The kindness that imitates God

Psalm 109:12-16
Luke 6:32-36
Ephesians 4:25-5:2

It was in 1755 that Dr. Samuel Johnson published the first edition of his famous Dictionary. Johnson was well known for his dry wit, with entries such as:

Lexicographer: A harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Politician: A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.

Tory: One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig.

Whig: The name of a faction.

Perhaps you might describe him as the originator of the soundbite. When asked about a cucumber he said, “It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”

On one occasion Johnson’s companion Boswell asked him what the point was of sharing a meal with people if, as sometimes happened, nobody said anything worth remembering. Johnson replied that the point was “to eat and drink together, and to promote kindness”.

Kindness is a virtue not often enough considered, but it remains central to what Christianity is all about. The reason for this is stated clearly at the end of tonight’s reading from Ephesians: kindness is one of the purest forms of the imitation of God. How would it be if God were the kind of god who was always making snide or bitter remarks at us? What would worship and prayer be like if we thought God had been talking about us behind our backs, putting us down to others? How would we feel if we thought we couldn’t trust God to tell us the truth, if he was always losing his temper with us? Well: how do people feel about us if that’s what we’re like? Wouldn’t it be better in every way to be like God?

Of course, there are plenty of religions, ancient and modern, where the gods do behave in that sort of way. But when we learn through looking at Jesus who the true God is and what he’s like, then we see the standard at which we are to aim. There are, alas, all too many Christians, and sometimes whole churches, that have allowed themselves to forget that kindness and mutual forgiveness are the very essence of Christian community. After all, if we are called to unity, as this letter stresses repeatedly, it is going to be far easier to obey the call if we are working hard at promoting kindness.

This passage from Ephesians is chock-full of practical advice on how to promote kindness, not least in giving warnings about how not to do it. The whole of Ephesians is a constant reminder that living as a Christian demands that we grow up in our thinking: we have to learn to identify our own moods and behaviour patterns, to see which ones are going in the right direction. Ephesians is a gentle reminder that we can’t always “go with the flow” of whatever we happen to feel at the time. We might very well think that’s being “free” or “finding ourselves”, but the danger is we don’t make the effort to keep in touch with what God wants of us.

In trying to make his readers kinder Christians, Paul highlights the importance of speaking the truth, and he means the truth to ourselves, as well as to other people. Paul also reminds his readers not to be angry all the time about trivial things. He say we shouldn’t be angry, thankfully – as anger itself is a natural human emotion, but we shouldn’t let it linger or let it take over. Everything that follows from anger – the raised voices, the shocking words, the sour taste in the room – all these must be put away, he says. It makes sense to me, that it’s better try and live without these things as much as we can. Recognising this and taking steps to bring it about – that’s what really matters.

Thankfully, Paul then adds some comments in the more positive direction. It isn’t just that bitter or sour speech is to be avoided. Our tongues gives us the opportunity to bring God’s grace to people, not just by what we say, but by how we say it, and it’s a shame to pass up this chance.

What Paul is trying to say in this passage is that we should be trying to behave as those on whom God has placed his mark, like ‘seal’ or official stamp on a document. The mark indicates who it belongs to and what it’s for. We are one of the ways that God is at work in the world, and what better way to try and show that than by simply being kind?

May we ask God to help us embody his purpose more. May we receive God’s loving kindness, and respond with our own kindness. May our thankfulness find expression in trying to love and serve God more and more. May God help us to be kind towards the needs we know, and alert to what we have not seen. May we not lose patience or hope, but keep going in confidence. May we be the fulfilment of God’s plans, and may be God’s loving kindness at work in the world.

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