The Transcendent Value of Your Humanity

Epiphany of the Lord
John 1.1-18
5 January 2014
Richard I. Deibert
For Irvin E. Deibert, Jr (1927-2013)
Memory Eternal!

“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who loves humanity, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge.  Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your gospel teachings.  Implant also in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to You.  For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.”[1]

H

ow valuable is your humanity?  That’s the question I hear in today’s Scripture.  How valuable is your humanity?  Have you ever paused to consider what your humanity is worth?

Some of you are wondering exactly what I mean by “valuable.”  Am I speaking about monetary worth, work-place productivity, important people in your life, or the philosophical meaning of your existence?  And “valuable” to whom?  Your own self?  Your family?  Friends?  God?

How valuable is your humanity?

Some of you are wondering exactly what I mean by “humanity.”  Do I mean your unique human body — the physical and mental parts that make you you?[2]  Do I mean the human life you have lived thus far — all the experiences you have had, the stuff you own, the relationships that have formed you?[3]  Or, do I mean the human self or person you have become — your particular character, your one-and-only personality, the unique narrative of your life?

How valuable is your humanity?

Is your humanity worth developing, educating, protecting ... saving?  If you are trapped, enslaved, morally corrupted, sick, suffering, dying, how much should we care about you and how hard should we try to rescue you?

How valuable is your humanity?

This is the central question facing western civilization.  This question forms the ethical center of the Christian Church; it beats the heart of our mission as Peace Presbyterian.  And it is the most important question facing you on this Epiphany Sunday, at the beginning of the new year, 2014 years after the Incarnation of the Word of God in human flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.  How much is your humanity worth?

Hear the Word of the Lord in John’s opening words of witness to Jesus Christ:[4]

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2 He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being 4 in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  7 He came as a witness to testify to the Light, so that all might believe through him.  8 He himself was not the Light, but he came to testify to the Light.  9 The true Light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not know Him.  11 He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him.  12 But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  15 (John testified to Him and cried out, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because He was before me.’”)  16 From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God.  It is God-the-Only-Begotten, Who is in the bosom of the Father, Who has made God fully known.

                                                            The Word of God.

                                                            Thanks be to God.

 So, how valuable is your humanity?

This question of human worth is in the mind of St John as he sets the stage of his Gospel with these famous opening words of creation, “In the beginning ... was the Word.”  Note that John carefully repeats the familiar opening words of Genesis, the first book of Holy Scripture.  John is signaling that the whole creation is beginning again.  It is a breathtaking use of Scripture to signal a breathtaking moment in time.  Everything that was brought into being “in the beginning,” is being brought into being again.  The “birth” of creation first happened when the Spirit of God “swept over” the “formless void and darkness.”[5]  Now, “when the fullness of time had come,” the re-birth of creation is happening because God has sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem us, to adopt us as sons and daughters with the Spirit singing in our hearts, “Abba!  Father!”[6]

So the birth of Jesus Christ signals the rebirth of creation.  It is, paradoxically, an even more significant moment than the “Big-Bang” moment of original creation.  This is why chronological time is actually measured from the moment of Christ’s birth.  Every time you date a check, you are tacitly acknowledging that the Word of the Father, “Light from Light,” Light of Life — Jesus Christ — is shining triumphantly in the darkness that seeks to destroy it.

Every time you write the date, you are affirming the immeasurable value of your humanity.  Have you ever thought about this?  Not just the immanent value here and now within the time and space of this earthly existence, but the transcendent value of your humanity, eternally — before your birth and after your death — in the endless time and space of Paradise, in the company of saints and angels, cherubim and seraphim, Martyrs and Apostles, Mary the Theotokos, and the Holy Trinity!

So hear this, now, loudly and clearly: Your humanity is worth the Incarnation of the Son of God.  This is what John is singing at the beginning of his Gospel: You — you — are worth the Word becoming flesh.

John is singing that every single existing thing has been brought into being through a divine Son Who is in the bosom of His divine Father.  He is singing that this divine Son is the Light of Life animating all of creation and enlightening all human beings.  He is singing that this divine Son, this Light of Life, this invisible, eternal fountain of grace and truth and glory, has willingly become a human person with a human body — “like us in all respects, apart from sin”[7] — and has willingly lived among us in a human family.  And even though we fail to recognize the very One Who brings us into being and sustains every breath of our existence, John is singing that the darkness of our rejection does not have the last word!  Amazingly, we the unrighteous are still offered the freedom to receive Him and to be born again as the son or daughter of God the Father.  The Word-Become-Flesh is the supreme act of respect — no, I dare to say that it is the supreme act of reverence by God — for our humanity.

One theologian puts it like this: “By acknowledging the God-man [Jesus Christ], we indirectly acknowledge the Christlikeness of [human beings], the divine descent of [human beings], the divine elevation of [human beings] ...”[8]

The great Saint Athanasius (c. 293-373), tirelessly defended the Incarnation of the God-man Jesus Christ against heretical distortion at the turn of the 4th century.  He cries out time and again, “What was God to do?”

“Death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on [the human race, which was] in [the] process of destruction.  [Human beings], who [were] created in God’s image and in [their] possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, [were] disappearing, and the work of God was being undone ... [From the law of death], there was no escape ... It was ... monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption ... It was supremely unfitting that the work of God in [humanity] should disappear ... What then was God, being Good, to do?  Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them?[9]

“What was God to do in face of this dehumanising of [humanity]? ... Was He to keep silence before so great a wrong and let [human beings] go on being thus deceived and kept in ignorance of Himself?  If so, what was the use of having made them in His own Image originally? ... What was the use of their ever having had the knowledge of God?”[10]

St. Athanasius explains that throughout the history of creation, God had already taken three significant actions to reveal Himself and His will to humanity.  First, God has created the inarguable harmony of the natural world, “by which the Maker might be known.”  Second, God has called forth holy people, saints and prophets, through whom humanity could “learn to know God ... and “to recognise the worship of idols as the negation of ... truth.”  And thirdly, God has gifted the human race with the law, as “a sacred school of the knowledge of God,” by which to “lead a good life.” 

Three great gifts: holy works of creation, holy people, and holy law.  “So great, indeed, [was] the goodness and the love of God.  Yet [humanity] ... did not lift up their heads towards the truth.  So burdened were they with their wickedness that they seemed rather to be brute beasts than reasonable [human beings], reflecting the very Likeness of the Word.”[11]

What was God to do?

How valuable is your humanity?

Are you worth rescuing?

Sts Athanasius answers his question, with St John’s song in mind:  “What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in [humanity], so that through it [men, women, and children] might once more come to know Him? ... The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate [humanity] made after the Image.  In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that [human beings] might be renewed according to the Image.”[12]

So, “as [a human being the Word of God] dwells, taking to Himself a body like the rest; and through His actions done in that body, as it were on [our] own level, He teaches [us] who would not learn by other means to know Himself, the Word of God, and through Him, the Father.”[13]

How valuable is your humanity?

“In the beginning was the Word ... and the Word became flesh and lived among us ... and we have seen His glory, full of grace and truth.”

How valuable is your humanity?

“From His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  God-the-Only-Begotten, Who is in the bosom of the Father, has made God fully known.”

How valuable is your humanity?

“To all who receive Him, who believe in His name, He will give power to become children of God, born not of human blood or desire or will, but born of God.”

How valuable is your humanity?

Listen to the song of the Church!

In the first century, the Apostle Peter tells us in the New Testament that the gift of Jesus our Lord is the divine power for us
 
“To become partakers of the divine nature.”[14]

 Saint Irenaeus in the second century explains:

“It was for this end that the Word of God was made [a human being], and He who was the Son of God became the Son of Man, that [human beings], having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the [son or daughter] of God.”[15]

 St Athanasius in the third century states the value of your humanity most radically.  Get ready, for this will startle you:

“The very Word of God ... was made a human being that we might be made God.”[16]

 Athanasius explains:

“The Word was made flesh in order to offer up this body for all, and that we, partaking of His Spirit, might be deified.”[17]

 In the 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas reiterates God’s radical love for humanity:

“The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in His divinity, assumed our nature, so that He, made a human being, might make human beings gods.”[18]

 And, continuing the Church’s litany into the 19th century is none other than C.S. Lewis (1898-1968):

“The Church exists for nothing else but to draw [human beings] into Christ, to make them little Christs.  If the Church is not doing this, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, event the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.  God became [Human] for no other purpose.”[19]

How valuable is your humanity?

People of God, what a wonderful life this is.  But it is short.  And everything in this life is transient — passing away — except your humanity.  By the grace and goodness of God, your essential humanity has been given the gift of immortality.  You will live forever.

How valuable is your humanity?

Exactly one liturgical year ago today, the body of my beloved father, Irvin, died.  During this challenging year, I have been continuously reflecting on my father’s gifts.  Perhaps his greatest is a deep appreciation for the iconic power of our humanity to communicate the eternal.  While he demanded great respect for this earth — all people, all natural things, and all good writing — Dad would remind us that this sacred earth is not truly our home; this earth and all that is in it receives its sacredness from another, larger, higher, holier world, where our infinitely valuable humanity finally belongs.

People of God, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, full of grace and truth.”

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love” the God and Father of Jesus Christ our Lord, through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honor and might and glory unto ages of ages.  Amen.”[20]


1]. This prayer for illumination comes from St John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) and is prayed silently by an Orthodox priest prior to the reading of the Gospel lesson during the Divine Liturgy every Sunday.
 
[2]. Elementally, the human body (65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% calcium, 1.2% phosphorous, and small amounts of 54 other elements) is worth between $4.50 and $160.  But in terms of body parts, the emerging “Red Market” lends your body as much as $45 million.  See Scott Carney’s piece, “Inside the Business of Selling Human Body Parts” in Wired Magazine, February 19, 2011.  Also, see his website: http://www.scottcarney.com/category/red-market/ .
 
[3]. Statistically speaking, a single human life has been given the following values: $50,000 per year of quality life (international health insurance actuarial figure); $129,000 per year (kidney dialysis study); $6.9 million total (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — based on what people are willing to pay to avoid certain risks); $7.9 million (U.S. Food and Drug Administration — figure used in configuring cigarette warning labels); $6 millions (U.S. Transportation Department — figure used in evaluating lives saved by stronger automobile roofs); $7 million (Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Vol. 27: 2003 — worldwide median value for prime aged workers); this paper, “The Value of a Statistical Life: A Critical Review of Market Estimates throughout the World,” by W. Kip Viscusi and Joseph E. Aldy, can be downloaded from The National Bureau of Economic Research: http://www.nber.org/papers/w9487 .  See Binyamin Appelbaum’s New York Times February 16, 2011 article, “As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret” at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/business/economy/17regulation.html?_r .
 
[4]. This translation has been slightly adapted from the New Revised Standard Version.
 
[5]. Genesis 1.1-3
 
               [6]. Galatians 4.4-6.
 
[7]. This phrase is taken from the Definition of Christ’s Person at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  This understanding of Christology — the dual nature of Christ’s single Person — is considered doctrinally canonical for historic Christianity.
 
[8]. Archmandrite Justin Popović, The Supreme Value and Infallible Criterion, B#80A, Vol. 4, pp. 114, 116, 138, as quoted by Johanna Manley in The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox: Daily Scripture Readings and Commentary for Orthodox Christians (Crestwood, New York: Monastery Books, 1984/1999), 13-14.  Popović continues, “The struggle for the God-man [Jesus Christ] is the struggle for [human beings.  We [Christians] are] not humanists, but people of divine-human faith and life ... struggling for true [humanity].”
 
[9]. St Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (On the Incarnation of the Word of God), chapter 2, paragraph 6.  The New Edition in 2003 by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press is introduced by C.S. Lewis and has added as an appendix a rich and valuable letter from Athanasius: “The Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms.”
 
[10]. De Incarnatione, chapter 3, paragraph 13.
 
               [11]. De Incarnatione, chapter 3, paragraph 12.
 
[12]. De Incarnatione, chapter 3, paragraph 13.
 
               [13]. De Incarnatione, chapter 3, paragraph 14.
 
               [14]. 2 Peter 1.4
 
[15]. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, chapter 19, paragraph 1), as translated in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Revised by A. Cleveland Coxe (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 448-49.  Irenaeus continues: “For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality.  But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are?”
 
               [16]. St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, paragraph 54, section 3.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 65.  The Greek verb used by Athanasius is qeopoihqwmen (theopoiethomen).
 
               [17]. St. Athanasius, Defence of the Nicene Definition, chapter 3, paragraph 14.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Second Series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 158.
 
               [18]. St. Thomas Aquinas, Opuscula 57, 1-4, as quoted in section 460 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, with Modifications from the Editio Typica (New York: Doubleday, 1995/1997), 128-29.  This quote from Aquinas occurs in the Catechism’s explication of article 2 of the Apostles’ Creed, “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”
 
               [19]. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper Collins, 1952/2001), 199.
 
[20]. St Athanasius concludes On the Incarnation with this benediction (chapter 9, paragraph 57), drawing from the Apostle Paul’s reassuring words in 1 Corinthians 2.9.