Monday, January 05, 2009

The Dignity of Human Nature, the Dignity of God

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4, 2009: Matthew 2:1-12

At the beginning of Service we prayed my favorite prayer from the Prayer Book:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ…

The “dignity of human nature” is something of central importance to us Episcopalians in our practice of the Christian faith. It is found in one of the questions of our Baptismal Covenant:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

Simply put, the good news is that God has not only created the dignity of human nature, God remains committed to it, so much so that he is willing to risk all to renew it, to restore it.

That it needs restoration is obvious. The dignity of human nature is under near constant attack all around us and sometimes even within us. There are forces at work in the world that work to rub people’s noses in their own dignity, in order to control it or even obliterate it. The sad and horrifying truth is that sometimes we are among those forces (see also that phrase from the contemporary General Confession, “the evil done on our behalf”).

It is why that article of the Baptismal Covenant is there at all. We need to commit ourselves to God’s project: the dignity of every human being.

The Prayer goes on to define this dignity in an astounding way: it is a sharing in the divine life itself. The miracle of Christmas is not only that God shared his life with us on earth, but that God intends us to share his life as well, and not just in heaven. The Prayer is careful not to say that. It does not say “that we may one day share the divine life.” There is no future tense. It is present. “That we may share..”[1]

This truth is sometimes daringly called “divinization.” One of Christianity’s great truths is that it is our destiny to become like God, that this destiny is in our very nature, since we are made in God’s image. That image has been, is being and will be restored!

It either sounds blasphemous or some kind of creeping “new age-ism.” But Christians have been saying it from the beginning. Paul called it the process of “sanctification.”

Perhaps the most well-known early Christian who spoke plainly of this truth was St. Athanasius in the 4th century. He wrote

God became man so that man might become a god.[2]

It is almost shocking to hear. One suspects it would have come from one of those unorthodox folks the early church fathers fought against. But here it is from the lips of the one who is arguably “Mr. Orthodox” among the church fathers. I like to translate what he says this way:

God became a human being so that human beings might have the dignity of God.

What an astounding truth! What amazing good news! Not only for the whole world, but for each one of us personally! It is our destiny to be like God!

We are used to hearing something like, “God made us in his image and we fell from that image.” We Christians then hear something like, “Christ came to save us, to reconcile us to God.” But what we don’t hear is a much more plain, Christ has restored us to God’s image! Christ made it possible for us to live into that image once again. Baptism is the great sign of that image restored. It is the outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace that is the restoration of the image of God in us.

Having had that great restoration, our lives are spent living into that new reality, the process Paul calls sanctification and what many in the early Church called “divinization.”

Awash in this incredible good news, we do have to pause and hear words from the Gospel reading this morning.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

The powers that be are often frightened by the dignity of human nature, especially the dignity of human nature that is outside their control. Even some of the best of people in positions of power throughout history have slipped on this point: the attempt to control human nature and human dignity.

Why is human dignity—such a wonderful thing—frightening to some? Because it is, like God, uncontrollable. True freedom is such an elusive thing even in a supposedly “free” society such as ours because the powers that be (and that includes us sometimes) instinctively do not trust it. We instinctively fear the chaos that might ensue if everyone were truly free to live into their God-given human dignity. So we create order to keep control of things.

Now order is not an entirely bad thing, nor is the order we call government. We need both, partly because we are not there yet. We have to learn how to live into our God-given dignity and freedom. Our own dignity, for instance, can never rob the dignity of others. We sometimes say, “No one is free until all are free.” The same is true of dignity. None are dignified until all are dignified.

That’s the simple test of whether we are living in freedom and dignity or what St. Paul calls “licentiousness” or “living in the flesh.” If our attempt at dignity robs someone else of dignity, than it is not dignity we are after but a putting of self above others, and that is not dignity, it is tyranny.

This can be one way of talking about how we as Christians are called to make moral decisions. Is my action a lifting up of my own dignity and that of others, all others? If so, than it is a truly moral act. It is an act that works with God’s project of sanctification, divinization, not against it.

But all this reaction of fear and attempts to control have as their backdrop the news that cannot be beaten. Our dignity as human beings is a gift from God. In spite of our not living up to it, it has been restored by God. And once we believe that is the truth, our life is a journey toward realizing that restoration.

Bit by bit we do it, symbolized by our reception of Communion. Yes, this is why in our tradition we do it all the time! Because the outward and visible signs of bread and wine effect an inward and spiritual grace of our union with God, the restoration of our dignity, the divinization of our lives. And it is the perfect symbol of this process, not only because we do it bit by bit, but because we do it together. No one receives any differently from anyone else. No matter how much social standing or power you do or do not have in this world, you still walk to this altar rail and hold out your hands and receive.

So let us pray again with gusto the good news of this day and all days:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ…

Let us believe with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength that God became a human being so that human beings might have the dignity of God.

[1] I realize this is the use of the subjunctive mood, but one of the purposes of that mood is to express possibility!
[2] De incarnation 54:3.

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