From St. Paul as he writes to the Church in the city of Ephesus:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
It has often been said that the ethics of the New Testament is an ethics of love, and it would be hard to argue with that. In the Gospel of John we are commanded by our Lord to “love one another,” and this – love – Jesus tells us, is his new commandment, his specific commandment for those who would follow him. We are to act with love toward, God, toward our neighbor, and indeed toward ourselves.
We hear this – don’t we ? – at the beginning of many celebrations of the Mass: Jesus’ summary of the Law. And, as he summarizes the Law, it is a law of love. And from St. Paul as he writes to the Church in the city of Ephesus, we find exactly the same thing: “Walk in love,” he says,” as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Indeed, there are many scholars and students of Scripture who would assert that love is the only criterion the New Testament offers for behavior. We succeed as Christians when we act in love. We fail as Christians when we fall short of love.
Far be it from me to dispute this. It is a magnificent idea, and certainly there can be no more sublime and exalted standard of behavior than that motivated by love. No one, I am sure, would disagree. An yet, as surprising as it may seem, the demand which the Scriptures place upon God’s people is a greater demand than this, and, in fact, it does go beyond a simple ethic of love. It is summed up in the short exhortation which we heard in the Epistle and which I just quoted, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Be imitators of God.
This is an astonishing idea – isn’t it ? – that you and I are somehow to imitate God. It is not, however, a new idea, nor is it unique to the New Testament. In fact, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, God again and again exhorts his people to do just this: to imitate him. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.” How many times do we hear that in the Old Testament? “You must be merciful, for I have been merciful to you.” “You must love justice and righteousness, for I the Lord your God, am a God of justice and righteousness.”
An action or a quality in God demands a similar action or quality in his people. His holiness obliges them to be holy. His mercy, righteousness, and justice obliges them to be just, righteous, and merciful. And so when Jesus, the rabbi, teaches his disciples to pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” or when he tells them, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is doing nothing more than reasserting the ancient tradition of his people: that they be somehow like their God, that they imitate God.
But again, isn’t this an extraordinary phrase ? Think of it. How can I, how can you, how can any human person be an imitator of God. We are his creatures. How can this be possible ? Indeed, isn’t this exhortation, presumptuous, even arrogant or blasphemous ? Not, if you understand the Bible, for remember, Scripture understands humanity to be in itself, inherently, as created an imitation of God. We are told in the first book of the Bible, in Genesis that humanity was created in the image of God – in imago Dei – and Christian thought has long rung the changes on this teaching. Man, humanity, as God’s image, is the most excellent of God’s creatures – not only in the things that he can do – with hands and feet, and mind – not only in the preeminence and dominance man has in creation – but also in what Man is spiritually. Man has a certain spiritual something which makes him capable of conscious knowing, conscious feeling, conscious living in communication with God, of whom man is the image. What that something is has been defined and redefined for two thousand years – there’s no to go into all that right now. Suffice it to say, that humanity, as the Faith understands things, is very special, bearing in itself, in herself, in himself, as created, a certain inherent imitation / image of God.
And this understanding of humanity permeates the Scriptures. It is, I would say, one of the most important and fundamental ideas in the Bible. In fact, the whole of Biblical history is concerned with the basic issue; the proper and the improper way of being an imitator of God, the right and the wrong way of making actual and active the image of God in which we were created. Recall, for instance, the story in Genesis – the account of the creation of mankind. In the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve, it is explained that humanity got into the predicament in which it finds itself through an improper attempt to imitate God. The serpent sneered at Eve, taunting and tempting, “you will not die,” it said, “for God knows that when you eat of the fruit of that tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like god, knowing good and evil.
But as the story goes, our Father Adam and our Mother Eve – humanity, that is – did not become like God. Quite the contrary, their disobedience resulted in disaster. For, you see, in their disobedience, at the serpents prompting, they were trying to become like God apart from God . . . and you can only become like God in communion with God. You can only become like God in a relationship with God, and in their disobedience they broke the relationship they had when created.
The history of salvation, the history of Israel begins there and becomes the record of God’s action to call humanity to obedience and to show mankind how to be like him, how to polish, so to speak, to clean up the tarnished image of God within, how to become a true “imitator of God” – what one was created to be.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” proclaims the Law. “You must be just, righteous, and merciful,” cry the Prophets. But Paul tells us, none of this was possible until there was a new Adam – a new humanity – to make humanity new in himself. A new and clear image of God – clear because that new Adam was God himself. A new and perfect image of God – perfect because this new Adam was God himself. And this new Adam, the new humanity, the new and clear and perfect image is Jesus, the Christ.
“Therefore be imitators of God,” commands St. Paul. He commands this because it is indeed possible for women and men to be imitators of God. It is possible because in Jesus, human kind has been raised up out of the mire of sin and disobedience, out of all false and proud striving to be like God, and has been raised to the level of grace. In Christ the image of God in us has been restored – and through his grace and in communion with him, humanity, men and women are what they should be, are as they were created to be – imitators of God. The disaster within us has been matched by an action without us, God’s action of redemption in Christ. And so all that old business is over, done with – in Jesus we have been made new, re-created, once again in the image of God – as shown in his son Jesus Christ.
And so, brothers and sisters . . . “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice. To God.