Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 14)

Text: Ephesians 5:1,2
Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.

Imitate God

“Imitate God”.  Are you serious?  Imitate God that means speak and act like God, mimic God, be like God, copy God, emulate God, match God – who can do that?  God is so “totally other”, so different, so perfect – how can we even begin to imitate him in everything we do?  There is one major stumbling block when it comes to imitating God – thinking, speaking and acting like God and it’s this – God is so perfect and he never gets things wrong while we are so imperfect and are always messing things up. 

In fact, Paul is writing to Christians and lists a whole lot of things that have messed up their lives,
anger that leads to hurting others,
lying and speaking deceptively,
disrespecting other people’s property,
bad language,
bitterness and put downs,
insulting speech and hateful feelings and that’s not the half of it. 

His readers know the love of Jesus and yet that love doesn’t flow over into their daily lives.  We know the love of Jesus and yet Jesus’ love doesn’t flow over into our daily lives.  So Paul says it as plainly as he can, “Imitate God”.

This is the only place in the New Testament where this phrase is used.  Paul uses language like “imitate me” or “imitate other churches” but not “imitate God”.  That is a very demanding challenge.  He explains what he means by this, saying, Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ”.  In other words, Imitating God means
living like Christ,
loving like Christ,
sacrificing oneself like Christ,
being dedicated and committed like Christ,
forgiving like Christ and
avoiding everything that would draw you away from being Christ-like. 

Does any of that make Paul’s words, “Imitate God in everything you do” any easier to fulfil?  Maybe it simply highlights the fact that even though we claim to be “children of the light”, being like Christ and imitating Christ is something that is really difficult.  The more we consider these words the greater the awareness of how hard it is to imitate God. Read the rest of chapter 5 where Paul talks about obscene talk, coarse language, bad jokes, greediness, sexual immorality in the broadest sense and we end swallowing very hard.

Let’s take one aspect of God’s love as an example – forgiveness.  We see Jesus generous love on the cross.  At our baptism he embraced us sinful beggars and poured on us his grace and love and declared us to be free and clean of everything that stains us. 

He gives us his body and blood in Holy Communion and again declares his love for us and promises that we are his and that we will live forever.  His forgiveness is given generously, extravagantly, completely, unconditionally, graciously.  When God forgives sin he no longer remembers it; our sin is no longer held against us.  It has been wiped away forever.

We all know that forgiveness is something that is badly needed in our community and our world today.  But it is so hard to forgive.  Most of us have a skeleton or two in the cupboard of our lives – things we have said or done that causes our conscience nags us.  And most of us have been around the church long enough to know that church members haven’t always been as generous as Jesus with their forgiveness.

A story at this time might help us focus on what it means to “imitate God”.

The story is told of a girl, Louise, who turned her back on her widowed mother, considering her mum too restrictive.  They had an argument when she came home with a tattoo and after shouting “I hate you”, packed her bags and left home without telling her mother where she was going. 

Night after night the mother waited for Louise, but she didn’t come back.  Not knowing what to do next, the mother decided to have some photos taken of herself and then wrote on each of them “I love you. Come back”.  She posted the pictures on bulletin boards wherever she thought her daughter might see them. 

In the meantime, Louise’s attempts finding a job had limited success.  Mostly she lived on the street.  At night she would lie awake, frightened and cold, her pockets and her stomach empty, and with newspapers tucked under her coat to keep her warm.  Thoughts of home popped into her head.  The smell of something delicious coming from the kitchen.  Her bedroom and the bed with sheets and blankets.  She missed her cat and realised he was warm, well-fed, and healthy.  But the idea of going home was out of the question.  She was not going back.  Her pride wouldn’t let her.

One night, something on a community bulletin board caught her attention.  Louise took a closer look, and there it was – her own mother, looking much older now.  Then she saw what was written on the photo, “I love you. Come back”, and knew it was addressed to her.  Those words hit her with an unbelievable force.  With tears in her eyes and a heart burning with remorse, she took the first train home. 

When she arrived, she was surprised to find the door of the house open; no need to knock; in she went.  “Mum, I’m so sorry.  Can you ever …” “Sshh”, her mother interrupted.  She threw her arms around her daughter, held her tight and with tears in their eyes they both stood there embraced in love and warmth and forgiveness. 

After a while the street-wise Louise asked, "Mum, why do you leave your front door open?"  “Oh, Louise, the door has never been closed since the day you left.  I’ve left it open all the time you’ve been gone waiting for my precious child to walk through it.”

That’s a great story much like Jesus’ parable of the Waiting Father or the Lost Son in Luke 15 and tells us about the magnificent forgiving love of our heavenly Father and how he hugs each and every sinner who comes to him. 

But doesn’t this story also tells us how we are to “imitate God” – how we are to hug one another with the same kind of love and forgiveness that this mother has shown her daughter, Louise, and the love the father demonstrated to his lost son.

We all have a desperate need to be hugged.  People have a yearning to know they are accepted.  Everyone needs to hear someone say, “I love you, I forgive you, I appreciate what you are doing.”  Children need to hear that.  Parents need to hear the same thing.  Husbands and wives need to hear it.  Teachers, pastors and leaders need to hear it.  We all need the hug of acceptance and appreciation and forgiveness.

It’s the kind of hug that says, “I love you and forgive even though you have hurt and upset me more times than both you and I care to recall”.  We need the hug of acceptance like the hug the mother gave her rebellious child as she welcomed her home.

We know from experience that it’s hard to hug someone you have just slandered.
You can’t hug someone you are angry with or have hateful feelings toward or have spoken unkind and hurtful words to them.
All these things put up barriers and will not allow us to accept one another, and warmly embrace one another with forgiveness and love.
Reconciliation and forgiveness break down those barriers. 
It is possible for God to hug us because we are reconciled to God through the blood of Christ.  It follows that we ought to be able to hug one another warmly because we have been reconciled to one another.
Or to put that simply the hug of God is to be passed around.  God hugs us with his love and then we pass on that loving hug to others (not necessarily a physical hug but love, kindness and forgiveness).

Like the mother in the story, God gives us the hug of forgiveness.  God says to you at this moment, “I love you even though you aren't perfect.  I forgive you for the sake of my Son, Jesus”.  That's the hug of God.  

Jesus continues to hug us with his love and forgiveness. We are held together in his loving arms as brothers and sisters.  We are united in the Body of Christ sharing the same Bread of Life that gives life forever.  Jesus has blessed us with his grace and now Paul says, “Imitate what Christ has done for you.  Be kind and tender-hearted, forgiving and loving toward one another, and like Christ put other’s needs above your own.”

“Imitate God in everything you do because you are his dear children” is a tough call.  As much as we might look for loopholes or for reasons not to forgive those who hurt us, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that just as God has forgiven us for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also we are to forgive one another.

It is a hard thing to be “like Christ” or to “imitate God” and Paul knows it.  We can only “imitate God” in his grace.  We know that we will fail often.  We need his constant hug of forgiveness around us. We need that baptismal hug to remind us that we are still his and his love burns ever stronger for us.  We need God’s hug as we receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament and are reminded that all is forgiven.  We are hugged by God and then challenged as we go -

Imitate God in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th August 2015

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