“…be imitators of God, as beloved children”
Sunday 12 August 2018
I wonder whether any of you woke up this morning and wondered whether it would be safe for you to go to Church today. Did it occur to any of you that there might be a bomb go off in or near this building today? I think probably not.
But if you were a Christian living in Nigeria, or some parts of the Middle East, or Pakistan, it would be a very real consideration that you might have to take into account. There are many countries in the world today where the pubic witness of Church attendance by ordinary Christians is a dangerous undertaking. What a level of commitment Christians who attend Church in those circumstances demonstrate to the world!
It brings to my mind the opposite phenomenon that we find in many developed countries like Australia which is best exemplified by people who, when asked what Christian denomination they belong to, answer C and E. That’s right C and E, not C of E. C of E is Church of England. C and E is Christmas and Easter.
My thoughts have been directed along these lines this week because I am conscious of the emphasis we have placed in our Mission Action Plan on inviting people to join with us in various events. And the question I ask myself is: “Why would anyone want to come along in response to a personal invitation from one of us? What would they expect to find within this Christian community?”
Paul suggests what kind of community Christians should aspire to be in the advice that he gave to the Christians at Ephesus in the part of the letter we read today.
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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 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.
If we are going to make our invitations fruitful for those who accept and come along, it seems to me that we might well examine ourselves as a Christian community against these characteristics that Paul has nominated. If people do come along and find that we are not really any different from any other social club in the area, what incentive is there for them to want to continue on their journey to God with us as disciples of Christ?
Paul begins by encouraging the Ephesians to avoid what he calls “evil talk”. We could probably put various shades of meaning on what constitutes “evil talk”, but then he goes on to suggest that we only speak words that “build up”. That suggests that “evil talk” is talk that does not build up. We know what sort of things fit into that category don’t we – talking behind people’s backs, gossip, whingeing, harsh criticism, blaming others? We’ve all done these things – but have we considered how damaging it is to the fabric of the Christian community as Paul envisages it.
Paul goes on to encourage the Ephesians to “… Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice”. Here, Paul is probably talking about bearing grudges and hanging on to past hurts.
This sort of advice is not only good from the point of view of the health of the community, but from the point of view of our own mental health. Carrying these sorts of burdens around with us closes us off to the opportunity of seeing Christ in the other – even the other who has wronged us in the past.
Perhaps, the positive expressions of virtue that Paul nominates can act as a stimulus to us to be the sort of Christian community that we are called to be. Listen again to Paul.
“Be kind to one another”. Now that is not always easy is it? But acts of kindness are often small in reality, but enormous in significance for the recipient. Think of times in your own life when you may have been feeling a bit down in the dumps and someone performed an unsolicited small act of kindness which lifted your spirits immediately.
Paul encourages us to be tenderhearted. The heart has long been regarded in our culture as the organ of feeling and emotion. The encouragement to be tenderhearted can be interpreted as encouragement to have empathy for others – to try to put yourself into their shoes and feel as they feel at the moment.
Of course, no advice to a Christian community would be complete without the admonition to forgive one another. And equally important is it that Paul associates our willingness to forgive others with our own sense of the unmerited forgiveness that God has bestowed on us in the gift of his son, Jesus Christ our saviour and redeemer. The words of Jesus to those who brought before him the woman caught in adultery echo in our ears: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Paul’s final exhortation is that we live in love, just as Christ loved us and showed us how to be imitators of God who the Bible tells us “is Love”. The love that we as Christians have for one another should be the very stamp that characterises us. As Jesus said at his last supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
In his sermon at the Synod Eucharist several years ago, Archbishop Phillip quoted a noted Australian spiritual writer who commented on the fact that it is not always easy to get on famously with one another in a community:
An earthly community approaches perfection in so far as it is a living expression of mercy, forgiveness, toleration, compassion, reconciliation. To implement these qualities there must be those who need to be endured, tolerated, forgiven and reconciled. By the grace of God our communities abound in such persons. Without them we would have no hope of becoming more heaven-like. How the angels must giggle at our self-righteous condemnation of such trivial offenders. Far from being obstacles in our path, those whose perfection is less evident [than ours] are an integral part of God’s scheme to transform us into the total likeness of Christ.
My encouragement as we continue to invite newcomers is that we each take the reading we heard from Ephesians today home and reflect upon the challenge that it places before each one of us to work constantly and hard at being the sort of Christian community that we are called to be by the grace of Jesus Christ.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen