Imitators of God
I went to the Red Rocks Amphitheater for the first time last week. My daughter was visiting from Buffalo, and she had heard from friends that it was a great concert venue. I’d been dying to visit the place myself, so I would have been glad to see any performance there that she wanted. She didn’t know that, however, so rather than choosing some new band that she liked, she suggested we go see ABBA. We have sung through the sound track of Mama Mia countless times in the car, so she knew it was a good way to hook me in to buy tickets. The concert was fun, with lots of folks dressed in their best 1970s attire. It wasn’t really ABBA up there singing, of course. The group split up years ago after the two couples who started the band divorced. Those who sang their songs and danced in bell bottoms and flowing, colorful dresses were pretty good, though. They were even Swedish! But in the end, they were just a tribute band. They were an imitation of the real thing.
The writer of the little letter of Ephesians said this: “Be imitators of God.” In other words, aim high, and don’t worry about being just an imitation.
It’s a challenge to preach from Ephesians, as well as the other epistles often attributed to the Apostle Paul. They are dense with doctrine, and they come across as a very long listing of what Christians are supposed to believe and what they are supposed to do. There are lots of ideas that are the foundation for dogma, and there is lots of moralizing that is routinely defended or ignored based on what people choose to believe is culturally relevant. I know that in most progressive churches, the letters of Paul are not necessarily beloved, and I’m guessing that may be especially true here. Even our sister Marie Sutherland with her strong evangelical roots was so appalled by Paul that I was warned in advance not to quote him at her memorial service!
The first preaching class I took was based on a style of preaching referred to as “expository.” It is basically a method of preaching verse by verse through a passage. Ephesians is ideal for that method. My preferred approach to preaching, which is “narrative” does not lend itself well to the epistles. Narratives – or stories – make for more interesting sermons, and there is just no story to talk about here in Ephesians 4 and 5.
Nevertheless, I’m a bit captivated by that phrase from our text: “Be imitators of God.”
This week, I saw an advertisement for a church that prides itself as being “King James only.” Its market strategy was to target persons who it described as being “tired of hearing preachers quote from the Greek and other translations.” Apparently the original manuscripts are a cheap imitation of the Authorized or King James Version! I actually took four years of Greek in college and seminary, and I’m really thankful today for Google. The Greek word that is translated in Ephesians as “imitator” is “mimitace”, from which we get the word “mimic.” It, of course, refers to one who emulates qualities of excellence that are seen in others. Wherever it is found in the New Testament, it is used in an entirely positive manner. In other words, imitating here is not pretending or cheating.
How do we imitate God? How can we mimic a being who is more mystery than certainty?
I’d like to suggest that one way we do that is through creativity. Being creative is a way to imitate God. God shows this aspect of God’s self through the created world. Unless we live in a sealed, windowless pod of some sort, we can’t get away from God’s creation. It’s pretty amazing, and in regard to the created world our job is not to be creators but to keep ourselves and others from destroying what is already there. We create, though, in other ways. I am often astounded as I chat with folk here and learn more about who is an artist and who is a writer, and who is involved in scientific discovery and who finds other ways to utilize their powers of creativity.
I’m not sure I’ve really thought much before about how choosing to be creative, to think and act outside, the norm, to produce beautiful things is a way to become more like God. That thought inspires me, though, and I think I’ll go draw or paint something this week. How do you use the powers of creativity that are unique to you?
We also imitate God when we do the work of reconciliation. Another of Paul’s letters says that through Jesus, God is reconciling creation to God’s self. The next thought expressed in Second Corinthians is that we, also, are agents of reconciliation. Jesus probably did a better job of imitating God that we ever will, so following Jesus in the work of reconciling persons to one another is a great start in mimicking God. On Friday, we heard the legal decision re: the young man who took the lives of twelve persons and injured dozens of others in a theater in nearby Aurora. He will serve a life sentence with no possibility of parole. Advocates of the death penalty are likely not happy with that, but the way of justice often affirms that life always has value and that and that good can still emerge from the darkest situation. While the prison door has been firmly shut, the door to some form of reconciliation remains open.
The nationally televised debate on Thursday has created a good discussion about how we use words and what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in speaking about those who we do not agree with. The phrase “political correctness” has always bothered me. Using terms of respect that honor the humanity within each person is not about any kind of politics, it is simply acknowledging the worth of another human being. How can we be involved in the godly work of reconciliation if we do not begin with a basic commitment to do that?
An interesting statement in today’s text is this: “Be angry, but do not sin.” The next words sound like the advice people dole out to newlyweds: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Don’t go to bed angry! But nowhere in this passage do we read “Don’t be angry.” Anger serves a good purpose when it stirs us to action that results in justice or when it causes us to look within at why we are angry and then take the steps needed to be reconciled to one another.
Love is in itself another way we imitate God. God is love. Imitating God, then, means increasing our capacity to show love to others. The writer of Ephesians said, “live in love.” That sounds pretty simple, and Mother Teresa’s words today reinforce that the call to love others isn’t as complicated as we might make it. She wrote, “love doesn’t need to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” I really like that! While loving another person can seem at times to be the most natural and even the easiest thing imaginable, we all know that really loving others can move us into the realm of very hard work. It can even be tiring. Jesus’ command to love our enemies is about love that is never easy and will easily tire us if we take it seriously. Mother Teresa’s advice is to look at love as small drops of oil that fuel the light within us. Most of us can manage small expressions of love, one at a time, even if we’re are dealing with persons who challenge and drain us.
How are you doing as an imitator of God? I was thinking this week, “What happens if I am a poor imitation and if I am easily seen as an imposter?” The truth is that no matter how hard I might try to be like God, it is unlikely that I will ever be anything other than a cheap knock-off, like a street vendor copy of the Mona Lisa.
I don’t think there’s much to worry about. No one is going to mistake me or you for God, anyway. It’s a great goal, but we work toward it knowing that reaching it is impossible. There is something freeing about that, though. It allows us to boldly try great things without fear of failure. We have an opportunity to create wildly, to engage in the work of reconciliation boldly, and to love fiercely, knowing that God multiplies our efforts as we work alongside others. Alone, we are far from being the community that Paul described in Ephesians. Together, we may get close to being a pretty good imitation of the divine. Human limitations and imperfections and all.
Two years ago when I visited the Acropolis, next to one of the locations where the Apostle Paul preached, I was overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the Parthenon. I took many photos of the structure, including the intricately carved frieze – the band that encircles the massive structure beneath its roof. When I visited the new Acropolis museum, I discovered that the massive stone pieces of the frieze have actually been removed from the Parthenon and are displayed indoors in a controlled environment. The pieces I had so carefully observed and photographed outside were just copies! Imitations of the real thing. I understood though, why the copies were there. Sometimes imitations are needed. They serve a very practical purpose. People see them and are inspired, even if they understand that they are just copies representing something greater.
Don’t be afraid to imitate God, because in doing so you are the practical, available, imperfect incarnation of the hope and life that someone nearby can see, and by seeing be reminded of someone greater.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” Amen.