Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Be Imitators of God" -- A Homily for Proper 19 Year B

Homily for Proper 19, Year B, 2009
Sunday, August 9th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ephesians 4:25-5:2

The late archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, once wrote (perhaps somewhat harshly) about the reformer John Calvin’s view of the Church:

For Calvin, the Church is rather utilitarian. It is not perceived as the glow of Christ’s incarnate presence; it is the policeman sent to protect the Christian life by commands and prohibitions. Here is discipline, without the sense of union with the death and life of Christ which gives meaning… (Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church. London: Longman, 1936, p. 197)

Whether or not this is a fair assessment of Calvin’s understanding of the Church, it could certainly be argued that it is a fair assessment of how the world sees the Church. To many in the world, the Church is a society governed by harsh rules, rules to which few can measure up, rules that are imposed and policed by harsh disciplinarians known as clergy and bishops. And we must ask ourselves, if at some level, this is how many within our own ranks view the so-called life of faith. Do we ourselves think that the Christian life is about ordering our own lives in a particularly rigid disciplinarian manner that we can never hope to live out? Do we ourselves think that a Christian life is about living a life in which I would do all the right things, behave the right way, and ultimately live by the impossible axiom “what would Jesus do?”

If we, to some measure, believe this to be true, and if it how we are perceived by the world around us, is it any wonder that the Church is seen as a less than viable option in this post-modern age of relative values and institutional skepticism. For some, I suppose, the need to have rules imposed on them in the midst of such uncertain times is a longing for comfort and security. I believe this is directly attributable to the growth of conservative and fundamentalist sects and denominations. Yet, for most, the Christian Church is seen as a society of rigid disciplinarianism to which they will never be able to conform. As I have written elsewhere, I believe this is the reason why the so tenaciously proclaimed mantra of our age is “I am a spiritual person, but not religious.”

The truth is, that most who proclaim a self-professed spirituality proclaim a poorly conceptualized, severely unreflective, and woefully inadequate expression of the divine that is rarely grounded in an authentic experience of the numinous but rather finds its origins in a longing to set itself apart from something it despises, namely a religion of discipline and works, governed by ecclesiastical policemen.

If such a person were to cursorily read through St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, they might feel self-righteously justified in their scathing assessment of the Church. At first glance, the second half of the letter (which we are reading through this month) seems filled with rules and codes for living out the life of faith. “Aha!” they might proclaim, “Rules, rules, rules! I knew it! And look at them all, so hopelessly out of date, ‘wives obey your husbands and slaves obey your masters!’ It’s all about domination and control” (I do plan to address these rules and codes in the days ahead, but will leave them aside for a moment). Should I have the opportunity to engage in a conversation with such a person, I would encourage them to read a little more deeply, a little more carefully into the letter (for the task of learning to read a text more carefully and deeply is always a fruitful task, even when reading texts with which we so vociferously disagree).

At the culmination of today’s passage we read, “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5.1). There my reading partner might strike out at me with such self-assuredness, “There it is – be imitators of God! How can one be an imitator of the one who is perfect? Is this not an unreasonable demand? Is this not what leads up to all those rules we can’t fulfill, and the ecclesiastical cops who punish us for not keeping God’s commandments?” On the other hand there might be those in the Church who blindly accept Paul’s saying as the embodiment of Christianity, “There it is in black and white, ‘what would Jesus do’… that’s what is expected of me as a Christian.” And this sort of simplistic reading would only strengthen the resolve and cement the case of my skeptical friend. But to get to the crux of the matter, we must truly ask what it means to be imitators of God, and what does this say about the living out of the Christian life.

In the ancient Greek world, of which Paul and his followers were very much a part, the concept of imitation, or mimesis (in Greek) was very much a cosmological concept. In Plato, for example the things we see around us are an imitation of an ideal form. Thus, for the ancients the concept of imitation was about copying the ideal, but more a conformity to the ideal or representation of the ideal. The first century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo saw procreation as an imitation or mimesis of God as creator. Thus, human beings at their most intrinsic level as creations of God seek conformity to the ideal of God. There is a desire and longing deep within us to show forth the light of our creator in our lives by imitating the creator. Yet, all our efforts at doing so tend to fail. For this reason, Christ came into the world, that we might therefore be restored to the image of God and conform to God’s likeness, not through our own effort, but through the work of God in Christ.

Therefore, it seems to me (and some would argue to the contrary) that what Paul is trying to suggest is not that we become like God through copying him, but rather that because Christ has restored us to God, as we put on Christ we become conformed to God’s likeness, in whose image we are created. This is what it means to be imitators of God. It is to find our true character, our true nature, in Christ. Good works and a holy life flow from this reality. This would have been a radical assertion to many in first century Judaism who might have perceived this conforming to the image and likeness of God in an idolatrous way. It is however, crucial to the thought of Paul and his heirs, and crucial to our understanding of what the Church is.

In Ephesians 1:22-23 we read, “The Church is his (Christ’s) body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” There is a clear assertion that as in Christ we experience the fullness of God, as his body the Church, too,is filled with the fullness of God. Again, in 3:21 we read, “in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” For Paul, God literally resides in our shared common life. In 3:18-19 Paul prays that we may have the power to comprehend the fact of Christ’s broad and deep love that we might be filled with the fullness of God. This is all to say that our shared life as Christian people, as the Church, is a life in which we are conformed to his image and likeness. This is the imitation of God, that the world might come to see God in the body of his Christ, which is the Church. This is the point against which Archbishop Ramsey was responding. What most people see is a society of rigid disciplinarians, what God intends them to see is his reconciling love for the world.

But still we ask, how can this be? In what way is this reconciling love manifest? The temptation is of course to try to force the issue through works of piety and charity. The temptation is to try with all our might to be like Jesus, to do what Jesus would do. But that is putting the cart before the horse. The answer to this dilemma is, I believe, to be found in that same verse that ends today’s reading, previously quoted, “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.” They key, phrase I suggest is “as beloved children.” Now my skeptical friend who professes spirituality over religion will immediately understand another example of how people of faith are to be like children who blindly follow those in authority. Not so! I respond (And those of us who have had children will know how rarely children blindly follow their parents admonitions in any case). What does Paul mean by this? I once again suggest returning to the ancient world and the context from which the letter first emerged.

Athena and I have been listening to an audio recording of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the early chapters of the story are about the coming of age of Telemachos, the son of Odysseus who is long thought dead while returning from the Battle of Troy. Telemachos’s home is overrun by haughty suitors who seek his mother’s hand ignoring the honour of youthful Telemachos. The goddess Athena sees the plight of Telemachos and comes to him, telling him he is no longer a child but a man, and that he must go and find his father and that together they will drive out the suitors. Thus, Telemachos under the watchful eye of Pallas Athena, begins a journey to seek word of his father and visits his father’s old battle companions, wise kings. The important thing in all of this that king after king recognizes Telemachos as the son of Odysseus, because he speaks in wise words, beyond his years. This is in stark contrast to the haughty suitors whose insolence blinds them to the fact that in person of the son, the father was yet in their midst. The child Telemachos has become the image of his father. This is the kind of imitation of Paul speaks, this is mimesis. It came not from trying to be a man, but simply from the fact that in his faithfulness to his father, he had grown into a man – a man in his father’s image, quite contrary to the character of the haughty suitors.

I believe this is the context out of which Paul writes. To grow into maturity is to become the imitation of the ideal parent. Again imitation is not understood as simply copying the actions of the parent, for simply copying the actions of another is not what makes you into your parent, rather imitation, as understood as mimesis, is a sign that you are growing into the ideal, into maturity, into your truest character.

For Paul, what is the sign of maturity? What does God do in Christ? What is the ideal? It is to love and forgive. All our ethics, all our rules, the way we order our life and society, the way we order the Church are all to flow from this reality, that God loves us and offers us the grace of his forgiveness. As we grow into maturity, this is the life we come to imitate, not through human effort but because it is who we are. Because God put on man, we are able to put on God, in Christ. Thus, our true character in Christ is to touch our divine potential and we become capable of things that were once foreign to our fallen nature – to love and forgive. Love and forgiveness are not concepts that can be emulated but only offered from a place of deep authenticity and are a mark of character. When the Church decides to focus less on the discipline of faith and instead recognize within itself the character of Christ then shall the world perceive the glow of Christ’s incarnate presence.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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