THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY?
You’ve probably heard the old proverb: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? I think there’s a grain of truth to this, but imitation can also be the sincerest form of a good laugh. As you can see on this photo, my three children have got this down to a tee. They raided my wardrobe and as you can see my elder son is wearing my clerical collar, my younger son is in my running suit, and my daughter is in the jacket I’m currently wearing!
Imitation is actually an important theme in the New Testament, but it is a theme that doesn’t get a lot of airspace in our Christian culture any more. I think this is largely a reaction to WWJD. WWJD was a popular tagline back in the 90s. It stands for “what would Jesus do?” Youth group members would wear bracelets with these letters on them as a reminder to ask this question before they did anything.
I think there was a lot of good in this, but WWJD soon fell foul of a kind of smug criticism, which even crept into theological colleges. I remember one of my lecturers making some critical comments about WWJD and was even querying whether the imitation of Christ is taught anywhere in the New Testament.
Now, I think I’d prefer a few WWJD bracelets to be in circulation than for the imitation of Christ to be jettisoned, as it really is a central theme in the New Testament’s moral discourse. And a lot hangs on our ability to do a good impersonation of the Lord Jesus. There is a very real sense in which the salvation of our unbelieving friends and family members is riding on this.
So, these are two very good reasons why we need to listen carefully to what Paul says in this passage from his letter to the Ephesians, which is one of those places where the imitation of Christ is front and centre. So, let’s tune in to what Paul says about copying Jesus, think a bit about what this might involve, and then consider why it is so important.
So, what’s with this whole copying caper? We hear the instruction in the first verse of chapter 5. Paul writes, “Be imitators of God” and in verse 2 he makes it clear that Jesus offers us the best model to copy. So, the brief is clear: copy God like Jesus did. But what is it exactly that we are supposed to copy? Is it, for example, the way Jesus’ cleared his voice, or the way he talked with his hands? Is Paul suggesting that we copy his mannerisms?
I remember when it dawned on me one day that these three pastors I knew in Sydney all shared the same distinctive mannerisms. And then some time later I realised that the first guy had been an apprentice of the second pastor, and that this guy had originally been an apprentice of the third pastor. So, this unusual way of talking had been passed down in a kind of chain of imitation from one pastor to the next.
Now, I get why this happened. These guys had subconsciously copied the mannerisms of their pastor and “grand-pastor” because there was plenty to admire. I had actually been a congregation member of the pastor with whom the mannerisms originated. I really appreciated his preaching and his pastoral ministry. He was a fine expositor of Scripture and he showed genuine interest in the members of his church.
So, this sincerest form of flattery actually makes complete sense. It makes sense why this unusual way of talking was subconsciously copied from one pastor to the next. There was undoubtedly a deep admiration of the first pastor and his qualities were being replicated from one generation to the next. And it’s this dynamic that makes me wonder a bit about the church in Ephesus when I hear Paul telling them to copy Jesus.
Just imagine that you are a member of the church in Ephesus whose pastor is the apostle John, He’s always talking about love and abiding in the vine and communing with the Father and the Son. John had spent three years with Jesus. Now, can you imagine what an impression that must have made on the man? Jesus was a pretty good preacher, was he? That Sermon on the Mount is the bomb. And he wasn’t a bad pastor either.
Jesus must have had made an overwhelming impression, and over a period of years his disciples would have undoubtedly picked up some of his mannerisms without even meaning to. That flick of the hair he always did as he was just about to start teaching. That curious gesture he always used to introduce a parable. I’d be very surprised if there wasn’t any subliminal imitation of Jesus going on among the disciples.
And I can imagine that the ministry trainees in Ephesus also picked up these mannerisms second-hand, a bit like those three pastors in Sydney. It’s only normal. I remember when I started preaching 20 years ago copying my pastor’s idiosyncratic ways. You’re probably thinking, “this explains a lot,” but it’s only natural. When you’re trying to learn how to do something, you look for a model.
But is this actually what Paul is talking about? Is this the kind of thing he has in mind when he tells people to copy Jesus? Is this what Paul meant in one of his other letters where he says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1)?
Hopefully, you’re thinking to yourself, “this can’t be what Paul is telling us to copy!” And if you’re thinking this, you’d be right. Paul is not thinking of any of Jesus’ mannerisms or idiosyncrasies. He’s not even thinking of any specific thing that Jesus did. Paul has something else in mind, something that is at once much easier and much harder to do.
HOW (NOT) TO DO IT
For Paul, copying Jesus means shining. He’s saying we are to shine like Jesus shone. In verse 8 Paul writes, “once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” The metaphor of light dominates this passage and the word itself is repeated five times in verses 8-14.
This is what it means to copy Jesus. Paul wants us to illumine the world, just as Jesus did. Now, those of us born last century will all be familiar the song, “Shine, Jesus shine.” I think I’ve heard Gary humming that around the corridors of QTC. But what does it mean? What does it mean to shine like Jesus?
I remember one of the things Kate and I found very strange when we lived in Germany was how some of the people at church literally shone. This was because they had spent some time at the Sonnenstudio, or tanning salon. Initially we didn’t make this connection because you don’t turn orange when you lie in the sun in Australia. You might go brown or red, but you won’t turn orange.
These were shiny Christians but I don’t think this was what Paul had in mind either. But what Paul is actually thinking of is even stranger. Shining like Jesus is not about replicating any of the cool things Jesus did. It is not scolding Pharisees or healing lepers. In fact, it’s not about anything Jesus did. It actually has to do with what Jesus didn’t do.
Look at the long list of things in verses 3-5 that Paul says we mustn’t do in order to shine. Shining is not doing immorality, impurity, greed, obscenities, foolish speech, lewd jokes, and coveting, which I think in this context has to do with lust. This is what it means to shine. A shiny Christian is somebody who doesn’t do any of this.
Now, this is important because I think intuitively we think that shining like Jesus would involve doing something special or heroic. But in this passage, Paul says that our lumens are numbered by what we don’t do. And this is what makes shining like Jesus at once harder and easier than anything you’ve ever done.
Jesus never did anything that could be described as immoral or impure. He never uttered an obscenity or a lewd joke. He never allowed his eye to linger on anyone. His actions, his speech, and his inner life were light. And this is what Paul wants us to copy. This is how Jesus shone, and this is how Paul wants us to shine.
WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT
Now, before you convince yourself of the hopelessness of this task, hear Paul out. Hear Paul out and be inspired by what shining does. Let what Paul says sink into your heart and let it fill you with a desire to shine like Jesus.
Shining transforms. When the light falls on someone, it changes them. They become someone completely new. And didn’t Paul know this better than any of us? Luke tells us that it was while Saul of Tarsus was breathing out murderous threats, (don’t you love that phrase?) that Jesus encountered him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1).
There on the road, Paul was dazzled by the intensity of Jesus’ incandescent glory it transformed him. Saul became Paul. He was transformed from being a persecutor of the church to a servant of the Gospel.
And isn’t this what each of us have also experienced each in our own way? Each of us have stood under the floodlights of Jesus’ grace and been transformed in our inner being. And this is why Paul says that shining like Jesus is so important. He is saying that in the same way that Jesus shone on him and transformed him, those around us will be transformed if we shine as Jesus shone.
This is what Paul is getting at in the rather odd series of statements in verses 13 and 14. In verse 13 Paul explains. He says, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” Now, if you were ever worried that studying New Testament exegesis at Bible college might be a bit too hard, this verse will set your heart at rest.
“Everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” I think this would have to be one of the hermeneutically clearest verses in the Bible. “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible” means, everything that is exposed by the light becomes visible.
I’m not sure if the Ephesians were a little slow or whether they had only recently discovered candles, but Paul reminds them of this! “everything exposed by the light becomes visible.” But what comes next is actually a bit trickier.
Paul goes on to say that that everything that becomes visible is light. This is not so easy to understand, because Paul is no longer thinking about the sun or candles but about people. He is talking about what happened when Christ shone on him, and on you, and on me. He is reminding us that when Christ illumines someone, they are transformed. They become light.
At this point, we just have to pause in wonder. What this means is just extraordinary. Everything that becomes visible becomes light. In the first instance, he’s talking about what happens to our sin.
Every dark deed in your life, everything that you regret is dispelled completely. Just think about that. In the same way that there is no dark patch left in a room when you turn the lights on, everything in your life that you regret is dissolved under the light of God’s grace.
This is the wonder of the Gospel. The darkness that God exposes in you isn’t just exposed; it becomes light. There is no guilt, no shame, no nothing, because it is gone. Yet there is more. It gets better. Listen to Paul carefully. Because you have become light, you now illumine the darkness.
It’s a bit like those solar powered lights that everybody has in their front garden. When the light shines on them they become a source of light. This is what Paul is saying happens to the person upon whom Christ shines.
To my chagrin, my daughter recently bought three of those pink flamingos that are wired up to a little solar panel. After a whole day of sitting in the sun, these flamingos now light up our backyard. I wasn’t so keen on this new addition to our backyard but as with most things, she wins my heart pretty quickly, and I’ve become a bit of flamingo fiend.
Paul is reminding us that we are a like those flamingos, although perhaps without the skinny pink legs. He’s saying that because Christ has shone on us, we become a light that illumines others. And to understand what this means, we need to remember what I said before about how shining has more to do with what we don’t do than what we do.
I remember discovering this a long time ago at party Kate and I were invited to. It was a sit-down meal and a lot of alcohol was being consumed. I was not being prudish but after a while, I knew I had had plenty and just said no to the repeated offers to have more. This actually provoked a negative response from the host and guests. They didn’t like it because not drinking any more made it uncomfortably obvious that they were drinking to excess.
You see, it’s not that “actions speak louder than words” It’s that inaction speaks louder than words. Not partaking in the fruitless deeds of darkness screams into the ears of those around us. It becomes a wordless sermon that penetrates the heart and exposes its darker recesses more effectively than anything you could ever say.
I’m sure you can think of similar situations in your life when you’ve experienced this in the company of unbelievers. In some situations, doing nothing is the most powerful witness to Christ you could give.
But don’t mishear me or Paul. Paul is not for a minute suggesting that we don’t need to preach the Gospel. But he is draw attention to the fact that our hearers will be deaf to this message unless our lives are like searchlights that expose where they are hiding, and this is the urgency of shining.
Shining transforms. In the same way Jesus transformed us by shining on us, we are to shine on others. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that there is a very real sense in which peoples’ lives depend on this. The church must illumine the message that it preaches.
So, now for the difficult question: how brightly do you shine?
ARE YOU A GOOD MIMIC?
One of the problems with our little flamingos in the backyard is that their lights go out at about 9 o’clock. I think I’m a bit like this too. I shine and cast Christ’s light into the dark, but after a while I lose my glow. Is that you too?
There might be an outward show of Christianity, but your life loses that iridescent quality that lightens others. Without this glow, your imitation of Christ becomes a bit of a caricature. Like all poor performances, your attempt to copy Jesus become increasingly comical because they fail so dismally to replicate its subject.
I’m sure if you’re like me, you’ll be painfully aware that there are times when your witness to Christ impedes rather than aids the progress of the Gospel. Instead of shining, you cast a shadow. This can easily tempt us to despair or indifference.
We can feel that it’s all a bit hopeless and feel a bit sorry for ourselves. Or we excuse our behaviour by identifying all of the reasons that our light is so dim. But succumbing to these temptations can blind us to the simplicity and ready availability of the solution to our problem.
Like the flamingos, we just need to bathe in the light once again. We need only to allow Christ to shine on us once more and he will transform our hearts. Everything that is made visible becomes light. This is the promise of the Gospel.
So, when you stop shining and have melted back into the darkness, remember this. Turn to Christ and you will shine again. Let Christ shine on you once again with the light of his Gospel, and you reflect his glorious light.
In closing, I’d like us to take a few moments to meditate on what Paul is saying to us. If his words have convicted you this morning, confess your need of Christ to your heavenly Father. Turn to your heavenly Father in prayer now and repent from whatever it is that belongs to the fruitless deeds of darkness and return to the wonder of the Gospel.
It may or it may not be the kinds of things that Paul lists in this passage. There are many ways in which we can sin against God and against those around us. Search your hearts. Let him irradiate your darkness, and your imitation of Christ will become artless admiration once again. Let us pray.