What does it mean to be created in the image of God? That was a question raised in a recent Q and A session for parishioners. Given the current angry debates about transgender people and their civil rights it wasn’t an unexpected question. After all, if we are created in the image of God what right do we have trying to change it?
It’s true we are created in the image of God and God did make us male and female, but the two are not different ways of saying the same thing. Whatever the image of God is, it’s not sensate material. To believe our bodies are what is created in the image of God is to create God in our image, something we are accused of doing by ardent atheists. The image of God has to be something else that we share in part with whatever God is. So the first question needed to be asked is “What is the image of God?” At the same time the matter of male and female needs to be set aside with the admonition that while most people are born either male or female, nature’s irregular ways cause a small percentage to be born with the wrong genitals. Obviously it’s more complicated than that but it’s just the way things happen in nature.
So to get back to the image of God, what is it? Our little group came up with some potential answers. Scripture, as we understand it through the lens of Jesus, says that God is creator of all that is seen or unseen. God is love. God sustains material existence. God blesses, heals, chastises and corrects humanity’s behavior. There must be some way in which being created in the image of God participates in things like that.
When Jesus sent the new disciples out two by two to go into nearby villages and proclaim the news that the kingdom of God had come near, he was telling them to do what the image of God is. It is of God and it heals, reconciles, and proclaims what is just. It is of God and has no other source. It can be received in peace or rejected but it must be proclaimed. It is good works that bring God’s blessings in them, something entirely different from doing social good out of mere human motivation to do good for others. It is the proclamation of God’s abounding and steadfast love, not believe or go to hell. It is not naive about humanity’s manifold sins and wickedness but confronts it head on with the means of repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. In other words it participates with God through Christ Jesus to bring a little of the kingdom of God into the lives of those who will receive it and to open the way to life eternal for those willing to follow the way. It condemns no one and does not deny God’s ability to work in other ways through other people. What we Christians know for certain is that the image of God in which we are created has been made known to us directly from God through Jesus, who is the Word of God made flesh for a time.
Sadly, Christians can slide into prideful complacency or the deeper hubris of assuming exclusive ownership of being created in God’s image. When that happens the light of the kingdom of God that has come near begins to fade away, and the power of the Good News begins to weaken. That makes it easy for non-Christians to treat Christianity and the church as just another cult offering teaching no better or different than others. It’s easier to think that Christian God is just another tribal deity manufactured out of superstition and used as a tool to grab power over others.
To know that one is created in the image of God is a sacred treasure to be honored by following in Christ’s way of love. To recognize that every human being is created in the image of God is to respect and honor it in all others, no matter their belief or lack of it. It is a way to better understand what it means to be created in the image of God. It is only one way. There are others. Each adds more to understanding the image of God that will always be incomplete.