Yesterday I posted on The Epistle to Diognetus and the striking passage within it articulating the significance of what God did in/as Christ—especially in terms of the “…sweet exchange…that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”
Today I thought I would post part of the following passage from the same writing, one discussing what it means to be an imitator of God.
…By loving him you will be an imitator of his goodness. And do not be surprised that a person can become an imitator of God; he can, if God is willing. For happiness is not a matter of lording it over one’s neighbors, or desiring to have more than weaker man, or possessing wealth and using force against one’s inferiors. No one is able to imitate God in these matters; on the contrary, these things are alien to his greatness. But whoever takes upon himself his neighbor’s burden, whoever wishes to benefit another who is worse off in something in which he himself is better off, whoever provides to those in need things that he has received from God, and thus becomes a god to those who receive them, this one is an imitator of God. Then you will see that though your lot is on earth, God lives in heaven, then you will begin to declare the mysteries of God, then you will both love and admire those who are punished because they refuse to deny God, then you will condemn the deceit and the error of the world, when you realize what the true life in heaven is… (Epistle to Diognetus 10.4-7a)
I have long found this understanding of God and what it means to be an imitator of God compelling and challenging. Here we see a 2nd century example of wrestling with what the heavenly realities of God, Christ, and what God has done in Christ, etc., mean for living life on earth as Christians—as imitators of God. Being “God” to others—embodying the rescuing and saving Christian God to others—means taking up your neighbor’s burden, “benefiting” another who is worse off in something in which you are “better off,” providing those in need with what they need, etc. When I read and ponder this passage from The Epistle to Diognetus what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8, though somewhat different, keeps coming to mind,
But as you excel in everything- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you- see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality (ivso,thtoj) your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be equality (ivso,thj). As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2 Cor 8.7-15)
Having genuine love and excelling in “grace”—being caught up in the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”—means enacting that grace materially for others according to one’s means (and even beyond them?; 2 Cor 8.3?). It is a matter of Gospel-equality. If one has more and another is in need and has less, then the one who has the “abundance” gives up to the one in need, for the “relief of the Saints” (2 Cor 8.4).This is one of the radical and challenging calls of “grace” upon us. In the language of The Epistle to Diognetus, this is what it means to be an imitator of God.
If I may go a step further into application. When we compare our notions and experiences of needs and comfort with the realities of deep deep poverty and need of our brothers and sisters around the world (and here), Paul’s call to gospel-equality challenges us. There remains a material, economic, need, etc., disparity (chasm!) running counter to our call of “grace” in Christ. What does it look like for us to excel in grace here? What does it look like for us to be imitators of God here? What does it look like for us to realize true life is in heaven and that to the extent we do not excel in “grace” as Paul urges us to 2 Corinthians 8 and The Epistle to Diognetus urges us in 10.4-7, to that extent we do not live as people who have realized (and experienced) the true life that is in heaven—but rather we continue to live as though “true life” is in our comfort here on earth?