Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rethink: Humanity

The thing that struck me when I first saw the Louvre was a powerful kind of not quite déjà vu. It held so many works of art with which I was already familiar. The Mona Lisa, of course, but also the Rosetta stone, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus De Milo. Finally I was able to see to see that sculpture in 360 degrees. I was seeing the actual art for the first time though I had seen copies, good and bad, before. The Louvre converted my teenaged son from a sullen and unwilling presence on our 19th anniversary trip to an enthusiastic world traveler, so much so that 9 years later, when he went on his honeymoon, Paris and the Louvre were a must-see.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, we learn that human beings are created in the image of God. It is the reason given to Noah by God for murder being forbidden. Because people are made in the image of God, murder is symbolic deicide. What the image of God consists of is never defined but in the ancient world an image was thought to carry the essence of what it represented. At that point in the Bible we only know that God is intelligent, communicative, and creative. He is also Lord over all creation and he deputizes, in a sense, human beings to be his representatives on earth and stewards of it. We are to do his work in the world.

By chapter 3 humans have done what God told them not to and one way in which they might have been like God is closed off. Immortality is forbidden them. God chose to work through his people Israel to be a light to the world and a blessing to humanity by obeying the Torah. So when Jesus came, that was pretty much the sum of the teaching on humankind. How did Jesus make us rethink what we know about humanity?

As we've eluded to before, Jesus said that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. He is the image of the invisible God, says the Book of Colossians. But if humanity was created in God's image, what is so special about Jesus having this image? Well, it's like only knowing Venus De Milo from pictures and poor copies. Once you see the real thing, you understand why it is such a great work of art. The Book of Hebrews says Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God's very being. The word for "imprint" comes from coining. It means the image comes from the original mold. You see the image as intended.

As we've pointed out, Israel's view of God was colored by their being a small nation surrounded by super-powers. They emphasized God's might and his ability to protect them and fight for them. So precarious was their existence that the rules for the community were enforced with an almost military discipline. Just as slacking off on a farm could cost you a good crop or cause the animals to starve or suffer, any kind of rebellion, insubordination or infighting could mean death for the community. So, despite the fact that there is ample evidence of God's love in the Old Testament, Israel focused on the aspects of God that made him sound tough, exacting and unyielding. And because people grow to resemble the God they worship, the children of Abraham had become nitpicky and merciless, quick to condemn a guy for healing on the Sabbath, or to shun a repentant woman for washing and touching Jesus' feet, or to harass a man born blind because they didn't like the guy who healed him, or to nearly throw a fellow townsperson off a cliff for saying controversial things.

In Jesus we see that imbalance in the popular picture of God redressed. Jesus emphasizes God's love and mercy. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, touched outcasts, restored dead children to life, forgave sins and told the people good news for a change. And the people who followed him came to resemble Jesus and his corrected picture of God. They didn't jettison God's righteousness or his demand for moral behavior but came to understand that the boundaries between good and bad people are porous. Sinners can be made righteous and the righteous had to watch that they didn't slip into hypocrisy and an unforgiving posture towards others. I think Martin Luther perfectly captured the paradox of being a Christian by describing us as simultaneously sinners and saints. Rather like the tax collector who prayed for God's mercy and went home justified whereas the apparently righteous self-satisfied Pharisee was not pardoned by God.

Again if I may use a metaphor from my nursing career, humanity is like the folks I took care of in a nursing home. Beside the permanent residents who were chronically ill or had a condition that would deteriorate, we got patients who were sent to us from the hospital for rehabilitation. And soon you noticed a real difference in these post-op patients. Some were eager to get better and so they faithfully went to rehab and worked with the physical therapists and did their exercises, no matter how hard or painful they were. Others would balk at the unpleasantness of relearning how to walk, or the pain of putting weight on a repaired hip or the fatigue that the exercises left them with. These people would not do the exercises they were given and skip or stop going to rehab altogether. They were content to become invalids; it was easier than the work of getting better. They even became semi-permanent residents of the nursing home, though they didn't have to.

The world is like that. We are all infected or broken by sin. Jesus can fix us up, repair what's broken and heal what's diseased. At that point we are healthier than we were but not yet out of the woods--simultaneously saint and sinner. However if we don't follow doctor's orders, if we don't do our part of the recovery process, if we go back to the bad habits that got us in such bad shape in the first place, we won't enjoy the good spiritual health made available to us. And we won't get to go home with God our Father.

The Christian life is a matter of moving in the right direction, not of having already arrived at the goal set for us. We may stumble, we may backslide a bit. As long as we stop, admit what we've done (or not done) and ask God's forgiveness and grace to get back on our feet and back on the right path, God is willing to help us, no matter what. As Paul said in Philippians, "I do not consider myself to have achieved it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

But God is not just calling us to be better human beings, he is calling us to be like Jesus. Christ laid the challenge on us when he changed his second commandment from "Love your neighbor as yourself" to "Love one another as I have loved you." In 1st John we learn that God is love. So we are most like God when we love each other as he loves us. Jesus would not call us to exhibit Christ-like love if we could not, through his Holy Spirit, achieve it. Because Christ, the divine love incarnate, is the very image of God, he is what we should be aiming for. He is the picture of perfect spiritual health.

Christianity is not about being a good person; it is about becoming a Christ-like person. It is about putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is about having the same mind that was in Christ. It is about moving towards that point that "when he appears, we will be like him." If we are to be the Body of Christ, we need to think and speak and act like him. Not literally, like in a Sunday School play, with robes and a crepe beard. Instead think of, say, Sherlock Holmes, the most portrayed character in cinema history. Many actors have portrayed Holmes, each a bit differently, but the best ones have captured his essence. The same goes for James Bond or Doctor Who, other roles played by many actors. The good ones become the character even if they look nothing like their predecessors. And in real life, anyone can be like Christ with God's help.

Not only did Jesus want us to rethink how we see ourselves but how we see others as well. All human beings are created in the image of God, which is Christ. As Jesus said in his parable of the last judgment, what we do to others we do to him. So we are to look for Christ in others. But how can that be? How can we see Christ in the addict, the prostitute, the murderer, or the rapist? It's hard. The image gets marred and obscured by our sins and the damage done by others. It's like the gold coins of the Atocha treasure. When they were first brought up after centuries on the bottom of the sea, they didn't look like anything precious. They had to be cleaned from all the accretions that had grown on and covered them. But when they were restored, they shined in the light as they had when newly minted.

Or think back to the nursing home. Those in rehab were once in better health. They may not look it. They just need help, as Jesus needed help carrying his cross to Golgotha. He wasn't looking so good then. He barely resembled a man, as the prophecy of Isaiah says. But a robber on the next cross was able to see Jesus as the king he was. So must we. Every person you see was created in the image of God; every one is a treasure meant to shine for eternity. And our job is to help them realize that and cooperate as God's Spirit works on them and on us to reveal the glorious image of Jesus buried deep within the muck of our sinful and self-destructive ways.

In Jesus we see both what God is like and what we can be. That's how he wanted us to rethink ourselves and our neighbors. And if we do that we see our relationship to the rest of creation differently as well. That's what we'll deal with on Sunday.

But in the meantime, I want you to ask yourself this: if I am a bearer of the image of God, what things in my life obscure that from myself and from others? If I am to be Christ-like, what do I need to do to strengthen those aspects of myself? If everyone carries the image of God, what can I do to be more perceptive of that? If I am to treat everyone like Christ, what specific ways should I treat specific people in my life and how can I help them carry their cross?

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