Friday, September 21, 2018

Being Us


Picture above entitled "Adam God Sistine".

"Being Us"

Rev. Paul Mitchell


Vashon United Methodist Church

September 9, 2018

Genesis 1:24-31; Philippians 2:1-8




I’m only human.
How many times have you heard or said it? What do we mean when we say that? It’s offered as a kind of excuse or justification. It means, “I can’t be expected to be perfect,” or even, “I should be expected to let you down, since I’m not perfect, and no human being ever is.”
While it’s true that none of us are or ever will be perfect – at least in the worldly sense – I take issue with this all too common phrase – I’m only human. It implies that by being human, we are entitled to some kind of excuse for our behavior. It implies that being human is a low bar….
In fact, “human” is quite a high standard. The singularly most human being we know is Jesus Christ, and in his humanity, we also proclaim his divinity. The more human you are, the more divine you are. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus both consoled and challenged his followers by proclaiming, “You will do even greater things than these.” In other words, Jesus was linking our human origin – in the image of God – with our human destiny – in the restoration of that image. Last week, by thinking through the opening verses of Genesis, we were able to tease out just what that original image might be – cherishment, imagination, agency, and care.
What does it mean to be human?
The big word for this is anthropology – the meaning of humanity. And we can approach this from different directions. Scientists, philosophers, and artists tend to approach this question from the self, whereas theologians tend to approach this question from the “other” – in this case specifically the “other” who God is.
The world’s great religions all tend to relate our relationship to and service of the Other [with a capital O] to our relationship to and service of the other [with a small o]. The “other” in the words of the Hebrew bible is the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien – in the words of the New Testament, the neighbor, the lowly, the servant, the leper – or in the shared words of Isaiah and Luke, the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted. Jesus explicitly links himself to these others in the New Testament version of the “sorting hat” – “Who will be judged goats and who will be judged sheep?” Some would say that the answer to the human question is meaning – that what distinguishes humanity is the search for meaning. We could agree on that premise and still come to very different conclusions about what that meaning is.
The path of secular thinkers from Socrates to Sartre began at the self. They in effect equated humanity with the self. A recent point of arrival on this particular path toward meaning has been first a disintegration of the very concept of the self among existentialists. If all we can know is our individual experience, then how can we know anything at all about reality? The self is everything and therefore there is no “other,” no relationship, no God. Postmodern thinkers have responded saying that there is no such thing as the self – that we are a loose association of predetermined factors and conditioned responses, that we are little more than spectators in our own life stories, that our lives have no meaning except what we arbitrarily impose upon them.
In contrast, Psalm 8 frames our theological anthropology:
O LORD, our Sovereign,
         how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
         you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
                  to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
         the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
         mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
         and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
                  all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
                           the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
                                    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Sovereign,
         how majestic is your name in all the earth!
The path of believers begins at a very different place. What are human beings that God is mindful of them? This theological question does not negate the perspective of scientists, philosophers, and artists. The theological perspective embraces and celebrates human curiosity and creativity. What is the relationship between the Christian story of human being and the stories of the sciences and the arts? But, as theological anthropologists, we don’t simply want to appropriate the scientific and artistic stories of human being, and season or flavor them with Christian ingredients. We also don’t want to reject what God’s image of cherishment, imagination, agency, and care has been doing at large in the world. Just because some scientists and artists don’t realize or admit it doesn’t mean that they are not also children of God and made in the divine image – agents of the divine will. Human being has a material dimension that is a proper object of analysis by the natural sciences:
“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
But we are clearly more than matter in motion. We are also aware that we are matter in motion. Furthermore, we are not merely sentient – that is aware – we are also sapient – able not only to have sensations and experiences but to reflect on and interpret them. We tend to behave as though our sapience places us above the rest of creation – we are aware of ants and able to make value judgments about them, whereas they are unaware of us and make no such judgments.
On casual interpretation that presumption appears to be endorsed in Genesis 1:26.
“Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over….”
But the preposition more accurately means in, at, by, or with. So, an equally literal translation would be
“let them rule with….”
The verb and the preposition are both critically important. So, we could – perhaps should in light of our growing awareness of the interdependency of life – read Genesis 1:26 thus:
“Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule together with their older cousins, light and darkness, waters above and waters below, solid places, green things, day and night, fish and birds, and land animals.”
Another important reminder of humanity’s paradoxical place in creation is hiding in plain sight in Genesis 1:26. With all other creatures, God said, “Let it be,” but the creation of human being is prefaced by divine deliberation: “Let us make….” All other creatures were “let be” according to some generic pattern, “after their kind,” but the human creature was made after the divine pattern “in our likeness.”
We are both “made” like bricks from mud, and “formed” divinely, like Christ,
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself….”
In our beginning we are dependent upon God,
“who formed mankind of dust from the ground, and breathed in the breath of life.”
We also are dependent upon one another. As God said,
“It is not good that human should be alone….”
In theological anthropology, human origin is tripartite: humanity is made from earth in God’s divine image; humanity is finite and dependent on God’s breath/wind/spirit; and humanity is meant to be together with each other and the rest of creation.
But being us is not meaningful merely in terms of our origin. Our destiny also matters. The end, goal, or destiny of human being can also be conceived of in three parts.
First, we are made in God’s image, but the image of God has also to do with our destiny.
Remember our study of Ephesians this summer.
Ephesians 4:24 reads,
“Put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God….”
Christ is the true image of humanity. The first imperative – to “put on the new nature” – concerns reintegration, or becoming what you are in Christ – truly human. Due to the disintegrating effects of our estrangement from God, reintegration – both individual and collective – is less a given of creation than a gift of grace.
The second imperative is to work and play –
“to be fruitful and multiply, fill the creation and rule in, with, and by it.”
That rule has been taken to mean that creation is at our disposal, but there is nothing in the text that implies it should be a rule of power rather than a rule of peace. The destiny of humanity is to be a communal being, to inhabit and shape the social as well as the natural world. The image of God gives us the ability to do that. The image of Christ gives us the form. The commission is to establish community and develop a God-glorifying culture. Culture is a form of serious play, in which creatures – specifically humans – join together to shape and share a world. Human being structures and gives meaning to everyday life through ritual “play” in society, politics, and religion. The human task, in both work and play, is to order the natural and social world.
But to what end?
The third imperative which defines human destiny is to enjoy God – to rest and to feast. Humanity is set apart from creation – at least on this planet – in our ability to know God. Scripture pictures our enjoyment of God in various ways. In the record of the covenant people – the Hebrews – it is through Sabbath rest. In the record of the people of the Way, the followers of Jesus – it is in the wedding banquet at which we celebrate the reintegration – the marriage – of the first imperative and the peaceful work and play of the second imperative. The end – the telos or purpose – of the story of humanity is anticipated in the full life of Jesus Christ and is to be completed when all things, not only the human heart, find their enjoyment in God.
Between humanity’s origin and destiny – between our divine likeness, creaturely-ness, and interdependency, and the promise of new creation, reintegration, and enjoyment of God – lies the great story of human meaning. Again, remember Ephesians 4:1, which says:
“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
It is God’s call to us in Jesus Christ that draws us forward toward our destiny as human creatures. We are called into existence through God’s self-giving, self-communicating activity. Personhood is vocation. We are called to be matter in motion, aware and evaluating, free and responsible, to live well in justice and peace for the common good, to glorify God.
Other created beings fulfill their vocation unconsciously.
“The heavens declare the glory of God.”
It is a special privilege of humanity to do so freely and gladly. Above all, we are called to be witnesses to the meaning given to us in our origin, our destiny, and our vocation.
“I’m only human.” has a different ring to it now.
I’m only made in the image of cherishment, imagination, agency, and care.
I’m only made with the dust of the stars and inspired with the breath of God.
I’m only made to engage in mutuality with the resplendent diversity of being.
I’m only intended to bear the image of Christ – of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, and charity.
I’m only intended to work and play in responsibility and freedom.
I’m only intended to celebrate intentionally my ability to know God – to enjoy God in all that I do.
I’m only called to bear witness to God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom.
I’m only human, and thanks be to God!

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