9 Aug 2015
“So be imitators of God …” (Eph. 5:1)
In the name …
A week from tomorrow I get to give my session at our diocesan Youth Retreat up in the deep, dark woods of Goshen. It’s on the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The overall theme of the retreat is our church’s emphasis upon the theme of regeneration. My job is to tie the two of them together. Redemption is a far more common phrase than regeneration. Redemption refers to the fact that we have been saved, redeemed by Jesus. The word is used much the same way in a casual sense today. If I take a bottle to the store, I can redeem it for the nickel deposit. I paid the extra nickel when I bought the drink, and when I return it, when I redeem it, I get that money back. Well, the theology of redemption is that Jesus paid the price so that when we leave this world behind He can redeem us to live with Him in heaven.
This is all well and good. But while redemption explains Jesus’ role in salvation, it doesn’t say too much about us and our role. Do we only receive redemption or do we need to take-on some of the responsibility ourselves? This is where regeneration comes into the story. Bp. Hodur taught that it’s not enough to be saved by Jesus, for Him to do His part. We have to act like people who have been saved, who have been redeemed. In other words, we need to act like Jesus. In the words of today’s Epistle, we need to become “imitators of God.”
And this is where my Genesis session comes into play. The biblical authors are not stupid. When they placed Genesis chapters One and Two right next to each other, they realized that there were contradictions, that these were actually two separate stories. But rather than choose one and throw out the other, and not really knowing which one to choose and which one to put through the shredder, they kept them both. They realized that these were two separate attempts to explain the unexplainable. They recognized them both as holy and inspired, touched by God in their own unique ways, that rather than focus on the inconsistencies, they would emphasize their diversity.
This becomes clear when on the first page of the Bible we read those wonder-filled words: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” (1:27) We, male and female, are made in the image of God. What a grand and inspiring way to begin our Holy Book. But then you turn the page and the second story of creation quickly falls apart into the story of our fall from grace. I think you all know the basics of the story of the Garden of Eden, but sometimes we can forget why we were forced to leave it behind. In a profoundly insightful few words, the nature of sinfulness is explained as: “When you eat of [the Tree of Knowledge] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (3:5) Well, yeah. That’s what Genesis One promised from the very mouth of God. But the twist that turns this promise into sin is the pride that imagines we can replace God. The first creation story promises us that we can be like God. The second tempts us to think we can be God. That’s the moral tightrope we have to walk. We have to balance ourselves between these two conceptions of what it means to “be like God.” That’s the conundrum that Genesis chapter One and Two present us, and I think that’s why these two different stories are right at the beginning of the Bible. Our whole spiritual and moral journey is trying to figure out how to be like God without thinking we can be God.
So what does it mean when the Bible tells us to imitate God? Those are pretty heady words. Those are words filled with the optimism of Genesis Chapter One. It would be just plain silly for someone to play me a recording of a Chopin Nocturne for Piano and then tell me to imitate it. I can have the instrument in front of me, the music all laid-out, place my hands on the keys, but there’s not a chance I could play anything that sounded remotely like Chopin. When those first Christians, however, were told to imitate God, it wasn’t a ridiculous idea. It was because they thought it was possible. They even explained how to do it: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. … Live in love as Christ loved us …” (Eph. 4:32; 5:2) And we can tell we’ve missed the mark, says Ephesians, if we’re bitter and filled with anger. (4:31) That’s why I have that pencil drawing of Jesus on the song sheet today. That’s who we’re supposed to imitate. He’s the perfect example of how God lives in the world and how we’re supposed to try to live in the world. And at least in the earliest church, people believed we could do it.
Our task as church is to try and plant the seed of that imitation to be like Jesus, to be like God. We need to make Jesus a real and present part of our lives. That begins with Sunday mornings. It continues with Christian education. And it blossoms with good works and charity. You know in John’s Gospel Jesus says to us this morning that we are all “taught by God.” (6:45) The notion of “taught by God” is born in the earliest church (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9). We really believed in the potential of each of us to be like God to the point that our consciences were judged to be “taught by God.” Too often today we hear emphasized the negative side of “be like God,” that we replace God with whatever is our current fancy, but the earliest church saw things differently, saw us differently, saw us in a positive light. They saw us as like God and able to even imitate God. It’s not impossible. It just means kindness, compassion, forgiveness and “to live in love as Christ loved us.” That’s the seed we’re here to nurture. That we may take this seriously enough to believe it possible and to act accordingly, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo