Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Imitation of Christ

Picture above entitled "Jesus Eyes Mosaic" displays varying depictions of Jesus tiled together to form one picture, and one interpretation, of Jesus.

"The Imitation of Christ"

Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church

August 19, 2018

Genesis 1:24-31; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

A United Methodist pastor friend of mine called me the other day to ask me if I would be the worship leader for the next Five-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation in the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 2020. My thoughts immediately went to the possibility that by the summer of 2020, there may no longer be a United Methodist Church – or that the denomination that remains will be radically different or in ruins. Before I go any farther, I want to assure you of my confidence that regardless of what happens at the national or regional level, the faithful life and good work of this congregation will continue – though possibly under a different name or logo. Almost as if he knew where my thoughts would lead, my friend asked, “What are you doing to prepare my congregation for the very real possibility that the special general conference” – a global meeting of clergy and lay delegates to be held in February – “will approve what has been called the “traditional” plan.” In that plan, prohibitions against marriage and ordination of LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer] people would be expanded and the punishments for violating them will be sharply enhanced. The traditional plan would require that congregations, clergy, and bishops sign a statement of compliance and support for this more exclusionary and punitive regime or be forced to leave it.
Until that conversation, I hadn’t thought it would come to that. Surely our Wesleyan ethos of tripartite grace would prevail. Prevenient grace comes before us – it is God’s unconditional presumption of the goodness of our nature as creatures made in God’s own image and likeness. Justifying grace abides between us – acknowledging that as creatures – made on the same day as the fish and the cattle and the crawling things of the earth – we will always fall short of our potential, and yet God loves and redeems us nonetheless. Sanctifying grace goes beyond us – never giving up on us, making and remaking us in the image of Christ – the one who fully embodies Gods intention for humanity.
I told my pastor friend, “God does not need The United Methodist Church, or any other denomination to prevail in the world, and that if we cannot find a way to embrace and join into God’s work of unconditional love and expectation of justice, then we ought not be a church.” The full inclusion of LGBTQ people is a part of God’s work. We can only approach that work together. The church universal does not exist for its own sake – but for the תיקון עולם [tikkun olam] – the repair of the world. The passage from Ephesians describes what life in the church is to be like. A place where anger is expressed but dealt with, a place where bitterness and bitter speech do not happen, a place where people forgive each other. The church looks different than the win-at-all-costs world, different than take-what-you-can-get world, different than the looking-out-for-number-one world. Ephesians is under no illusions about how difficult this is. Living this way is not easy, it entails sacrifice of rights and privileges and personal ambitions.
Ephesians paints a clear picture of the trouble in the lives of the early Christians in western Asia Minor through its admonitions against falsehood, harboring anger, stealing, evil talk, and grieving the Holy Spirit of God. Remember that Ephesians is addressed to baptized Christians. And yet, just because they were all baptized and had been joined into one body in Jesus Christ, did not mean that they were the same, nor that they were immune from the norms of the culture around them. Too often we imagine the first generation of Christians as a homogeneous group who always got along together. However, reading this text puts an end to that illusion. These people had both Hebrew and Greek cultural and religious roots, and included honest, hard-working people as well as those who made their way by stealing, misappropriating, or permanently “borrowing” what was not their own. They needed instruction and inspiration about how to handle their anger and how to talk to one another. They needed to be told to stop lying or putting up a false front to one another. In short, they were human, just like us.
There is no indication that the first generations of Christians were more likely to be deceptive, thieving, or angry than anyone else around them. In fact, these were probably norms for the world at the time. Part of the trouble was that they were suspect. They were odd. They did not conform to typical religious practices of their neighbors, refusing to give homage to either emperor and empire or to the gods of Olympus. Being the object of scrutiny, they were vulnerable to being made scapegoats or targets of accusation – compelling reason to be exactingly and scrupulously upright. They also needed to hang together in a way that was not threatening or destructive, not exclusive or superior to their neighbors.
When the world around us is bent in a certain way, it’s even harder for us to get things straightened out. Our cultural norm seems to embrace deception, to wink at or look away from those who manage to take what is not rightfully theirs, to encourage speech that is derogatory or spiteful, and knowingly or unknowingly to facilitate behavior that grieves the Spirit. We are respectfully outraged by corporate greed, quietly offended by hate speech, passively troubled by senseless acts of violence, and rarely understand these afflictions to be connected to our personal or collective choices or lifestyles, or even having anything to do with our Christian faith. Yet the perpetrators of violence and oppression – sane or not – often understand their actions to be justified expressions of their righteous anger, defense of their chosen status as members of a particular ethnic or cultural identity, perhaps even as acts of free speech.
What does the world around us see when they hear the word Christian? Is it a good image? Fault lines in the foundation of Christian unity show up all the time. The church is regularly shaken by scandal, polarization, fear of the stranger, fear of difference, fear of change. Often an association or sect, in its zeal to demonstrate its piety or justify its sacrifices claims exclusivity, and in the process paints all Christians as exclusive, rigid, and self-righteous. Negative speech arises between or about members of the body, anger creeps in – or sweeps in – after a contentious decision, gifts are withheld in protest over a matter of doctrine or practice. How is it that we have allowed the good news of the Lord of love, the prince of peace, and the spirit of grace to be overshadowed by the narrow, hateful ranting of the few or the powerful? Does the world know we are Christians by our love? Or in our efforts to be “nice” have we become invisible?
One of favorite devotional books is Bringing the Imitation of Christ into the Twenty-First Century by William Meninger. It is the adaptation of a fifteenth century classic by Thomas a Kempis. It suggests that contemplation and action become one when we seek to imitate Christ, the definitive expression of God’s self-giving love. I think we shy away from this idea that we ought to imitate Christ, even more so from the idea that we ought to imitate God, as Ephesians says. It’s more than a little intimidating, not to mention prideful and presumptuous. Yet how could that be the case in imitating the compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity that we know to be the essential characteristics of the Christ we seek to imitate.
The writer of Ephesians has one answer to our predicament.  But it’s not simply a “do this instead of that” answer; it’s a “not only this, but furthermore” answer. First, we acknowledge that anger is a real and present human emotion – one shared even by Jesus who overturned the tables as well as the expectations of those who awaited the messiah. But not only are we to acknowledge it, we are to express it in ways that do not alienate us from God or one another. And we are to deal with it as soon as we can, not letting the passage of time enable anger to fester. Some people seem to be blessed with an ability to express their anger in healthy ways and let it go. One friend of mine says her teenage daughter can do it. Her daughter expresses her anger while my friend broods and harbors resentment. Then the next day when my friend is ready to talk, her daughter says, “Mom, I’m over it!” And she is. Reconciliation is the goal. Equipping the saints is like knitting broken bones. We strive to avoid the breaks but mending them is the goal.
A similar concern for community is embedded in the admonition against theft. Yes, we should not steal. It’s hurtful, unjust, and takes advantage of deception or violence. Not only this, but furthermore, honesty and hard work are not encouraged here for the sake of the sanctity of private property, but for the sake of the needy, the New Testament’s shorthand designation for the widow, orphan, and stranger. Those who would live off the work of others are instead to invest their time and energy in self-support so that they may free up resources for the community’s care for others. The ethic is not ultimately about work, but about care.
Likewise, Ephesians tells us that we are not only to refrain from evil speech, but we are to engage in speech that results in the building up of the community and the transformation of the world. Many sermons have been preached on this text regarding gossip. Gossip may be true or false. That is aside from the point. Speech that does not build up, speech that demotes or degrades is not Christ-like speech. Truth is not sufficient warrant for speech. Christ-like speech not only refrains from harm, it conveys healing. It occasions grace.
Then there is the grieving of the Spirit, or as one translation puts it, abuse of the Spirit. It is not that our individual salvation is in peril when we grieve the Spirit. Having been baptized into the one body, the Spirit is ours. We abuse our own joined-together body when any body is abused. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When aggression, lying, or stealing are commonplace, when we are surrounded by the despiritualization of the material world, tremendous effort is required for reconciliation. The Christian hope, no our conviction, is that God’s grace through the Spirit is sufficient to that effort. Through the Spirit we are able to participate in the work of Christ, not only to follow the way of Jesus – forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice – instead of the way of the empire – control, hierarchy, accusation, and privilege, but furthermore to imitate his sacrificial way. This, of course, does not mean that we put up with or suffer through the effects of aggression, deceit, injustice, or abuse.  Nor do our sacrifices – whether they be willing or imposed – impel God to act. But we do imitate God, become Christ-like, and please the Spirit, when we move beyond the calculation of our own or our group’s achievement, advantage, or appearance.
The Jesus way is kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving. It is realistic though often not easy or safe. This grace is depicted vividly in the film Pay It Forward. Young Trevor, troubled by his mother's alcoholism and fearful of his abusive but absent father, is caught up in an intriguing assignment from his new social studies teacher. The assignment: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor conjures the notion of paying a favor not back, but forward – repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people. Trevor's efforts to make good on his idea bring a revolution not only in the lives of himself, his mother, and his physically and emotionally scarred teacher, but in those of an ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him. In the end, Trevor’s concern for others exacts a deep cost when he loses his life as a result of intervening on behalf of a stranger. True discipleship – defined in part by the imitation of Christ – is costly as well. The ancients believed that the aroma of burning sacrifice was pleasing to God. May our choice to follow the sacrificial, self-giving way of Jesus – the way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, justice and even unity in Christ – rise like incense in God’s presence.

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