One of the things that I love about the Creation accounts in the Book of Genesis, is the way in which, through the medium of story, they manage to ‘nail’ with extraordinary accuracy, wisdom, and insight, some of the most profound truths about human beings.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Most of us are very familiar with the Creation story with which the Book of Genesis, and indeed the whole of our Old Testament begins – in which we are told how, systematically, over the course of six days, God brought into being the whole of Creation – the heavens and the earth and every living creature, culminating on the sixth day, in human beings, who emerge as the very pinnacle of that sequence of mighty acts, made in the very image of God, male and female. And they are granted dominion over all living things.
But this is followed immediately by another, rather different Creation story – part of which we heard as our first reading this evening – a story which begins by telling us how Adam, the first man, was formed out of the dust of the earth.
I don’t know if it has ever struck you how interesting it is that the Bible begins with not one, but two Creation stories – a juxtaposition that seems to me to be highly significant. Because taken together, these two very different stories, and what they tell us about human beings, provide us with an extremely instructive lens through which to view and interpret pretty well everything else that follows in the whole of Scripture. Because together, they identify an extraordinary tension that resides at the very heart of human life, which is this:
On the one hand, we are the most amazing creatures, made in the very image of God, and we are indeed richly blessed: we are capable of most astounding acts of creativity, bringing into being breath-taking works of art; sublime pieces of music; the power and subtleties of language; we are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, and love, and compassion. But at the same time, and on the other hand, we must never forget that we are also made of mud – the most base and unpromising of materials that there is. And, as that second Creation account unfolds, we discover, as we hear the story of the Fall, that human beings are also capable of the most astounding acts of crass stupidity, short-sightedness, and self-centredness.
The Garden of Eden, was a Paradise in which human beings lived at one with nature, and at one with God. A place where not only were all their needs met, but where they knew nothing but peace and harmony – certainly no shame or guilt. And this Paradise was lost because they succumbed to the illusion that they could possess even more than they already had; and so it was that the seeds of discontent were sown within their breasts. The forbidden fruit was eaten, and all was taken from them.
It strikes me that the most significant characteristic of human beings is not that some of us are good and others bad – but rather that all human beings are a complex jumble of both. It is generally the case that there is some bad in the best of us, and some good in the worst of us. St Paul himself, one of our most famous saints, knew this inner struggle all too well when he said in Romans 7:19: ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’
Or, to put it in more theological terms, and along a different kind of trajectory: every saint has a past; and every sinner has a future.
That insight about the two sides to our nature must surely shape the way in which we see our fellow human beings. And it is perhaps an insight that we would do well to remember. There is always so much that is divisive within our society, and indeed throughout our world. And in recent times I can’t help feeling that the forces that divide us from one another have never been stronger. We have witnessed startling levels of violence and aggression in the domestic politics both sides of the Atlantic. We have seen shocking incidents of anti-semitism and racist abuse far too close to home. And the world news often feels like a catalogue of unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. How far we have strayed from the beings that God created us to be.
I can remember Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, now sadly deceased, once observing the paradox that Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God – whereas in Jewish (and indeed Christian) tradition God, by definition, has no image. And the inescapable conclusion that he drew from that is the fact that there can never be any human being of whom it can be said – you are not in the image of God, nor that some are closer to God’s image than others. Because regardless of our colour, ethnic background, orientation, or level of physical well-being, we are all beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
For Christians there is a further stage to this, however – because we affirm that in Christ do at last finally see the image of the invisible God: and what form does that image take? For me, it is encapsulated in the oil painting that hangs directly above our high altar here at St Bride’s. It is the image of the crucified Christ: the Messiah whose love for the world led him to give his life for the world, that the whole world might be set free from all those things that separate us from the God who created us, and who loves us.
Our first Collect this evening not only takes us back to the wonder of that first Creation story, reminding us that we are all made in the image of God; but it also challenges us to remember that as followers of Christ, we are charged to discern the imprint of God’s love in everything that he has made – and to see his likeness in all our brothers and sisters, whoever, and whatever, and wherever they are:
who hast created the heavens and the earth
and has made us in thine own image:
teach us to discern thy hand in all thy works
and thy likeness in all thy children:
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.