August 13, 2012

Imitating God

Most of us are mimics; we learn by watching others.  Whether it is tying a bow tie, serving a tennis ball, making a pie, or preaching a sermon, we imitate the actions of those skilled in these practices.  We believe it is possible for us to learn these pursuits with sufficient rehearsal (I still don't have that pie- making thing down.)  "If that person can do that, then I probably can, also," we reason--except when extraordinary physical prowess is required, like what we have just witnessed in the Olympics.

Ephesians 5:1 pulls us way past our zone of confidence when it urges: " . . . be imitators of God, as beloved children."  Summarizing a lengthy list of exhortations for Christian behavior (what followers of Jesus should not do), the Apostle gathers up their intent in this final challenge, to become one who can imitate God.  This text is akin to those other hard sayings: "be perfect as I am perfect," (Matthew 5:48) and "be holy, as I am holy" (Leviticus 11:4).  Do these texts accurately reflect Divine intent?

My mind reels when I think of what following this mandate might entail.  Discerning God's character and motives transcends our comprehension; however, because we believe that God chooses to be known through self-revelation--as one of us, we can construct architecture for human character.  Not only are we created in the image of God, but as Word become flesh, God has entered the fabric of humanity in "after our likeness."  He is the one we strive to imitate.

The is the logic of this text in Ephesians; Christ is the pattern toward which St. Paul points.  As the human face of God, the one who most fully embodied the Word, Jesus portrays the glory of God fully alive, in the words of St. Irenaeus, as a human.  The secret to Jesus' imitation was his utter dependence upon God, his unity with the sending and abiding dimensions of God's self-communication.

A key aspiration of medieval spirituality was imitatio Christi, and a chief proponent of this was Thomas a Kempis, a monk born about 1380.  In his classic Of the Imitation of Christ, he suggests that as one becomes a friend of Jesus, he or she begins to emulate him:

You cannot live well without a friend; and if Jesus is not your friend above all others, you will be very sad and desolate.  Therefore you act foolishly, if you lean upon or rejoice in any other.  You ought to prefer to have the whole world against you, rather than to offend Jesus.  Let Jesus be loved with a special love, beyond all who are dear to you.

Let all be loved for Jesus, but let Jesus be loved for Himself.  Jesus Christ alone is to be loved in preference to all, Who alone is found good and faithful above all friends.

Close friends begin to sound alike, using common language to interpret life.  Close friends also begin to reflect one another's actions.  Thomas wisely observes that cultivating friendship with Jesus will draw persons to imitate his life--his compassion, his utter trust in God, and his perseverance amidst calamity.

As I read studies about the challenges of faith for younger adults, it is clear that they do not have a problem with Jesus!  They find him authentic and worth following.  Where the problem lies, it seems, is with structures who soften any demand Jesus issues, preferring to tend institutional fires than come into close acquaintance with him.  Becoming his friend might be too disruptive, and imitating his ways might be too radical an expression of faith.  So, too many of us remain highly selective in what we choose to imitate--being self-protective was not Jesus' primary modality, yet that is what we embody.

Molly T. Marshall

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