Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Aristotle said that art, being the imitation of nature, represents the form and order of the world in order to get at something perfect, timeless, and beautiful. Art takes all the varied and changing experiences from life and simulates them into a single whole -- whether a painting, a poem, or a play -- and in so doing, mysteriously transcends those particular experiences. What results is not a duplicate world, but an object that unveils some deeper reality of the world we already have. At its best, art touches the sublime. It’s about the closest we get to approximating God’s original act of creation from nothing. So imitation is one of the most basic human activities because it is one of the main ways that we grasp for what is beyond us.
It makes sense that humans would do this kind of thing. Being “rational animals,” we’re unlike the living creatures that surround us on earth in that we possess the faculty of reason and imagination but we’re unlike the angels in that we possess bodies. And that makes us peculiar creatures. We’re stuck mid-way between heaven and earth, so to speak. And so we have this insatiable drive to gather our experiences of earth so as to reach a touch of heaven. We imitate the forms and rhythms of the cosmos because we have this deep intuition that doing so will put us into contact with transcendence. This is why we worship according to a liturgy, moving our bodies and shaping our words according to ancient forms. And yet it turns out that our desire to touch heaven through imitation is simultaneously what makes us human and what has made us sinful. After all...
What is sin if not the presumption to be like God?
What is salvation if not the struggle to be like God?
But what determines the quality of our imitation? What is the criterion by which we become the imitators of God as his children or the imitators of God as his impostors?
I think one of the hardest things for us to grasp about Christianity is that the love of God really is exercised in and through the love of neighbor. And it’s specifically the love of each other in the Church that functions as the criterion for the proper imitation of God in today’s epistle. Now that’s not to say that there isn’t a direct and immediate love of God in and of itself. That’s a big part of what our Summer Reading Group is exploring. It’s about learning to get a little bit closer to praying without ceasing. About honing one’s attention to God with the help of exercises like simply sitting before the Blessed Sacrament. In the discussion that followed the evening of contemplative prayer that I hosted a couple weeks’ back, we talked about just how abnormal the experience of silence is in our daily lives. How it took a good twenty minutes to stop trying to clear our minds and actually just have clear minds. All of this is true and essential for the spiritual life. But if we attend to the life of Christ as depicted in the Gospels, and especially to Paul’s epistles, we cannot escape the simple fact that other people really are among the most significant determining factors in how we go about imitating, and thereby loving, God. It is what the Church is for.
As always, though, everything begins and ends with Christ. Our passage today from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians concludes with the command that I began with: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” And in one sense, this single verse speaks for itself, as it offers us the ultimate template for how we should go about being imitators of God. We are to live in love, as Christ loved us.
Notice how there’s a double movement. Horizontally, if we think of it that way, Christ reveals the love of neighbor, perfected. Throughout his life on earth, Jesus lives for the life of the world. And yet this horizontal life of sacrificial love is simultaneously the will of the Father who sent him into the world. That is the vertical movement. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” The world for which Jesus gives himself up is bound up in his perfect fellowship, his perfect “imitation,” of the Father. I put some serious scare quotes around “imitation” there because Jesus is God incarnate; he is not an off-brand deity. So all metaphors fall away eventually. But the connection is still there. Jesus’ action in and for the world reflects the nature of God and therefore, our imitation of Jesus’ action reflects the nature of God as well, albeit indirectly. In short, the world for which we give ourselves up is bound up in our imitation of Christ.
This leads to some surprises when we turn to the rest of the passage. At the beginning, Paul says that “Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Now God is Truth, and Christians are well accustomed to thinking of ourselves as people committed to the truth. But I wonder how often we think about the truth in this way. See how the rejection of falsehood, the speaking of truth, and the unity of the church are all one seamless action? And so the truth ends up being not so much an abstract set of correct propositions which just so happened to be held by the correct people as it what the members of the One Body speak in union with each other. We constrain each other to the truth in love. I don’t know if I’d ever thought about the Creed that way, for instance. The Creed is certainly true whether I or any of us believe it or not, but the truth of the creed is also inseparable from the members who profess it across the ages. And it’s not just about doctrine. I wonder what it would be like if in our interactions with our neighbors we held the words we spoke and our vision of the truth we professed in accountability to this community here. Like, I seriously don’t know what that would look like, but it’s what Paul seems to be getting at.
None of us can fully escape the fact that religion is mostly a private, optional affair in our society, but Paul’s words can help us begin to deconstruct our perception of religion as our own proprietary thing and begin to see it as something that consists in the fellowship of faith, right here at Emmanuel. This is why Paul’s similar commandment -- “let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” is not just a Bible-y way of telling us to be nice. It’s a matter of truth. We imitate the God who is Truth by conforming our speech to God’s speech, the Word, Christ Jesus.
I’ll boil it all down in closing. In Christ, the love of God and the love of neighbor cohere. He is the Image of the Father and therefore the object of our imitation. But we depend upon one another within the Church to actually perform this imitation. None of us can do it alone and any pretense that we can will only end up succumbing to the false imitation of God where we effectively become our own standard. But by submitting ourselves to the truth that we have received, by committing ourselves to only that speech which embodies the grace which builds up, we become imitators of God, his beloved children. And our lives become caught up in Christ’s fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Amen.