You have likely heard it said, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’
Every day of our lives we imitate other people, whether we recognize it or not. When I was a child I was ever mindful, and unashamed of this tendency. When I played hockey, I attempted to imitate Ken Dryden’s every move. When playing baseball, I pretended I was Nolan Ryan. On the schoolyard, I would imitate the behaviour of the popular kids; in the classroom I would imitate the habits and speech of the smart kids. When I bought clothes, I often attempted to assemble a look of a movie star—usually Matt Dillon or Tom Cruise.
Even as adults we continue to imitate others. Think of how your home is decorated; think of how you dress—just about everything we do is a product of what we have learned from someone else. As I stand here preaching, I am mindful of the fact that I learned to preach from observing others preach.
We will likely agree, I suspect, that imitating others is not inherently bad. However, we may want to articulate a caution. The person whom we choose to imitate, as it relates to a particular task, is very important. For instance, I wouldn’t look to Ken Dryden to help me be a better baseball player, nor would I expect Nolan Ryan to help me be a better hockey player.
Sometimes we learn what not to do by observing the habits of other people. I think of all the free golf lessons I have given to friends by demonstrating how not to swing a golf club. Whom we choose to imitate then, is extremely important.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians has already given us some counsel in this regard. Paul has exhorted us to not live “like the Gentiles” live (4:17), while listing for us some of their sinful patterns (4:18, 19). In chapter 5, Paul continues to name patterns of behaviour that should not be present in the life of the Christian.
Paul then interrupts his ‘don’t do this’ discourse in order to exhort us: “be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us” (5:1, 2).
How are Christians to live? Paul’s answer is that we are to live like Jesus—“be imitators of God”, he says.
James Montgomery Boice, commenting on this verse, refers to this as the “standard beyond which there is no other” (Boice, Ephesians, 171). Alexander Maclaren calls this exhortation “the sum of all duty”.
You will not be surprised to hear me say that there are many attributes of God, which are impossible to imitate. Theologians refer to these as the noncommunicable attributes of God. In spite of our best efforts, we will never succeed in becoming omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent.
What Paul chiefly has in mind here is the imitation of God’s love: “be imitators of God . . . and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us”.
First, we note the constancy with which we must heed Paul’s command. The word “walk” implies ongoing action. As we seek to imitate the loving character of God, we must do so as a way of life. Demonstrations of love are not to be reserved simply for occasions of great necessity, but rather, love should mark all that we do.
This is what will help set the Christian apart from the non-Christian. The non-Christian will love when it suits him; the non-Christian will love when it is an advantage to him. The Christian, by contrast, is exhorted to “walk in love”. For the Christian, love should not come and recede like the waves of an ocean. But rather, for the Christian love should be a perpetual fountain.
Of what character is this love? Paul cites the example of Christ, who loved us “and gave Himself up for us”.
We see then, that this love does not merely consist of good intentions or feelings, but this love expresses itself through action.
What good is it for me to say that I love my daughter if I make no attempt to provide for her needs? If she is not fed, if she is not shown any physical affection, if she is not gently instructed, if she is not firmly directed away from things that would harm her, am I justified in saying that I love her? No. The love of God works, demonstrated by Christ who “gave Himself up for us.”
Now, here is the twist (if I can call it that). The love of Christ not only involves action, but it involves acting favourably towards those who are not deserving.
As I act lovingly towards my wife, my daughter, my mother and my grandfather, I must confess that I am not doing something that is uniquely Christian. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “even sinners love those who love them” (Lk. 6:32).
If we are to imitate the love God, our acts of love must be directed towards those whom we might regard as unworthy recipients.
When Christ died for us, it was not because we were loveable or deserving but, as Paul says elsewhere, “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Expounding upon this, Paul writes, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
So, you see, when Paul commands us to “be imitators of God”, he is saying something quite profound. To love as Christ loves requires that we serve others at our own expense, and that we serve those who might be unworthy recipients of our favour.
One of my favourite examples of this kind of love comes from the well-known novel, Les Miserables. When the notorious Jean Valjean is released from prison he is refused lodging at every turn. Eventually he happens upon the bishop’s house and is taken in, served dinner, and given a bed for the night. Jean Valjean awakens in the middle of the night thinking about the value of the silver that was used for the dinner. Subsequently, he locates the silver, stuffs it in his sack, jumps out the window and leaves.
The next morning, the local guards present Jean Valjean to the bishop in restraints. The reader naturally anticipates a scene where the bishop scolds Valjean for trampling upon his generosity and stealing. But this does not happen. Instead, the bishop scolds Jean Valjean for not taking the candlesticks with him. The guards, at this point, are thoroughly confused having assumed that Valjean stole the silver—as, indeed, he did.
Jean Valjean, an undeserving recipient of charity, should have been arrested for stealing silver from the bishop. But, instead, as the beneficiary of Christian love, Valjean left as a free man, with silver and candlesticks as his currency.
That scene has stayed with me and I think about it often because it is so extraordinary what the bishop did. And yet, now, as I read the apostle Paul, I find myself bothered that such acts of charity are so extraordinary. For the Christian, for the one seeking to imitate the love of God, such acts should be more ordinary and commonplace.
How do we get there? How do we begin to transcend our tendency to love only those who love us? And how do we move beyond our manner of loving in order to love as God loves?
Within this passage, Paul gives two prongs of instruction as we endeavour to become imitators of God’s love.
The first prong relates to knowledge. It is difficult to imitate one we are unfamiliar with. For this reason, Paul instructs us to “try and learn what is pleasing to the Lord” in verse 10 and, again, in verse 17 he says, “understand what the will of the Lord is.”
We do this, of course, by giving our attention to the Scriptures. It is by studying the example of Christ, recorded in the Bible, that we learn how to love as Christ loves. It is in the Scriptures where we learn to “love (our) enemies and (to) pray for those who persecute (us)” (Mt. 5:44). It is in the Scriptures where we learn that loving as God loves requires welcoming the prodigal son with open arms (Lk. 15:20-24). It is in the Scriptures where we are reminded that “even sinners love those who love them” (Lk. 6:32). Friends, it is in the Scriptures where we learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
The second prong of instruction Paul gives as we seek to imitate God’s love relates to ability. Even if we learn how to please God, even if we gain an understanding of how God loves, we still require the ability to act upon this knowledge.
We know in our head that our enemies are to be shown love, but are we actually able to execute command?
Surely, if we take a moment, we can all think of individuals who have deeply hurt us. It could be someone as close as a parent; it could be our child; it could be our spouse—or former spouse; it could be a sibling, or an in-law; it could be a colleague, a neighbour, a fellow church member, or even a minister.
Is there one in that list that seems most undeserving of your love and mercy? That is the one you must go to. That is the one you must shower with Christ’s love.
How do we do this? The Word of God and the Spirit of God will aid us in this endeavour. This is why Paul says, “do not be drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the (Holy) Spirit” (5:18).
When the Holy Spirit directs our behaviour we become able do what would otherwise be impossible—loving our enemies, loving the unlovable, loving as Christ loves.
This world of ours is a mess, but God has a plan. If the Christian Church is to meaningfully affect this world, our behaviour will need to be marked by the love of Christ—a love that is sacrificial and is expressed toward those who are less than deserving.
As a Church we must be committed to loving as Christ loves because Church is not someplace you go; Church is some thing you are. Amen.