Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 16th February 2014
16 February 2014 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Canon Stephen Evans, Rector, St Marylebone, Diocese of London
As the weekend newspaper supplements know very well, many of us long to be someone, something, other than we are.
If you have had the time or opportunity this weekend to open any glossy newspaper magazine, you will have found a way to dress like a Hollywood actress, top-tips on how to transform your kitchen into the culinary studio of a celebrity chef, and, doubtless, a list of the best places to buy the must-have accessories which will gain you instant access into the very finest of nightclubs and the most fashionable of London society parties.
Newspaper editors and television producers alike know just how much, deep down, we all want to imitate the famous and the glamorous.
Even Jesus’s own disciples, the men and women who were closest to him during the years of his teaching and preaching in Galilee, were not immune from the desire to be like other people.
St Luke tells us that, one day, when Jesus had finished praying in a certain place, one of his disciples came up to him and said, 'Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.'
Even in the company of Jesus living and eating, and walking and talking with God’s Christ every day, the disciples still wanted to be like somebody else’s disciples!
In our second reading this evening, the writer of the letter to the church in Ephesus, commands his readers to be ‘imitators’, not of the rich or the famous though, or the impossibly glamorous, but ‘imitators of God’ by following the example left to the Church by Christ Jesus.
If Jesus’s own disciples had found it hard to know how to be like him, how much harder would it be for the Christians who came after them; the men and the women of the twenty centuries which have followed?
Much of the New Testament is written from this starting point: how can the ordinary men and women who follow in the Way of Christ be more and more like God?
St Paul writing to the Ephesians’ neighbours, just 100 kilometres away at Colossae, was very clear: He wrote that Christians were to imitate God, by showing compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, as they dealt with each other and with those among whom they lived. The Colossian Christians were, to forgive each other; to clothe themselves with love, allowing Christ’s words and example to take deep root in their lives; doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, remembering to give thanks to God the Father through him.
Instructions are very easy to give however, but rather harder to take to heart! Saint Paul himself was painfully aware that simply giving a list of instructions about how to live was not much practical use to people.
Paul knew, all too painfully, just how difficult it was to be an imitator of God in Christ Jesus.
In a letter he wrote to the Church in Rome, Paul admits, ‘Even though I know what good it is that I want to do, I end up doing the evil things that I do not want to do’.
If it was so very hard for Jesus’s disciples and for St Paul to be ‘imitators of God’, how much harder for us!
So, how are we to heed the opening words of our second reading this evening? How can we be ‘imitators of God’ and ‘follow in the ways of Christ’?
I suppose it is this question, perhaps above all others, that has exercised Christian writers and thinkers for the past two thousand years and has, as a by-product, given rise to the whole self-help book industry!
One of the most well-known and most widely-read attempts at giving an answer came in the early fifteenth century, when Thomas à Kempis wrote what we know as The Imitation of Christ.
Thomas’s book is perhaps the world’s most widely read and translated devotional book after the Bible; already over 2000 editions have been catalogued and one can find 1000 of them in the British Library here in London.
But Thomas’s instructions, which have influenced a wide spectrum of Christians from Thomas More to John Wesley, and from Ignatius of Loyola to Therèse of Lisieux, were mostly about ‘disengaging’ from the everyday world in which the majority of Christians find themselves and learning how to ‘imitate’ Christ in the interior places of the heart and soul.
Fine for men and women who have embraced the life a cloistered religious or those who can give themselves wholly to a life of solitude and silence, but perhaps not so useful or practical for those of us who live out our Christian calling in family life, and in lives of business or commerce or public engagement.
How can we respond, in faith to the urgent summons to be ‘imitators of God, as beloved children, and [to] live in love as Christ loved us’?
Perhaps we need to start not with the words of St Paul or the writer to the letter to the Ephesians or with Thomas’s method of imitating Christ but with the words of Jesus himself when told those who had gathered around him a parable, a word picture, about how we shall be judged by God at the end of time:
'When the Son of Man comes in his glory', said Jesus, 'and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, putting the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then those judged to be righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me!’
It is perhaps by carrying out these Works of Mercy, in and through the Grace and power which comes from God: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and by having concern for those who are in prison, that we can truly follow and imitate God, as God’s beloved children, and begin to live in love as Christ has loved us.
In just over two weeks, the Church will, once again, enter the solemn season of Lent, and Christians will begin to prepare themselves for the glories and joys of Easter.
A gift of forty days, in which we are invited to follow Christ more closely, to love God more dearly, to imitate God more faithfully; a time in which we can truly seek to be formed into 'the fullness of Christ’s redeemed, and redeeming humanity ... so that Christ may be formed in us, and that we might learn to live in union of heart and will with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.' Amen.