2009-11-07

What does it mean to be human?


A Sermon For Year B, Proper 22
Copyright © 2008 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Genesis 2:18-24 and Mark 10:2-9


What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a woman or a man who is made in the image of God?

When biology explains the origin and function of our physical bodies; When psychology describes the workings of our minds; When consumerism is used to manipulate our behavior and buying patterns: What is left of being human?

Is there anything special to our existence? Anything that separates us from beasts or birds or rocks or molecules or corporations?

You see, we live in a world that is often reductionistic. It is our habit, for some centuries now, to reduce human life to "nothing but".

We've all heard it before. We are nothing but the products of our environment. Or nothing but our genetics. Or nothing but how we are raised. Or nothing but electro-chemical reactions in our brains. Or nothing but a reflection of cultural expectations.

Often the people who tell us this are well meaning. They are people who have studied human life long and hard. And they finally think they have THE KEY to understanding who we are, and what it means to be human.

So they share THE KEY with us, in hopes that it will make life understandable, manageable, and predictable. And, let's be honest: Who among us would not like life better, if we could understand what is going on just a little bit more?

But, we are now several centuries into the quest of science to exhaustively explain what it means to be human. Thousands of theories of "nothing but" have come and past. And we are still as confused as ever.


We can never say exactly why one child turns into an Adolf Hitler, and another child turns into a Mother Teresa. We stand perplexed by people who have everything and fail, while others have nothing, and succeed.

And we just can't seem to scientifically create the perfect society full of virtuous people, free of tragedy and oppression. If anything, after a century of two world wars, dozens of genocides, and countless disasters, we seem more confused than ever.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think science is a great thing. I like modern medical care, and refrigeration, and flush toilets, and cell phones. Science has told us a great deal about how we work, and how to fix us.

But science just doesn't have the tools to tell us WHY we are here. Reductionism, nothing-but-ism, cannot seem to reduce the complexity of WHO we are.

Science may be able to tell us a great deal about HOW we got here. It can tell us of big bangs, and origins of species, and mechanisms for biological change over time.

But knowing our origins does not tell us our destiny. Knowing how does not mean knowing why. Knowing what does not mean knowing who. And all of the science in the world is not able to answer the question "Why is there something instead of nothing"?

Of course, poets and prophets have been prattling on about this for millennia. They have been telling us that humans can observe and explain everything, except ourselves. They have been preaching that there is more to life than meets the eye.

But poets and prophets are a strange lot, so we tend to ignore them if possible. As a result we often get into cultural wars of "either-or". Either science or spirituality. Either reason or faith. Either we are explained away as "nothing but" or we are not explained at all.

But it isn't just the occasional oddball who says that there is more to human nature than meets the reductionistic eye. Not a few scientists have said the same thing.

It was no one less than Physicist Albert Einstein who said "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind". And it was Blaise Pascal, the inventor of calculus- thanks Blaise!- who said "The heart has reasons that reason cannot know".

And they are just two of a steadily growing voice across history that has said that human life is NOT reductionistic. It is not "either-or". Rather, it is "both-and". We know what it means to be human by BOTH science AND spirituality, BOTH reason AND faith.

They complete one another. They are two sides of the same coin. Two dimensions of the same reality.

And it is this "both-and" understanding that allows us to listen to Scriptures like our readings today, to find out about what it means to be human. Because we believe that in them, God breaks through into our world to tell us things about ourselves, that we cannot learn by our own observation, no matter how scientific.

In the Creation poem that is written one chapter before our Genesis reading today, we hear the divinely inspired poet tell us that God said:

“Let us make humanity in our image… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

This God is spoken of in paradoxical and poetic ways as a Divine Person who speaks a Word of Creation, and then forms chaos into order through the work of God's Breath, the Divine Spirit.

So this God is One Reality who exists in some sort of Community as Creator, and Word, and Breath of God. This God speaks as a Community and says "Let US create humanity in OUR image". And then when humanity is created, we are created as community: As male and female together, sharing in the image of God.

This paradox of the One God in Community is made clearer through the experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the early Church. This eventually came to be known as the Trinity: The One God who exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit, sharing in each other's Love for all eternity.

So when God breaks into history to tell us about what it means to be human, it turns out that our human nature is actually a picture of God's nature. And God is Love, shared between the Creator, the creative Word, and the Breath of God.

And that's where we are at when we get to the second Creation story of Genesis, which we read today. It is this story that tells us about woman as a "helper" to man, and about how they become one flesh.

And immediately following this, we hear the passage from Mark, in which Jesus gives commentary on the same text, using it as the basis for his teaching on the tragedy of divorce.

Now, I speak to you today as someone who has gone through divorce, both as a child of divorced parents and grandparents, and as someone who has been married twice myself. I know from experience how difficult these texts can be on this issue. And I know that when these texts are read, the first thing I expect is a sermon on marriage, gender, and divorce.

But instead of this, I want to listen to what these texts have to say first and foremost about what it means to be human. Because I think it is only by understanding what it means to be human that we can begin to understand why our human relationships- whether they are marriage or friendship or any relationship that shares God's Love- why they are important.

So, the first thing we hear in our Genesis reading is that it is not good for the human to be alone. And this is weird, because after every day of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God said: It is good… It is good… It is good.

Now, suddenly, something is not good. Something is not complete. Something is missing. The question is: Why? Why is it not good?

It is not good because humans were made for community. They were made to be images of the God who IS Love and shares Love in community forever.

Our world often stresses that we are individuals first. We are individual consumers, with individual tastes and needs, and individual skills that we must use in the marketplace to maximize our value. We must individually find ourselves, and individually makes ourselves into who we want to be.

But Scripture begins with a fundamentally different starting point. It does not deny that we are individuals. In Genesis God calls individuals like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Hagar, and Rebekah.

But, God's revelation does not start with humans first as individuals, but with humans as community. And not just a community of people who are the same as each other. But as man and woman, a community of people fundamentally different from each other.

I know we are all used to it by now, but sit back and think about what a monumental difference that is. What bigger natural difference could there be than the average woman and the average man. We are shaped different. We think different. We communicate different. We operate on different biological clocks. We use the bathroom different.

And sometimes some of us forget to put the lid down when we're done.

Just think about it: Not only did God create us in God's image as a Community, but God created us as different kinds of persons bound inextricably in relationship with one another.

Our natural inclination is to think of our individual self first, and then only relate to people who are like us. But who we are is quite the opposite. We become who we are only in community, only by loving people who are different than we are.

And this fundamental difference between man and woman in the Genesis text is a metaphor for ALL the different ways there are to be human: Not only different genders, but different sizes, different ethnicities, different cultures, different skills, different ways of seeing and being in the world.

In fact, it turns out that communities of radically different persons joined together in Love reflects God's fullest intention for what it means to be human. By the time of the early Christian movement, we find Saint Paul writing things like this to the Church in Galatia:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

I often think of being in community with radically different people as a sort of "add on" to who I really am. Something I do to enrich and expand myself, like an extra-curricular activity.

Yet, when I reflect on the God who is Creator, and Word, and Spirit- the God who is a community of radically different persons joined in Love- I find that it is only in this kind of community that I find what it really means to be me.

When we enter into community with people who are different from us, we find that we become helpers to each other, just as the woman was a helper to the man in Genesis. Where one is weak, another is strong. Where one lacks, another has plenty.

Often when we hear that God will make a "helper as his partner" or "helper suitable to him", it is easy to think that the woman is being painted as somehow inferior to, and derivative to, the man.

But when you dive into the Hebrew vocabulary and ask "What does it really mean for the woman to be a helper?", you get a surprising answer. Because the word "helper" used here also refers to one other significant person in the Hebrew Bible.

That person is God.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible God is seen as the Helper who supports, fulfills, and completes human beings. Just as the Psalmist prays: "God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life."

When the poet calls woman a "helper" to man, it is actually a profound theological statement: She is one who completes God's image in humanity, as a supporter and full partner with man.

And again, looking at this through the eyes of the early Church, this role of helper becomes more than just a male-female thing. It becomes the role for all the radically different people who are joined in Love within the Church. In our differences, strengths, and weaknesses, we become helpers to each other. We fulfill the image of God in each other.

Again, Saint Paul- who never seems to be able to keep his mouth shut about this issue- devotes a whole chapter in his letter to the Corinthians explaining what it means to live as different members in the Body of Christ.


He talks about how we are all radically different, but one organism bound together by Christ's Spirit. He says things like: "the members of the body that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable", and "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

Different, yet one. Individuals, but only through community. Helpers, who support and complete and fulfill God's image in each other.

THIS is what it means to be human. THIS is what it means to bear God's image. THIS is why Jesus said things like "the two shall become one flesh", and Paul said things like "you are all members of one Body".

May we all become people who reflect the image of God by seeing God's image in one another. May we all help each other live into all the fullness of God's Life. And may we all remember that human destiny is joined forever with the God who is a community of Love. Amen+
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.