As children, we were quite inventive with the games we would play. We would pretend that we were a cop on the chase of the bad guy; a soldier being deployed into the battlefield; or some other character with heroic qualities.
Our imaginations were limitless on the identities we would create, and the lives that we would imitate when we were playing games. When I played sports, I would imagine that I was making the game winning shot, even if it took me several dozen tries to get the ball into the hoop. I was just fouled a lot, I would think to myself.
Do you notice something here? When we imitate someone else, we always take on the best qualities. We never imagined we were someone who wasn’t worth following. You were always disappointed if it was your turn to be the robber. When playing sports, no one pretended to be the bench sitter, or even the water boy. You wanted to be the best, because that is what was worth imitating.
Even today, we want to imitate the best things in life. That sentence gets to the heart of what it means to imitate someone. We take the best qualities about someone we admire and make them part of our own life. In other words, that which we admire becomes that which is our own. For instance, if we admire the work ethic of our parents, we are more likely to have a strong work ethic ourselves. We are not going to imitate something we do not find admirable. If a friend is a cheat, and we see what has happened, we probably will refrain from cheating in our own lives.
As the saying goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We honor someone, and show them our affection, when we take on something we admire about them as our own. I want you to think about that as we go forward in our time together today. So, let me say that again. We honor someone, and show them our affection, when we take on something we admire about them as our own.
Our passage for today talks about this idea of imitation, but points it in the direction of God. Paul says we are to “imitate God” because we are God’s “dear children.” When we accept God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ, we are adopted into God’s family and become one of God’s children. Since we are part of God’s family, we want to imitate God and make God’s character part of our own life.
That is a deep thought. It is a thought that helps us to consider what it means for us to be followers of Christ who happen to be Methodist. The idea of imitating God gets to the heart of one of the key points in how we, as Methodists, understand faith. In imitating God, we are take on aspects of God’s holiness and make it part of our life. To live lives that are holy is what it means to imitate God because we are God’s children.
When we think of holiness, we mean the setting apart of God’s children by taking on some of the qualities of God. As Christians, we are called to not look like the world, but to instead reflect the character of God in our personal and public lives. Often, this is the point that gets lost in our relationship with God. We’ve missed what it means to “imitate God” because we are God’s children when we cannot tell the difference between a follower of Christ and someone who is outside a relationship with God.
Holiness gets to the heart of sanctification. As Methodists, we believe God’s grace works in three specific ways. First, is the grace that goes before us. This is God’s prevenient grace. The second grace, justification, is available to us when we believe that Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin. The third grace is sanctification. By sanctification, we believe God’s grace is at work in transforming us into a new creation. This happens in the renewal of our souls and character through the work of the Holy Spirit. at the depths of our soul so that we may reflect the character, and the holiness, of God in our lives. In John 14, Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will be with us, and working in us, to show us the way to the Father, and what it means to maintain His teachings and following Jesus in our world. The pursuit of sanctification is what it means to be on a journey of faith, a pathway of holiness.
Sanctification, or holiness, is not a backdoor attempt at works righteousness. We cannot be saved by our own doing. Our salvation does not come from being the nicest person, the biggest giver, or the person that goes on the most mission trips. We cannot earn points for our good deeds. Our good deeds are a fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ, and not the cause of our salvation. It is only faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior that we are saved. Sanctification, or holiness, is a fruit of our faith in Jesus Christ. It flows out of relationship with Jesus Christ. When our souls are planted in Jesus Christ, fruit begins to spring forth as we grow in Christ’s love.
As we grow in our relationship with Christ, Christ’s love for us, through the Holy Spirit, begins to transform us. When we allow Christ to be at work in our lives, we become a new creature, a new person. We become what God has always desired us to be, and we become equipped for ministry and service in the kingdom of God.
There is a key word in that sentence. The word is become.
Sanctification and holiness helps us understand the “being” aspect of faith in Christ. It is not enough to simply have a “get out of jail free” card, but we are called to grow in the likeness of God, and to participate in God’s character and mission in this world. God is the perfect One we should imitate, because God, by God’s own very nature, is the perfect picture of righteousness. This is why our holiness is important. Because God is holy, we are called to participate in God’s character by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us. As a new creation, we become a reflection of God’s character here in our world.
We can see this throughout Scripture. In Leviticus chapter 20, God says we are to be holy because God is holy. If we truly want to be in relationship with God, then we must be concerned about holiness in our lives and in our community. In 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Paul writes we are called to live “holy lives, and not impure lives.” This gets back to the idea that since God is holy, we are to participate in God’s holiness, and imitate God by participating in that life in our own lives.
What does God’s holiness look like, then? God’s holiness is about God’s character. At the center of God’s character is love, forgiveness, hope, justice, peace, reconciliation, grace, understanding, truth, salvation, and so on. These characteristics make up who God is. When we grow in faith, this is what we are participating in. For us, holiness become the fruit of the spirit, as we see in Galatians 5:22-23. In sanctification and growth in our relationship with God, we become known by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, among other gifts and graces bestowed upon us by God. We are called to be holy, because God is holy.
What does this call to be holy mean for us as today?
The first thing is that holiness means there are things we cannot support, because it goes against God’s character. If we are to participate in the life of God, and what God is doing in our midst through the life of Jesus Christ experienced through the Holy Spirit, then we must be concerned about sin. We cannot ignore sin that exists in our own lives, and in the life of our community. For too long, we have allowed sin to be ignored. The turning a blind eye to sin causes a problem in our relationship with God. If God calls us to be holy, and we ignore this command by seeking our own will, then what god are we truly serving? When we do something that is counter to what God desires, when we sin, we place an obstacle in our relationship with God that can only be removed through repentance and forgiveness.
Holiness means we must be set apart as a holy people. This doesn’t mean we hide from the world. Instead, it means that we are called to in the world, but not of the world. We live in this world, but we are not defined by the things of this world. Instead, we are defined by our relationship with God. If we are a people who are set apart for holiness, then we cannot be a people defined by impurity, greed, falseness, and other sins. We cannot be identified by things that do not come from God.
This is where, I believe, the church globally is missing the point. In our concern about declining numbers, we have weakened the idea of being set apart from the world. In fact, we have ignored holiness all together. In some cases, there is not much difference between someone who confesses a faith in Christ from someone who doesn’t. In thinking about this, my heart goes to the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 when he says many will say, “Lord, Lord,” but that he does not know who they are.
I fear this is the place many in the church today find themselves. We confess a faith in Christ, but we do not look much different from the world around us. Instead of reflecting the character of God, we reflect the character of commercialism and self-centeredness. We must repent of this sin as a church universal, and return to what it means to truly follow God. We must be a church that proclaims the truth of the Christian message, even if it means the message is too difficult for some. If we are true to the message of Jesus Christ, we will encounter our own rich man, who when Jesus told him the cost of being a disciple simply walked away.
Finally, holiness is a journey. It is a process. We will make mistakes. We will fall. None of us are perfect, but we are called to grow in our relationship. We do that by allowing Christ to grow in us. We take our faith in Christ seriously, not just as a key to salvation, but as a key to living the life of the kingdom here, as we await the fullness to come.
We do not grow in isolation. We are called to grow in community. We cannot grow in holiness alone. I encourage you to find a community – small group, a Bible study, or an accountability group among friends – who will each partner with each other to grow together in sanctification, through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If you want some help in starting this, see me, because I believe this is important not just for you, but for my life, and growth as a Christian, as well.
Holiness is a central aspect of faith. This is not just something for a few, but all of us as the royal priesthood of believers. Each of us are called to enter this journey of sanctification and to grow in a life of imitating God, because we are God’s children. Let us imitate God’s character, and grow in a relationship that reaches the fullness of a living faith in God.
So, ask yourself a question. Who are you imitating? Are you imitating the God, or are you imitating the world?