Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, July 23, 2017
“If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.”
TWO EYES, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth: the faces of earth creatures are very similar, be it human, ape, reptile, rodent, canine, feline or fairy godmother. With all the variables that make every person recognizable as an individual, we all bear a likeness one to another, a common pattern that makes us part of a single picture. Within one species of homo sapiens, the variances of height, bulk, facial features and color may range from nearly black, tall and thin as Tutsi tribesmen at an average of 6’4” to Samoans of great girth and strength, from stocky Eskimos in Alaska’s north to fragile Siamese, from large white-skinned and yellow haired Nordics to the tiniest Bushmen on the Kalahari desert. Yet we all bear the clear image that makes us one race, one species, one likeness.
We may resemble other animals in some ways, yet we are clearly not apes, not elephants, not birds or insects or fish. The similarities are less important than our differences. We may find whale sounds similar to language, yet the tones of their calls have no words, only a haunting melody. We may humanize things, seeing in a gnarled old tree something of a human face, or in the action of a mantis something we liken to prayer. I think our pets do love us, in a primitive sort of way, and may even be sacrificial in their devotion to us and to each other. But human love reflects more than an animal devotion or the bond of dependence. We appear to have the likeness of Someone else.
Image is a Kodak moment, a selfie posted on Instagram, a personalized Christmas card photo of the family sent to show how everyone is looking these days. Two eyes, two ears, etc. are in evidence. And in that family shot, the likeness is apparent, that junior looks a lot like his dad, and the girls will be as beautiful as their mother. My father and I were not immediately recognizable as father and son because my coloration was that of my mother, fair skinned and red-haired, while he was a black Dane, raven haired and bronze; yet we did resemble each other under all that.
The moment of Creation had God speaking to Himself, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness… God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…” Gen 1 When we try to reflect this back on God, anthropomorphically, we can make foolish mistakes, seeing Him as a bearded old man, a being with arms and legs like us. We don’t know anything of the sort, except about His Son, who returned to heaven bearing the image of our race to the Father.
But what it means about us is important. It’s an inherent and indelible mark by the Maker on one species of this planet. It made us different from the animals, fish and lizards. We bear His image and likeness, and in deeper and more important ways than two snapshots might reveal. What does it mean that we bear the image and likeness of God?
While we have physical bodies, we also surely have spiritual natures as well. We are not initially spirit, for we do not pre-exist our prenatal baby state, yet once our spirits are formed, they never die, never end. God first made the physical form of a man, but it was like a clay doll. If you’ve ever touched a dead body, as I have, the lifeless form is very much like cool clay. So God breathed into the first human’s nostrils, it says, the breath of life and he became a living soul. The Spirit of God, the giver of life, gave us spiritual nature. As much as people may try to be just highly evolved animals, their spiritual side keeps expressing itself and we discover inside of us the likeness of God.
God is a Person, not a force or a mere mind behind the universe, or the essence of things or just disembodied love. Father, Son and Spirit speak of Persons within the Trinity, and are even all present and displayed in those first moments of Creation. As God is a Person, so are we persons. We are self-conscious and individual. I am not you, nor are you me. I have a name and that’s mine, and your name is different. We might bear common descriptions, but I can marry one other person, and that excludes all others, acknowledging personhood in us all. We are not mere members of a herd, nor the Borg of Star Trek, a colony of ants, or an infestation on the surface of the earth. We are persons, and that is more like God than are critters.
C. S. Lewis argues the existence of God from our human tendency toward morality. Though we may argue the fine points, all humans believe in sanctity of life, and so we punish murder. We believe in rights of ownership and privacy. We also agree on standards that we don’t then follow, but in breaking them we feel badly. Our common agreement on a code of morals seems based not on our common behavior, but on a higher Law Giver, someone above us and to whom we must answer. Our inherent knowledge of right and wrong is warped by the sin nature, but that tension in us speaks of Another, and not merely a cultural claim on its members that we dare not alter. In fact, we do attempt politically to change these markers, but that sets off a tempest in our hearts that does not stop raging, for it is against our nature to change moral truth. In this we are not animals, but godlike beings, subject to the Creator’s rules.
We have relationships with the capacity to love and associate. While some may attempt to shut the world out, it’s impossible. Marriage, community, gatherings, parties, friendships all speak of the innate power of relationship. God Himself is a relationship of three-ness, a harmonious blending of triple strength love, and that is reflected in us.
I think, therefore I am, says 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, but I am what? We are sentient beings, thinkers, reasoning beyond where the food is and what danger lies beyond those trees. We reason deeply, qualitatively, assigning symbols to things we grasp by imagination alone. We write in language, sing to music, speak and hear with understanding. This fine mind we have sets us above the dolphins and doves, making us more godlike still. Our minds form new thoughts, associate things that are unrelated, and learn during every day that we live and breathe.
We can feel emotion. God is love, says St. John, and He is also wrath, joy, justice and elation. God feels things. Animals have rudimentary feelings, like they have some similar facial parts to ours, but the human emotions run the gamut of powerfully driven emotions that govern our actions and move us to do what we do. Our intimacy with some, compassion towards others, and even revulsion toward yet others reflect our divine origins.
Music, art, poetry, novels, sculpture, architecture, colorful clothing, cars, and millions of other interesting inventions speak of our creative skills and motivations. We have to make things. We love to fashion new things that delight us and others. Play a simple note and we listen. Play the first and third, a simple harmony, then the fifth and a chord is struck, they say, in our hearts. Planting gardens, starting businesses, whittling sticks, and starting nations all show the likeness of our Creator in us. We have the image and likeness of One greater than ourselves.
Knowing that we need our God, and seek His approval, we often go out to find experts in the field of religion, take to ourselves men who, like myself are educated in religious matters and have a sign of office like the collar around my neck, so that we can externalize this authority and let the “man of God” tell us what we need to know. We also hope that he does for us the things that need to be done, like praying for the sick and elderly and carrying on the worship of God in our absence. In sticking the holy man with the task of pleasing the deity, we elevate him above his rightful position and make him more of an authority than he might truly be.
This was the problem with Judaism, 1st century style. For a couple of hundred years, the party of the Pharisees had told the Jewish people what religious truth and purity must be, interpreting the Law down to its fine points, and adding to it when rules were needed, according to them. Jesus ran afoul of the Pharisees constantly, for they would not acknowledge His authority: only their own. And so, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” This had to outrage the Pharisees present, but it perked up the ears of any who felt beaten down by these holy joes of Israel.
Jesus then goes on to paint a picture of unrighteousness, contrasting it to a common religious moral code. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.” To this everyone could agree. Then “but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell-fire.” Everyone present could remember the Pharisees being angry, calling fellow Israelites Raca, and others fools. They took it upon themselves to judge everyone. Jesus later says, Judge not, lest ye be judged. He urges them all to reconcile with brothers at odds with you. Everyone could recognize the Pharisees breaking family ties and creating enmity wherever their doctrine went. He spoke of sins of the heart, adultery, taking oaths, retaliation, praying empty and repetitious prayers, and fasting to impress others. People recognized the likeness of the Pharisees in all that Jesus sketched as falling short of the righteousness God seeks in us.
Our problem is, of course, that we don’t seem to look much or act much like God. Jesus, our pattern for living, was so much more godlike than we can ever be that we may give up and fall to our human nature, accepting the impossibility of doing better. We may resign our religious pursuit for reassignment to the holy man we hire to run the religion business, the church.
But we all bear that noble image, and share the likeness of our Creator, and He will come looking for His own. It’s high time to bear that image again and give honor to the likeness He left in each of us. We don’t pass into heaven as a group. Its door is only one soul wide.
St. Paul enjoins us, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? When we were baptized into his death, we were placed into the tomb with him. As Christ was brought back from death to life by the glorious power of the Father, so we, too, should live a new kind of life.” Rom 6 There used to be no hope of regaining that likeness of God long lost in the dust of history. That was true.
But we have passed through the Red Sea, as it were, the waters that separated us from our old lives as slaves in Egypt. We have passed through to the holy mountain, to the Presence of God, to trusting Him on the desert of this world for daily bread for which we pray. We have been given new lives and we are inheritors of what Christ rose from death to give His church, everlasting life and the power to live it today. “The person we used to be was crucified with him to put an end to sin in our bodies. Because of this we are no longer slaves to sin.” Ibid v 6 No longer slaves. We are not bound to follow our lower nature. We are bound, in a covenant, by God’s grace and mercy, to the image of His Son. When the Father sees us, He sees His Son’s image on us, and He is pleased. I’m not sure how that is so, in that Jesus was falsely accused, brutally beaten, shamelessly stripped, nailed and spat on and shouted at and insulted until, heartbroken, He died at our hands. Our hands. Yet, He did it knowing us and He did it for us. To cure us of sin He became sin for us. The Father is not fooled by this, but approves it and intended it, loving us more than we know.
So, our old man, the body of sin, the remnants of the old life, the image of fallen Adam that spiritually has spoiled the entire basket of human fruit, that image must be eradicated. It seems beyond our ability, and indeed it is. Only death can break that bondage. And death has indeed done so. “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
We bear the likeness of God. Don’t let your sins speak so loudly. Don’t allow the adversary to accuse you or to describe you in unkindly terms, reminding you of your past. You have died. That old life is over. Don’t dig it up. You are the holy woman, the holy man in your life. Live before God as a mirror of His Son. In that mirror, cleansed by His Blood and polished by His Spirit, is reflected the face of Jesus, your face now, as you grow in His image. Now live in Him.