Preached FCCW, August 12, 2018
Charles Caleb Colton famously expressed the opinion that, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
“Imitation” however, can be synonymous with unflattering words, like phony, fake, or counterfeit.
Years ago, I was depositing some cash, including some $100 bills into a bank account, when the teller informed me that one of the $100 bills was counterfeit.
The teller knew how to identify imitation money. I did not.
Which left me out a hundred bucks.
The Bible warns about certain nefarious imitators, like false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing.
But, in other places the Bible upholds the value of imitation.
One of those places can be found in Paul’s Epistle to the church in Ephesus.
In the first verse of chapter 5, it says that Christians are to, “be imitators of God.”
Now, I’ve known a few people – I’ll bet you have, too – who go around believing they are imitating God, but not any God that we see when we look at Jesus.
Like by acting as if they can do no wrong or that they know what is best for everybody else; maybe even pointing the finger of condemnation at others.
That’s not the kind of imitator of God Paul is talking about.
Paul was thinking of imitating God in the noblest sense.
As in, imitating God’s loving nature in the ways we live our lives.
The verse that calls for us to be imitators of God begins with the word “therefore.”
“Therefore, be imitators of God,” it says.
The placement of that word “therefore” represents a conclusion Paul wants us to arrive at, based on the message that preceded it.
What comes in front of this “therefore” is a list of attitudes and actions befitting a follower of Jesus.
Another way to put it is that Paul gives us a list of qualities that help to identify an imitator of God.
Not being a frequent handler of $100 bills, I was not trained to know what differentiated a counterfeit from the genuine article.
But, if someone had placed a fake and a genuine bill side by side and pointed out the differences, I would have been in a better position to tell one from the other.
That is essentially what Paul is doing in this passage.
He rolls out pairs of moral opposites and holds them side by side.
Each pair is made up of a behavior that does not reflect what God is like with one that does, so that we begin to develop an eye for knowing the difference between someone who is an imitator of God and someone who isn’t.
With each contrasting pair of actions Paul is saying that an imitator of God is this and not that.
Based on the examples in this passage, therefore, a genuine imitator of God is identifiable as a person who practices truthfulness instead of dishonesty; does not allow anger to fester into resentments and hatred; who does not use words to harm or demean others, but uses grace-filled speech to build others up.
An imitator of God is recognizable by their kindness, their tenderheartedness and their mercy.
These are not merit badges we are out to earn for ourselves to flatter our way into God’s good graces.
Or to feed our ego on the flattery of others.
The identifying marks of a true imitator of God are outward signs of an inward transformation that should always be happening within us.
Paul sums up his message with these words: “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.”
We can break that down into two distinct but complementary ideas.
First is that we be imitators of God, as beloved children.
Beloved children know they are loved.
They don’t have to chase after God’s love.
They are aware that they are loved because of who God is and who they are in God’s eyes.
Imitating God is not a ploy to win God’s or anyone else’s favor.
It is a response to God’s love for us.
Secondly is the exhortation for us to live in love as Christ loved us.
The ultimate way Christ demonstrated his love for us was by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sakes.
Loving others as Christ loves us translates to being sensitive to the needs of others and a willingness to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.
All the things Paul lists as needing to be discarded in order to be genuine imitators of God have something in common.
They all create divisions and disrupt community.
Falsehood, nurturing your anger towards others, stealing, bad-mouthing others, bitterness, wrath, slander and malice — all these pit people against each other.
They fertilize an “us against them” mentality.
On the other hand, all the identifying marks of an authentic imitator of God, lead to reconciliation and cooperation.
These include speaking truth to our neighbors, working not only for our own benefit but also exercising mindfulness towards the needs of others who may be less advantaged, and speaking grace-filled words to one another.
All of these are actions that promote unity.
They are often actions that call for courage.
Today is the one-year anniversary of the ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On this date, proponents of Neo-Nazism, White Supremacism, White Nationalism
and other hateful, divisive ideologies, which, in Paul’s words, “grieve the Holy Spirit of God,”
were met by counter-protestors (including many people of faith and clergy).
There is, never has been, never will be any moral equivalency between those two positions.
They are as morally in-equivalent as those contrasting pairs of actions Paul used to tell the difference between a real imitator of God and an imitator of the worst human impulses.
Applying the message of Ephesians about imitators of God putting away falsehood, and speaking truth to our neighbors to this present context, would mean rejecting the falsehood of racism, and upholding the truth that we are not “us and them’ but are all members of one another; because that is the truth that God has spoken through prophets and saints and through His Son.
And, applying the words of Ephesians that say, “Be angry but do not sin” to this struggle means, be angry about hatred against anyone based on race, religion, or orientation, because it makes God angry.
And as imitators of God, how can we not be angry, too?
But, it also means that as imitators of God, do let your righteous anger become justification for returning evil for evil.
When we are unsure of what it means to genuinely imitate God in any situation, we have Jesus as our model.
For in him the fullness of God was present.
He is the ultimate authentic representation of God against which all falsehood is exposed for what it is.
God does not want or need our flattery. What God does want is our faithfulness.
A faithfulness that finds expression in our becoming people who imitate the love God has shown for us through Jesus, in the ways we treat our neighbors.
A faithfulness that moves us to resist and oppose false creeds of hatred by standing firm for truth and justice.
That is how to identify an imitator of God.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros