only in human relationships, but within the global village.  Amen.

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