Scripture: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“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 5:1-2
As the child of a foreign service officer, I travelled a lot. Before the age of 18, I had lived in 7 countries and visited countless more. One of the realities of travelling to different countries is navigating the vast cultural differences between those countries. Whether it is eating customs, or how one greets one another, how one dresses or what is considered rude or inappropriate. One of the challenges is that what is the norm in one country can be considered rude in another. For example, in most of Europe and North America is it rude to eat with your hands, especially in a more formal dinner, whereas in Sri Lanka it is expected you eat with your hands as long as you keep the mess of eating to your fingertips and above your first knuckle.
As a diplomatic family, we were always prepped beforehand about particular local customs, or at least were quickly informed once we got there but that doesn’t mean that cultural mishaps didn’t happen or weren’t witnessed.
As Christians, we all come from and are shaped by different distinct cultures from around the world. Whether that’s Anglo-European, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, African and so much more we all come with different cultural expectations, different practices, different taboos and different things we celebrate. As Christians, we also enter into a different culture when we follow Jesus, with its own norms and expectations. Sometimes the clash between the culture of the Church and the culture of the world clashes tremendously.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul was very clear about this reality. After discussing the life of the church and how it is built up by the various gifts and ministries of all its members he went on about how being part of the church, being followers of Jesus necessitates a change in our behaviour and the way we live our lives.
Paul begins by exhorting his readers to put away all falsehood, to speak truthfully to one another. While this might seem like a no-brainer it is a reminder to us that lies and deceit, even small lies we think won’t hurt one another tear at the fabric of relationships and the community that is created as we all come to encounter Jesus as Lord. And this makes sense, if Jesus is the truth of the universe, the eternal truth which passes all human understanding then it stands to reason that his followers would seek to imitate that in their own imperfect way.
He moves his focus from truthfulness to anger, telling his readers to be angry but not to sin, to not leave room for the devil amidst the anger they hold. Often in the church, we have a blanket avoidance of anger, we believe that anger is antithetical to following Jesus, but Paul is clear here that it has a role to play in the life of the church. Think about the anger we feel when we witness injustice, think about the anger over the killings of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or the anger over the discovery of the mass graves at former Residential schools – this is righteous anger, this is the kind of anger that we witness God or Jesus demonstrating in our scriptures, this is the sort of anger that can spur us to loving action that leads to justice for all.
But as Paul suggests we cannot let that anger consume us, and drive us towards the devil, towards hatred and actions which tear down. As imitators of God, as imitators of Christ, we must allow our anger to be constructive, to build people and communities up rather than tear them down. Paul is clear that there should be no bitterness, wrath, slander or malice amidst Jesus’ disciples – these are the ways anger becomes infected with sin and destroys community, and have no intentional place amidst Christ’s disciples.
In place of these Paul commends his readers to be kind, tender-hearted and forgiving of one another all actions and attitudes which build up the body of Christ and deal with conflict without harming one another or the community at large.
Throughout all of this Paul is highlighting the vastly different culture that should be present in the church from the world around it. So often the world is dominated by fear, greed, selfish desires. This was true in Paul’s day and it remains true in our own.
Whether it is extreme capitalism that is driven by greed and selfishness, exploiting workers abroad and the poor in our midst; or systems of oppression that elevate one race above all others and infect all aspects of our communal life together; or the continued subjugation and undervaluing of women throughout the world. No matter where you look anger, violence and bitterness and disregard for others shapes the world around us.
As Christians who are shaped by our own worldly cultures and the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ, there needs to be a reckoning with the ways we participate in these systems of violence and oppression, there needs to be repentance and a move towards kindness, the self-sacrifice and the forgiveness that we encounter in Jesus.
At the end of this passage, Paul exhorts his readers to be imitators of God, a seemingly impossible and gargantuan task. And it’s true, broken by sin and by our own power we are unable to imitate God. We are unable to show the love, mercy, forgiveness and grace to the world that God showers upon us. But we are not alone, and it is not by our power that we do so.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has opened a way for us to be imitators of God. Through his death on the cross Jesus took all the power and weight of sin and disarmed it forever – if we cling to Jesus, if we commit our lives to Him then while sin and death still exist they will never have the last say, Jesus always will. Through his resurrection, Jesus has burst open the path of eternal and abundant life, the path of following him which gives us the strength and will to be imitators of God. In his Ascension, Jesus has brought humanity into the very life of God, made it possible for every one of us to be numbered among the children of God, each one of us to be true imitators of God as God’s divine life transforms us.
This transformation takes time, the Holy Spirit works on us like water working its way on stone, creating grooves in our heart and making them new. Our imitation will be imperfect, we will sometimes fall back into the old ways, but as we worship together, as we seek to serve one another and the world around us, as we soak our lives in prayer and meditation on the Holy Scriptures – our life will change, it will be filled with God’s love, God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness more and more.
And as a result, it will be filled with joy, and that joy is the true imitation of God. A Joy that springs from the deep well of love that we experience in Jesus and pours out in abundance to the world around us.
Our lives need to be constantly transformed by Jesus’ love into the Joy of God, here in this church and wherever you may be. That is what it means to imitate God, may it be so for you, and me and for the whole of creation. Amen