The Insufficiency of Implicit Dignity.

[This is a long one, but I hope it’s useful to you. Thanks for reading. –d.]

On Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching the morning sermon at my church. It was “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” but rather than speaking just on abortion (per usual for that day), I sought to expand our focus. So we looked at what the Bible says about the dignity and value of human life as a whole, asking the question, “Why is human life sacred? What sets us apart from the rest of creation?”

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I won’t reprint my full manuscript here, but I’ll give you a summarized version:

Mankind was created especially by God. The language of Genesis 1 and 2 speak to a particular attention and direct interaction by God with the man and woman He made. He gave them the place of honor and responsibility over all creation (“a little lower than the angels,” as David would write in Psalm 8). They would represent Him throughout the earth and rule over it. But our first parents rebelled against their King, committing cosmic treason by breaking His commands and sinning against Him, as they sought to be His equals.

However, despite the entrance of sin and death into the world, God still affirmed the value of human life in Genesis 9, and the distinction of value between man and animals, because even as fallen creatures we are made in the image and likeness of God.  Human beings have dignity and value, not because of our abilities or capacities, but because of what God has done in choosing to have a special relationship with us.

I spoke about how there isn’t a clear teaching in Scripture about what constitutes being made “in the image of God,” but working off the idea of being created to glorify God all over the earth, I talked about how human beings have the singular ability of echoing (ever so faintly) some of the communicable characteristics of God. We can demonstrate love, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and other attributes of God, but in a diminished and creaturely way. However, the entrance of sin into the world corrupts even our best intentions and actions, so that we as a sinful creatures are only able to demonstrate these attributes, on our best day, in broken and distorted ways. We do not love God and each other as we ought, and our poor attempts at “righteousness” or “goodness” are mixed with self-interest.

Because God is just and holy, He must rightly punish sin and destroy evil, and thus we would be doomed. But God (who is rich in mercy) sent His son, Jesus the Christ, whom the Scriptures repeatedly call “the image of God” (Col. 1:15) and “the radiance of His Glory, the exact imprint of His nature” (Heb. 1:3). In short, Jesus the God-man is the perfect template of what mankind was supposed to be but could not be, because of sin.

Jesus lived a human life of perfect righteousness, died in the place of sinners, taking our guilt and the just penalty of divine wrath upon Himself, and then was raised again, giving us the guarantee of our own resurrection for all who turn from their sins and trust in His saving work as our sacrificial substitute. Those who trust in Jesus are “made new” and then begin to be remade, reshaped, into the image of Jesus (sanctification). Several passages in the New Testament affirm that we who have been born again are being remolded to look like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 4:17-24; Col. 3:9-10), and when we are finally resurrected, we will be finally and fully restored (II Cor. 3:18).

Thus, my appeal to believers in Jesus (in light of these truths) is to recognize that all human life has dignity and deserves respect, regardless of that person’s actions or circumstances, because God has made them in His image. We are thus commanded to see all people through the eyes of the Spirit and not through the eyes of the flesh–and we are compelled to make our appeals to all to be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:14-21).

In the sermon, I mentioned several classes of people who deserve dignity and respect but are sometimes passed over in our culture: the unborn, the orphan, unwed mothers in crisis, the sick and dying, the disabled, the poor. Since I feared the sermon was running long, I mentioned also a mixed-bag category of “people who are different than us”–including people who look different, speak a different language, were born in a different country, or even worship a different god. All these, I argued, have dignity and should be shown love and respect because all these are made in the image of God and need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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I finished the sermon and actually felt pretty okay about it. After the service ended, I was approached by a few of the brothers, including an African-American brother in our church family who’s a friend of mine. He hugged me and thanked me for the sermon, but then he said, “You know, at the end, I was expecting you to talk about race a little more. But that’s okay.”

For a moment, I was struck.  It seems so obvious.  On a day when I’m affirming the value of all human life–on MLK weekend, of all things–I missed a chance to make an explicit reference to one of the most divisive issues in our culture.

It’s not that I didn’t think of it at all. It was implicit in my comments throughout the sermon. I said more than once, “all people, no matter who they are, have dignity as being made in God’s image.”  But I missed the chance to say it more clearly.

All I could do was apologize. I told him it was there in the subtext, but I confessed that I could have and should have taken an extra moment to underline it.  My friend graciously shrugged and shook my hand again, “I’m not offended, man. I know what you meant.”

Even so, the more I considered it, the more I was a bit bothered by it. What should have been underlined in my outline became a footnote.  If you had asked me directly, I would have affirmed unequivocally that all people of all races are made in the image of God and are deserving of respect and dignity. But I’m not forced to think about race that often. I don’t have to rub up against that issue every day. It can slip into the background for me. Maybe that’s a privilege I’ve been afforded.

“But Dave, your job as the preacher was to herald the Gospel, not push a social message.”  Yes and amen, and I pray I did that clearly. But: there is nothing unbiblical or inappropriate about speaking prophetically from Scripture to a specific issue facing our community, especially when it is practically set up on a tee for me to take a swing at it. We were talking about human dignity and value and the way we as Christians should affirm the value of all human life. I don’t need to promote or support any specific political interest group in order to say what the Bible says–that all people are made in God’s image, that God is no respecter of persons, and that we as the Church are called to proclaim reconciliation to ALL people, including those who are of a different race, background, or class than we are.

And maybe I shouldn’t have to single out race and ethnicity as one of those issues, but we live in a country that seems to be growing more divided around race.

Here’s what I’m getting at: I don’t think it was enough simply to imply that people of other races have equal dignity with mine. This is worth speaking directly to, even at the risk of possibly over-emphasizing it. The Gospel is the answer to racism, and the Church needs to repeat that over and over until the world gets tired of hearing us saying it!

I’m frustrated that I missed the easy opportunity to do just that. By God’s grace, I hope my listeners heard what I didn’t say explicitly but should have. I am thankful that the Holy Spirit is the one who applies the Word to our hearts. And I pray that my church family hears His voice today.

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