Ten years ago we said as a congregation that our vision is one of experiencing and expressing God’s unconditional love. We could have easily come to that sense of vision by reading this letter to the Ephesians, that is actually, a letter to the church at large. In his prayer for the church the writer prays that they will understand and experience the immensity and magnitude of Christ’s love. In the passage we looked at last week the writer called upon his readers to bear with one another in love, to speak the truth in love, and to work together and build up the whole body in love. Everything is to be done in love. Now, in today’s passage we are called upon to be imitators of God by living in love. All the instructions and exhortations the writer gives to the readers in this text are expressions of what it means and what it looks like to live in love and thus, be imitators of God.
First, we imitate God and live in love by putting away falsehood and deceit, so that we can honestly and sincerely speak truth to our neighbor. The neighbor of course, could be anyone, even the one who wishes or even works for our harm. This is part of what it means to love our neighbor. We speak truth to our neighbor. Now, we sometimes do strange things with scripture to avoid this. In an article I read recently the reporter was interviewing people in a Southern Baptist Church and one woman said that to love your neighbor means your American neighbor. She also said that welcoming the stranger meant welcoming the legal immigrant stranger. That’s convenient isn’t it? I suppose we all selectively read scripture to one degree or another to justify our beliefs and practices, which is why I often say we need to be intentional regarding one’s biases. It’s foolish to pretend we don’t have them. I think the important question is what kind of biases are we going to have? Are they constructive or destructive? When Jesus told the story that we call the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus made it quite clear that our neighbor could be one of a different nationality and religion. Jesus made it clear that our neighbor even includes our “so called” enemy – the one who wants to do us harm. We imitate God by loving our neighbor and by speaking truth to our neighbor without deceit and deception.
Second, we imitate God and live in love by refusing to allow our anger at injustice to control us. The writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Anger is not forbidden. In fact, anger is even expected. If there are things that do not anger us as followers of Jesus, then perhaps we are not actually following Jesus. How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over our government’s treatment of families seeking asylum? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when we learn that over 500 children have not been reunited with their parents, and that it is very possible, that many of them may never be reunited? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry over the racism that pervades our country today and is being legitimized by our top government leaders? How does a follower of Jesus not get angry when the most vulnerable among us are beaten down and oppressed?
Jesus got angry. In Mark 3 we are told that Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and there was a man who had a withered hand. The religious authorities were carefully watching Jesus to see if he would heal the man. They didn’t care about the man. They cared only about their own power and authority and making Jesus conform to their rules. Just like our government leaders who care nothing about the families they criminalize who come simply seeking asylum. Mark says that Jesus “looked at them with anger” and that he was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” Anger can be righteous or it can be unrighteous. Much of that is determined by what it is that ignites the anger within us. The hypocrisy of the religious gatekeepers who cared about the rules more than they cared about helping and healing others, greatly angered Jesus.
One of the very best treatments I have ever read about God’s anger was written by the Hebrew scholar and mystic, Abraham Heschel, in his classic work on the prophets. He points out that God’s anger as expressed by the prophets is never an explosive, emotional outburst, but something that is purposeful and ultimately intended for good. It most often reflects God’s actions toward his people when his people mistreat the most vulnerable and take advantage of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens or non-Jews living in the land, who were the most vulnerable ones in Hebrew society. God’s anger, says Heschel, goes hand-in-hand with God’s mercy. It is intended to be corrective and redemptive, and thus temporary. Anger is not God’s settled disposition. Mercy and God’s steadfast love constitute God’s settled disposition.
This is why the writer says, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” We fail to imitate God if we allow anger to fester and grow. Anger must never become a settled disposition. Last week, I posted via social media something I said in my sermon. Namely, how we are obligated to speak the truth in love. I said that as followers of Christ we must speak out when we see injustice. But even as we speak out against injustice, we must not demonize those who support demonic policies and practices. One of my facebook friends commented on how difficult that is to do. She said, “When children are involved, I sort of lose my mind.” She was referencing, of course, the children who have been separated from their parents, and may never be reunited with their parents. Here is what I said to her: It is hard, but for our own sanity, and less we poison with our anger the people around us, we have to be able to let it go.” I said to her, “The more you care, and the more compassionate you are, the harder that will be for you to do. But you have to be able to find some joy, and some good, and some gratitude, and not let the injustice you are angry over steal your life.” God doesn’t hang on to anger. As the Psalmist says, “God’s anger is but for a moment, while God’s steadfast love is for a lifetime.” If we are to be imitators of God and walk in love we can’t hold on to our anger either. We cannot be perpetually angry.
Third, the writer says we imitate God and walk in love by engaging in constructive work and labor, so that we will have something to share with the needy. We work and labor in order to live – to support ourselves and our families. That’s a given isn’t it? But that is not what the writer says is it? Where does the writer place the emphasis? On what we get out of work? No. It’s on what we can give isn’t it? We work and labor, so we will have something to share with the needy. That’s a different perspective on work isn’t it? Because the emphasis is not what we can get. It’s on what we can give?
Fourth, the writer says we imitate God and live in love when we guard our speech, so that our words uplift and build up others and communicate grace. All of these instructions go together or build on each other. If we are carrying around bitterness and resentment, if we have not sufficiently diffused our anger and let it go, there is a good possibility our speech, our words, will tear down rather than build up. All of us, I suspect, have been guilty (I know I have) of using words to tear down, rather than build up. And sometimes our words, which we intend to build up, actually tear down, because we are not aware in the moment of our own frustration. Again, I speak from personal experience. In fact, I was guilty of this just this past week.
I love the story of the little girl who came skipping out of children’s church one morning. Her mother asked her what she had learned. She said that her teacher had talked about the verse where Jesus told his disciples to let their light shine before others in such a way that others would see their good works and glorify God. She said the teacher had taught them what when they let the light of Jesus’ love shine in their hearts and their lives, then their lives would a blessing to others and to God. Well, the very next Sunday this same little girl got in an argument with another little girl in the class. In fact, things got so out of hand, the teacher had to get her mom out of worship to come and settle her down. When her mom got to her she said, “Honey, what happened? What happened to letting the light of Jesus’ love shine in your heart and be a blessing to others?” In tears, and totally frustrated the little girl said to her mother, “Mama, I guess I just blew myself out.” We all know about blowing ourselves out don’t we? All these instructions on walking in love are connected. If we are unable to let go of our anger, if we allow it to take root and grow, it’s not very likely our words will be gracious and constructive in building others up.
Fifth, we imitate God and walk in love when we strip ourselves of all negative attitudes and behaviors that are malicious and slanderous and hurtful to others, and put on attitudes and behaviors that reflect kindness, compassion and forgiveness. We put aside our grudges, as we forgive one another the way God in Christ has forgiven us.
Philip Gulley says that when he was a kid he lived about a mile from the dump. But there was a kid named Bobby who lived right next to the dump with his little brother and grandmother. For some reason, says Gulley, Bobby got picked on a lot and was always mad. He would come over to Gulley’s house in late summer and early fall, when football was starting, and they played football. Somebody would tackle Bobby and he would come up swinging, ready to fight.
One Saturday they were playing football and Bobby got mad at Philip’s brother, Doug, and hit Doug. But Doug didn’t do anything. All the kids were yelling at Doug to hit him back, but Doug wouldn’t do it. He refused to hit Bobby back. So, the rest of them kicked Bobby out of the game and made him go home. Afterwards, Philip asked Doug why he hadn’t gone after Bobby, because he knew Doug wasn’t scarred of Bobby. He knew Doug could handle Bobby. Doug told him how he’d learned that week that Bobby lived with his grandma because his parents had been killed and he figured Bobby had been hit enough in life. Philip was 11 years old, but that memory stayed with him, because it was the first time in his life that he became distinctly conscious of grace.
Philip had experienced a lot of kindness in life, from his family, from teachers, from his friends, and he knew what that looked like and felt like. But this was different. His brother had every reason to settle the score; his brother would have been justified in hitting Bobby back, making Bobby pay the price for being a jerk, but he didn’t. He withheld and retrained his anger. He opted for mercy.
Bobby moved away the next year and Philip lost touch with him. But years later, Philip was at an event where a woman introduced herself and said that she had a nephew that used to live in the town where Philip grew up. When Philip inquired, he discovered it was Bobby. She said Bobby was married, had three daughters, and was very happy. Maybe Bobby encountered enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough love in his life to change him, and maybe some of it came through people like Doug Gulley, who opted to forgive rather than fight. We imitate God and live in love when we, like Doug Gulley, are tenderhearted, kind, understanding, and quick to forgive.
Lastly, we imitate God and live in love when we live sacrificially like Christ. Jesus didn’t die a sacrificial death in order to satisfy some need in God. God didn’t require Jesus to die so God could forgive sins. Jesus lived for God’s will and God’s cause in the world, and he gave his life sacrificially to that end. Jesus spoke truth to power in love. Jesus confronted the religious and social injustices within Judaism. Jesus did what was loving rather than what was lawful time and time again. And it got him killed. He lived sacrificially, so he died sacrificially – as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. The way he died became a symbol for how he lived. It’s all one piece. We are called to the same kind of sacrificial love and service. Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. We are called to do the same.
So, how do we imitate God and live in love. One, we put away falsehood and deception, and we speak truth to our neighbor. Two, we refuse to allow anger to linger and fester. Three, we engage in constructive work, so we will have something to share with the needy. Four, we guard our speech, so that our words are seasoned with grace and serve to inspire and build up others. Five, we put away attitudes and actions that are slanderous and hurtful to others, and instead nurture tenderheartedness and kindness, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. And six, we follow Christ’s example of sacrificial service and ministry regardless of the cost. As we ready ourselves to share in the bread and cup in remembrance of the one who so beautifully imitated God and lived in love, let us ask ourselves: Am I willing to set aside my false self, take up my cross, and follow Christ on the path of sacrificial love and service. / Gracious God, open our hearts and incline our wills to do your good will and live in the love of Christ.