Out of that whole first reading, I’m picking just a couple of verses:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
There’s honestly too much in those verses for one sermon. So I want to offer a meditation on one facet of them tonight. First, we’re going to dispense with the idea that this first chapter of the Bible is a technical discussion of the week the universe was created. It is not. What we have on our hands is a poetic text, a text that evokes a truth about the nature of things and about our relationship with God. It is a creation myth, meant to explain why things are the way they are. It does that without competing with the processes science describes to us.
So what’s going on with the word “us” hanging there? When God created the light or the land or the plants and animals, God said, “let there be…” but here, when God creates people, it’s “let us make.” Is it an artifact from one of the other cultures in the middle east with similar creation stories, a sort of vestige of this story’s origin in a polytheistic tradition? I mean, probably. The Bible always emerges in context.
But the “us” is also a signifier of divine multiplicity. The “us” suggests that God could have a conversation with Godself, speaking within the divine household as an “us” while still cohering as a unity to be referred to with the singular and capitalized “God.” Is this an embedded prefiguring of the doctrine of the Trinity, which would emerge centuries later? That’s a real stretch. The Trinitarian model is a product of a very different time and place.
But the mystery of divine plurality hangs in the air, productively breaking apart any notions of divine simplicity, right here at the start. And watch as this divine multiplicity becomes human multiplicity, for humankind is made “in our image, according to our likeness.” Not little miniature Gods are we, like souvenir Statues of Liberty, but we are created in the image and likeness of something that is mysteriously multiple. God did not create with a rubber stamp.
Difference is encoded in at the very beginning. There never was a singular understanding of what humanity looked like. The differences come from God because God is not simple. To be created in God’s image is not simple.
This difference has confounded us ever since. If I am made in God’s image and so are you, how can we be so different? How can we look so different? How can we bring such different understandings and experiences to bear on the world if we are all cut from the same cloth? The answer is, “us.”
Today being Trinity Sunday, we honor the divine multiplicity, the experience of God as Godhead and as Incarnate One and as Holy Spirit. Today being June 7th, 2020, we do well to honor our creation in the image of one who we have always experienced as also somehow plural. We are created in multiple images and likenesses and they are all equaly of God, without conflict.
What this means is that when we encounter someone we encounter difference, a gap between their experience and ours that cannot be fully closed, no matter how much we listen. This is the nature of our creation.
And we are sent, in today’s passage from the very end of Matthew, to baptize people of all the nations, which kind of feels like the resolution of all of our differences, a soothing future sameness that will fix the tensions of the world. Except that we are to baptize them in a particular way, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. There’s that multiplicity again. Even our idealistic unity has difference built into it.
The lesson, it seems, is that difference is not to be resolved. Difference can create tension, but it also creates motion. It is the source of wind, of breath, of streams and of rivers. The early Christians understood the members of the Trinity to be constantly in motion around one another, a dynamic trinitarian unity, and they coined the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe this motion around one another. Perhaps they process. Perhaps they dance. Perhaps it is something altogether more strange.
Difference and unity are not contradictory, but we humans need the nudge to look for something deeper than sameness. God’s movement in Godself does not erase the identities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and God’s movement in the world does not erase the distinctions between people, between cultures, and between viewpoints.
So then we are challenged to look one another in the eye and not to look for a humanity just like ours, but for the edges of one another’s mystery. We are challenged to recognize the unknowability of another’s inner experience as the image of God. Just sit with that for a second, because we have to be intentional about it. The differences among us in fact describe the face of God, the outer edge of something we cannot ever claim as ours, but which is also part of us.
To honor the mysterious otherness of each person we encounter, especially when the differences between us unsettle us and challenge is, is to honor God, because we are created in God’s likeness, in their likeness.
I don’t want to put this out there as a liberal band-aid, a hashtag that will spackle over the chasms and wounds in our society. This theology does not solve racial tension, and even less will it compensate for our ongoing history of oppressing people of color. It is, I think, at best, a practice that can help us to think more broadly. It is an intentional setting aside of our assumptions and conditioning—at least some of it—so that we might see God. God is everywhere, in everyone, but we so often assume God will appear in our own image.
But it is never so simple. To be created in the image of God is to be part of a vast and irreducible complexity. Our embrace of our own creation comes from honoring the mystery with which each person is created. God is in our differences.