Human being as Relational being (Part 1)

Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 5 May 2019

Reading was John 20:1-18

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I don’t know if you’re aware that Ministers in the Presbyterian Church are granted periodic Study Leave. For a few months last year I (mostly) stepped out of the rhythm of active ministry to write a Masters dissertation on theological anthropology.

“What’s ‘theological anthropology’…?”, I hear some ask. Great question! I’d love to tell you about it!

I’m afraid that, when a Minister goes on Study Leave, it’s the congregation’s obligation to endure a rendering of the deep scholastic enterprise the Minister has journeyed on … so get comfortable!

No… I hope you’ll find theological anthropology interesting, and that I can share it in such a way to grow our faith. I pray the Holy Spirit will be at work as I share my research.

Today I will offer an introduction to the topic, and then in the following two weeks explore its implications for us and our lives.

One reason I chose the topic of theological anthropology goes back to a time I was staying with family friends. One evening I was talking to their teenage kids about my study in theology. I shared about the understanding of God as Trinity, the Incarnation, Salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church – for some reason they didn’t seem as interested in these topics as I was!

But when I mentioned theological anthropology they showed a great deal of interest.Theological anthropology is describing who we are as human beings – using the understandings available through Christian theology. Those teens are interested in how it is we go about describing who we are.

And I guess it’s a topic most of us can relate to! However, as I’ll explain in a moment, describing ourselves may not be as straightforward as we imagine.

Have a think about this for a moment… What might be important for us to say when describing ourselves as human beings…?

We might want to try and say what makes humans distinct from other creatures. The differences between us and other creatures are interesting, right? Most classical descriptions of what makes human beings distinctive from other creatures have assumed some sort of substance – a substantial soul implanted within each of us.But, increasingly the preference has been to move away from an understanding of some substance distinguishing human beings, toward a recognition of the significance that we are creatures shaped by our relationships.

So, the focus of my research has been on human being as relational being. Almost all contemporary anthropologies (descriptions of human beings) recognise the importance of the relationships we have. So what does a theological anthropology offer us? How does theology assist us in accessing the truth about ourselves?

As I mentioned, describing ourselves is not as straightforward as we might imagine. Surely, talking about ourselves should be pretty easy? After all, we seem to have the primary resources at hand – ourselves.

Well, that might be true, if our relationships were limited to just one another. Then the disciplines of sociology, psychology, linguistics (and so on) might offer an adequate description of human beings. But Christian faith proclaims human beings are in relationship with God – the creator of heaven and earth!

So, Christian faith invites us to look at what it means to be human ‘through heaven’s eyes’. The resources of faith shed greater light on human existence. To be precise, it is God’s self-revelation which initiates relationship with us and shows what true personhood is. In a very real sense, Christian faith offers an understanding of who we are from God’s perspective. 

Perhaps an analogy would help express why we limited in our self-understanding. I know I’ve got kids (I can SEE them!) But to know what it is to be their Dad, I need to understand my responsibilities as a parent – as well as the joyful possibilities I can participate in with my kids, as their Dad. To observe my children isn’t enough. I can measure how tall they are, how much they eat, and what time they wake up in the morning! – but these facts (as true as they are) on their own don’t tell me about what it is to be a parent: to nurture, protect, encourage, enjoy, prepare them for life and take up their own responsibilities.

Furthermore… I know I am married…(I’ve got the certificate!) But to be a loving husband… I need to learn what it is to be attentive, how to communicate, how to ask for forgiveness!

Role models help, and listening to the experiences and wisdom from others.[1] This is why we offer pre-marriage counselling for couples getting married at St John’s.

We need greater perspective to understand ourselves more fully. Theological anthropology recognises that another perspective offers a fuller understanding. God’s revelation gives the greater perspective for understanding ourselves as human beings in relationship.

It’s not that God’s revelation doesn’t take our human relationships seriously. Quite the opposite. Part of what God’s revelation shows us is that our relationships are even more significant than we could imagine on our own.

We are in a terrific complex dynamic of relationships as creatures existing in creation. As relational beings, we are in relationship with other human beings, but also with the natural world, other creatures, and to cultures.

God has initiated relationship with us and revealed God’s own desire to be known. God’s initiative to be in relationship to us, enables us to understand all our human relationships – including our relationship to God.[2] It makes a difference when we look at ourselves ‘through heaven’s eyes’.

This song from the film Prince of Egypt expresses extremely well what it is to know and experience life from God’s perspective.

So how can you see what your life is worth
Or where your value lies?
You can never see through the eyes of man
You must look at your life
through Heaven’s eyes

Today’s readings speak of God’s revelation, as it crystalises in the person of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. In this resurrection-appearance I want to highlight a couple of things…

Firstly, the character of the revelation. The unique identity of the risen Christ is revealed in the ordinary. God’s revelation comes within the experience of human history. This is emphasised by Mary’s initial assumption that she is talking to the gardener!

Furthermore, we hear that God’s revelation is relational.

Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. (v17)

By saying this Jesus is not minimising his relationship with Mary. What he is saying is that the relationship is no longer mediated solely through the usual human physiological experience.

Also, Jesus is revealing how his primary relationship is with God the Father. It is from the relationship with God the Father that all other relationships derive and have meaning.

We are shown that we are relational beings. We cannot know about our being as an examination or exploration of a ‘thing’ or ‘substance’. The revelation of God is only understood from the perspective of faith.

Why? Well, it relates directly to the identity of Jesus and his purpose on earth. You see, Jesus IS the focus of God’s revelation. The personhood of Jesus is the revelation of true humanity. The personhood of Jesus is the revelation of true human destiny.Just as faith is needed to understand Jesus, faith is needed to understand what Jesus reveals about true humanity and the destiny of humanity.

Augustine said that our hearts will never come to rest until they rest in God.[3] Questions about ourselves as human beings are answerable only in the context of our experience of faith.

So what? What does all this mean for us, today? To know ourselves in relationship (by God’s self-revelation) enables us to make a relational response to God.

And that’s a BIG deal. Let me quickly say why this is such a big deal…

Firstly, it makes us distinct as creatures.[4] Our faith is our human response to the relationship God has revealed. And our response is direct participation in relationship with God. This response we are able to make, as participation in relationship with God, is assumed in our life together as a church.

In our St John’s Mission Statement we express our response of faith to live and share Christ’s hope for our world. At the centre of this hope we live and share is the revelation of true human destiny in the personhood of Jesus. As we respond through faith and participate in God’s will, we share in personhood that is full of meaning and purpose. As you and I live and share Christ’s hope, we join in the fulfilling of the destiny God has intended for humanity.

This may sound lovely, but it may not always feel like that for us, right? It may not feel like that’s our experience, today even. So what’s messing with our relationship with God, as I’ve described it…?

Next week, I will share more of my research which identifies sin as broken relationship. And also, what God has done to address this.


[1] I know I have time and talents…but to know my vocation… I need to discern how I can apply these in a way that make a difference and brings fulfilment. I know I have money and resources…but I need help to know what it is to invest in building God’s Kingdom.

[2] Theological anthropology derives from God’s action. Human understanding derived from God’s action is generally reflected in cohesive systematic Christian theology, as well as in Christian creeds and confessions. Discussions of anthropology come after the doctrine of God, and are derivative from it.

[3] Augustine, Confessions and Enchiridion, ed. and trans. by Albert C. Outler (London: SCM Press, 1955), 31.

[4] We have no reason to assume that other creatures recognise the revelation of God in Jesus Christ – and therefore no other creatures derive meaning from this.

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