April 5, 2009

The Church: Imitators of God
Ephesians 4:17-5:2

I have a confession to make. Deb and I were invited to celebrate one of her best friend’s birthdays in Lancaster a couple of week ago, and she and her boyfriend took us contra dancing. I had never done it before. In fact, I didn’t have a clue what contra dancing was. But Sue, my wife’s friend and a woman I greatly admire—and she is a gentle Quaker!—assured me that it would be fun and that an instructor would teach beginners like me what to do before the actual dance began. So much for that.

The instructor, as it turned out, was an impatient man who knew absolutely nothing about either relating to other people or teaching them how to contra dance. So, when the festivities began, if that’s what you call them, I was as clueless as the moment I first arrived. In desperation and with no small amount of self-consciousness—contra dancing involves exchanging partners, performing various maneuvers, and spinning in endless circles—I said to Sue, “Now what? I haven’t the foggiest idea what I am doing.” To which she simply replied, “I’ll ask a friend of mine who is an experienced dancer to show you. Follow her lead and do what she does.”

So I did. Or at least I tried. And while I am certainly in no hurry to contra dance again—there was actually very little about it that I enjoyed!—I did begin to catch on. I watched the experienced dancer as she moved effortlessly across the floor, and I began to do whatever she did. I followed her lead. I imitated her.

We all imitate more people over the span of a lifetime than we could possibly imagine—parents, teachers, friends, pastors, colleagues. I dare say that we learn as much by imitating others as we do by virtually any other teaching method, whether consciously or not. “What do I do now? How do I put this together? What comes next?” “How will I ever learn to do that?” Often, we watch someone around us, and we imitate them. That same principle, the Apostle Paul suggests here in Ephesians 4:17-5:2, also lies at the heart of the Christian life. When we commit our lives to God and wonder, “Now what do we do?” the answer is this: “Imitate God.” And how do we do that? “Keep your eyes on the experienced dancer,” Paul continues, “and do whatever he does. Imitate Christ.”

What a clear, simple answer. It’s not the answer that most of us aspiring disciples immediately think of when we wonder, “What do we do now?” Instead, when we read texts like this one in the New Testament, texts that deal with Christian conduct or ethics, we often slide into one of two extremes. We might, on the one hand, create detailed lists of rules and regulations. Even though Paul has previously assured us that we are no longer under the law, we do our best to pull endless rules, like a blanket, back over our heads. “What do we do now that we are ‘in’ Christ?” We follow the rules. The more meticulously, the better. Or we might, on the other hand, reduce great texts like this one to trivial clichés. “What do we do now that we are ‘in’ Christ?” “Be good.” “Be nice.” Where does Jesus, or any of the biblical writers for that matter, ever tell us to “Be nice?” In Ephesians 4:17-5:2, Paul’s focus is neither on following rules nor being nice, but on keeping our eyes on the experienced dancer. “Imitate Christ.” That’s Paul’s answer.

Imitating Christ, Paul explains, involves two crucial elements. First, we must think like Christ (4:17-24). In 1 Corinthians 2:16, Paul comes right out and says it: “For we have the mind of Christ.” Here in Ephesians 4:23, he speaks of our being “renewed in the spirit of our minds.” What are we to do now? What comes next? Think like Christ.

We Christians are, as you no doubt know, often accused of leaving our minds—our brains—at the door. That, rest assured, should never be the case. In fact, in this modern world of ours with all of its needs and complex issues, no one on earth should think more deeply than those of us who follow Jesus. I’m not essentially referring, by the way, to accumulating information or amassing college degrees, although such pursuits have their place. As the church lives out its mission in the world, we need Christians with technical training and advanced degrees who can wrestle with the increasingly complex issues that surround us in genuinely profound and God-like ways. Paul, however, is writing here to ordinary people, the vast majority of who would have had very little formal education. This isn’t about degrees and credentials. It’s about depth, content, and mental and moral clarity. It’s about discerning between right and wrong in a world when far too many people simply do what feels good to them. It’s about living lives of sacrificial service in a world when many people search only for the highest paying job. It’s about using money and other gifts and resources for Kingdom work in a world when so many people look out primarily for themselves. It’s not about degrees. I’ve known any number of ignorant and simplistic people with Ph.D.’s, and I’ve also known profound thinkers who never went to college. It’s about thinking like Christ in every aspect of life.

But how? How are we renewed in the spirit of our minds? The answer is twofold. There is God’s role, and then there is ours. God, for his part, plants this new life deep in our hearts—his Spirit takes up residence within us—and this new life grows and grows and grows. We simply wait on the Lord and trust God to continue the work in us that he promised to do. We can’t force it, but we can either inhibit or cultivate it.

And that is where we come in. We, for our part, remove the stuff that clutters and corrupts our minds and at the same time fill our minds with the things of God. Think of it this way. I received various e-mails over the last few weeks with attached files that I was unable to open. I had a computer, but I didn’t have compatible software to open the files. Would buying a new printer or monitor solve the problem? Of course not. I could upgrade my hardware all I wanted, but I would still not be able to open those files until I changed the software. It is the software that enables the hardware to do what we want it to do, so I must update or upgrade the software. So it is with our minds. We sometimes try to upgrade the hardware—work at our outer lives—without changing the software. To think like Christ, we must change the software in our mental computers.

Imitating Christ, in addition, involves a second element: we must act like Christ. Think like Christ. Act like Christ. In 4:25-32, Paul paints a picture of what the Christ-like life looks like. If we sit and reflect on this picture for even a short while, an overarching theme begins to emerge. The Christ-like life is a life of kindness. Paul says as much in v. 32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving….” “Be renewed in your mind. In your conduct be kind.” That’s kind of cute, isn’t it. Don’t just be good, whatever that means. Don’t just be nice, a word with about as much meaning as the word, “interesting.” Be kind to one another. Let kindness infiltrate and inform everything that you do.

And if you look back over the description that Paul provides in this section, you can begin to see what a kind, Christ-like life looks like:
Get rid of anything in your life that is disingenuous or false.
Speak the truth. In fact, Paul uses a much broader verb here than “speak.” Enact the truth—live out the truth before your neighbor. Let your words and conduct be truthful.
Be angry but do not sin. Use anger for godly rather than self-seeking ends.
Work hard and share the fruits of your labor with those in need.
Don’t destroy people with words, but speak in ways that are life-giving to those around you.
Put away grudges, bitterness and desires for revenge.
Can you see the common theme here? Acting like Jesus involves living lives of kindness.

“So what do we followers of Jesus do now?” Follow the rules? Be good? That’s not how the apostle Paul answers the question. No. Instead, keep your eyes on the experienced dancer and do whatever he does. Watch Jesus, and imitate him. Think like him. Act like him. Jesus, Paul writes, “…loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (5:2). When you look at Jesus, you see both a godly mind and a life that is kind. Just ask the people who were standing along the road that day hundreds of years ago when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the back of a colt. Scan the crowd with me. Can you pick out any familiar faces? Look over there. It’s Zacchaeus, the former tax-collector from Jericho. And what’s going through his mind? “Everyone in Jericho was against me. They didn’t want to get close to me, and they’d never even think about coming to my house. Jesus was different. He was tender-hearted. He was kind.” And there. Can you see them? Some of the teachers that Jesus was talking to in the temple. “What an incredible mind he has,” they are commenting to each other. “Clear, crisp and insightful. It is hard to argue with him.” Oh, look over there. Do you see her? The woman caught red-handed in adultery. What in the world is she thinking? “That man on the colt, Jesus, forgave me when everyone else had already picked up stones.”

What lies at the heart of Christian conduct and ethics? What do we do now? Keep our eyes and ears on Jesus. Follow the experienced dancer as we swing and sway our way through life. And do whatever he does.