Paul (the italics acknowledge that there is debate about the authorship of this letter but uses the name as an identifier) knows that living together isn’t easy. And the first part of chapter four isn’t implying that we will all be the same, having the same thoughts and inclinations and ways of operating. No, we are still who we are; we still bring the gifts we have been given to the community. And that is great in that if adds to the vast and diverse tapestry that is the human community called the church, but it is also difficult because we bump up against one another and sometimes get upset by different points of view.
So, to both acknowledge this inevitability and to build in systems and procedures that will help us deal with these difficulties, Paul talks to us about how we go about getting along. He reminds us that lying, even when we think it is safer, is a dangerous thing. He reminds us that anger left unchecked causes more damage than we realize, to us and to those around us. He says there are no shortcuts in the life of the community, just a need for labor and effort on everyone’s part. And he says that sniping, pulling down, and tearing one another up is the antithesis of what community is about. We are in the business, he reminds us, of building up. Why do we find tearing down so much fun? All that stuff (wrangling, for example, what the heck is that?) All that stuff gets us off the track of trying to be like Christ, trying to love as he loved, and trying to participate in the community of faith called the church. So, get back to the “ones” in the beginning of this chapter, he says, and remember to what we were called.
What is that calling? Well, chapter 5 declares it in unequivocal terms: be like God. Wow. Let’s compound it: love like Christ. Our initial reaction is to recoil, to raise our hands in defeat and declare that this is something beyond the realm of possibility. How in the world can I act like God? How can I love like Christ? Inadequately, incompletely, with lots of fits and starts, that’s how. Yet it is our goal to become like Christ. That’s the name we have taken – Christian, little Christ. That’s the road we are on. But since we are striving to imitate God, then we also imitate God’s grace, even with ourselves. Certainly, with everyone else around us, but us too. It doesn’t mean, though, that we only pretend, that our effort is only half-hearted. No, our goal, our drive, our vision for ourselves and our community is to be like God in how we deal with one another and the world.
Hold on there for a moment. How did we get from telling the truth to acting like God? They are one in the same. It is where we start. It is how we choose to live in community. And remember, this whole text is about what it means to be the community of faith, not how to be better individuals. That’s a problem we western Christians have with these texts. We want to individualize everything. We want to find out how to be the best me I can be. While there is some value in the individual approach for personal growth and a deeper walk in faith, it also misses the essence of the text to over-individualize this call. At its base level, consider the concept of imitating God for a moment. As an individual, to claim that my goal is to act like God has hints of megalomania. But within the bounds of the community, imitating God becomes a check on behavior and a way of lifting up the body as a whole. Imitating God is not, in other words, a reference to who I am in my essence, but a model for how I act with and toward others. As a helpful check on us. the phrase “be imitators of God” in the Greek is second person plural: “All y’all, be imitators of God.” Together, we might have a chance to create the kind of community that behaves toward one another, views one another, values one another, as God does.
At the core of this Christ-like love, this God imitation, is truth telling. That brings us back to where the text begins. Jesus so valued truth that in John’s gospel he declares “I am the truth.” Truth is a part of the essence of Christ, and therefore, is something we claim in our behaviors toward one another and the world. Putting away falsehood, Paul declares we speak truth; we remove ego; we build up rather than tear down. This is who we are. To harbor a lie is to contradict our essential nature. To approve deceit is to deny the heart of loving like Christ. We don’t bring the world to Christ via falsehood, but through truth. The truth of our own lives, to be sure, but of the gospel we strive to live as well. Part of our truth is our own failure to imitate God in all that we do, even as we claim that goal. The truth we speak is a truth that we claim as our own, even as we acknowledge that it is bigger than ourselves. It is not contained in me as an individual but governs our relationships within the community and beyond.