Texts: Gen 1.26-31, 2.4-24, Ps 8, Eph 4.17-24, John 20.1-23
The Church has always faced internal & external opposition to the truth of the Word: in the 4th c., the doctrine of the Trinity (championed by Athanasius); in the 5th c., grace (Augustine); in the 16th c., justification by faith (Luther). In the 21st c. it’s our teaching about human nature that offends the world & tempts the Church to compromise and conform. This is the issue of our time. Three sermons on Man: unfallen nature as God purposed it to be, Man & Woman, and fallen nature. No quiz, but we will be tested on this, day in and day out, for the rest of our lives.
1. Is human nature real? Is there something given, solid, sacred about being human that’s there whether any one of us happens to like it or not, and that summons each of us to live into and up to its nobility and its grandeur? Is there a law of nature that orders the lives and laws of men? Is there a purpose for our race that we don’t invent from within, but receive from above?
(a) Culture says, “No.”
i. Anthony Kennedy’s definition of freedom: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In short: human nature isn’t something given to us or defined for us by God, but something we create and define for ourselves.
ii. “Nature” isn’t a gift to receive, but an obstacle to overcome. The great imperative is therefore: be true, not to someone else’s law, but to your “self.” Not God, not truth, not virtue, but the feeling, emoting “self” is the high god who alone is to be feared. Everything is to be sacrificed at the altar of the self. If you feel you are a woman trapped in a man’s body, then it is so; you must take courage and offer up your body to the surgeon in order to be true, not to your given bodily existence, to your true, inner “self.” If you feel you are trapped in an unhappy marriage, then it is so; you must take courage and run away with another woman and sacrifice your family in order to be true to your “self.” And so on, and so forth. Besides smoking in public or judging people, the only great sin in the culture ruled by this deity is to fail to be true to your “self,” to be “inauthentic,” to conform.
iii. Now, serving the god of the self is exhausting work. For in reality, what being true to your self boils down to is picking some in-fashion image of the good life and living up to that. The Ripped Athlete. The Sexy Supermodel. The Successful Businessman. The Flawless Mom. The Put-Together Family with No Problems At All. If I become one of these, I will be happy! First, I just have to decide for myself which self to become. Whichever self I choose, “authenticity” comes with a high price tag. It takes time, money, hard work, and usually a strong lie or two to secure the appearance of effortless perfection in the image of the authentic “you” you’ve chosen for yourself. But it’s worth it – we are told – because if you do find it – we are promised – you will find happiness at last.
(b) Against the insanity and sorrow of our culture, the Church teaches that human nature is real. For of course (!) we aren’t self-created gods, but creatures of the true God. We know this for two reasons: first, because of Gen 1-2. Second, because of Christmas. Human nature is so very real, that the Son of God united it with the divine nature in his person; and having once taken it to himself, and raised it from the dead, and glorified it even to the right hand of the Father, we can rest assured that human nature – redeemed and transfigured in Christ – is here to stay. So be at peace. Not even an infinite number of Supreme Court opinions or Presidential edicts or reconstructive surgeries can avail against the true humanity of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Now before we go on, I want to be clear about one thing. We instinctively bristle against the teaching that as humans, we are creatures, and that as creatures we are subject to a design, order, law, and purpose that Another besides and above ourselves has sovereignly set for us. Partly, because we heavenly exiles are much more worldly than we realize or care to admit. Be vigilant! You can’t check Facebook without being catechized into the cultural dogma that human nature is an illusion and that there’s no reality besides the self and the stuff the self can buy. But more importantly: we bristle against this teaching, because we are sons and daughters of the man who refused to remain a creature subject to God and instead pursued life, liberty, and happiness on his own. It’s deep in our spiritual DNA – the “flesh” that rots away our hearts – to refuse the reality God’s given us and instead to create universes that revolve around ourselves. Justice Kennedy didn’t have to read any philosophy books to write his Obergefell opinion; he just had to listen to his heart. The law of our land is just the law of rebellion or “sin” that’s written on our hearts from our mother’s wombs – the law still written in the awful bits of flesh that fester in our hearts long after baptism dealt them a death-blow. This means that when we come to the Word of God, we come not to correct and teach God, but to be corrected and taught by him.
2. What are People, and what are we for? (Gen 1-2)
(a) Noble creatures. On the one hand, like everything else that is but is not God, by nature we are literally nothing at all. But look what great care God took to make us! First, he prepares everything else in all creation: the light, the seas and the heavens and the earth, plants and trees of every kind, sun, moon, and stars, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Only then, when everything’s been prepared for us, does he make Man on the sixth day to rule on God’s behalf as a noble king over all creation. And only in our case did God pause for the Three Persons to take counsel among themselves, before declaring the awesome words: “Let us make Man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1.26). We see the same dynamic of lowliness and glory, weakness and dignity, in Gen 2.7. On the one hand, we are of the dust; we are made of mud; we are earthy, biological creatures that share quite a bit in common with monkeys and for that matter, mice. But on the other hand: to make Adam, the Lord took this lump of clay into his own hands and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living creature. We are neither just beasts or just angels but men, unique, amphibious creatures that straddle the division between the realm of matter and the realm of spirit and hold them together in our own persons. Which is why, in the fullness of time, God did not become a monkey or an archangel, but a Man, in order “to unite all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1.10).
(b) The high glory of our nature is especially clear in the fact that God made us in his own image, after his likeness (Gen 1.26). What does this mean? It means that like God, we were made to know and to love, to hear the voice of another Person besides our “self” and to regard his Beauty and to respond to his Gift. The God who made you in his image is the God who is Love because he is God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. He endowed you with the precious gifts of reason and will and affections, of head and heart and chest, of the power to think and to chose and to delight, so that you too could share his joy.
(c) But he didn’t only make us to live in his company. He also made us Man & Woman in order to enjoy the company of one another. “In the image of God he created them: male and female he created them” (Gen 1.26). He did not make us neutered beings, because he made us for love: ordered, holy, love between men and women who live together in his image, after true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.24), in his Church, either in holy singleness or in holy marriage, the permanent union of one Man and one Woman for the sake of holiness, fruitfulness, and mutual delight. But more on this next week.
(d) He didn’t even only make us for other humans: he made us to be gardeners and kings. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, for the man he formed from the dust and filled with spirit and life (Gen 2.8). This wasn’t an all expense paid trip to Aruba: in other words, not the lazy, self-indulgent kind of place that we imagine when we hear the word “Paradise.” Adam had work to do: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2.15). We were made to work. Toil is part of our punishment, but work itself is a gift God gave unfallen Adam – and it’s a gift he gives to you. In the first place, Adam was charged to care for the garden: to tend it, to lend it his creativity and skill and God-given green thumb in order to increase its beauty and its fruitfulness; to keep or protect it from any evil that might slither into it. For the Evil One had already fallen, and this Garden was a sanctuary set apart for God to dwell with Man and for Man to dwell with God. But then in the second place, Adam received an even higher commission than caring for the garden of Eden. Gen 1.28: “God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In Adam and Eve, God made us kings of all the earth, and charged us to go out from the palace of Eden and turn the whole world into a garden. Did you know that’s what he still says to you, at the end of our liturgy each week? The Church is our Eden. Here in this garden, through preaching and sacrament, the Lord feeds us with the tree of life: I mean Christ himself, who gave us life by dying for us on a different tree. Then he sends us out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, in order to turn it into a garden.
(e) That’s what it means to be a human being. Since Adam and Eve refused this gift, only One has ever yet fully experienced what it means to live a rich and full and truly human human life. Because when they rebelled, with their own fists they smashed the image of God into pieces like a broken mirror. But the very day we fell, God promised to send the Redeemer (Gen 3.15). In Col 1.15, St Paul teaches that Jesus Christ is the Image of the invisible God. In him, the shattered mirrors each of us are because of sin are being put back together again because of grace. Don’t weary of coming to him in repentance, and you will be renewed in the spirit of your minds. Put on the new, real, true “you” you already are in Christ. Pursue holiness by his grace today, and you will become a little more human than you were yesterday, recreated after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.22-4). And on the last day, when we see his face, we will be just like him (1 John 3.2, Rom 8.29), and full of joy, and free at last. To him be glory forever, Amen.