4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.
4:26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,
4:27 and do not make room for the devil.
4:28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.
4:31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice,
4:32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,
5:2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
When I was growing up, and when I was in college down South, one of my favorite places to eat was Chick-Fil-A. We don’t have any in Vermont, and there are few in New England, but down South they are everywhere. And in high school we would go there when we went to the mall. In college we would even drive after midnight sometimes to the 24 hour one down by the Atlanta airport. And when I was home visiting my parents a few months ago, I confess I went more than once. There’s just something about their chicken that I love.
But I don’t eat there anymore. You may have heard some about them in the news this summer. The president of the company came forward and said some pretty negative things about families like mine. And he has every right to say them, but I just can’t give my money to him anymore.
I know on the other hand, though, that there are a lot of Christians, a lot of good Christians who agree with him. And that’s okay. There is no one monolithic Christian opinion on any issue, and especially not this one. But two weeks ago the pictures I saw on television and on the internet of Christians lined up at Chick-fil-a’s across the country. They were celebrating the comments of the president, and agreeing with them. And they were saying they were there because all Christians agreed with them, and that by buying those chicken sandwiches, they were standing up for Christ.
As I watched the news that day, I felt so hurt by my fellow Christians. Not because we disagree with one another, but because there was an almost palpable glee in those chicken lines. They seemed to think that with every chicken sandwich bought they were striking a victory for Christ. With every order of waffle fries, they were putting those whom they considered sinners in their place. They seemed sure that Jesus Christ would be right there with them in those lines buying lunch. And they seemed to think that every other Christian should be too.
Now, like I said, I think there are good Christians of every opinion out there. But what I saw that day seemed so antithetical to the Christianity I knew. Not because I didn’t agree, but because I refused to believe that the mark of being a true Christian involved eating a particular fast food restaurant. I refused to believe that chicken, and Christ, had somehow been conflated. How did standing in line for a chicken sandwich become the mark for what it means to be a Christian in this country? Especially when other people are standing by watching and feeling so hurt?
I was thinking about that this week while reading today’s passage from Ephesians. The writer, who is called “Paul” but who is more likely a close follower of Paul’s, is writing to a group of communities about what it means to be a Christian. And he’s not talking about chicken sandwiches. He’s not even talking about judgement. He’s talking about something more.
The author writes: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 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.
The author is writing to these communities about how they should treat one another. He’s also writing to them about how they should be recognizable to the world outside of the church. The marks of true faith, of true Christianity, are found in freedom from anger and mean-spiritedness, and embrace of kindness, and forgiveness. Bitterness is gone. Hard-heartedness is gone. Unkindness is gone.
The author goes on to call on Christians to be “imitators of God”. He tells them to be “beloved children” and to “live in love”. To live in this way, he says, is to live your life as an offering to God.
When we collect the offering each week, we talk about this. We bless the checks and envelopes and ask for God to use them, but we do something more. We ask for God to bless us, and to accept our own selves as offerings to the world. We ask that God would use us to show God’s love and compassion for the world.
It’s a beautiful moment, when you think about it. It’s a moment of giving. It’s a moment of freeing ourselves from the demands of the world and instead opening ourselves up to the desires of God. It’s a moment of getting our priorities right.
But if we want to truly live our lives as an offering to God, then like the text says, we have to learn how to be imitators of God. And we have to learn to live as God’s “beloved children” both inside and outside the doors of this church.
So, how do we imitate God in the world? It’s a tall order. Imperfect people are being asked to imitate one who is perfect. We’re not always, or even often, going to get it right. But that doesn’t stop us from having to try. That doesn’t keep us from starting with this simple command: live as beloved children of God, and live in love.
And for those of us who are Christian, it starts with this. We cannot be complacent. We cannot say it is enough that we believe. We cannot let ourselves just be defined by our claim to our faith. Being a Christian in name only is meaningless. It completely misses the point of why Christ came here.
And yet, that’s what Christians sometimes feel compelled to do. We choose the easy displays of faith. We wear a cross around our neck, or we put a fish on our car. Or we wear a t-shirt with a Christian slogan.
Or we wait online at a Chick-fil-a. Or we tell others that “real Christians” believe as we do, and therefore they are not real Christians. Or we rest, content in our belief that we are saved and we are right. And to the outside, we look more like a country club or a political party than we do a way of life. We look less like imitators of God, and more like more of the same that they see everywhere else.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It starts inside the church. How do we who are here, live as imitators of God in our life together? How do we treat each other as God’s beloved children, even when we disagree? I think most of the time we do pretty well. We don’t all believe the same thing here. We don’t all agree on the details of what it means to be a Christian. But I think that we respect each other, and we respect the fact that we are all trying to live our lives as an offering to God.
So how do we take that a step further? How do we take our faith out into the world and help to transform the world with it? How do we live our lives out there as an offering to God?
We don’t do it by making the easy choices. We don’t do it by simply proclaiming what we believe, or, even worse, just what we oppose. We do it by acting in such a way that those who meet us believe that we are indeed imitators of God’s love. We do it by treating everyone, not just other Christians who believe as we do, as God’s beloved children.
I saw two examples of Christians doing that this week. In Wisconsin, the horrific shootings at a Sikh temple horrified us all. So senseless, and so brutal. And, in Missouri, a Muslim mosque was burnt down in an act of suspected arson. The second act at that mosque this month.
In the aftermath, local Christians in both places responded. And they didn’t respond by saying “you believe differently than us”. They didn’t condemn people of different faiths or say “this isn’t our concern”. Instead, they opened their hearts, and they treated those who had been strangers as beloved children of God.
In Wisconsin, members of the Sikh temple spoke of a Christian pastor who showed up soon after the shootings offering his church and his resources and asking “what do you need?” And in Missouri, a local Christian church offered to host an Iftar dinner for the Muslims who were breaking their Ramadan fast. I would argue that those two churches did more to show their Christian faith, their commitment to the ideas in this Biblical letter we read today, than any other Christians we’ve read about in the American news this summer. Christianity doesn’t always take us to the comfortable places we know. More often, it takes us to the places we never thought we would go.
I’ll close with this. Our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, has started a new outreach. It’s called the “Faith in” project. The idea is that members of the UCC are called to have “faith in” their communities. That means to both live your “faith in” your communities, but to also have “faith in” your communities. It means to claim your communities as the places in which we live out our faith and act on our Christianity.
We’ve been trying to do that here in the Deerfield Valley for some time, and I think we’ve done a good job. But this passage reminds me of how important it is to recommit ourselves to that task from time to time. It reminds we of what it means to have faith in the places we live, and to use our faith to make those places better. I have faith in the Deerfield Valley because I have faith in God, and faith in the people of this church. We can be imitators of God in the place that we live. And we can treat our neighbors as God’s beloved children. The question that remains as go back into the world today, as offerings to the world, is this: Will my actions tell the people I meet, the people of my community, about God’s love for them? If we can say “yes”, then we will know we are on the right track, and we are becoming, more and more, imitators of God. Amen.