The imitation of Christ: a sermon preached by Graham Low on 12 August 2018.
The passage we have just heard from the Letter to the Ephesians is a reminder of just how remarkable this letter is as a whole. It has a richness which people and communities who are low in spirit have foundimmediately comforting down the centuries. It is steeped in the theology and liturgy of the early church. It has an elevated composure. Here we are given a vision of the church in unity, growing in maturity, and profoundly loved. This is a very different letter from the earlier letters and there is much uncertainty about whether it was written by Paul, in view of its much fuller style than other letters attributed to him. For instance, it has quite elaborate groups of nouns strung together in long sentences, unlike the earlier letters. There is doubt too about whether it was written for Ephesus at all. Nevertheless, it is written with a theological approach which is generally consistent with Paul’s thought.
Today’s passage is from a long section of the letter about the kind of behaviour that is appropriate in the Body of Christ. The moral teaching is much more diffuse than in the other letters but it is generally consistent with the other letters about what is acceptable behaviour for Christians.
One of the striking points of this passage is that it is about talk: put away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, though we may be angry we are to avoid sin, let no evil talk come out of your mouths, may your words give grace to those who hear, avoid malice, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander. This seems to point to talk as the main threat to the harmony of the Body of Christ in Ephesus, and in particular to the dangers of lying and anger. The very challenging antidote to these emotions is to be truthful, kind, tender-hearted, forgiving, as God has forgiven us. This leads to the heart of this passage, which is about the well-being of any Christian community, which is fundamentally important, not just because it will make us happier or more content, or more attractive to those who may be thinking about joining. The point is that unless we can show ourselves able to build a strong community, there is no point is us meeting at all. Unless we have a sense of the nature and purpose of God, we can completely undermine our witness to God. Indeed, we are told that the call is no less than for us to be imitators of God. To imitate God has always been an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, we are given many glimpses of that call to imitate God through the teachings of Christ, who speaks of us as his children. Children learn by imitation and perhaps as adults we need to retain something that quality of simple imitation. When we are thinking about ethical behaviour, we can easily find ourselves looking at ways and means of satisfying ourselves, rather than meeting the needs of the whole community, or the church community. As this passage reminds us, when selfishness damages our common life, we come to “grieve the Holy Spirit”, whose nature and task is to build us into the likeness of Christ, so that we may come to share the love of God.
As we reflect on the call for us to be imitators of God, we may be inspired by one of the greatest spiritual books ever written – The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. He lived most of his life in community near Zwolle in the Nederlands. The earliest dated manuscript of the book (in four parts) was published in 1427. Though some of the titles of its chapters sound old-fashioned daunting, in many ways they contain deep yet practical wisdom about human nature, and living a Christian life. Some of the chapters of the first part are headed: Of the imitation of Christ and despising the futilities of the world, on personal humility, on teaching the truth, on caution in our actions, on avoiding false confidence and deceit, of the dangers of intimacy, on obedience and discipline, on avoiding gossip, on peace and spiritual progress, on the uses of adversity, on living with the faults of others, on avoiding rash judgements. I am sure that our lives resonate with these subjects in various ways. Even though these topics are rarely discussed in today’s world, they are as vitally important in the 21st century as they were nearly 700 years ago. If you are interested there is a good recent translation by Robert Jeffery published by Penguin Classics (2013).
Returning our passage from Ephesians, we can see that it depicts the Christian community as no less than a foretaste of an age to come, when all will be brought together under Christ. It is to be a place where new ways can be learned, in full anticipation of the coming kingdom of God. It is a community without greed or dishonesty, two of our greatest weaknesses as human beings. It is a community in which we areclothed with new life. In the baptism service the priest often puts white clothing on the newly baptised person. This is a powerful symbol to remind everyone of this change, this new way of life, brought about through baptism.
Christ-like behaviour is not just a list of things we cannot do. In the new community people do not simply stop lying: they speak the truth, hard as this may be. They do not retain anger but deal with it, rather than letting it eat away at their emotional and spiritual well-being. Instead of gathering riches for themselves, they learn to give more away. Rather than saying no, or using hurtful language, they use words to affirm other people rather than putting them down.
In the light of this passage from Ephesians, let us pray this week for the grace to turn from negative abstinence in our lives to positive and supportive action. Amen.