One of my favorite Fred Craddock stories which most of you have probably heard before, but a few of you haven’t is the story Fred tells about the time he and his wife were vacationing in their favorite place in the Great Smokey Mountains. They ate dinner in a rather new restaurant called the Black Bear Inn, which featured a beautiful view of the mountains. Early into their meal an elderly man approached their table and welcomed them. He talked to them for a while and it came out that Fred was a minister with the Christian Church of the Disciples of Christ. When the elderly man heard that he was a Disciples of Christ minister he pulled up a chair and said, “I owe a great deal to the Christian church.” Then he told Fred and his wife this story:
He said, “I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married and the whole community knew it. In those days it was a reproach, and the reproach that fell on my mother, fell also on me. When I went into town with her, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess and I ate my lunch alone. In my early teens I began to attend a little church back in the mountains called Laurel Springs Christian Church. They had a minister who was both attractive and frightening. He had a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome since I was, as they put it, a bastard. So I would arrive just in time for the sermon, and when it was over I would get out of there quick because I was afraid someone would say, “What’s a boy like you doing in church?”
“One Sunday some people queued up the aisle before I could get out. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. I could see out the corner of my eye his beard and his chin, and knew it was the minister. I trembled in fear. He turned his face around so he could see mine and he seemed to stare at me for a while. I knew what he was doing. I knew that he was going to make a guess as to who my father was. A moment later he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of . . .’ and he paused. And I knew what was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. But he said, ‘Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the backside and said, ‘Now, you go claim your inheritance.’ The elderly gentleman concluded by saying, “I left the building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.” Fred asked the man his name. He said, “Ben Hooper.” It took a few moments, but then Fred remembered his own father talking about how the people of Tennessee twice elected as governor, a man with a hard beginning, by the name of Ben Hooper.
The minister said to the boy, “You are a child of God, go claim your inheritance.” That’s who you are sisters and brothers, right now. It’s not because you believed all the right things or did the right things or joined the right church. You may have thought that was what made you a child of God, but it didn’t. You were already a child of God before you believed or did any of those things. And this is not just true of you. It’s true of your children and grandchildren. Your parents, your sisters and brothers, your friends, your co-workers, and yes, even your enemies. Even those who believe totally different than you do or live totally different. They are children of God too.
Of course, being a child of God doesn’t mean that there is nothing else to do. Obviously, being a child of God does not automatically mean that we are living the way we have been created and called by God to live. Nevertheless, we are who we are, we are all children of God by pure grace. Life is a gift. Our physical birth is a birth into God’s family. Of course, that doesn’t negate the need for spiritual birth. Being a child of God by physical birth, doesn’t negate the need for spiritual awakening and enlightenment and renewal. There is truly a sense in which we all need to be born again, and again, and again. However, being a child of God is not a reward for believing in Jesus or joining a church or doing all the right things. It’s who we are, and that’s true whether we believe it or not.
Many of us have mistakenly, I believe, labeled the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden as the fall of humanity. That story is actually a story about what is true regarding humanity from the beginning. It’s a story about deception, selfish ambition, avoiding responsibility and passing the blame. It’s a story about spiritual blindness and willfully choosing the wrong path. And all of that is part of all our stories as well. It’s a part of being human. However, we forget that the story of our sin is not the first story to be told.
The Psalmist says when he looks at the vastness of the heavens, he says to God, What are human beings that you would be mindful of them and care for them? The psalmist responds by recalling the creation story in Genesis 1. Human beings have been created just a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and given dominion over the earth. The dominion given to humankind over creation is the dominion of supervision for the good of creation, not the dominion of exploitation for the sole benefit of humankind. Our purpose is to mirror God, to reflect the divine likeness, and to direct and manage the world in ways that reflect God’s goodness and grace.
You see, sisters and brothers, we are not first and foremost sinners. We are sinners. We are spiritually blind and unwise and we do hurtful things. But the most important thing about is that we are born children of God, possessing God’s Spirit. Our lives are intimately connected to God whether we know it or not. Our true self is the Christ self, that I talked about not too long ago, that gets buried underneath layers of the false self. The true self, the divine self, the Christ self is the first, most glorious thing about us, even though many people are not even aware of their true nature, identity, and calling. We are one with God, even though most people don’t realize it.
It seems to me that the first step in actually “claiming our inheritance” as the country preacher said, the first step in reflecting the divine nature, in mirroring the image of God is trusting who we are. And in order to do that, in order to trust in our divine identity and nature, we have to be aware. So enlightenment and spiritual awareness, go hand-in-hand with trust and commitment. I love the way Marcus Borg talks about this in his book, The Heart of Christianity. He points out that in the process of human development one of the first things that happens is self-consciousness or self-awareness. And it happens early. At some point, infants in the process of becoming toddlers become aware that the world is separate from themselves. As infants, we have no awareness. As infants the world is just an extension of ourselves. But at some point we start to develop the awareness that we are separate from the world.
Borg tells a story he heard about a three-year-old girl. She was the firstborn and only child in the family, but now her mother was expecting another child, and the little girl was excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of bringing the new baby home, the little girl made a rather strange request. She wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room. This made the parents a bit uneasy, but they had a good intercom system, so they gave her permission. They listened carefully as they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They could imagine her tiptoeing looking in the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.” I don’t know if that story happened or not, but I believe it is true and speaks truth. In the process of growing up, in becoming a separate self, we forget that we are inseparably connected to God, that it is the Divine nature who infuses us with life.
In the unfolding of our lives we internalize all kinds of “messages” from our world– from our parents, our peers, our teachers, the media, many people and influences contribute. Borg describes it this way: “By the time we are in early adolescence, perhaps earlier, our sense of who we are is increasingly the product of our culture. We feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to the messages we have internalized. In our culture, these messages center around the three A’s of appearance, achievement, and affluence.” Think for a minute about the questions that were uppermost in our minds growing up: Am I attractive enough? Do I look good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I talented enough? Am I cool enough? And of course, we let our culture define for us what it means to be cool, right?” In the very process of growing up, in the very process of being socialized into our world, we acquire a false self, this allusion of who we are. In biblical terms this is what it means to live outside of the garden of Eden, outside of paradise. This is what means to live in captivity and in exile. This is what it means to live in the “far country.” This is what it means in the words of the Apostle Paul to live “in the flesh” and to live “under sin.”
So, the first step in “claiming our inheritance” and “reflecting the Divine nature” is becoming aware that we are not actually who we think we are. We are not “unworthy sinners who deserve hell.” However, we are not “all that” either, because we are not unlike everyone else. We all share a common life. We are all children of God – loved, cherished, called to be divine image bearers, assigned to govern this world in peace and justice and grace as God’s representatives, chosen to take care of one another and the creation. That’s who are. So the first step then in reflecting the divine nature is to claim who we really are, to trust that we really are one with God, and then to commit our lives to living out that calling.
This takes us on a journey both inward and outward. It takes some honesty and humility. It requires some real effort and intentionality. Soul work is challenging, difficult work. Our fall into exile is very deep. Our life outside the garden is complicated. The layers of the false self we have accumulated over the years keep us blind, pre-occupied, worry-filled, fearful, prideful, competitive, grasping, frustrated, insensitive to others, prejudiced, and on and on. We have to face this about ourselves and struggle with it. And recognizing who we are gives the courage and motivation and power to do that.
The first followers of Jesus were simply called followers of the way. They understood that the spiritual life is a journey and a process. And they found in Jesus, as the writer of Hebrews says, the pioneer of our salvation. They discovered that the way of Jesus – the way he lived and taught his followers to live – leads us out of our spiritual exile and bondage. We learn from Jesus how to die to our false selves, so that we can live out the reality and fullness of our true selves as reflections of the Divine image.
This is one of the points that the author of Hebrews makes in Hebrews 2. The author references Psalm 8. But in place of humankind in general, the writer highlights Jesus, as the representative human being. Instead of saying that human beings were made a little lower than God as the Psalmist does, the writer reinterprets the psalm in light of his own experience of Christ and his community’s experience of Christ. He says that Jesus was made a little lower than angels, and he tasted death on behalf of all of us. He didn’t die as our substitute, because we are all, like Jesus, going to die. Jesus didn’t die so we don’t have to die. We are going to die too. We are going to suffer. There is no escaping death. Jesus died, however, as one of us. And God vindicated his death, by raising him up and crowning him with glory and honor. God vindicated him as the “pioneer of our salvation.” So for followers of the way Jesus is the definitive revelation of the way of God.
As “the pioneer of our salvation” he shows us what our salvation looks like, and what the salvation of the world looks like, because it’s never just about us. The biblical writer describes this process as “bringing God’s children to glory.” That’s the process of salvation, and Jesus is the “pioneer of our salvation,” because he is the one who leads us through this process of becoming who we are, and in becoming who we are we come to reflect the divine image in the way we live. As we trust in his life and teachings and follow him he becomes our model and guide. This is what it means to call Jesus Lord, sisters and brothers. It means we take his life and teachings seriously as our best example of what it means to be human and live out God’s image in the world. Jesus leads us on a journey and engages us in a process that enables us to become who we are. Jesus shows us how to claim and trust our true identity, and to actually live daily as God’s beloved children.
Gracious God, help us to understand that we are your children by grace, and that we did nothing to earn or merit this. May we realize that we are loved just as we are. And may our experience of your love compel us to become who we are by following the example of Jesus who is the pioneer of our salvation.