Imitators of God
James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
Children are amazingly perceptive imitators. Our 2-year-old daughter is at the age where she mimics pretty much anything we say or do. One of the things she loves is when I pick her up and carry her on my shoulders, or as she says, “I want to sit on your neck!” And so guess how she carries her baby doll around the house? Not cradled in her arms, but around her neck, just like I carry her on my shoulders.
When I was in Kindergarten, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer? A state worker! Any guesses why? The answer, of course, is that my father was a state worker. I really had no idea what my dad did, other than that he sat in an office at a green desk. But I wanted to be just like my dad, so since my dad was a state worker, I wanted to be one too!
In Ephesians 5, Paul tells the Ephesians to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). Talk about having big shoes to fill! “Be imitators of God.” That’s a pretty tall order. We are to mimic the words and actions of none other than God the Father! Often the concept of becoming like God is relegated to other religions. We think that it’s impossible to be like God, so why even try? But here Paul exhorts us to imitate God.
The key here is “as beloved children.” Just as it comes naturally for children to imitate their parents or guardians, so too as we embrace our identity as dearly loved children of God, we naturally become imitators of God. As we get to know our Father’s heart, our hearts start to break for the things that break God’s heart. As we grow in knowledge and intimacy with God, we start to respond the way God would respond. As we observe God’s actions in our own lives and the grace God has extended to us, we begin to extend that same grace to other people.
As Christ Loved Us
Of course, our understanding of who God is drastically shapes the way that we imitate God. So Paul goes on to say that we imitate God by living “in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:2). Jesus is the clearest picture we have of God. If we want to know what God looks like, if we want to know how exactly to imitate God, or what it looks like to respond the way God would respond, all we have to do is to look at Jesus.
The classic book, “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon written in 1896, tells the fictional account of a railroad town in the eastern U.S., where the Rev. Henry Maxwell challenges his congregation not to do anything for a whole year without first asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” The town is turned completely inside out as church members start to act according to Christlike principles. The book was of course the inspiration for the WWJD bracelet craze back in the 1990’s. But the heart of the book, and the question, is to put into practice this idea of becoming imitators of God by imitating Christ.
Paul points us not only to Christ’s love as an example for us, but specifically to Christ’s sacrificial love, expressed in the way that Christ gave himself as a sacrificial offering for us. Jesus’s life and death on the cross embody God’s love for us. All throughout Jesus’s life he poured himself out for the lost, gave himself for the poor and needy, loved the sick and dying, the marginalized, and the least of these. He gave himself fully to us, even to the point of dying on the cross in our place. If we want to know what it looks like to imitate God, all we have to do is to look at the way Christ loved us and gave himself for us in life and in death.
Walk in the Way of Love
And finally, Paul tells us to “live in love, as Christ loved us” — or, as some translations say, “Walk in the way of love” (5:2 NIV). Walking in the way of love means that love is both the destination, and the route we take. We cannot walk the road of hate and expect to arrive at love. Love is both the end, and the means.
The type of love with which Christ loved and gave himself for us is not the flaky, “here today and gone tomorrow” sort of love that we talk about in our society. We love that sports team, or that car, that purse, or that outfit, or that hairstyle, until we’re tired of it or it’s no longer in style. Often love is code for “I want.” One of my seminary professors likes to point out that often when we say, “I love you” to another person, what we frequently mean is “I love me, and I want you!”
But walking in the way of love entails dying to ourselves. It means speaking the truth in love (4:25). It means not going to bed angry (4:26). It means choosing words that build others up, rather than tearing them down (4:29). It means extending grace to others, just as God has extended grace to us (4:32). Loving others with the type of love that Christ has for us means putting others’ needs before our own. It means loving someone even when they are unlovely. It means loving someone, not because of what they can do for us or what they can give us, but simply because they too are a child of God.
As children of God, we begin to act like God. We love like Christ loved us. We live like Christ lived. We walk in the way of Christ’s love.
Part of what that means is that we join hands with people across racial, denominational, and even faith traditions, to stand up against hatred and division. We refuse to buy into the lie that certain people are less valuable or significant than others. We love and welcome all people, regardless of their socio economic, cultural, or political background. Walking in the way of love means standing up for love at all costs.
United To Love
As you probably know, the white supremacists that organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia one year ago today, are attempting to recreate that rally today in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C.
In response, a group of over 400 of our fellow United Methodist church members from the Baltimore and Washington area are gathering on the National Mall in Washington D.C., joining together with people from many different organizations and faith traditions for a rally called “United To Love: Rally for Love, Peace, and Justice.” The goal of the rally is to provide a prayerful response and call to action to the Unite the Right rally happening today.
According to our Bishop LaTrelle Easterling,
“It is my belief that the way to respond to negativity is not by silencing it; rather, the outpouring of love should be so strong as to overwhelm it. In that spirit, our numbers should completely overwhelm and drown out any messages of hate, exclusion, or division.” – Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
And so our Bishop sent out a call around the country, inviting all individuals, faith communities and organizations to cross lines of difference and “gather together to uplift the human spirit, renounce all forms of hate and show that we are #unitedtolove.”
I want to invite us to pray for our fellow Christians who are standing today in love, confronting the hatred and vitriol that is being spewed by White Supremacists. Let us pray that our love as followers of Christ would overwhelm the messages of hate, exclusion, and division. Let’s pray that as we walk in love and become imitators of God, that we would be able to point others to the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness that God offers. Love is a powerful force. Let us love freely, love boldly, and live in God’s love!