The Importance of Being Human
We are living at a strange time in history. While the founding fathers of our nation sought to ensure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all citizens, there seem many around us today who wish to hinder wellness, to restrict liberty, and to obstruct the pursuit of happiness. There are many in our nation whose experience suggests they are not afforded the same rights as others—their experience as Americans is that of second-class citizens……and perhaps even a lesser class of humans.
But please don’t turn off yet—this is not a political message: I am a Baptist, after all, and Baptists defend to the death the separation of church and state or they are Baptists in name only.
This is most certainly a religious message……a Christian message.
Jesus—and in fact the whole testimony of the Bible about God—testifies to the value of each individual human life. At a time when many feel their lives are second class—at a time when the experiences of marginalized minorities are so readily dismissed by others—at this time, God’s message of the value of each human life is absolutely transforming.
When you feel invisible, nothing feels better than being seen.
When your experience is dismissed, nothing communicates love like being heard.
When those around you refuse you your rights, nothing is as powerful as presence.
Part 1: Psalm 8
These realities and experiences are part of what drives the psalmist’s wonder in our scripture lesson. As another translation renders v.4: “I can’t help but wonder why You care about mortals” (VOICE).
While some of us ask that question when we witness the depths of human depravity, the psalmist is driven there by considering (as well) what we might call “science.” The psalmist is looking at the observable universe and reflecting on the place of humanity among the rest of creation. And he recognizes—as faithful people have throughout the centuries—that what we now call science has a way of pointing to God.
Science, of course, can never answer the question of God’s existence. It can never speak to the “who” or “why” of the world around us. But the more we discover the intricacies of the “how” and “what” of the universe, the more we see that all of creation directs us to God.
But in the scope of such a vast creation—sitting as we do in our microscopic corner of the “pale blue dot” of our world—it is hard to imagine why God gives us such attention, honor, and love.
With so much in creation that requires God’s attention, why do we get special notice?
With such variety and such delicate balances at stake, why does God give us the auspicious responsibility for caring for this amazing creation?
While the psalmist raises these questions, he does not answer them; he only repeats an affirmation and praise to our creator: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” (Ps 8:1a, 9 CEB).
Part 2: Genesis 1
As we seek to answer this question of what is so important about being human, we are invariably driven back to our initial stories of foundation and creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.
As the story of Genesis 1 unfolds, God—like a potter—molds and shapes the spaces of creation into being: light and dark, waters above and below with air between, and wet and dry.
And then God works to fill theses spaces: sun, moon and stars in the light and dark; birds, fish, and sea creatures in the air and waters; and all sorts of land-animals for the dry ground.
But then—having already expended such creative energy—God decides to make one more kind of thing—a special thing which would be endowed with the creative abilities and mission to care for God’s creation. So God does just that, as we read in Genesis 1:27:
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them (CEB).
The previous verse (v.26) tells us that God intended to make humanity—male and female (v.27)—in God’s image and according to God’s likeness. And bible readers for millennia have searched to define precisely what that means.
Among the worst answers that have been offered up are those which claim God is shaped like us: one head, two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes; a heart, spleen, brain, and even reproductive parts—for what purpose I dare not ask.
Among the better answers are those that point out free will and how our creative God invites us to be co-creators with God: naming the creations, caring for the wellbeing of the land, and even overseeing the various creatures (something also revealed in Psalm 8).
But no answer is definitive. And I think that is important, too. Over and over throughout the Bible we are encouraged to honor, respect, and care for other people because they bear God’s image and likeness. Even foreigners, social outcasts, and terrible sinners are included in the list of people the bible instructs us to treat with dignity and respect. The most angry God seems to get happens when people do harm to each other—especially in the guise of religion.
So I’m not sure it’s as important to understand the precise way we are created to be like God as it is to understand that each human being deserves honor because they were created in God’s image.
Every day we make choices (as individuals and as a nation) that deny God’s image in each other.
Every day we take actions (as individuals and as a nation) that demean people who bear God’s likeness.
Every day we speak (as individuals and as a nation) in ways that are destructive to people God loves and wants to help.
Many Christians have heard preachers say things like: God loves you—just you—so much that Jesus would have went to the cross just for you. I believe that too. But I think we need to turn it around: that person we don’t like, or that we blame, or that is different than us, or that we don’t understand—God loves them so much that Jesus would have went to the cross just for them.
Part 3: Great Commission
And this is where the rubber hits the road. If each person who bears God’s image is so deeply and desperately loved by God that Jesus would have died to save just them, what the hell are we doing to each other in this world?
And more to the point: What should we be doing?
I believe that the entire arc of God’s saving work in the world stems from the reality that we bear God’s image. Over and over God reaches out to us to redeem and guide us, adapting to our choices, rerouting dead ends, breathing new life where we have destroyed, and seeking over and over to reconcile us to each other, to God, and to the rest of creation.
As Jesus was preparing to leave this earth on the day of the Ascension, he gave some instructions to his followers—instructions that continue to direct us and inspire us to value each other as God values each one. He said:
Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. (Matt 28:19-20 CEB)
The evangelistic mission that we have—the missionary task of spreading the good news of God’s love and deliverance—it is driven by a recognition that every human being bears God’s image. Every human being is loved by God. Every human being is someone God wants to lift up and lead into abundant life.
If you’re not doing that—if we’re not doing that—then whatever we’re doing isn’t Christian after all. It’s social, or it’s charity, or it’s educational, or it’s just run-of-the-mill consumption—but it’s not Christian unless it protects each one who bears God’s image.
The Importance of Being Earnest
There’s a play by Oscar Wilde called “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It’s a hilariously complicated affair of a man who pretends to be someone else named Earnest and falls in love. But as the play concludes with revealing information about his birth (spoiler alert!), it turns out his actual life was the life he pretended to have, and he was even really named Earnest.
In the play, it turns out that pretense was reality all along. While the characters thought they were pretending, it turns out they were living into a reality of which they were unaware.
There’s something about this that gels with the message today. God treats us in a way we do not deserve because all along we did deserve it on account of our very creation—we bear God’s image. Orthodox Christians talk about how we are made in God’s image, but we grow in God’s likeness. By treating us as bearers of God’s image, we grow into God’s likeness.
Similarly, we are called to treat others in a way that sometimes seems at odds with our “rights,” because that is how reality is transformed. When we honor others as carrying God’s image within them—even and especially when they do not “deserve” it in our eyes—their experience of the world and of God is transformed.
As it turns out—not unsurprisingly—love and hospitality are the best means of advancing the cause of Christ.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in a Kingdom that is both described as “not yet” and “within you.” Somehow, when we live as though the Kingdom of God were already fully implemented, it becomes more present and more real in the world. Pretense becomes reality.
May God give us the humility to acknowledge the divine in every person of our world. May God grant us the faith to live by the rules of God’s now-but-not-yet Kingdom. May God teach us the importance of being human.