Children learn almost everything by imitation. Babies mirror their parents’ facial expressions and eventually repeat the sounds that adults make, getting better and better at it until the sounds become words. Young children copy their parents’ speech patterns, even when their parents wish they wouldn’t. As they grow, they imitate the adults around them in more complex ways, often picking up some combination of their parents’ habits, values, communication styles, and behaviors. The imitation sometimes grows even stronger during adulthood. Most of us have said to ourselves at one point or another that, “I sound just like my mother!” Strangers at my sister’s wedding knew I was my father’s daughter just from our shared facial expressions.
This letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we are children, not only of our parents, but of God. And just as children imitate their parents, sometimes intentionally and sometimes completely without noticing it, when we are in relationship with God, we begin to mirror God. As we grow and mature in our faith, we increasingly embody the values and practices of God, so the person we see in the mirror shows God to those we meet.
The whole book of Ephesians, and especially the passage we read today, is all about helping us to understand what those values and practices are, so that we can both recognize them in ourselves as signs of our growth, and gain a clear picture of exactly what it is that we’re supposed to be imitating – what it would mean to see God in the mirror.
All of Ephesians and in fact all of scripture assumes that while there is only one God, God is not alone. The whole idea of the Trinity is that God exists in community, and that relationship is part of the essential being of God. So, part of what it is to be the reflection of God is to live in community. All of these attributes of imitators of God that are listed here are things that happen in community. We imitate God by being in community, and we imitate God by how we act in community. The most significant ways we can imitate God are those that involve how we treat each other.
So first, imitators of God tell each other the truth. This is predicated on the notion that we’re actually all part of each other, so dishonesty with your neighbor is not just a sin against them, it’s damaging to you. There’s a saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” and I think that’s kind of the idea here. If you can’t tell someone else the truth about yourself, that shame festers and eats you up from the inside out. If you can’t tell someone the truth about what’s wrong in your relationship, the gap between you just gets bigger and bigger. This isn’t an excuse to be blunt to the point of meanness; we frame our honesty in the other traits in this passage, but we tell each other the truth.
Second, imitators of God deal well with anger. This acknowledges that you will be angry. By all means be angry, especially at injustice, but don’t let your anger define your behavior or even hang around too long. Mostly I’ve heard this directed toward newly married couples, but “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” is a pretty useful principle for all of us. You’re going to be angry, but you don’t have to let it fester and grow inside you, and you don’t have to talk about it to everyone but the person you’re mad at and spread the anger around. We deal with anger directly and with a healthy measure of grace.
Imitators of God do not take what is not theirs, but rather work so that they can give extra to those in need.
Imitators of God watch what comes out of their mouths, making sure that what they say to others builds up and gives grace.
Imitators of God do not grieve the Holy Spirit, which is an obscure sort of statement, but which I think means simply this: act like who you are, which is a beloved child of God. Think of wonderful, loving parents and how much they are grieved when their children make destructive choices and endanger themselves. God is equally grieved when we make decisions that diminish us or others.
Imitators of God put away bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice – all those internal and external ways that we think the worst of people and treat them accordingly. But reflecting God means that we choose not to assume the worst of intentions, or hold people’s wrongs against them, or dwell on the ways we’ve been insulted or hurt. Imitators of God hold kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness as the guiding principle their dealings with others. They assume generally good intentions and give people room to make mistakes. They check in – going back to that honesty thing – instead of checking out – or lashing out! They remember that they have received grace and forgiveness from God and from other people, and they share that grace and forgiveness with others.
So, how many of these values and practices do you see in your own life? How have you grown further into these qualities over time, and where do you still have room for growth? None of us are ever going to be perfect or fully embody God, but as beloved children of God, we are to a greater or lesser degree imitators of God. How much of God do you see in your mirror?