16 February 2020 Sermon (St Paul’s Hills Road, Cambridge)

Genesis 1:26-31


26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’27 So God created humankind in his image,   in the image of God he created them;   male and female he created them.28God blessed them, and 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.


Colossians 1:15-20


15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Sermon


May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (+). Amen.
I think those verses we heard from Genesis are some of my favourite in the whole Bible.


Then God said, ‘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.


It’s felt as if those verses have followed me round these last couple of years.
I did a placement the summer before last in a mens’ prison near Thetford Forest.  On the last day of my placement two things happened.  First, there was a strike of prison officers over pay and conditions. I looked at a news story about it on social media and looked at the comments below the story.  I wish I hadn’t – some of the comments about prisoners: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” “Scum.” “Prison’s too good for them: string them all up.”  The other thing that happened that day is that a prisoner killed himself in his cell.  I wonder if the social media commenters knew how close their cruelty had come to the horrors unfolding in that prison.


The bible verses that came to me at that time were those from Genesis.  God created humankind in God’s image.  Everyone.  Male and female.  Jews and gentiles.  Slave and free and prisoners.  Society didn’t love those prisoners: it sounded like it hated them.  But God created them in His image for no reason except Love.


That was two summers ago.  The summer just gone I spent a week on placement in a parish in West Everton in inner-city Liverpool.  The church’s main outreach activity is a large youth club, which has places for around 100 young people each day.  There’s not a lot for young people to do in West Everton and the surrounding area.  It’s a difficult place to grow up – poor housing, high unemployment, issues with drugs, gangs.  Where young people have been stabbed to death on the streets, giving young people a safe place to go in the evenings literally saves lives.


The church in Everton lives its life by that verse from Genesis: God created humankind in God’s image.  Everybody has dignity.  Everybody has worth.  Because God loves people, we love people.  On the wall of the youth club hangs an enormous spray-painted sign “People matter more than things.”  I can get on board with that too.


This brings me to St Paul’s Hills Road.  Here is another place I have found respect for the image of God in everyone.  In outreach to the homeless and vulnerable adults, listening, supporting, standing in solidarity.  In respect for others – people who are different, people we find difficult, possibly even people we don’t like.


Seeing others as made in the image of God affects how we think about them, and how we treat them. It also affects how we think about and treat ourselves.


And what about God?  We might think from these verses in Genesis that all we need to do to learn about God is to look at ourselves and other people.  That may be part of it.  But we are not God.  We are made in God’s image, but it’s not always a very clear image.  A rather murky reflection sometimes.


So where do we go to learn about God?  In Paul’s letter to the Colossians we hear that the definitive image of God is Jesus Christ.  But this goes beyond Genesis.  Jesus is not just another human created in the image of God.  Rather than a murky image, the fullness of God dwells in Jesus Christ.  Rather than being created in God’s image, Jesus did the creating: everything was created through Him and for Him.  


Because we hear in church about who Jesus was and is we can forget just how radical Paul’s message was.  There was nothing in Paul’s background or Jewish history that imagined God could walk the earth in human form.  Yes, there were prophecies that some sort of saviour would come to set the Jewish people free from captivity, the figure called the Messiah.  But the Messiah would not actually be God.  It’s not what anybody expects – looking at a human being and finding God looking back at you.  Some find this impossible, even in Jesus’ time.


In Mark 6 and Matthew 13 we read that Jesus returned to his home town and taught in the synagogue.  The people do not like what they see and hear.  “Where did he get all this teaching?” the people ask.  “Isn’t this the Son of the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s boy?”  Even though Jesus stands right in front of them, they do not see him for who he is.  People thought they knew who and what Jesus was.  They thought they knew who and what God was.  They couldn’t put the two together.  


A human being as the image of God – that is a radical thing to say.  It demands a radical response in how we treat ourselves and treat other people.


The fullness of God dwelling in a human – even more radical.  Offensive.  Blasphemous.  Enough to make you want to string someone up as a common criminal.  So they killed the one who had the fullness of God.  The one who shows us what God is like.


This makes Paul’s message even more disturbing.  You can imagine some of those early hearers of the message:


“Isn’t this the Jesus we heard about?  The Jesus who died?  How can a dead Jesus be all these things you say he is?  Jesus dead, God dead, how does that make sense?”


It’s disturbing.  Just ask Jesus’ disciples.  


In Mark 8 and Matthew 16 Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is.  Some say John the Baptist.  Some say Elijah.  Some say one of the prophets.  He asks his disciples, who do you say I am?  The Messiah, says Peter.  Yes, says Jesus, and what that means is this: I must suffer, and be killed, and on the third day rise again.  “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” says Peter.  Jesus turns to Peter “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  You think you’ve got God worked out, think again.


It’s disturbing.  Just ask Paul.


Paul had spent a lifetime training as a Pharisee, the most enthusiastic student, an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He thought he knew what God looked like, rolled up in those Scriptures.  But he ignored God’s loving purposes unfolded in the same Scriptures, and hunted down and killed the early followers of Jesus.


Paul, breathing threats and murder against the Church, blinded on the Damascus Road and called out of his former life by the risen Christ, “Why are you persecuting me?  I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting”.  
Paul would call Jesus the head of a body made up of those who believe in Him.  The believers that Paul was persecuting – you persecute them, you persecute Jesus.  You hurt a human made in the image of God, you hurt the one who has the fullness of God, Jesus Christ.  Who Christ is and who we are is intimately connected.  Christ is in us, and we are in Christ, as Paul and John put it.


However far Paul wandered from God’s loving purposes, God’s love was strong enough to call him back.  And if God could reach out to Paul, if God could reach out to someone who had made it his life’s work to destroy what Christ had begun, God can reach out to anybody.  He can draw the whole world to him in peace, and show the world what He is really like in Christ.
The Galilean crowds, the disciples, Paul – all were called to think again about who God is and what God looks like.  Some responded; some didn’t.  Those that did respond experienced a change of mind, or change of heart about God.  That change of heart about God brings with it a change in who we are.  Saul becomes Paul and becomes the most prolific writer in the New Testament.  The disciples grow from a terrified rag-bag group of followers to become a global church.  Employees and volunteers give their time ministering to men and women in prison that the world wishes didn’t exist.  Churches in Everton and on the Hills Road reach out in love to those who most need it, seeing Christ in them, and showing Christ to them.


We change our mind and heart about God, we change ourselves.  We are no longer defined by what we have done, where we were born, who we love, or what we contribute to society.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.  


These things do not define us anymore.  These things were never meant to define us in the first place.  All things were created in and through Christ, the true and fullest image of God.  Humanity was created in God’s image, following the example set in Christ.  Whoever we are, our reality is and always has been and always will be to become more and more like Jesus.  This is why we read the Bible to learn about Him.  This is why we meet in His name as a church.  This is why we receive the Lord’s body and blood in bread and wine at the Lord’s Table.  This is why we go out in the name of Christ to love and serve the world.


We are created in God’s image, following the example set in Christ.  This is not so much a statement as a call.  It is a difficult call to hear, and a harder one to live up to, but it calls to us nonetheless:


Can you not see that within yourself you carry the image of God?  Can you not see that the Spirit which brought about Christ’s birth, animated his life, and raised him from the dead – can you not see that this Spirit can fill you too, and make you do marvellous things?  


Come, says God, see that you are my child, see that you are loved and you are known.  Come, see that I love you and I knew you even before your mother’s womb, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Come, says Christ, and follow me.


Amen

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