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.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past Monday evening, I got to have a grand time meeting with our prospective youth candidates who are discerning the Sacrament of Confirmation for themselves, ahead of Bishop Poulson’s annual visitation to Grace Church in late September. I had fun, at least! But what made it particularly enjoyable for me was that their curiosity and commitment represented the very stuff of what Confirmation is all about. Most had been baptized as infants, as is our custom, and I talked about how every grace that makes the Christian life possible was given to them at that moment. It was at their baptisms that they were liberated from the bondage of sin and death, united to Christ, and made “partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:12). It was at their baptisms, in short, that they received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, who took up residence within them and set them out on the journey towards perfection -- the journey, that is, on which they would become gradually conformed to the pattern of Christ.
But since then, these students have come of age and thus have come to experience the Christian life as something that can lived at will. Something that they can now make a conscious decision about -- whether to continue their growth into it as their highest end above all other or to merely dabble in it as one nice accessory of life among others. Of course, this decision is one that they might have made already; after all, it’s a decision that Christians can make long before they are confirmed and, even after Confirmation, is a decision that presents itself again and again throughout the rest of our lives. But Confirmation is the sign, the sacrament, of this decision. It’s why one writers calls it “the sacrament of maturity,” as it is the means by which God strengthens and confirms the graces that were first bestowed at baptism.
But we can also think about Confirmation as the moment when St. Paul’s concluding exhortation to the Ephesians really hits home in our lives: “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” To rearrange it and put it in sacramental terms, we could say that as those who have been adopted as God’s beloved children in baptism, we are now obliged to therefore be imitators of God -- with Confirmation being a significant event when the “therefore” of that phrase takes center stage.
What does this imitation of God entail, though? What does it look like to be imitators of God? Well, St. Paul gives us a few clues in our Epistle today. Remember that throughout the Letter to the Ephesians that we’ve been going through for the past few Sundays, Paul has been emphasizing this turn from one thing to another; from the old nature to the new nature, etc. We had that Collect that talked about passing through temporal things while holding onto eternal things. And our Lord himself commanded us to abandon our labors for the food which perishes, laboring instead for the food that endures to eternal life. All of these describe the basic act of repentance that defines the entirety of the Christian life: turning away from one thing and towards another. And here again, Paul continues this theme. The imitation of God begins with renouncing the imitation of that which is not God.
So, “putting away falsehood,” he says, “let every one speak the truth with his neighbor.” Since God is Truth, it follows that those who seek to imitate God would devote themselves to the truth, whatever it is and wherever it is to be found. Falsehood must be put away as something that is incompatible with Christian discipleship. But this is not primarily about “fact-checking” everything we say -- though that’s important enough -- because the truth that Paul is concerned with here is the truth that we are to speak to our neighbors. And not just any neighbors, but specifically our fellow Christian neighbors, for as Paul continues, “let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” It is the unity that we share as members of the Body of Christ that demands that our relationships with each other are held accountable to the truth of that unity. Falsehood therefore becomes more about the distorted opinions and resentments and judgments that we harbor against our brethren. If we engaged one another according to the truth of the unity we share, then many of our grievances would be clearly seen for the falsehoods that they are. They do not reflect the truth that determines our relationships as fellow Christians.
Not that this means that Christians are supposed to “be nice” all the time. Niceness itself can be cause of all sorts of falsehood and manipulation. As Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Be angry but do not sin. Isn’t that the catch, though! The righteous management of anger is precisely what is so difficult, for like all passions, anger lowers our inhibitions and clouds our thinking. It is much easier to sin when we’re angry than when we’re calm. But anger is inevitable, because even among Christians, we’re still dealing with fellow human beings. And human beings are often anger-inducing. But the trick is to imitate God -- who has no passions whatsoever -- and ask Him to give us “that peace which the world cannot give,” as one of our beautiful collects at Evening Prayer puts it, “that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments,” and that “we, being defended from the fear of all enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness.”
Paul exhorts us to “not let the sun go down on your anger” because most of the time, if we’re still stewing on our anger long after the situation that caused it, we’re probably not angry at the person so much as we’re angry at our own thoughts about the person. And those are two very different things. To bring our anger into our minds where we can watch the reruns over and over and dwell on the offense is to give opportunity to the devil. It is to indulge in falsehood, because at that point we have entered into the fantasy land of our own heads where the truth of the actual incident has likely become distorted. So as a rule of thumb, I think it’s helpful to remember that our minds are far more hospitable to falsehood than the real world, because the real world is almost always going to be where the truth of the matter is to be found. We should therefore commit ourselves to “pass our time in rest and quietness” -- that is, to the discipline of silencing the mind and subduing the passions with God’s help, as that is what will ensure that we do in fact live in the real world. It will ensure that our relationships with each other actually correspond to reality and not to fantasy.
Paul gives us two more bits of counsel on this point: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.” And “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” See here that both of these instructions rely on the truth that defines our lives as Christians. The problem with “evil talk” is not just that it’s unkind or disruptive, but more fundamentally, that it is not in harmony with the reality of who we are in Christ. Christians are those whose speech is intended for edification; for imparting grace to each other. For the thing that is most true about us is that God has imparted his grace to us together, as the Church. Any exchange of words that fails to impart this grace to another tells a lie about who we actually are. Likewise, all of our bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander are ultimately acts which refuse to extend the forgiveness that has already been granted to us by God. The forgiveness that makes Christians who we actually are. Basically, whenever we engage in these kinds of falsehood, we mistake each other for someone else, so to speak; we fail to properly recognize who we in fact are dealing with.
And this is where the Sacrament of Confirmation comes back into the picture. For Christians, all of these acts of imitating God are not really like impersonations of someone else. Of course, God is infinitely different than us, so even our best imitations will still be but the palest comparison. But the imitation of God is only possible because of the unity with God -- that is, our participation in God. The “Holy Spirit of God” is the one “in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption,” Paul says. The indwelling presence of God within us is what makes our imitation of God possible. And for those who are about to be confirmed, the graces of this divine presence will not only be strengthened by the laying on of the bishop’s hands, but they will moreover be confirmed in the truth of who they really are. Their identity as members of Christ, sealed in the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption, is what will be confirmed. And all of the disciplines and obligations of the Christian life that they will submit themselves to will proceed from this basic identity.
Therefore, my friends -- and especially all of you who preparing for Confirmation -- 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.