From Ephesians 4:25-5:2, “. . . be imitators of God, like children . . .”
“Be Like Christ!” That’s what I hear when I read this passage. Those words seem to jump right out at me. “Be Like Christ!”
It sounds a little bit catchy, like a slogan or something! Sounds so much better than “Imitate Christ!”, which is the language that Paul the apostle uses. I mean can you imagine driving down the road and seeing “Imitate Christ!” on a bumper sticker . . . or on a billboard. But that’s what Paul is asking us to do, not necessarily to put bumper stickers on our vehicles, but Paul is asking us to imitate Christ.
But I like “Be Like Christ!” But then I realized why it sounded so familiar. Do you remember that advertising campaign, “Be Like Mike”? I think it ran somewhere around the late 80’s and early 90’s. The ads were referring to Michael Jordan, a man that can jump higher and do things with a basketball that I can’t even imagine myself doing. But there we all were, or at least those of us of a certain age that were supposed to be buying basketball shoes. WE were being told to “Be Like Mike” by these advertisements for Nike’s shoes. Really they were telling us to buy shoes like Mike was wearing . . .
Maybe I am skewing this imitation thing a bit negative though; and it isn’t a negative thing to do. After all, I remember growing up on that farm just a few miles outside of the Dublin city limits. I remember the dirt there that sometimes was very dry and sometimes was very muddy. And although my father grew wheat and corn, soybeans and peanuts, most of the money came from raising hogs. This was back when you actually received a fair price for the sale of a hog.
Now one thing to know about a hog farm, once you are inside the fence, there won’t be a green thing in sight. Hogs are one of those animals, goats included, where if there is something around to eat, they will eat it. So inside the pig’s pen there was this fine, soft, sort-of grayish-colored dirt. It is the kind of dirt that leaves just the most perfect footprints; you can see every little line on the bottom of a shoe. So when my father and I would work around there, fixing a fence, chasing the hogs up onto the truck, whatever it was we were doing, I would inevitably, being the child that I was at the time, I would literally end up walking in his footsteps.
Of course it wasn’t all that easy, because my legs were shorter than his at the time. I had to stretch out my legs so that I wouldn’t take an extra step in-between his strides. It took some effort to try to match my stride with his stride, my steps with his steps. And then I’d try to hammer a nail as solidly as he did. Most of the time I didn’t. Or I’d try to run those pigs the way he did, whistling like he did, or calling them like he did.
You know, it is not always easy to follow in someone’s footsteps; those strides and steps and ways of walking don’t always match your own. But as a child I tried. Like many children I looked up at my father and wanted to be big and strong like he was, to be able to fix things like he did, to have people respect me like they respected him. That’s why we buy our children little toolboxes, right? Or miniature plastic lawnmowers? Or mini-bakeries or houses? It is because they want to do the things that adults do. It is so very natural for them to do that. This is how we learned as children . . . and this is also how we learn as adults to watch what we say and do around our children. Children do have the ability to pick up the things we don’t necessarily want them to pick up in addition to those things we do . . .
But this kind of learning, this is what school is about too. Even those of you who have been out for a year or two, you may just remember seeing those older children, the teenagers, those in the upper grades. And you may remember wanting to be like them. And maybe one day you figure out that you ARE those upper grades folks and the younger ones are looking up to you. But by then you are looking at college students or those who have graduated and are working, or those who have children and are making a home for them.
You see, this process of finding something or someone to admire, to imitate as Paul says, doesn’t ever really stop. There are always those in your workplace, in your career, people out in the larger world, there are all those expectations of who you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to want this and that. We are supposed to want that yellow Hummer, that nearly 9-ft tall, 6,400-pound monster, so that just in case there is a traffic jam of epic proportions in Warner Robins, Georgia, you will be able to drive on the curb.
As adults we find ourselves having to “tow the line” or “be on board” with everyone else. And sometimes this is not a bad thing, but a lot of the time our faith in Christ presents us with a different set of values, a different one to be looking up to, to imitate.
This is why some people walk around with bracelets or bumper stickers that say “What Would Jesus Do?” And thinking in this way can be helpful when we find ourselves faced with a tough decision. Or we may be somewhere where we ought to ask ourselves, “If Jesus was in this situation, what would Jesus do?” We might change our decision . . .
And even though this can be a helpful way to think, and it may seem that that is part of what Paul is communicating in Ephesians, this passage is about more than how we handle ourselves individually.
You see, this letter that we have before us, this letter to the Ephesians, is thought to be a “circulating letter”. This type of letter is one that is sent to Christians everywhere. It is intended to offer general words that may apply to Christians in many places. Paul doesn’t seem to be addressing anything specific in the church. Which is sort of surprising in that Paul spent a lot of time at Ephesus. It is surprising that there aren’t greetings to particular people, reminders of things he said or did while he was there.
The purpose of this letter is to address issues that have to do with living in community as Christians. This letter is about how to be the church, wherever that church happens to be, at Ephesus . . . or at your church. This letter is not only about how we make decisions as individuals, thinking “What would Jesus do?”; it is about how groups of people, any group of people. This letter tells us how that group can be a community that is focused on Christ and Christ alone. That is a community that nurtures, a community that builds up instead of tears down. The word that Paul offered then and still offers to us now is instructive whether it is addressed to the church or school or a club or work or neighborhood or whatever you may belong to.
Paul is saying to imitate Christ. And Jesus Christ says, “I am the Bread of Life”. And to imitate Christ means that we are not trying to imitate each other. It means that we are not trying to desire the things that everyone else desires. To imitate Christ means that we don’t find ourselves in competition. To imitate Christ means that we live together in community in more harmony and more peace, without the jealousy and bitterness and frustration that can come with imitating others.
Just as I looked for those footprints that my father made in that soft dusty soil, we should look for the footprints of Christ that are around us. That will not always be easy and sometimes we will have to stretch our legs farther than other times. But then, when we focus on being like Christ, when we do that in our jobs as students, as teachers, as workers, as mothers and fathers, as church members, as leaders in your community, when we stop focusing on how someone else is doing their job, when we imitate Christ, then we hear the words of Paul . . .
Put away lying and speak honestly with each other, for we are one people.
There will be times that you may be angry, but don’t allow your anger to fester and do all of us harm.
Do your own work, so that as other people have helped you at times, then you can help others.
Talk to each other and about each other in ways that build up, not in ways that tear down.
Be kind and tenderhearted, warm-hearted to each other.
We must forgive each other just as God has forgiven us.
These are the words of Paul to the church, to our church, and to each of us.