Genesis 1.26-end Matt 12.1-11
As some of you will know, this occasional teaching sermon series came about after some conversations about ‘Christian language/ jargon’ ; at some point Charles Stirling said, ‘There’s so much talk of us all being made in the image of God – but what does it actuallymean?’ Having being set the task some time ago of preaching on this topic I started reading and thinking – and then reading some more, for this is foundational theology – and then I finally began to panic for this is such a vast field and I couldn’t possibly say much in under 15 minutes! When we talk of the image of God, imago Dei, we are speaking of one of the basic concepts of the doctrine of human being, something that has been explored extensively through past centuries. But hopefully these very sketchy comments might serve as an introduction to some different aspects and perspectives on the subject on this, the Sunday of Pride weekend.
But first – I remember during my curacy inviting a group of 10 and 11 yr olds to draw a picture of what they thought God looked like. The responses varied – there were some good attempts at representing Spirit, breath or love – and some bright light, but there was still a goodly number of bearded old men sitting on clouds…their images of God. We all have our pictures of what God might be like or might not be like, as the case may be. We attribute various properties or characteristics to him or to her – or to a non binary being. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge this at the start as it is bound to influence the way you hear and reflect on what I say, just as it has for others… If one’s image of God is of an all powerful omniscient being, one might then develop thinking in one way- if one’s picture of God is of mystery and Spirit- its likely that other ways of approaching this subject will come to mind. Or if one has a picture of God’s nature as being in dynamic relationship, in communion- then yet more aspects of this theme will be illuminated.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In Genesis v 26: God says – Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….and then in verse 27, So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (NRSV) .Given that this is a myth – a narrative metaphor – its worth noting firstly for today that God created humankind in the plural. This isn’t about just 2 people (as its only in the 2nd creation story in Chapter 2 that Adam and Eve appear), this story is about all of humanity. Secondly, that life is presented here as a gift, something reinforced in the giving of breath in Ch 2. And finally that we have to remember that much of the Christian thinking on this whole subject falls in the shadow of the Doctrine of the Fall in Ch 3. Although I’m not going there today, as Frances Young observes ‘ In western Christianity there is a deep strain of pessimism about human nature’. So it’s all a bit of a minefield…
When theologians talk of humans being made in the image of God, its often as a reflection, like in a mirror. Green says, ‘To be made in Gods image (is) taken usually to mean one’s moral, spiritual and intellectual nature – (it’s) seen as fundamental, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, to one’s self understanding.’ (She also comments ‘This notion of ourselves as creatures of God undergirds the symbol and text of the liturgy too.’ Symbol and liturgy created mostly by a patriarchal religious system – but that too is matter for another sermon!)
One of the most dominant Western interpretations of the phrase ‘image of God’, historically, has been that ‘it resides in the rational nature of human beings’ (Migliore); that it’s in the exercise of reason and will that we are participating in, or reflecting, the divine reason. But taken alone, this image of God is clearly problematic given that it diminishes the value of the emotional and the physical aspects of existence – and it carries serious negative implications for all those deemed to be intellectually inferior…however that might be judged. It is fundamentally an elitist viewpoint; one, I might speculate, of the theologians who developed it? Perhaps as part of a bigger picture it has or had a place, but it is now under a new form of pressure. For what will happen if we are longer the most intelligent ‘beings’ on the planet?
Some of you may have heard Rabbi Lord Sacks on Radio 4s Thought for the Day on Friday morning. He was talking about the issues being raised by the speed of developments in AI (artificial intelligence) and increasing speculation about what the future might hold. His final words were, ‘We are made in the image of God, which means that we can choose our fate with the full dignity of responsibility…..never forgetting that machines were made to service humankind and not the other way round.’ Being human means being given choice (by God) and accepting responsibility – and the consequences.
Its strange how, when I’m mulling over something for a sermon it seems to crop up all over the place. Earlier last week, Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US issued a strongly worded statement, and guess what? He mentioned the image of God. It was after the president of the US made another startling announcement via Twitter, banning transgender individuals from serving in the US military – and also that the Justice Dept ruled that employers can legally discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. The statement is worth reading in full, but here’s part of it: ‘Genesis 1.26-27 teaches us that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. This is a divine declaration of the inherent sanctity, dignity and equality of every person. But then he went on,’ Further, the sanctity of every human person and the principle of human equality before God are deeply embedded in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Whilst affirming the rights of every individual, Curry is also hinting at something more -that in the Christian tradition to be held as equal and with dignity is not about individualism – it’s about the how and why of the way we live together as community, as we follow Jesus’ example.
In her lengthy book God’s Presence, Frances Young writes as both a systematic theologian and the mother of a young man with severe disabilities. She observes and perhaps challenges us too when she says, ‘In popular parlance, being made in God’s image is a slogan providing Christian colouring for a modern human rights perspective…God’s image is treated as being something inherent in each individual rather than divine gift’…‘The fathers used the idea to attribute dignity to every particular human being but in their case this rested on an explicit appeal to human solidarity and to ‘Christ’ as the image through which the dignity of each is imparted.’ This may raise new questions, but as it points back to remind us of the gift of life it also leads us on towards Jesus – to the way he revealed who God is, his modelling of a way of life in community, and that it is in him that we find ourselves being transformed.
One of the basic questions I’ve had- and it is really basic- perhaps a bit silly was; If I am made in the image of God, am I more so now than I was as a child? i.e., will I grow more like God or less like God as I get older? And whilst I know it’s a daft question on one level, its still there, and highlights the tension of ‘ How can how I strive towards perfection and light
when I know I’m nowhere near – and yet not constantly beat myself up about that? Richard Rohr speaks of the giftedness of the Holy Spirit dwelling within as the true self, the image of God. You begin with your unique divine DNA, an inner destiny as it were, an absolute core that knows the truth about you’ and continues ‘It is precisely the divine part of you that is great enough, deep enough, gracious enough to fully accept the human part of you. If you are merely human, you will tend to reject your embarrassingly limited humanity. ‘ There’s hope, then……
I was asked that I try not to make this sermon too heavenly minded so that it might be of some earthly use! There may have been too many words, but I hope they has provoked some thinking too, despite the massive gaps. I’d like to end with another description of the image of God that I have found meaningful, especially in the light of Pride yesterday.
And then I’m going to say a short prayer. As I do that, I invite you to turn to face a neighbour, and to look at them as I pray, so that we all pray for one another.
Migliori describes the image of God as ‘expressing self transcending life in relationships with others – with the wholly ‘Other’ we call God, and with all those different others who need our help and whose help we also need in order to be the human creatures God intends us to be.’
Let us pray.
May you know that you are in God and God is in you,
that you may live a generous life from that Infinite Source. Amen.
Ali Green (2009) A Theology of Women’s Priesthood. London:SPCK . Chapters 1-3
John M.Hull (2014) Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource. London: Darton Longman and Todd. Part 2
Daniel Migliore (2004) Faith Seeking Understanding (2nd ed). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Chapter 7
Frances Young (2013) God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity. Cambridge: CUP. Chapter 4
Richard Rohr https://cac.org/you-are-the-imago-dei-2016-07-31/