Imitators of God

It is said that over time dogs and their owners strike up a remarkable resemblance! Children too grow up not only with the physical likeness of their parents but they also imitate them. A child will watch, observe and copy what their parent does or says and so imitate their behaviour and habits for good or for ill.

The apostle Paul writes, ‘Be imitators of God’ (Ephesians 5:1) having spelled out what it might mean to look like Jesus, ‘and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. To imitate God is to live a life of love. Jesus Christ set the supreme example of love by giving up his life for us. It is from the cross that we know we are loved by God. The goal of the Christian life is to become more and more like our Lord so that rather than treating others in the way that they treat me, I treat them the way God has treated them and me, out of a heart of love and forgiveness.

Paul sets out practical ways how we can live this life in relationship with one another (Eph 4:25-32) and provides the five marks of a holy church. 

i.  Authenticity

‘Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body’ (v.25)

This is a life of integrity. We must be realistic, none of us is perfect and in this life we will never be perfect nor must we pretend that we are. The danger in talking about ‘holiness’ is that it can lead to intensity. There is a narrow line between being holy and being ‘holier than thou’, between being pious and being ‘poisonous’! St Paul says put off falsehood. Falsehood comes from thinking we cannot admit to any fault or difficulty or problem in our lives. This in turn can lead to hypocrisy. 

ii.  Passion

‘ “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (v. 26-27)

Although anger is not intrinsically sinful, (it is a God given emotion), it can often lead to sin. It is important to keep your anger under control.

The devil will take the slightest opportunity to get a foothold in our lives and what starts as a foothold can easily become an addiction. Anger is an emotion that we need to handle with care. God expresses anger, but of course under control. Jesus was angry and his passionate hatred of sin led to his actions in the Temple courts overturning the tables of the money changers. It was Wilberforce’s passionate hatred of slavery that led to the abolition of the slave trade.

 We need people today who are passionate and possess a holy anger against the causes of so much pain and unhappiness in our world today: injustice, poverty, third world debt, the break down in family life, the unborn child, the crime rate and the prison population, the AIDS crisis and thousands of people dying of starvation. We need people with a holy anger. 

iii. Work and Generosity

‘He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need’v28.

Holiness does not necessarily involve withdrawal from the world. Paul is a strong supporter of the ethic of work (2 Thess 3:10). Work is part of being holy. Work in itself is good for the satisfaction that it brings but there is also toil, struggle and effort, whether it is paid or voluntary. Doing something useful and being generous is an important principle.

iv. Encouragement

‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen’ v29.

Words matter. What we say is of vital importance. It can either build people up or drag them down. St Paul writes that we should not use our mouths negatively, for evil. This grieves the Holy Spirit. Rather we should use our mouths for good – for encouragement and for building each other up.

v. Grace

‘Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you’ v31 – 32.

We need to get rid of all ‘ungrace’, all bitterness (longstanding resentments, brooding over insults and injuries), all rage and anger (shouting and abusive speech). A holy community is ‘kind, compassionate and forgiving’. The word forgiving means literally ‘being gracious’. In other words Paul ends this chapter by saying be gracious to one another just as in Christ, God was gracious to you.

Paul’s vision of a holy church is a community that welcomes those who are ex offenders, those struggling with lifestyle issues, those who are divorced, those who have messed up. It welcomes everyone, because it is kind and compassionate at the same time. In this way, says Paul, we can live a life of love and in so doing be imitators of God, who is himself, Love.

                                                            In Christ     Stephen