Receiving humanity? – Genesis 1.
Genesis 1:1 – 2: 3 (Psalm 8)
The Image of God defines humanness!
Genesis 1:1 – 2: 3 (Psalm 8)
The Image of God defines humanness!
What is humanity? The 18th Century English poet, Alexander Pope, wrote; ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine.’ Pope is the second most quoted English writer after Shakespeare. Was he right in saying that to err is human? We commonly talk like that. We describe our failings as displaying our human nature. The saying, ‘I’m only human!’ is not uncommon. But are we correct with this common definition of being human? More importantly what does the Bible say, or more precisely what do the early followers of God say? Or should we say, ‘What did God say?’
The Bible says that God spoke saying, Let there be light and so began Creation with God’s spoken Word. There is insufficient time to provide a detailed explanation of the Creation stories in the Bible. However we can note that the creation stories tell us two fundamental things: God created everything and humankind was special. Genesis tells us why God created us, what our task is and how well humankind responded. I essentially read the Scriptures as God’s revelation given through humans to us. That means I don’t take it literally, but I do take it very, very seriously as a statement of truth for us.
The essential truth about humanity is that God created us in God’s image. God says in Genesis 1, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness … .” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them male and female he created them. [Gen 1: 26,27] The words, image and likeness are complementary words reinforcing the sense that we are meant to represent God’s likeness in our living.
I want to focus this morning on humankind bearing the image of God.
The lens through which we read this Biblical statement will lead to different interpretations. People in Western society, like us, generally read this story through the lens of Western culture’s understanding of identity. We define ourselves as autonomous, freethinking, self-made persons making individual commitments to life. We would say, ‘I am who I am’. On the other hand there are cultures, which are more community minded and see their identity in relation to their community and its people. In the West the individual is valued above the community and in other parts of the world the community is valued above the individual. So Westerners read Genesis and claim that the image of God is in the individual, and other cultures would understand the image to be in the group.
Community played a far more important role in the Bible than it does in our Western culture. The Bible speaks of people being part of a community and in particular the community of God. What is important is the well-being of the community and where the well-being is good so is the individual healthy. The Bible speaks about the person being known by their fruits. In other words the value and authenticity of a person is revealed in how they conduct their lives in relation to other people. In our Western culture we speak of the interior life as the authentic person. The Bible would describe the authentic person as one who lives justly with others and cares for the whole group. Therefore the image of God is borne by the people.
So the first issue we must think about is, how do we understand what it means to be human? Is being human being an autonomous individual claiming our own freedom and creativity; or is being human about how we live together in the community? This is a challenge for us Westerners. Does individuality or community inform our identity? Autonomous individuality will lead to a higher degree of selfishness and community will lead to a higher degree of communal responsibility. I am not going to comment on our society today. However you might like to reflect on that with others.
The second thing to consider is what we understand by the word ‘image’. The word image is familiar to us today, but it is used so widely that the meaning has lost its sharpness. Image no longer assumes a likeness to the real or genuine thing. Today, a politician hires an image-maker; a job applicant dresses to create an image; and, a corporation seeks the right image through manipulation of the media. In these instances, image has come to mean the illusion of what something really is. In our desire to achieve a good image we end up distorting the essence of what is presented to achieve the end we desire.
Dr Paul Brand, the orthopaedic surgeon who pioneered a new approach to treating leprosy in India, says that when he gazes at a nerve cell through a scanning electron microscope, he studies the image. He does not look at the neuron itself – it’s too small for that – but looks for a re-assembled image that faithfully reproduces the cell for him to see. In this instance the image enhances rather than distorts the essence of the cell. Similarly, photographers use the word image to describe their finished product. The photographer’s captured image of an object flattened out on paper or a screen may not fully express that object, but in the hands of a good photographer the essence is captured of the object or person.
So what is the image of God? Firstly we must say we want to see something that represents the essence of the being of God. We certainly cannot look like God in a physical sense, for God is invisible to the human eye. Human understanding of the image of God has changed with our culture’s emphasis or value system. For example, the Enlightenment period understood the image of God to be reflected in the human ability to reason. Pietism identified it as the spiritual faculty in humans, Victorians located it in their moral judgements, and Renaissance thinkers located the image in artistic creativity. None of these explanations have been satisfying.
Yet in three places the NT applies the word image to Christ Jesus [2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Hebrews 1:3] Hebrews says that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Colossians simply says; He is the image of the invisible God, as does Corinthians. What does this mean? How does Jesus represent the image of God? Certainly it wasn’t his physical appearance. What we are told is that people were surprised at Jesus. Some saw in him their enemy, others realised that he had powers beyond their imagination. The only physical description that we have of Jesus is that he was a hunchback. This shocks some because they have formed an Adonis god-like picture of a handsome and strong Jesus in their minds. We don’t put much store by this physical description. In reality such a description should not surprise us, because Jesus wasn’t valued for his looks. Indeed the lasting physical image we have of Jesus is on a cross. That would not have been a pretty sight at all. He would have been naked, battered, bruised, bloodied and beaten.
What did Jesus do and say that uncovered the image of God? Some saw the image of God in the way he treated the poor, the marginalised, the sick, the lepers and the way he stood against those harmful traditions of the faith. Some saw the image of God in his miracles or powerful life giving words. Some saw the image of God in his painful sacrificial death on the Cross. Somehow Jesus’ words and deeds of hope and compassion revealed God’s image. In his humility in serving others we see the image of God. In his sacrificial death taking upon himself the sins of the world and destroying the power of sin by love the image was revealed.
It was the revolutionary character of his humility, servanthood and love that revealed the image of God. Christ Jesus sparked a revolution that changed the world through service, compassion and justice. Its in such community minded action and living that the image of God is revealed.
Paul Brand says that as a child he attended large churches and retreat centres hearing the best of the eloquent preachers and wise teachers of the day. But one man stood out for him. Brand writes that it was ‘Willie Long, a man I encountered in a Primitive Methodist church at a seaside resort. Willie would mount the pulpit in his blue fisherman’s jersey, with its salty and fishy aroma. Yet this uneducated man with a thick Norfolk accent, unconventional grammar and simple faith probably did more to nudge my own faith in those formative years than the entire company of famous men. When he stood to speak of Christ, he spoke of a personal friend and the love of God radiated from him. Willie Long, of little consequence in the image of men, showed me the image of God.” [Brand & Yancey, In the Likeness of God. p. 263]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 01/08/2016