We are the image of God. It’s time to start living that way, time for us to seek the Spirit’s grace in maturing and growing up in faith that we might see God’s way as our way of life and the way of life for the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, year A; texts: Matthew 5:38-48; Leviticus 19:1-2, 19-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Psalm 119:33-40
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I wonder what would happen if the Church started to take seriously the Biblical claim that we, that humanity, are created in the image of God. What it would look like if we – you, I, this congregation, the Church – if we actually expected that to be true, and lived into that truth. If we let that reality shape our teaching, direct our decisions, even make a claim on our individual lives and presence in the world.
We certainly don’t seem to show much desire to do this yet. While I doubt you would find any Christian who would deny that we are made in God’s image, the depths of what such a truth actually means seem far beyond our willingness to dig or dive or probe.
What would it mean for this world if that were not our way? If we acted as if we believe that the Triune God was serious about this, and about what it means for us? We hear this from God’s Word today: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And from Jesus, the Son of God himself, today: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What would it mean if we embraced these commands instead of wincing at them, hiding from them? What would it mean if we took God’s Word seriously – as, by the way, we claim to do – and saw such claims on our identity as our hope and our future, not as something from which we run? If we found joy in such commands, as our psalmist does today, not seeing them as something we need to parse and dissect until they don’t mean for our lives what they clearly seem to mean?
These weeks with the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, alongside various similar teachings from the Torah and the prophets, have been calling us to find a greater growth in our faith and lives, to recognize that we can often persist in an immaturity when it comes to the way of life God has set before us, and so we miss the fullness of life God intends for us. Today we face the full scope of that call to “grow up”: that we learn to find joy in this promise of our identity as the image of the living God, and learn to eagerly seek the Spirit’s strength in living into that identity, for the sake of the world.
Today we see a powerful glimpse of what this image of God looks like across the Scriptures.
We begin with the words of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who describes a way that is God’s, but that is laid out as our path as well.
The path Jesus describes is one where we resist evil and violence not with more violence and evil, but with the strength of standing in the face of it non-violently, peacefully, strongly. A way where we never retaliate when wronged. Where if someone wants to deprive us of something, even by taking us to court, we get ahead of them and give freely. A way where if someone needs something, we give it to them. And a way where we stand against the way of the world and treat our enemies with love, where we lift them up in our prayer as much as we lift up those who are dearest to our hearts.
Now you can see what I mean about our problem as the Church. Does this look at all like the public face of the Church in the world? The center, driving force behind our teaching, our life, our work, individually and collectively?
But Jesus, the Son of God, only continues in the great tradition of God’s people Israel, for we hear much the same from the LORD God in Leviticus today. To be holy as the LORD God is holy looks like this:
It is to live with wealth in such a way that we do not consume all, but share with those in need: here it’s sharing the edges of fields, the grapes of the vine we do not need, but we can supply the metaphors that work for our way of life. That we do not rapaciously consume what we have and what resources the world provides as if it is our right and ours alone, but see ourselves as one with all and the resources we have as shared, communal. This is the way of the LORD God.
And God’s way also looks like this: that we do not cheat or steal or lie to one another. That we live justly, giving laborers a fair wage and not keeping it ourselves, that we do not profit from the blood of another. That we do not take vengeance, or even bear a grudge against anyone, but love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Not surprisingly, Jesus sounds very much like this, and not surprisingly, this is also not the way, the image, we see in ourselves and in the Church.
Let’s keep this very simple today: clearly we fail to live as the image of God shown here. But there are different ways to fail, and that difference is critical.
One way to fail to live in this way is simply to fail to live in this way. That is, to live in such a way that the fullness of this graciousness isn’t always how we act and react, how we present ourselves.
And if there is anything in what we heard from Leviticus and Jesus that you realized you didn’t live into fully, you know what I mean. We call this sin; we could call it failure. It’s a truth about our human nature that we do not always live in the way we are called to live, the way we were created to live. We know this, and when we are honest, we confess such failings, such sin, and seek God’s grace and forgiveness.
Another way to fail is a truly problematic one, though, because it is a failure of intent and desire and design. This is the way that fears the law of God, that seeks to mitigate it, reduce it, explain it away.
To say, “Jesus might have preached non-violent resistance to the evil of the world, but we live in a real world where sometimes you just have to fight back and harm. Where war can be justified.” (As if Jesus, the Son of God who was present at creation, doesn’t know about the “real” world.)
Or to say, “realistically, you can’t run an economy where people share equally and there is no profit incentive, where people aren’t allowed to accumulate capital; in fact, that way, we say, will eventually lift all to a better standard of living.” (As if the God who created all things doesn’t know what to do with the gift of creation, doesn’t know what’s best for the creatures so lovingly made and planted on this earth.)
We do this kind of thing all the time with the teachings of Jesus, the way of God. We cut them, shape them, cleverly explain why they can’t work fully, why the Bible really didn’t mean that anyway.
Do you see why this way of failing to reflect God’s image is the dangerous one? In the first way we fail, but we know it. We seek forgiveness that we might continue to learn the better way, God’s way. In the second, we don’t even have it as a goal. We find any number of ways to avoid facing the truth that the Triune God lays before us about what we actually look like in the world and what God would have us look like.
And for we who are Lutheran, there is an especially potent temptation to this second path, ironically. We proclaim so loudly that we are saved by God’s grace, forgiven of our sins, but we can easily let that become for us only the thought that we are out of trouble, we’re not punished. When in fact the Biblical model of forgiveness is restoration to relationship with God so that we might once again live as people of God, become the image of God in the world. Sometimes we forget that, and rejoice in forgiveness as if it’s the end goal, crisis averted, punishment set aside.
But it’s not the end goal. It’s the beginning of new life.
The Good News for us today is that God’s Word tells us that not only are we created in God’s image. God will also continue to shape us to be so.
This is the promise our Lord gives through the working of the Spirit: we will be made new, changed into people who look like our God once again. We don’t have to do this alone.
And so we gather weekly to hear God’s Word because that’s how we are shaped and made new. By hearing it again and again and finally having it sink in, “this is God’s way”. By speaking it to each other, teaching each other, listening together, discerning together, so that we never forget these words, this call, this claim God has on us, and so that we continue to understand better and better what it might mean.
And we gather, we gather: we come together in community because we need each other and God works through the community to shape us into the image of God. We need each other because we pray for each other, encourage each other, support each other as we all seek to reflect this image in the world. We especially need the community because we each need people who are truth-tellers to us, who can name the behavior of the community, or our behavior as individuals, or the direction of the Church, when any stray from God’s image, move into ways that are not of God.
But the truly deep mystery is that we are shaped as we gather to worship through the very grace of God we come to find, and are made into the image of God. It is no coincidence that we see the community of the Church as the Body of Christ and we gather to be fed by the Body of Christ, because the latter creates the former.
As we are fed and nourished by these gifts of grace, and by God’s Word, we become what we are given. We become the grace of God, the body of Christ, the image of the Triune God in the world. So we leave here and our Lord says to the world about us: Take these, they are my body broken for you.
And we will be broken, let’s not pretend otherwise.
One of the reasons we sometimes run from the command to be like God is that to be like God is to lose, to give away, to let go, to love even when no one thinks we should. You know this, if you’ve ever forgiven someone who truly hurt you, forgiven and loved them. That costs, that hurts. It’s what happens when we are like God.
You know this if you’ve ever stood with love and grace in the face of evil and been run over by it, hurt by it. That costs, that hurts. It’s what happens when we are like God.
Make no mistake, there’s plenty of reason for us not to seek this. If we are called by God to be like God, we will find great cost in many ways. But what we need to hold before us this: where else do we ever want to be but with God? What life could we ever imagine being real without God?
A life lived fully as Leviticus and Jesus speak today, a community, a world, shaped like this would be astonishing to see. Life-giving, rich, abundant. Living with the Spirit of God inside us, as if we were a temple of God, as Paul describes today, is not just the way we are given the power to be new people, it is a place of joy and hope and grace for us, because God is with us and in us, and that is life.
This is where we want to be, even if it costs us everything.
It did, after all, cost the Son of God his life, too. And it is in his resurrection life we most dearly wish to live, even now. It’s tempting to run from this, because it can seem hard, too much. Because we realize how much we fail at this.
But we can grow up, mature, with God’s help. As we do, as the Spirit lives in us and moves in us, more and more we see this light as the way we need to go, the way we want to go. More and more we learn that the cost is negligible compared to the alternative, not being with the God whose love for us and for the world is overwhelming and is life.
We are the image of God. That’s the truth. God give us the grace and strength, and forgiveness, and courage, to actually start looking like it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen