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What are Human Beings?
Dr. Baron Mullis
May 22, 2016 - Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5

 

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What are Human Beings?                                                                    
Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5       
Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2016

 

Let me tell you about the origins of the “bunny rabbit policy.”  I know, it sounds like an episode of The Big Bang Theory, and it’s probably just as absurd, but stay with me.

My love-hate relationship with Social Media is pretty well know.  I’ve been up front with you all about it: I love seeing your pictures, but I hate seeing people’s over-sharing and airing their dirty laundry or their political grievances.  It was this last one that led to the bunny rabbit policy.   I’ve been a little bit more forceful in recent weeks with some of the more absurd threads, but by and large this is what the bunny rabbit policy looks like: when I reach the point that I feel that I must express something – I don’t.  Let me explain.

Some months back – I don’t even think we were even close to the primary election, I posted something relatively mild as an opinion, and one of our members here replied. Now, our politics are not the same but it doesn’t matter because we’re friends - between us it was a funny poke back and forth sort of light-hearted joke that you can do when you’re in the same room, or the same city.

Then, a third party, a friend but not a close friend, proceeded to eviscerate the first friend.

I was nothing short of horrified.  I deleted the thread and said instead, “From now on, I am not posting anything but pictures of puppy dogs, unicorns and rainbows that way there will be no more casualties in my social media.”

Of course the first response was someone objecting to rainbows.

The next was the observation that unicorns have some vaguely sexual connotation. 

Finally someone noted that I was favoring puppy dogs over kitty cats, and what did I have against cat people anyhow?

After many rounds of mock-outrage, it was decided that a bunny rabbit should be sufficiently inoffensive.  I waited until the next time I saw something that was, to my mind, bone-headed and instead of commenting, I put a rabbit on it.

It felt good.  I invite you to embrace this lowly cottontail in our common discourse.

It sounds silly, and of course it is, but here’s the underlying reason: in that first moment when I saw someone being ugly to a friend of mine in a public venue, I was done with it. I decided then and there that there wasn’t a political or personal viewpoint that I needed to share that was worth more than my friends.

That’s not to say there’s nothing worth fighting for, it’s to say there’s a way to have that fight. 

When it comes to what really matters, we can express our beliefs in ways that enhance our humanity or in ways that diminish our humanity. 

That is true of more than political speech and religious convictions as well. 

When it comes to the way that we live in our marriages or partnerships, we can live in ways that enhance our humanity or in ways that diminish our humanity.

When it comes to how we conduct ourselves in business, we can enhance our humanity or diminish it.

Being human is God’s gift to us.

I want to make sure that sinks in: being human is God’s gift to us.

One of my theological pet-peeves is when I see humanity being diminished.  That happens when humanity is used as an excuse for inhuman, or inhumane behavior.  You’ve heard it done, I’m sure, and it typically goes like this: I’m only human.

Maybe you’ve said it:

“I am afraid I blew a gasket with the meter attendant from Park Atlanta.  Well, you’re only human.”

“I can’t believe we ate that whole cheesecake! Well, we’re only human.”

“Does God really mind if I fudge just the teensiest bit on my 1099 income?  Come on, you’d have to be superhuman not to do that!”

You see where this is going? 

It is the use of humanity as an excuse for bad behavior. 

Our humanity isn’t what makes us do bad things.  Being human is what God created us to be.

The problem with all those examples is that they confuse being human with being a sinner.

Human beings are sinners, but that isn’t what makes us human, because sin is what diminishes humanity.

I am aware that sin is an unpopular topic.

Do you remember Robert Schuller?  He was a televangelist who sort of took over the mantle of Norman Vincent Peale, of The Power of Positive Thinking fame.  I remember seeing his Hour of Power broadcasts from the Crystal Cathedral on television when I was a kid.  Well, some years ago, I worked with a minister who knew him well, and he pointed out to me that any reference to sin was, particularly in the later years, edited out of the service. 

What a difference from our forebears.

Cornelius Plantinga observes that our understanding of sin has certainly changed in recent years.  “The awareness of sin used to be our shadow.  Christians hated sin, feared it, fled from it, grieved over it. Some of our grandparents agonized over their sins.  A man who lost his temper might wonder whether he could still go to Holy Communion.  A woman who for years envied her more attractive and intelligent sister might worry that this sin threatened her very salvation.  But the shadow has dimmed.  Nowadays the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin, and with a tone that signals an inside joke.”1

Indeed, my friend Tom Long penned an article some years back that captures the heart of the matter, using the ancient confession of sin.  It’s title was, “Lord Be Merciful to Me, A Miscalculator.”

No, we do not do the thing that we wish we had not because we are human.  We do it because we are sinners.  It is a lamentable fact of reality, not an excuse. 

To be human means to be limited, but it does not mean to be bad.  Indeed, at the ancient council of Chalcedon in 451, the humanity of Jesus was lifted up as a good thing, not to be ignored or diminished but to be embraced.  That Jesus Christ is fully human is to be celebrated.  Indeed the Chalcedonian formula that Jesus is fully human and fully divine embraces the reality that to be human is to be fully and completely as God created us to be.  It is good to be human!

We misunderstand our humanity if we think it is our sin that defines us.  I love the hymn Amazing Grace, but note that the state of wretchedness doesn’t endure to the end – it is only the awareness of the author’s sin that makes him a wretched

So, don’t diminish your humanity!

And just so we’re clear: You can only diminish your own humanity, you can’t diminish anyone else’s.  That’s one of the great gifts of understanding of humanity was given out of the language of civil rights – the knowledge that what someone calls you does not define you.  What you call someone doesn’t define them.  Humanity is defined by God, and it is given by God.

Why does our perception of our humanity matter so much?  Because God sees being human as good thing. 

Do you know that?  I mean, do you know that at a deep level?  God sees being human as a good thing!  God made you to be you!  God delights in the particularity of you!

Listen to the Psalmist: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

That is what it means to be human to God.  To be a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor.

Is that how you think of yourself?

Is that how you think of the person covered in sores and bodily fluids from diseases contracted from intravenous drug use  - because in God’s eyes, that person is crowned with glory and honor!

God knows sin is real!  Trust me when I tell you that, in fact, God does know whether fudge your 1099 income or not, and God does know if you’re sneaking around cheating on your spouse, and God does know if you’re getting beaten down, and God does know if you look in the mirror and call yourself names, and God does know if you cut yourself emotionally or physically, or if you hate yourself, or if somebody else is telling you things that make you think you’re less than human. 

God knows sin is real.  But God’s grace is always more real. 

And even though we don’t stop being sinners, God still thinks you’re crowned with glory and honor, can you believe that?  Why would we ever treat ourselves otherwise?

And God doesn’t dismiss sin, God addresses sin.

That’s the heart of the good news of the Gospel: God knew that sin was real and hurtful and so God did something about it.

To be human is to be made in the image of God.  Male and female alike, according toe Genesis, made in the image of God.

Classically, the language of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Just a note about language: the gender is not the important part, the relationship is the important part, which is why I don’t use pronouns in anything I write about God.  If it’s a quote, like the Aaronic benediction I use, I let it stand, but otherwise I avoid the pronouns.  But I still use the classical language not because I believe God has a gender identity, but because it preserves the nature of relationship  as the quality that defines it.  Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer reflect activities.  But familial language reflects relationship, and we are baptized into that relationship.  God’s definition of self is mutual, relational, and loving.  That is who God is, and God made us in God’s image.

And then, out of the overflowing of God’s love, God made creation and put us in it, to be together, crowned with glory and honor. 

And of course, you know the story: We mucked it up, and so God took on our human identity and fixed it in the most costly way imaginable: God took on our sin.

This is where it matters that we know what it means to be human.  To safeguard us from our own sin, God took it on.  The cross of Jesus Christ, with all its cosmos-shattering implications in the very being of God who is complete in love and yet goes down to ignominious death is the place where our understanding fails, because we are not God.  We do not know what that cost.  We do not know what violence God took into God’s self for us.  We can’t.  We are limited in our understanding.  But we can know that it is grace.  It is love.  It is God’s unfailing reliability. 

So, maybe we don’t say “We’re only human” anymore. 

Maybe, let’s say instead, “I want to do better.”

Or maybe we could say instead, “I love you.”

And perhaps we could think of grace and peace abounding, the way God wants it. 

One of our members here likes to sign her e-mails, “Grace all over.”

I love that.  It’s the heart of the Gospel: there’s grace all over. 

It reminds me of a favorite quote of mine, from Frederick Buechner,

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life.  You might never have been,  but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.  Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Nothing can ever separate us.  Its for you I created the universe.  I love you.”2

A little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, that’s what it is to be human.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. 


 

1 Cornelius Plantinga, Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.  (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1995) p.xi
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC.  (HarperOne, SanFrancisco, 1993) p39

Last Published: June 2, 2016 12:10 PM