Several years ago, a friend of mine decided to do some genealogical research into his family’s background. As he was flying into the Rome airport, I offered him the name of a livery service I had used on previous trips to Italy.
When my friend arrived at the Rome airport, he saw someone carrying a sign with my first name on it. My friend assumed that the fellow carrying the sign was the one who was going to be his driver while in Italy. My friend got into the car, but very soon found himself being driven to a gritty, slightly scary industrial section of the city. After much gesticulating and mutilation of both English and Italian, my friend realized that he had gotten into the wrong car. He was understandably upset, and I was understandably amused by the case of mistaken identity.
Today’s second reading says, “Be imitators of God.” (Eph. 5:1) This is certainly a noble aspiration, but what if one is mistaken about God’s identity? The identity of God truly matters if one is to imitate God. All manner of injustice is possible to one who imitates a false god.
The danger of a case of mistaken identity with regard to God seems to have been foremost in the mind of the author of the Letter to the Ephesians. The author wrote, “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” (Eph. 4:31-32)
There has always been a certain popularity to the notion that God is petty, angry, and quick to punish sinners. At present, there is a popular notion that says that God has to be coerced or cajoled into granting mercy, and that God’s mercy is meted out in small doses. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians wanted his congregation to be very clear that these images of God are entirely false.
The Letter to the Ephesians says that bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, and malice have no place in the hearts of God’s People. (Eph. 4:31) These vices are forbidden to the faithful because God would never, and has never, acted in these ways towards God’s chosen. Rather, we are to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving because God acts this way consistently toward us. (Eph. 4:32)
How, then, does it happen that so many church-goers are so filled up with fear, anger, and bitterness? How can so many of the baptized be motivated by malicious desires? The Letter to the Ephesians offers a simple answer to these questions. The author of the Letter observed that all people act in ways that imitate the God they worship. The angry, vengeful, and malicious people in our society believe in a false god. The kind, compassionate, and forgiving, on the other hand, know and trust the One, True God Who has forgiven them.
If you believe in a god who is angry and vengeful, who is slow to forgive and reluctant to show mercy, you believe in the wrong god. If you feel justified to be judgmental, unforgiving, mean-spirited, or vindictive, you are imitating the wrong god.
The test to discern whether you are imitating the One, True God is similar to the criteria in our pandemic protocols here at All Saints. The pandemic protocols say that if you are coughing, you need to remain at home; you can know that you are, in fact, coughing when the noises coming from your mouth sound like coughs. In a like manner, you know that you are imitating the wrong god when the noises coming from your mouth sound like recrimination, insults, complaints, remorselessness, animosity, or mercilessness. On the other hand, if your words are characterized by kindness, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and gentleness, you are imitating the One, True God.
The Letter to the Ephesians says, “Be imitators of God.” (Eph. 5:1) Each of us imitates the God in whom we’ve placed our trust. Because of this fact, the identity of the God we worship is clearly perceptible in our behavior. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that we make no mistake about God’s identity. The One, True God inspires only gentleness, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and mercy in His People.