Text: Ephesians 5:1-17
The best actors on stage and screen accomplish something remarkable. Those actors so portray a character that those of us in the audience no longer separate the character from the actor. Such actors manage to inhabit their character thoroughly. Their mannerisms, facial expressions, speech affect, and the movement of their eyes all come out of the nature of the character in the story that is being told.
Some actors work very diligently to accomplish this task. They spend weeks or months – sometimes even years – researching the character. They may live in the same city, take temporary work in the same trade, eat the same kinds of food, and so on so that they might fully understand and comprehend what makes the character think and tick. The most convincing actors make us forget that there is any acting going on. They make us believe that the actor is himself or herself the character, the persona that they are taking on. We forget that there is someone else under the facade of makeup and costume who will take off the personality they are wearing and once again become their former self when the cameras are turned off or the stage lights are finally dimmed.
This is what actors do. They imitate someone else. For actors, they are imitating a personality in a story, whether that story is a work of fiction or whether it is based on fact. They take on their role temporarily, and they take on that role for the sake of our entertainment – or at least the entertainment of someone.
Here in Ephesians 5, Paul commands us to be imitators. However, he is not telling us to become actors whose purpose is to temporarily take on another persona in order to merely entertain someone else for a matter of minutes or hours. Such is not our work of imitation as believers. This imitation goes much further.
Charles Colton, an early nineteenth century cleric, writer, and eccentric coined a number of phrases. Perhaps his best known phrase says, “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” We often quote it as “Imitation is the sincerest ‘form’ of flattery,” but that is not how Colton coined it. What do we mean by saying that “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery?” Flattery is the work of praising and building up someone else, often for selfish reasons. So what would sincere flattery be? Sincere flattery is that work of praising someone else because we truly believe that they are worthy of such praise.
What makes imitation the sincerest of flattery? Like an actor playing a role, imitation involves transforming ourselves into something else that we are not. When we imitate someone else (without a Hollywood actor’s paycheck for doing so), we transform ourselves into who they are. We dress like them. We talk like them. We act like them. If we do it long enough, we eventually start to think like them. To make ourselves into someone else is the highest way we can praise somebody. We say, in effect, your life is so amazing that I want it for myself, so I’m going to copy you.
In Ephesians 5, Paul tells us to transform ourselves into someone else. Someone else who is so worthy of our time and attention, we do ourselves well by becoming like them. Not temporarily, like an actor, but literally completely changing our lives into a new way in order to be a copy of this one whom we are portraying. Be imitators, Paul says. But don’t be imitators of just anyone. Don’t just pick a really good and inspiring person from history or fiction to copy. Certainly, there are some really great choices there. But aim higher, Paul says. Imitate God. Imitate God in the same way that children imitate their parents.
Any of us who have been parents know the mystical ability of children to ignore the things we try to teach them over and over again while copying phrases and actions we say in one fleeting moment of uninhibited weakness. Somehow, children fail to learn to put their laundry in a basket, but they’ll repeat a curse word they overheard us say once over and over again. They tend to do so at the most inopportune moments – family gatherings, church services, or the middle of the grocery store or other crowded venue. The truth is that children are most adept at copying what we do, not what we merely tell them to do. They imitate what they see and thus become themselves what we already are. They copy us and in the copying of us, they become what we are – with all of our beauty and all of our worst warts.
Children copy everything they see about the adults who are most involved in their lives. They copy widely and freely, assuming that we parents, teachers, celebrities, or other guardians are the best examples of what it means to be an adult. Paul encourages believers to take that same broad, freewheeling copying that children do of parents and apply it to our own imitation of God. Be wide with our imitating. Copy God in every way that we can. Mimic his every action, emotion, reaction, and desire. Imitate God at both the shallowest and deepest levels.
What does it look like to imitate God? If we imitate God, we will love like God loves, transforming the way we view and act towards others. If we imitate God, our lives will be holy, righteous, and pure, unafraid of any kind of exposing light that might reveal every corner and crevice of our lives. And if we imitate God, we will have a wisdom beyond our years that allows us not just to know, not just to do, but to understand the full will of God that charts out the course of history.
1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Love was as misunderstood in Greco-Roman society as it is in modern American society. Ever since the fall, the only kind of love that we are good at in and of ourselves is self-love. Our self-serving love can manifest itself in bizarre ways. For some, they love themselves best when they are dominating and controlling others – through sexual conquest, business prowess, or political power, for example. For others, self-love is achieved when someone else takes the time to spend time with them, even if that time is spent in dominating them. So they give themselves over to promiscuity, serve as doormats physically and politically, and seek to provide any reason they can for someone else to pay attention to them.
Paul describes these efforts at self-love, and none of them is pretty. Our self-love manifests itself in sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking. Paul tells the Ephesians to replace all of these things with a different expression of love that is not directed at self: thanksgiving. If we are thankful for something, there is something in it that is valuable to us. It is difficult to debase and belittle something that is valuable to us. When we are thankful for something, our love for it becomes something other than selfish. The object of our love has intrinsic value and beauty in itself. When we walk in love, we find that our thankfulness for others forbids our former abuse of them.
As love permeates all of our life, it transforms the way we think. We are constantly looking for the ways we can be thankful. This changes the way that we act toward others. Because we have already found value in them, we will be more caring of them, wishing no harm to them, holding no anger or malice towards them. Love transforms our speech. We cannot berate something that we value, support, and love, not even in a joking manner. Love transforms our desires. Our desires cease to be about our own comforts and wants and more about what is best for others. And love transforms our associations, changing our choices for how we spend our time, energy, and other resources. No longer will we spend our time with those who disparage things and people that we love and value.
Imitate God by walking in love and allowing that love to transform our lives.
At the beginning of the same letter where he identifies God as love, John also tells us that God is light. Because we rely on light to see, light can be a fearful thing. Light’s waves reflect off of anything and everything and allow our eyes to perceive and our brains to understand the world around us. There is a reason that crime spikes in the cover of darkness, and we are shocked most by blatant violent crimes that occur, as we say, “in broad daylight.” People are more willing to take risks and do evil when the light is dim and faces are obscured.
We were once a people of darkness, but that has been changed. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned,” so says Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2. The light has dawned, and now we stand exposed to the holiness of God. Every sin is visible. Every stain is clear. There are no shadows to hide behind. There are no folds to disguise our disfigurement. The light of vetting that comes with presidential aspirations has undone Herman Cain’s desires to hold that office. His personal life has been unable to withstand the pressures of the high visibility of that office. Likewise, God’s light desires to expose everything about us.
Paul says: do not fear this light, but walk boldly in it. We are a sinful people whose scars are many and deep. We have much that we would love for other people – and especially for God – to never know about. Walk boldly in the light. Leave nothing to hide. How can we do this and survive a holy God? How can we allow light to touch every crevice and stand in God’s presence unscathed? Because the redeemed wear white robes washed in the blood of Christ. We are made pure by our salvation and have no death to fear for our sins. Walk in the light.
When we walk in the light, temptations necessarily fall away. Who watches pornography in the middle of town square, with the images on a 70” TV for every passer by to see? There’s a reason for that. Who calls the police to let them know that they will be robbing a bank at 12:30, and they should be there for it? There is a reason thieves don’t make such calls. When what we do is completely visible to everyone around us, it takes away the temptation to do evil. So lose those temptations. Walk in the light and gain a pure and holy life that imitates God’s purity and holiness.
Finally, walk in wisdom. Wisdom was the gift that Solomon asked of God in order to be rule over the people of Israel. Proverbs extols wisdom at great length, personifying wisdom in a role that many scholars identify with the Old Testament’s witness to the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is simply taking knowledge and experience and applying it to life. Knowledge grants us skills and abilities. Wisdom tells us when to use them.
Walk in wisdom, Paul says, and thereby make the best use of the time that we have. Walk in wisdom, Paul says, and don’t just know God’s will. Don’t merely do God’s will. Instead, understand God’s will. The power of this understanding will transform us completely from our formerly selfish ways into a new life. We will be fearless. We will be purposeful. We will not grieve the way the world grieves. We will give thanks in all circumstances. We will pray unceasingly. We will no longer be foolish, doing foolish things that will have no meaning in eternity.
Is God more to you than a Get out of Hell free card? Is He more to you than a “mansion in the sky” real estate agent? Is God more to you than a convenient genie in a bottle that can get you out of tight spots? Is God more to you than a lottery ticket who can grant you your greatest desires of wealth? Is God worth imitating? Would you like your life if you loved the way God loved, stood constantly in the light, and understood how all things work together?
Imitation is the sincerest of flattery. You come to church week after week to learn about God. You give of your money to expand His kingdom, particularly as expressed in this particular faith community. But you need to answer this question. Is God worth flattering? Is He worth completely transforming your life so that it is a carbon copy? If so, start choosing the roads that will lead you down the paths of love, light, and wisdom.