A sermon preached by the reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 21 July 2019 [Proper 11]:
Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

The Image and Likeness

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God …

I know that it is extremely hot this morning, among the hottest days of the summer to this point, and I will do my best not to contribute to the stultifying humidity with any added hot air; but did you hear the opening phrase of today’s epistle lesson? Jesus is the image of the invisible God. This is one of these scriptural verses that rings with such a captivating, poetic tone that, if we sit with its sound in a mindful way, something profound emerges.

This opening phrase contains music for the soul, and in fact it is referred to as a “Christ hymn”, one that specifically emphasizes the unique power and divinity of God’s Messiah, Jesus. In the lyrics of the hymn, Jesus is set as the Source of all things created. He is seen as the sustainer of all created life. Jesus is placed at the very head of all that is. These are descriptors of high exaltation, to be sure: Jesus as the cosmic Christ, not merely “my personal Lord and Savior”. The “image of the invisible” resounds in poetic and majestic paradox, in which the apparent contradiction is overwhelmed by the real presence of God’s life-giving mystery with us, in us, around us.

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God …

I would like you to claim this phrase, even memorize it so that it can rest with you and begin to seep into your bones, your souls, your minds. Because I believe that it is that important, I want to offer what this phrase, this soulful, spiritual poetry indicates in terms of our being God’s people and Christ’s Body. Or put another way, I want to address some of what it means for us to be “made in God’s image and likeness” and to know and, thereby, follow Christ?

Christ Jesus is the image
of the invisible God …

In the first creation story in the Book of Genesis, God proclaims that the epitome of the Lord’s divine creation is humanity. To emphasize the point, the Holy One says: “Let us make [human beings] in our image, after our likeness.”1 Of course, if we take this creation story seriously, if we believe that God is “the Source of light and life” (as the Eucharist’s Proper Preface puts it), then there are some obvious question, such as: What does it mean to be made in God’s image? How do we live into this life-giving likeness? What does all this have to do with the purpose of the church, the Body of Christ?

Who do you look like? In whose image do you see yourself?

As I have grown older and (for instance) when I look into the mirror to shave, I startle myself by how much I see my father’s face. Lately, I even hear his voice in my own. With my grown children and now my grandchildren, there is among us all an abiding image. There is a similarity we share in terms of the way we look and even act. And not all of it is simply determined by genetics. We share a nature, which is surely physical but also we seem to be wired similarly in deeper terms.

In the family of God, we share in God’s nature, not that we are divine but that we are deeply – some might say hauntingly – wired to the Holy One. There is an aspect of another creation story in Genesis that reveals the impact of this shared nature and what being made in God’s image entails.

The story comes from the second chapter of Genesis. In this second creation story God forms the first human being by gathering the dust and dirt of the earth with his own hands and shaping that basic stuff into the human form. Then, bending over this ground, the Holy One breathes into the “dust man’s” nostrils the “breath of life”; and then that gathering of earthly elements became a living being.

Amidst the powerful imagery of this creation story lies what strikes me as a deep and abiding insight into what it means to be created in God’s image: that is, to be truly alive and reflecting God’s own nature. To my mind it is this: Deep inside, at our elemental essence, none of us has forgotten the impact of that divine and creative touch.

With that gathering of earth’s elemental stuff, God touched us, and by God’s touch, we were formed. In the great mystery of our creation, we never quite manage to forget God’s creative, life-giving touch. Even if we have lost the ability or willingness to name this touch, it remains with us.

Being made in God’s image involves many qualities, but I think that we are most aware of God’s creative life-giving touch when we ourselves are involved in being creative. The deep satisfaction of bringing something to life, something larger than ourselves, whether it is a piece of art, music, poetry, or a garden, a meal – or a child, the act of creativity sparks what it means to be made in God’s image; and in these acts of creativity (with love residing at their cores), our lives once again resonate with that forming touch of God that originally gave us life.

What I raise with you is beautifully and accurately named by St. Augustine (one of the church’s great leaders and teachers). Augustine penned what it means to be made in God’s image, praying these words: “O God, we are restless til we rest in Thee.”

How many of us fail to recognize that the restlessness that lies deep within our hearts is the eternal echo of God’s touch upon us at our creation. It is as if God is knocking on the door of our hearts, asking once more to be let in. Only if we respond to this holy entreaty and let God in will the restlessness become peaceful and free us for full life.

Our souls long to return to the life-giving touch of God because that is what it means to be made in the image of the Source of all life. It is the indelible mark on our nature. We are made in God’s image. Nothing else will satisfy.

Yet, being made in God’s image is not the same as being in his likeness. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is keen on this point, saying that given that we are made in God’s image, our lives then need to be continually shaped and disciplined into the likeness of God. And this, in particular, is where Jesus comes into play. For he is “the image of the invisible”. How might we become more and more what we have seen in the Risen One, where fear and death do not reign, where he reality of Holy Communion is fulfilled?

When asked about how he managed to create such great sculpture, Michelangelo explained that he always saw his desired image within the block of stone in front of him. What he had to do was chisel and carve away what was hiding that beautiful image. So it is with being made in God’s likeness. How, given that Jesus is God’s image, can we shape our lives along the lines of the Risen One? What practices lead to our lives being like Jesus?

Answering these questions brings us to what the church as Christ’s Body is supposed to be about. The church is the place where folks like you and me work at being more Christ-like. The church is the place where we learn how to chisel and carve our lives into what we have seen in Jesus. The church, the Body of Christ is where we are supposed to learn the exercises to grow into Jesus’ image and apprehend his likeness. It is also the place where we support one another in this transforming work of becoming “like God”.

The problem is that too many of us don’t look at the church as a place from which we may grow into our created nature of being God’s people, made with God’s nature. Too many of us seem not to be interested in what the Orthodox call Theosis, that is, becoming what God intends and what Christ reveals.

Made in God’s image; called to Christ’s likeness: I will end now with this observation, which I hope will help you keep these points in mind. I have recently been reminded of one way the sacrament of Holy Communion is distributed and the words that can be spoken as the sacred gifts are presented. The words are these: “Behold what you are; Become what you receive.”

“Behold what you are.” You are God’s beloved people, called to be Christ’s Body. “Become what you receive.” Love asks us to grow; and our growth is the deepest way we can say, “Thank you” for God’s life-giving gift.

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God …

Behold what you are. Become what you receive.