Jan. 10, 2016 “Shared Gift” – Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-24

Genesis 1:26-28, 31; 2:18-24
“Shared Gift”
January 10, 2016 – First Sunday after Epiphany

I threw the baseball straight up in the air, then tried to catch it in my new glove. It was the day after my birthday. I was trying out one of my gifts by myself. It wasn’t working out very well. I spent most of my time chasing the ball across the yard or into the street, and I quickly got bored. I needed someone else with me, to throw the ball to me, in order to really enjoy that gift. God’s gift of sexuality is like that, a gift designed and created to be shared with someone else.

These verses in Genesis 1 are the Bible’s first description of the creation of human beings. It is pretty clearly not a scientific explanation of human origins. It doesn’t tell us how or when human beings came into existence. Instead, it’s an account of how the human race is related to God our Creator. As verses 26 and 27 tell us, we are made in God’s image.

There are many explanations of what the image of God means. Mormon theology says that God the Father has a body and human beings have bodies which resemble His. That’s contrary to standard Christian theology and to the Bible’s witness that God is not physical, that no one can see Him. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman in John 4, “God is spirit.”

So some Christians cash out the image of God in “spiritual” qualities. That’s how I first heard it. God is a moral being, so we have a moral sense. God is a Creator, so people are creative. God is free, and so we have free-will. God has a mind, so human beings have minds. Like Aristotle and modern science which both say it is intelligence that makes us different from other animals, the focus is often on that last one, a mental likeness.

Other Christians read the second half of verse 26 and focus on God’s gift of “dominion” to human beings, a rule over all living things on earth. It is ruling over all other creatures which makes us like God who rules over us and all creation.

All those thoughts about the image of God are worth considering, but we also need to read verse 27 in which three short lines are set out in parallel to each other. This is Hebrew poetry, like you find in the Psalms, like we heard this morning in Psalm 29:

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the Lord, over mighty waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;

the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

Do you hear the repetition? Each line is repeated once or twice with a change in wording that expands the thought, adds something. That’s what is happening in Genesis 1:27. The first two lines express pretty much the same thought, God created human beings in his image, but the third expands and develops and explains that thought, “male and female he created them.” To be male and female, to have that difference at the heart of human life, is to be in the image of God, to be like God.

God is not male or female, but within God are all the qualities which make us different from each other as men and women. The New Testament and Jesus show us that while God is one God, God is also three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even here in the first chapter of Genesis there’s a hint of that in verse 26 when God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Those plural pronouns allow a Christian ear to hear the Trinity speaking, the united voice of Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaking and acting together.

Which is exactly how God meant us to live and speak and act when He incorporated that fundamental difference between male and female into our creation. When Christians talk about the Trinity we say that the persons of God are different, distinct. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. There are three. Yet they are One God. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. Different, yet in perfect unity and harmony with each other. That’s the image of God which you and I are meant to reflect in our own relationships with each other, as human persons.

God is diversity in unity, unity in diversity—three yet one, one yet three. God’s image was built into human life from the beginning, a need to live not as separated individuals but as persons who come together in relationships which display God’s own eternally peaceful relationship. Sexuality, being male and female, is the gift given us first, to point us toward and call us into relationships which enjoy a unity in diversity which is like God’s.

Being male and female is a gift meant to be shared. Neither sex is complete and whole without the other. I’m going to stop right here and clarify that. What I just said does not mean that everyone needs to be married or participate in sexual activity to be a whole person. As I will explore more fully in a whole sermon, the single life is a particularly blessed and holy way to live. Jesus lived His entire life as a single man and His was the best human life that ever was. So I’m not saying that anyone is incomplete without a spouse.

What I am saying is that the difference God first formed into us—male and female—are a gift He gave us to point us toward full participation in His image. God made us different, made us male and female, so that we can learn to live like God lives, in harmonious and peaceful relationship between different persons. That difference between men and women is a gift, a holy gift, a shared gift.

Not everyone needs to be married, but men cannot be truly human without women and women cannot be truly human without men. The human community is made from the beginning to include both, to be both. The difference is a gift, a holy reflection of who God is, and it is a gift to share.

Difference, then, is good. After God made all the variety of creation, after He made human beings male and female, different from each other, there in verse 31 of chapter 1, what do we read? It was all good. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That first and basic difference between male and female lets us see that ultimately all the innocent differences of race and age and size and shape are good, are part of God’s plan for His creation.

The differences between us, between the sexes, are not just some barrier we need to cross, not just some limitation that needs to be overcome. It’s the same with race. We’re not living in the image of God if we just try to pretend that human beings are all the same, just interchangeable units which all have the same desires and needs and gifts. No, the differences are part of creation and part of the way in which humanity displays in itself the glorious divine image. There is difference in God, so it’s good and glorious that there is difference between us.

That’s why, as Gabe Shepherd heard at the Urbana missions conference, it’s good to say, “Black lives matter,” and not just immediately jump to saying something like “All lives matter.” That second thought is certainly true, but the first thought invites us to remember the difference, to celebrate the difference as a gift from God, to claim the difference in color as part of what it means to be human beings created in our Lord’s image.

Of course difference by itself is not the whole story. God is three persons, but He is one God. We are male and female, we are black and white, we are rich and poor, we are young and old, but we were created to be one, to be together. Being alone, trying to enjoy the gift of human difference in isolation, is not good.

I started with that lonely image of one person trying to play catch. As I thought about it, I came up with other pictures: playing chess by yourself, a young person totally absorbed in a video game, students walking together but each with head down focused on a cell phone. We could go on.

Back in 2000, Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He discovered that while the number of people who went bowling had increased in the past twenty years, the number of people in bowling leagues had decreased. Folks were bowling alone.

I can confirm that sort of trend here at Courtsports in Eugene. When I joined it twenty years ago, there were seven or eight very active racquetball leagues. Today there are none. Yes, people still get together in the late afternoon to play a couple days a week, but the community of racquetball players has shrunk. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this or that person by himself in a court practicing shots alone. But you can’t play racquetball by yourself. And you can’t be human in isolation. We were made different from each other, made male and female and different in every other way, so that we could be joined together in good relationships. It’s a gift to be shared.

The second chapter of Genesis, the second telling of the creation of human beings, addresses all that loneliness. Jumping back a step, the writer shows us a moment when the human race was just a man, by himself. And God’s response to that situation is there in verse 18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Adam by himself was not good. Adam by himself could not fully enjoy and reflect the image of God. He needed a partner and that partner needed to be both like him and different from him.

God first brought all the animals before Adam there verses 19 and 20. He named them, he had dominion over them, but he was still alone. They were too different. It’s only when God made another person out of Adam’s own rib that the need was answered. Meeting Eve he says there in verse 23,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.”

Male and female, man and woman, were created together to carry and display and reflect back the glory of God, the divine image. They were different, but designed to be together, just like Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different yet eternally together. Over and over Scripture invites us to let that relationship between husband and wife point us toward a deeper understanding of God and His relationship to us.

So we come to verse 24, which we heard Jesus quote today in Mark 10:7, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” If you have any doubt that the distinction between male and female is part of what it means to be in the image of God, just hear that. Two distinct persons become one, like the distinct divine persons are one. In making us male and female, God gave us a gift which makes us like God when we share it properly. And there’s the issue for us.

In the beginning there, that gift, that maleness and femaleness, was all good. Verse 25 gives us an image we can hardly picture, much less understand, “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” For at least awhile, human sexuality existed in complete and utter perfection, a shared gift that brought people together in peace and love rather than driving them apart in anger and bitterness. Adam and Eve enjoyed that gift without shame. That’s how this gift was meant to be.

Yet here we are. We have this wonderful gift to share, like children who received a beautiful toy at Christmas. But we haven’t shared it well. We’ve pulled at it and tried to enjoy it by ourselves or used it to manipulate others or put it to uses for which it was never intended it or made it into the focus of life when it’s only part of who we are. Now that precious gift lies broken on the floor around us and we’ve got no clue how to put it back together again. I will say much more about this in the fourth and last sermon of this series.

For now, though, it will be good for us to hear that, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the gift of sexuality can still be received in health and wholeness. Jesus did not just concede to the brokenness. When asked about divorce, about breaking the gift, He stated emphatically there in Mark 10 that the gift is the way God meant it to be. He reminded us of creation, that God gave us this gift from the beginning, made us to be male and female, and called us to use the gift well, to come together and remain together as one. It can be done, but only through grace.

That’s why we also need to hear today what Paul wrote to Ephesus when Christians there asked about marriage, wondering how believing in Jesus affected their relationships with each other as men and women. They may have been thinking that being Christian meant new rules for marriage and they just wanted to know the rules, perhaps a rule that wives should submit to their husbands.

But in Ephesians 5:21, Paul didn’t start with a rule about husbands and wives. He began with a rule for all relationships, a rule that leads us into that kind of life which God enjoys. “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Jesus the Son of God made Himself subject to the Father and the Father raised and honored and glorified the Son, while the Holy Spirit did the will of them both and carried their love and joy between them and out into world. If we want to have a life like God’s, it will be found by that humble way of being subject, of offering service, of submitting our lives to bring joy and honor to others. That’s how a marriage works.

Paul goes on to say in verse 22, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Live in service to him as you live in service to Jesus. But it’s not one way. It’s a mutual submission like verse 21 said. So verse 25 tells husbands, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” In pre-marital counseling I read that verse and ask the couple, “How did Jesus give himself for the church?” You, like most of those couples, know the answer. He died. He let himself be crucified.

  1. S. Lewis, whose perspective got softened by his own marriage later in life, once wrote in The Four Loves that what that verse means is that the most Christian marriage is the marriage most like a crucifixion. We can brush that off as a stupid joke from a long-term bachelor, or we can add to it the full understanding of the Cross of Christ which ends not in pain and suffering, but in the glory of resurrection on Easter morning.

The sufferings of our Lord Jesus for His church, for us, were all for the sake of our forgiveness and redemption. And the grace which makes a good marriage possible is that same sort of grace, a willingness on the part of both husband and wife to offer forgiveness to each other, even when it hurts. It’s by grace that God came to us in Jesus to draw us back into His life, that life of peace and love across the differences. And it’s in sharing that same kind of grace that we can learn again to share the gift of sexuality in peace and love.

We are very broken. Again, I’ve got more to say about that later. But healing and repair and resurrection is possible. There are no guarantees. God help us, some marriages get broken beyond any repair. But if both parties turn first to the grace of Christ and then offer it to each other, then the gift can be shared again. Know first that you’ve been forgiven and then you will be able to offer forgiveness across the differences.

I’ve seen it happen. Not long into my first pastorate a couple came to me. As I listened to their story, I despaired. “This is never going to work,” I thought. I wasn’t any older than they were; hadn’t been married much longer. They had a child; I didn’t yet. I had very little experience or wisdom to offer except to ask them to learn to forgive. Honestly, I wasn’t very hopeful. Yet they did it. They forgave and got through those days and became leaders in our church. It was all by the grace and gift of God, shared as He meant it to be shared.

God has given you this gift, made you male or female. It’s a gift, a gift to be shared. You may be called to share it through marriage or called to share it in a different way, without physical expression, as an unmarried person. Either way, the sharing can only happen truly through grace, through the forgiveness and love which comes to us from Jesus. Start there in the grace of Christ, then learn to share.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj