What Are Human Beings?
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
May 27, 2018
First Sunday after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday
Psalm 8; Romans 8:1-17
The 8th Psalm asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
The hymn “O How Glorious, Full of Wonder” asks God, who are we that you should love us? It says that human beings are born of earth, we are humble flesh, and yet we have in us a yearning to be something more.
We are a mix, though, because our yearning can go in two directions. It can lead us into God’s way of love and life and light, or it can lead us into the ego’s way of greed or lust or pride. We choose how to answer the question of who we are.
The choice we make between following the Holy Spirit or following the selfish ego will determine ultimately not only our fate but the fate of the earth. How we answer the question, “What are human beings?” will affect how we treat strangers and other nations and the natural world. It will determine how we treat our bodies, how we vote and what we buy. It will decide whether we have peace in our heart and home and community and world or live in never-ending inner conflict in a nation fighting a never-ending war.
Psalm 8 understands why this question is so important. It says of human beings: “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” Humans have powers that other forms of life on earth do not have. The question is how will we respond and fulfill our dominion?
Psalm 8 begins and ends with the refrain, “O God, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” It is clear throughout the Psalm that human beings have dominion not because we have earned it, but because God gives it to us as a gift. God is the ruler and source; we are the stewards, not the sovereigns. Nor is our stewardship based on our skills and abilities.
Again and again the Bible shows God choosing the meek and the weak to be the bearers of God’s power. We see Moses, a murderer and a poor speaker, being sent by God to tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. We see Samuel being called in the night, an inexperienced boy whom God chose to be a prophet over all the seasoned leaders and priests. We see the Angel Gabriel coming to fifteen-year-old Mary, and the Holy Spirit filling her so that she would bring Christ into the world.
In the 20th Century we saw young Mohandas K. Gandhi, a shy, bungling failure of a lawyer, turn into a leader who freed his people from the most powerful empire the world had ever seen.
What these Biblical and historical characters have in common is that they turned from their self-concern and opened to the Spirit. Moses argued with God about his inadequacy, but he allowed God to lead him. The boy Samuel finally let go of his doubt and confusion and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
The 20th Century American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, said that what qualified Mary to bear Christ was that she made herself absolutely nothing, like a perfectly clear pane of glass. Gandhi said “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect. This comes when he reduces himself to zero.” The 20th Century French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can enter only where there is a void to receive it.” (Gravity and Grace)
When we make ourselves absolutely nothing, zero, void, our bodies can become full of the power of grace. This is the paradox that Paul is trying to get across in his letter to the Romans. He says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
This has been tragically misunderstood. Paul is not saying flesh is evil. The Spirit of God made and dwells in our flesh, so our flesh is good and holy and full of eternal life, but we lose that goodness when we make the flesh an egoic end in itself, rather than a manifestation of the Spirit and an instrument of Christ-like love.
Flesh separated from Spirit pursues the things that the ego desires, which are things that die when the flesh dies. The Spirit’s life is all about eternal things that do not die when the body dies—like the love or light we give to the world, and like our connection to God and one another. But in order to have that connection to the life of the Spirit, we need to make room for it like Mary. We need to lose life in order to gain life as Jesus taught and showed.
This sounds complicated and like foolishness to the mind set on the flesh. But in those times when we succeed at turning away from the ego and setting our mind on the Spirit, what we experience to our amazement is not complication but peaceful simplicity, not foolishness but a wisdom that comes from beyond us. Maybe you have experienced this sometime when you were stuck, when you had run out of inspiration to solve a problem, and you finally let go of all your straining and surrendered and prayed, and that was exactly when the guidance and power you needed arrived.
Why don’t we live this way all the time? Maybe because we have decades of training to rely on our rational mind and material resources to lead us to happiness. Or maybe fear blocks us, because to let go of our habitual ways of solving our problems is to feel terribly vulnerable.
But behind these is an assumption about what human beings are. We act as if we are flesh with a little Spirit available to us in case of emergency. We act as if our flesh has dominion over all things. But what Gandhi and Merton and all those Bible characters are crying out to us to understand is that human beings are not flesh with a dash of Spirit on the side, we are Spirit living in and through our flesh. The Spirit of love in us is what God intends to have dominion.
The 2nd Century Bishop, Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” This is true because a human being is the Spirit of God living in the flesh. To be fully alive is to let the Spirit of love and life and light flow through us and guide us and free us from all the constraints of our ego.
The dominion our egos think we have as masters of the universe needs to be replaced by the dominion Christ showed. Christ’s dominion came by choosing the lowest place, by loving the poor and the outcast, by laying down his life for others. His dominion came through seeing himself as the servant of God and all God created.
What are human beings? We are conduits of God, our source. We are instruments of Christ’s love and peace. We are stewards of the precious Spirit we have been given in our flesh and in all creation.
What happens when we live the love of God that we truly are? Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry described it eloquently to over one hundred million people when he gave the sermon at the recent royal wedding. He said,
There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will…. If you don’t believe me, just stop and imagine…a world where love is the way…. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way…. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again…. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room—plenty good room—for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family…. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.
A few days later, Bishop Curry was interviewed on national television along with the Rev. Dr. William Barber. Curry’s national Episcopal Church has endorsed Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The vision of a world ruled by Christ-like love is at the core of the campaign.
Surely when the realm of God is established on earth, surely when human beings finally live the truth of who they are, we will have a government of love, an economy of love, an earth that blossoms under our loving hands.
As Martha Manheim said last week, the world seems so far from this now, and the church seems to be growing weaker, so it is extraordinary suddenly to have this vision of God’s realm on earth being proclaimed so boldly and courageously and heard by a hundred million people.
Maybe a new Pentecost moment has come.
Maybe the human spirit’s moment has come, rising to answer our great need.
Certainly our moment has come to decide what human beings truly are. Who are we going to choose to be, and how we will act in this crucial time?
Let us pray in silence…