Imitating God – a team event! Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

I had worried that using an Olympic theme might be too much for some this morning, but apparently it wasn’t as I’ve lots of positive feedback. For many however, the image that spoke to them most was that of the spider crabs who shed their shells! Go on, read it, and tell me what you think!

I have done extensive research over the last couple of weeks, and I make no apologies – this sermon will have a distinctly Olympic flavour.

As we celebrate, I wonder how many of us have wished that we
● Had the breadth of skills and strength of Jess Ennis
● Could run as far and as fast as Mo Farah
● Or cycle with the speed and stamina of Wiggo or the highest achieving of them all, Sir Chris Hoy!

They are, the games organisers hope, an inspiration for generations to come; people who are now the ‘gold standard’ of what it means to be a British athlete. People to imitate and look up to.

But though some of their achievements are down to natural talent, the next generation of athletes can’t expect to roll up at a track and just win a medal! Despite protesting that he has a lackadaisical training regime, even the Bolt himself couldn’t do that and win two individual gold medals!

All of our sporting heroes would testify to what their Gold medals have cost them in blood, sweat and tears! They would also say that over time, and because of their total and utter commitment to what they wanted to achieve, their skills and abilities have improved by stages: sometimes almost imperceptibly; sometimes in unexpectedly large gains, like those who have gained new personal bests during the championships, even if they’ve not won a medal!

Before many of the British competitors have featured in their event, we’ve also probably seen and heard the stories of tough training regimes, early mornings circuit training, hours spent in the pool fitted round the school day, miles and miles clocked up pounding roads or pedals to develop stamina. These are the things that make them different, because what makes people stand out as Olympic Champions isn’t the winning a medal, but what has gone into it, their motivation and commitment to their sport.

After each event, and perhaps dreaded by more than just the competitors, the post-competition interviews have been a testimony to all those who have helped support each competitor – the behind-the-scenes team of coaches, health professionals and very often family members who have dedicated huge amounts of time, effort and often money to each Olympian’s success. For example the family of our Olympic Dressage Gold Medalist, Charlotte Dujardin, had spent their inheritance on a horse who they felt was worthy of a girl who (they said) “could make a donkey dance”!

If people are willing to make such massive sacrifices in an effort to achieve Olympic medals, and inspire a nation of would-be athletes, then this passage is surely challenging us to consider what we need, and the sacrifices that we must make, if we are going to be imitators of God!

When we become Christians, we are making a commitment to do our utmost to be moulded into a better and better likeness of God, to be changed from whatever we were, and recreated into something new and improved.

This is what St Paul is referring to in the verses that proceed what was read just now. We are reminded that as Christians we should have a new attitude of mind, one that is different from those that prevail in the norms of non-Christian societies, one that puts away our old selves and enables us to be renewed to form a likeness of God.

But, when our friends, colleagues and the neighbours in our street look at us, do they in fact see a gold standard Christian, totally recognisable as such, known by our actions as a Christian, how we live, how we speak, and by our dealings with others? Or if we look through the eyes of others, are we showing signs of fatigue, a lack of match practice or race fitness perhaps due to the fact that we’re not necessarily putting time in on the basics of living up to our faith in God?!

So what do we need to focus on in our training programme as a Christian, and what sacrifices must we make, to be formed into something even faintly resembles the likeness of God that we commit to striving for by professing our faith in him?

The key thing here, is to remember, we’re not completely on our own, because in a very special way, it’s a team event!

Yes, as Ephesians stresses repeatedly, we are called to be faithful witnesses in our own special way, part of the living unified body Christ on earth, each created for specific tasks and gifted to fulfil them. That is indeed the team of which we are part, a national team if you like of people who are all different but belong in some way to the same place. It’s like people sort of joked last Saturday, when comments were passed that it’s wonderful to see the variety of Great Britains who have won us gold medals; not just the mixed-race, the white public school kids, past asylum seekers, the every-day Brits, but EVEN a ginger – a red-head!

But though that’s very important to remember, that’s not the team that we need to focus on when we’re planning our own individual training program as Christian’s. What we have that is special is the most elite support team available.
God has provided us, his dearly loved children, with exactly the raw talent, the family support and coaching staff that we need.

The raw talent we possess is of course that we have already been created in God’s image, which I think we can acknowledge gives us a head start in achieving our goal. The problem is how often do we actually remember that our natural talents and abilities, are God given, God created, and that therefore we have some responsibility to God for keeping them in good working order, and using them to the best of our abilities. If we aren’t or we don’t then we are dishonouring God, and the image of him that he wants for us.

Then there is our faith in Christ – the one perfect sacrifice, who gave up absolutely everything for God, and for us. Created by God in human form, Jesus is just as much a member of our family support team as our Father who made us. And of course, he made the ultimate sacrifice if we remember the cross is the place where he paid the price for our failures to honour the image of God that is placed in each of us. It’s what Jesus did that means that each time we realise a mistake we’ve made in our training programme, we can understand what it means to be forgiven, so that we can focus clearly again on what bits of God we are best suited to imaging in our lives.

And of course, if we struggle sometimes to see ourselves as an imitation of God, Jesus gives us the ultimate example of what we’re aiming at. Because that’s what we should be striving for; to be more like Christ; to imitate him as the example we have been given of what it means to be like enough to the character of God, for others to recognise that likeness as real and true. For as the beginning of Eph 5 tells us, we are to

“Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1-2)

Just as Christ.
When we recognise that we have been created as children of God, and that Jesus is THE ‘gold standard’ of what we are called to be, we don’t want to be shown up as fakes or imposters, with no more likeness to God than wearing a set of false sideburns makes us a likeness of Bradley Wiggins! Surely we want to be as Christ-like as we can possibly be?

And yet, it’s such a tough call isn’t it? I guess we’d all admit, we’re hardly overnight success stories. The process is a gradual one, as we allow God to work in our lives, and as situations arise where we find new gifts, or new ways of making the best use of the way that we’ve been created.

That is why St Paul is reminding us in this passage that every detail of our behaviour has to have integrity with Christ’s example of what we’re called to be as imitators of God, on his national team.

Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple, he highlighted the mis-match between what the scribes and the pharisees taught and how they actually behaved. He brought healing that enabled people to look after themselves, setting an example of kindness, compassion and love that stood out in a world of bitterness and hatred. Jesus spoke truth, and indeed was truth, where there was none.

Yet, even when angry Jesus didn’t allow his anger to get out of control, nor the monumental task ahead of him to stop him from what he was doing. In the Wilderness, and the Garden of Gethsemane, the work of the devil against God’s mission in the world wasn’t given a foothold, but was pushed aside so that Jesus could focus on his chief task – to make it possible for each of us to have a personal relationship with God that has no boundaries.

Except of course that we often construct our own protective shells, as a barrier that protects us from the world around us, enabling us to feel safe from the pain that others can cause us, which we might think has the added benefit of making us feel like we’re tough enough and strong enough to cope in the world on our own.

The preacher, beachcombing on Rhossili Beach, 2nd August 2012 (photographed by her husband)

For all those suffering Olympic fatigue, let me take you to the beach for a few moments. We’ve recently had our holiday on The Gower, and been introduced to the wonderful and sometimes huge beaches there, particularly to Rhossili.

One of our favourite activities on a beach is beach-combing; walking the tide-line armed with a carrier bag and a camera, finding things of interest. It might be a bit of drift wood, the skeleton of a seabird, a range of interesting seashells. On Rhossili we came across probably hundreds of spider crab shells, just the bit that covers the main body of the crab. Some were quite tiny, others were bigger and often encrusted with little barnacles or the little wiggly lines of ‘shell’ made by keel worms.

The reason that there were so many of them, was because crabs shed their shells as they grow. The shells being hard limit the size of the crab inside them, so as they get bigger they shed the shell, with whatever is hitching a free ride on the outside of it, and a new shell forms and hardens to fit the new contours of the crab. If you are a spider crab it must feel good to get rid of the constriction and the extra weight of those lodgers living on your shell, and instead have the freedom to grow and do the new things that your extra size allows. And yet, at the points in its’ life where it sheds it’s current shell before forming a new one, it is both at it most vulnerable, and presumably growing at the fastest rate.

I thought of these spider crabs when I was considering how we train, grow and develop as Christian’s towards the ‘gold standard’ of who we are called to be in God’s image.

We shouldn’t be trying to be more like Christ, by ourselves, or in our own strength, protected by the shell of things that make us feel safe, but which tend to allow bad habits to get a foothold and make a rather noticeable home in our lives, which then hides our faith in God, and what we’re really meant to be like.

To go back to the idea of our own Olympic training support team, what we are in effect trying to do is trying to fulfil our God given potential, and live up the example set by Christ, without making use of the coach we’ve been provided with!

We lie to the world, and are not authentic in our desire to be like God, if we try to follow him without relying on the guidance and direction of our coach, the Holy Spirit, who after all has been given us by God as his means of communicating with us.

In The Message version of the Bible, Eph 4 v30 is written like this:

Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.

We have to shed the protective casing that can often form almost imperceptibly around us, and take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable, if we are to continue growing into the imitation of God that we are capable of. Only without that protective casing can our God-given coach really help us grow, because the Holy Spirit needs the freedom to work with who we are on the inside.

If we want to honour the example Christ has set us, and be the best imitators of God we possibly can be, then we have to give him the freedom to coach us, to let him have his way with us, so that we can be the best we possibly can be. We aren’t on our own, this is a team event, and we have the best chance possible of winning with the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit on our support team.

Sunset from Rhossili Beach, 24th July 2012

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