Uniquely human

Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 13 May 2018

Reading was 1 Corinthians 15:39-49

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What has this Bible passage got to say to us? We hear talk of bodies, creatures, sun/moon/stars and creation in general.

It’s about who we are as humans.

Paul is addressing misunderstandings Christians have about their own identity as followers of Christ

  • some are assuming too much about themselves (overly self-confident)
  • and some are not confident enough about what God has done for them.

Is it possible that we too could benefit from hearing again how it is God sees us; who we really are? Do we assume too much about our own capabilities…burdening ourselves? Are there times are confidence in God’s goodness dips…and we miss out on what is available for us?

Visiting Seaworld in California recently I was so amazed by the beautiful mammals. What’s the difference between them and us? This big philosophical question is how I want to approach what this passage is offering us today.

In the natural world there are different creatures – animals, birds, fish. Humans are often regarded as unique among creatures. Just how are humans unique? There are different attempts to express what makes humans unique as creatures:

1. Biology/DNA/molecules. We are the products of biological evolution – including our emotional responses, predilections, motivations, aspirations – it’s all determined by the genetic material we inherit as homo sapiens. BUT, this reductionist view is not adequate for many who feel that human experiences of (say) love, cannot be adequately understood as the product of biological evolution. And why am I talking about killer whales here this morning, when (as far as we can tell) the killer whales aren’t talking about us?

Another way we might talk about humans being unique as creatures…

2. Capacities that are only evident in humans. Usual capacities identified:

  • Reason/intellect
  • Awareness of what is transcendent (we can think about things and ideas we can’t see in front of us)
  • Free will
  • Speech/language

These sorts of human capacities seem helpful to identify what is unique to humanity. EXCEPT, not all of us share these capacities equally. Can we use these capacities to describe what it is to be uniquely human when doing so may exclude those who lack (for example) speech or have limited intellectual capability?

3. Relationships/recognition of responsibility. This certainly seems an important part of what makes humans unique as creatures. BUT, is the ability to be in relationship enough on its own to make us unique as creatures? Is it the strong foundation we’re looking for to understand the key to our identity as human beings? As significant and important as human relationality is, we recognise that we muck it up at times – don’t we? As well as enjoying healthy and fulfilling relationships, we know how relationships can go wrong and the experiences of hurt.

While away on our family holiday in Los Angeles we had a rental car, which I drove while my wife navigated using Google maps (can you see where this is going…?) My wife and I managed to keep our relationship intact, but our four kids unfortunately were routinely told to pipe down while their parents tried to navigate the correct offramps for the 405 freeway!

On their own, human relationality can’t seem to fully express what makes us unique; relationships must be based on some greater reality of our identity. In expressing what is unique about human creatures, Scripture does not identify our biology, our capacities, nor our relationality (on its own). What matters is that humans can share in something that is God’s. In Scripture, this is expressed as humans bearing the ‘image of God’.

This understanding of our faith about who we are has its origins in Genesis (1:26) and continues as an important theme in the New Testament, with a focus on the person of Jesus Christ. This is what we hear expressed in our reading today. Christ is the true image of God, who has come to share with us the possibility of fulfilling God’s creative intention for us – to bear the image of God ourselves. This image of the divine is the realisation of who we are meant to be.

What this means is that, to understand who we are, we don’t look inward to ourselves but to Christ, who gives us the image of God. If we want to see the full image of God in humanity, we are not to look in the mirror! We are to look at the person of Christ. Christ gives back to us our true human identity – as it is intended to be. Paul describes this reclaimed identity by referring to two representative men:

The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (v45)

47The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.


And, furthermore, Paul goes on to say that Christ (the second man/Adam) shares with us what is his; what each representative man was, we became:

48As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven….

49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.[1]


Do we bear the image of God by what we do ourselves? No. It’s not our moral lifestyles (or lack of), it’s not our natural capacities (or lack of), it’s not even what naturally occurs for us – rather, it is a gift of grace that God identifies us this way – so closely to God’s own identity, who has identified with us in Christ.


If we can’t do anything to bear the image of God, how do we recognise and celebrate it? What Scripture makes clear is that we are conformed to Christ. By trusting God and allowing ourselves to be conformed to Christ is to allow the divine image to be more evident in us.

Example: copper coins that get squashed into an oval with the name of the tourist place printed on them. They are ‘conformed’ and now bear the image. When we allow ourselves to be shaped by the gracious activity of Christ alive in us – the image of God is more clearly imprinted upon us, as we allow Christ to have more and more of us.


 49Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.


Do we dare trust ourselves to God?


Finally, it is important to remember that the image of God is not just in you – the person next to you bears God’s image too. Despite what we see, experience, feel disappointed and hurt about, remembering that those around us bear the image of God changes our view of the world.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer states:

..in the Incarnation [of Christ] the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God… Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp 301-302)


How will seeing others this way change the way you live today?

Bearing the image of God, our humanity is restored and we enjoy communion with God and communion with each other. As we come to enact this communion in the shared meal of our Christian faith, may we recognise God’s act of solidarity with us in Christ, the image of God in each other, and how this makes us fully human.


I hope you see the massive implications from this identity we have in God’s image. It is this that makes us unique as creatures, not our own efforts or achievements. But because we share in what is God’s. So we live in hope knowing this, allowing ourselves to be conformed to Christ and taking up the response-ability as bearers of the image of God.





[1] Paul uses a range of binary descriptions to emphasise the difference between our natural creaturely state and what we are transformed into by Christ as he shares the image of God into us. You can read them in verses 42-44: perishable/imperishable… dishonour/glory… weakness/power… physical body/spiritual body. These are listed to emphasis the wonderful transformation we have through Christ.


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