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Imitating God

By Mike Ruffin I’d like to begin this week’s column with a word to the reader’”several words, actually. I am a Christian. On top of that, I am a Christian preacher. I try not to be too preachy in this space because I want everyone who reads my words to find something to chew on and maybe even benefit from. But this week I am talking to my fellow Christians. That doesn’t mean that others shouldn’t read what I’m about to say too. In fact, I hope you will. I was recently doing some work on some words found in Ephesians 5:1-2. Verse 1 begins, ‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.’ That sets a mighty high bar, doesn’t it? Jesus says something similar in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, ‘Be perfect’¦as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48). If that doesn’t intimidate you, then you must be intimidation resistant. It helps a little to know that ‘perfect’ means ‘mature’ or ‘complete,’ but it is still quite a challenge to hear Jesus tell us that we are to be complete in being who we are as God is complete in being who God is. It adds to the challenge to hear Jesus lead into that saying with his instruction that we are to love and pray for our enemies because, Jesus says, doing so will make us ‘children of [our] Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Mt 5:46). While I can’t say for certain that Luke wrote his Gospel after Matthew wrote his, I can imagine why he might have changed Jesus’ saying a bit to make it more precise. Luke has Jesus say, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ (6:36). Luke may have succeeded in making Jesus’ saying more precise, but he didn’t succeed in making it any easier (which I doubt he was trying to do anyway). Still, Luke’s more focused terminology is helpful. If we are to become the most complete versions of ourselves that we can be’”if we are going to be formed in the image of God that Christ makes possible in us’”if we are going to look and act like who we are as God’s children’”then we will practice mercy in our dealings with people. So, what does it mean to imitate God? Well, the passage that leads into those words says that we should speak the truth to each other, that we should protect our relationships with each other, that we should work so we can help people in need, that we should use our words to build each other up, that we should be kind to each other, and that we should forgive each other. To imitate God means to be the best selves that we can be. It means to love, to practice mercy, and to forgive as best we can’”not because of what we are able to do on our own, but because the love of Christ is working in us. The next verse in Ephesians 5 further explains that it means to imitate God. It means to ‘live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (5:2). On one hand, it’s helpful to have Jesus to look at in order to learn how we are to live as imitators of God’”we are to love each other with the self-emptying, self-giving, other-focused love that Christ loved us with. On the other hand, it’s still a mighty high bar, isn’t it? It still seems like a challenge that is difficult to the point of verging on being impossible, doesn’t it? It sounds like something we can’t do, doesn’t it? I wonder how seriously we take the charge we have to imitate God by living in love, by giving ourselves up for each other, and by practicing mercy and forgiveness. I wonder how hard we try. Let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions. First, do we Christians really believe that Christ lives in us and makes his love available to us? Second, when it comes to being the best versions of ourselves that we can be, when it comes to offering others the kind of mercy and forgiveness that God offers us, and when it comes to living out the love that Christ’s presence makes possible, which is better: to aim high and fall short, or to aim low and hit the mark?

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