Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 23, 2001

Genesis 1:20-31 In God's image and likeness

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.

So God created humankind in his image. In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. And God 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."

And God 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. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.

And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.


Matthew 5:1-12 The Blessings

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up to the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad! For your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Arcana Coelestia #49 God is the only truly human being

To people in the earliest spiritual era, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, he appeared as a human being. Because of this, they used the word "human" for no one but him, or for his qualities. They did not even call themselves human, except for the aspects of themselves that they knew he had given them, such as all the goodness that comes from love and all the truth that comes from faith. They described these things as human because they are the Lord's.

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. (Genesis 1:20)

Today the Sunday School children are starting their regular course of lessons, based on the Bible Study Notes by Anita S. Dole. Mrs. Dole (who was my grandmother) arranged the Bible readings so that each year the classes would start with Genesis and cover high points of the whole Bible story, ending the church year with the book of Revelation. Though the lessons covered the whole Bible story each year, there were four different "series" of lessons, so that each year for four years the children would get different stories. By the time they came back around to the same series again, they would be in an older class, and would study the stories at a deeper level.

This year I have once again decided to follow the children's lesson series, so that the adults who stay in church for the service will be learning from the same Bible readings that the children are learning about in their Sunday School classes. I like the idea of parents and their children being able to talk about the Bible story, each from something they have gained here at the church.

This year, we are using Series 3 of the "Dole Notes," and our opening story on Creation focuses on the fifth and sixth days.

By the time the fifth day of Creation rolls around, God has already created:

  • The heavens and the earth, and the light, separating the light from the darkness (the first day).

  • The dome of the sky that separates the water of the clouds above the dome from the waters on the earth below the dome (the second day).

  • The seas and the dry land, and the plants and trees on the dry land (the third day).

  • The sun, moon, and stars, marking out day and night, summer and winter. (the fourth day).

  • Then come the two days covered in today's Sunday School lesson. On the fifth day, the dome of the sky that was created on the second day is populated with birds, and the waters under the dome are populated with fish and other sea creatures. And on the sixth day, the land that was gathered together on the third day is populated with animals of every kind, and finally with humankind.

    Now, the seven days of Creation is a very nice story-especially to tell to children. They love to hear about God creating new things each day, until finally everything is ready, and God creates people to live in that beautiful, new world. For the little ones, it doesn't matter whether it really happened that way or not. The message they get is that God made everything, and that it is all "very good."

    For adults, though, the story presents some problems. It seems that instead of being about six thousand years old, as the Bible's chronology would have it, the earth is actually several billion years old. A great deal of ink has been spilled in debates between Evangelical Christians and scientists over whether the Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is "true." Many secular scientists have come to the conclusion that the Bible is simply wrong, and is therefore outdated and not of much use. Meanwhile, many Evangelical Christians go through great intellectual contortions in an attempt to demonstrate that the world was, in fact, created in seven days, and not over billions of years as science says it was.

    Of course, those Evangelicals are simply trying to defend what they see as the truth of God's Word. But it is all needless. The fallacy is in thinking that the Bible can be considered "true" only if it is literally true. Vast parts of human literature-poetry, novels, fantasy, science fiction, and so on-were never intended by their authors to be taken as literally true, and yet they often contain powerful truths about the human condition. We go to movies not only to be entertained, but to gain insights into human relationships and human realities-even when we know that the characters we see on the screen are fictional.

    In a similar fashion, much of the Bible's truth resides, not in the literal accuracy of all its stories, but in the deeper truths those stories contain about the human condition-especially the human spiritual condition. We don't call a great novel like War and Peace "false" because it describes conversations and events that never took place. Rather, we enjoy it as a novel, and gain great insight from it. Similarly, God has spoken to us in the Bible through many different kinds of "literature," much of which was never meant to be taken literally, either by its original human authors or by God, who is its divine Author.

    This is especially true of the first eleven chapters of the Bible, where we find such great, mythical stories as the Seven Days of Creation, the Garden of Eden, Noah and the Ark, and the Tower of Babel. These are stories about the human condition-and about how we humans came to be the mixture of good and evil that we are today.

    Today, as we look at the Creation story in Genesis Chapter 1, I would like to focus especially on God's final creation on the sixth day: humankind. I use that word "humankind" intentionally, since the Hebrew word "adam" does not refer so much to an individual human being-a "man"-as it does to the human race: to humanity. Because of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 is often interpreted as the creation of a single man and his wife. But if the story is read on its own, a more natural interpretation would be that God created humankind-the human family.

    As we read through the Creation story, everything God creates is good, and everything is related to all the other parts of creation. Yet when the story comes to the creation of humankind, we find something unique in all of the Creation story. God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." Of course, everything in the created universe is some way a reflection of God, their creator. But human beings are said to be specifically created in God's image. This is not said about the sun, moon, and stars created on the fourth day, or about the fish and the birds created on the fifth day, or even about the great variety of land animals created on the sixth day. It is only said about humans-the final creation of the sixth day, made just before God proclaimed that all creation was "very good," and then rested from his work on the seventh day.

    What does it mean to be created in God's image, and in God's likeness? A popular conception of God is as an ancient, powerful man with a long beard, sitting on a throne in heaven judging the world. God, in this view, is seen as a man. From this idea of God, we could say that human beings are created in God's image because like God, we have hands and feet, legs and arms, bodies and heads, eyes and ears. God is the great Human Being in the sky, and we are all little, tiny human beings, created to look like God, and populating the earth that God has created.

    Though we may chuckle a bit at the idea of God as a bearded old man sitting on a throne in heaven, it is not so far off the track. No, I don't think God literally sits on a throne in heaven. For one thing, it would get incredibly boring to sit on that same old throne millennium after millennium! And yet, as we read earlier from Emanuel Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia (Secrets from Heaven), "To people in the earliest spiritual era, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, he appeared as a human being." So for those early people who, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, spoke to God face to face, "walking with him in the garden," God had a face, a body, arms, legs, and so on. And of course, as Christians, we can picture God in the very human form of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

    Yet there is also a deeper way that God is human than merely having a human-shaped body. After all, we humans are not the only creatures that have arms and legs, heads and bodies, eyes and ears. Though we do have some distinctive characteristics, such as standing erect instead of on all fours, to a physiologist the similarities between us and the lower animals are far greater than the differences. Is it merely opposable thumbs, walking on our hind legs, and having a larger brain proportional to our body mass that makes us human?

    No. There is more. To continue with the quote from Arcana Coelestia, "Because God appeared to the earliest people as a human being, they used the word 'human' for no one but him, or for his qualities." I put emphasis on that last phrase because it introduces a new and deeper idea of what it means to be human. God is not human from having a body, but from having human qualities. And we are human only to the extent that we have those same qualities of character from God.

    What are the qualities that make God truly human-and us from God? Our reading from Swedenborg gives two examples: the goodness that comes from love and the truth that comes from faith. Yes, these are human qualities. Goodness that comes from love: feeling love for other people, and doing good and kind things for them from love. Truth that comes from faith: believing in the reality of God, and gaining a deeper, more spiritual, and truer view of the universe and our place in it.

    Today as we continue to grieve the inhuman acts of death and destruction visited upon our country by people acting from the inhuman emotions of hatred and a desire to destroy others, I would like to get more specific about what it means to be truly human. Because the danger is that in reacting to these terrible deeds, we, too, will descend into the same inhuman feelings, motives, and actions an our attackers displayed.

    To gain a fuller picture of what makes us truly human, let's take a brief tour through the things that Jesus says will make us "blessed," or happy. Many of them are far from our initial thoughts of what make us human-and yet they touch the heart of our humanity.

  • "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Isn't it when we see the great need-the spiritual poverty-of others that we feel most drawn to them? Most sympathetic? That we wish to give them the heaven of human companionship?

  • "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Mourning is a truly human characteristic. If we did not mourn our losses-especially the loss of people we love-could we really be said to love our fellow human beings at all?

  • "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." We are not at our most human when we are conquering and subjugating others, but when, in simple innocence and humility, we share our tender feelings and our simple, good thoughts with others.

  • "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." What creature besides humans hungers and thirsts for righteousness? It is the search for what is good and right that truly makes human beings great.

  • "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." The world of nature is merciless to the small, the weak, the old, the infirm. It is the excellence of human beings that we can show mercy and kindness to those who need protection and support.

  • "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." Now we are being challenged; for who is truly pure in heart? Yet in the very striving for purity of heartfelt love, we begin to see and know the true nature of God, who is infinitely pure love for all.

  • "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." And here is another challenge-especially in these times when war is in the air. Instead of beating the drums of war, can we reach for the true humanity of striving for understanding? For mercy? For justice? For forgiveness? For peace with our fellow human beings? This would mark us as truly human-as children of the human God.

  • "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad! For your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

  • Here we are challenged to the utmost. When we are being attacked and abused, can we see this, not as a reason to respond in kind, seeking revenge for what has been done to us, but as an opportunity to show God's glory in an even greater way?

    It is easy to be good to others when they are being good to us. Even selfish and materialistic people do that. Yes, even animals are good to their animal companion. What marks us as truly human is when we maintain our integrity, our principles, our commitment to justice and righteousness, to kindness and compassion, even when we are being attacked for those very qualities in us.

    If we are able to do this, then even in the midst of conflict and struggle-no, especially in the midst of conflict and struggle-we can rejoice and be very glad. For then we know that our humanity is not merely skin deep. Then we know that we are truly being created in the image and likeness of God, who "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).

    When we can love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), then we have truly learned what it is to be human. Then we have truly been created in the image and likeness of God. Amen.


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