Genesis 1:26-28, Philippians 2:1-8, & Mark 10:32-45
“Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity.” So Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato Si’, and for an encyclical that was supposed to be all about climate change, this is one of the things that surprised me as I read this. I think that one of the things that makes environmentalism controversial is that, since human beings are responsible for much of the damage that’s been done to the Earth, environmentalists often treat humanity as a plague, and disconnect humanity from an ideal of an unspoiled earth. And that’s what’s different about Pope Francis. While he does not let us off the hook, and in fact goes into great detail about all of the damage we have caused, he views humanity as much a part of God’s creation as is the grizzly bear or the wolf, and as greatly to be valued.
This valuing of humanity as something special comes from our Genesis text today, where it says that God created humankind in his image. Jewish and Christian scholars over many centuries have debated what, exactly, this Genesis text means when it says that we are created in the image of God, and they have come up with many different answers. But let’s consider this: this story of creation, while it was most likely told orally for generations beforehand, was probably not written down until the time the Israelites were in exile in the country of Babylon. So here they were, in a foreign country, surrounded by people who worshiped many gods and who made statues of these gods, while the Israelites worshiped one God and had a prohibition against making images of that God. Instead of having dead statues to represent God, as the Babylonians around them had, the Israelites affirmed that living and breathing human beings, each one of us, in our physical selves as we move around, are living, breathing expressions of the living God. Think of that for a moment and let that sink in: each one of us, somehow, in some way, contains the image of God within us. God presents his face to the world in each person who lives on this Earth. How amazing and awe-inspiring is that!
Yet, even though we do affirm that each one of us carries the image of God within us, we still have a hard time identifying what that means. And so, to help us with that, we move to our lesson from Philippians. Philippians 2:8 speaks of Jesus being “in the form of God,” or, in other words, Jesus is the very image of God. Whereas each one of us contains the image of God within us, Jesus is the image of God, both fully God and fully human. And so we look to Jesus to see what God looks like, and how God behaves. According to what Paul writes to the Philippians, even though Jesus is in the form of God, he does not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, or reached for. This is in contrast to Eve and Adam, who, when tempted with the idea of being like God, reached for and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead of doing something like that, Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and humbled himself. He became obedient to God, as we humans should be, and submitted to death on a cross for us. We can never fully understand what that is like. Jesus is God—the God who created the heavens and the earth, who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, who has immense power—and yet, he let go of all of that and became a slave, submitting to death for the creation that he made, that all might be saved. It’s truly mind-boggling.
This is the image of God that we human beings are supposed to emulate. This image of Jesus as the slave of all, who would willingly submit himself to death, made no sense to his disciples. Even though Jesus, up until this point in the Gospel of Mark, has already talked about what is going to happen to him, the disciples just don’t get it. James and John still think that Jesus is going to march into Jerusalem victorious and kick the Romans out. The other ten disciples think the same thing—that’s why they get angry at James and John. It’s not because they understood what Jesus had been trying to say, and James and John didn’t. No, the ten get angry at them because they wish they’d thought of asking Jesus the favor of sitting next to him first. After all, they’re part of the inner circle, too—shouldn’t they get the same amount of honor and glory that James and John are going to get?
Well, this is a case of “Be careful what you wish for—because you might get it.” James and John will indeed share in the cup that Jesus drinks and will indeed be baptized with the baptism that Jesus is baptized with. But what that means is that they will not receive glory by the world’s standards, but will instead experience the same sufferings that Jesus is going to suffer. James will be killed by King Herod in one of his waves of persecutions of Christians, according to the book of Acts. Tradition has it that John is the one who was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation. Death and exile were certainly not what James and John had been hoping for when they put that request to Jesus. But, by becoming servants of all and submitting themselves to death as Jesus had, James and John became great in the church, some of those first disciples whose names are familiar to us over 2000 years later.
So, what does all of this mean as we consider who we are both in relation to God and in relation to the creation around us? Well, let’s go back to our text from Genesis today. God’s command to humankind is to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. There is just no getting around those words “subdue” and “have dominion” over. The English in this case is a pretty good translation of the Hebrew meaning: humankind in this chapter of Genesis is supposed to rule over creation as kings and queens. This verse has therefore been blamed for much of the destruction and damage to the Earth that we see today: if we are supposed to dominate the earth as God commanded, then let’s go ahead and do whatever we want, no matter the consequences. There may be something to this accusation, but it’s doubtful if we can determine how true it is with any certainty. In contrast to this, noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that the dominance meant in this verse of Genesis “has to do with the securing of the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.” Or, in other words, the dominion suggested here in this verse “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals.”
We who are Christians can also look to Jesus as the image of God to see how he expressed what God was like: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” As we go about our lives and display the image of God, we are to follow Jesus’ model: to be first and to be great is to become the slave of all, and that includes serving not only our brother and sister human beings, but also all of creation. But just how do we serve all of creation?
The first thing that I would suggest is to respect life, no matter what form it takes. I think I’ve probably told this story to all of you before, but I ask you to bear with me once more. I have a deathly fear of snakes. You know how some people are afraid of spiders or of mice? Well, with me, it’s snakes. There’s nothing specific that I can remember to pin that fear to; I’ve simply always been afraid of them, whether they are venomous or not. When I was living in Virginia with my parents several years ago, I came home from somewhere and, when I turned into the driveway, there was a big black racer snake lying right in the middle of the driveway. I figured that the racer had just as much right to be alive and to be in that spot as I did, and besides, that type of snake feeds on mice. So, I managed to drive around the snake and park the car. However, when I turned the car off and looked up, the snake was now directly in the path that I needed to take to get from the car to the house. So, I sat in my car and wondered what I was going to do now. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a mockingbird swooped down and started dive-bombing the snake and drove it into the bushes. I watched in amazement, and then made a mad dash from the car to the house, sending up a prayer of thanks to God for sending the mockingbird to get rid of the snake. Respect life: if it’s not necessary to kill an animal, then don’t.
Besides respecting life by not killing when it’s not necessary, we can also do what Martin Luther says in his explanation to the Sixth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” I would like to suggest that we consider our neighbor to be not only our human neighbor, who bears the image of God just as we do, but also our animal and plant neighbors in creation. This is the idea that I mentioned earlier of the shepherd caring for the well-being of his or her sheep. God gave humanity the command to rule over nature, but not to rule with an iron fist. Instead, we are to rule as Jesus rules: with love and compassion, serving one another and serving all of creation. This includes such things as conserving and setting aside land for the use of our animal friends, and working to understand how those ecosystems operate. It also includes working to protect those animals and plants which are endangered, because their lives are as precious in God’s eyes as ours. I believe that God weeps when a species dies out because we humans did not exercise the care for that part of creation as we should have. At the same time, however, we do need to treat human life as precious to God, too, and we need to find that balance, that harmony between ourselves and the rest of creation that God desires for us.
Pope Francis writes, “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass, and metal and deprived of physical contact with nature.” Here in Wyoming, we are still blessed with much wide-open space and many opportunities to come into physical contact with nature. There is, however, the danger of cement, asphalt, glass, and metal encroaching into those wide-open spaces. As we learn of these issues that have the potential to threaten and degrade our environment, and as we approach these issues, let us bring our Christian faith with us. We are made in the image of God, but that image is not one of ruling nature and using it for whatever we will. Instead, that image that we strive for is the one that Jesus presents, coming not to be served, but to serve. Let us seek to find the best ways to serve God and to serve God’s creation by living, to the best of our abilities, in harmony with the rest of the creation. Amen.