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Posted by on Feb 20, 2022

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

Bearing the Image of the Heavenly One

“Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” (1 Cor 15:49)

St. Paul, in his first letter to the community in Corinth, provides a theme for the readings of the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. You will recall that there had been a great controversy in Corinth over the question of resurrection from the dead. Some said only Jesus rose, the rest of his followers would not rise. Others said only those who never died physically would have eternal life. Paul insisted that Jesus was the first human to rise, but he would not be the last. He is simply the “first fruit” of those who would rise. In the passage immediately before today’s reading, he speaks of the different kinds of bodies of various animals and of the transformation of seeds into grown plants. He explains that transformation from one type of body to another is common in nature and so should not be unreasonable to expect. Our earthly bodies, like those of the first human, Adam, will be transformed like those of the last Adam, Jesus, whose body became a spiritual one. This last Adam’s body was heavenly in origin.

Paul’s final statement in the set of parallel comparisons here between earthly physical humans and heavenly spiritual humans is a reminder of the great promise we have received from our Father. “We shall also bear the image of the heavenly one,” the risen Christ.

When and how does this transformation happen? Is there some sort of magic at the moment of death? What about those whose lives have not been exemplary but who have a great epiphany and die believing in the Good News of God’s love for all? Is it fair that they should have an equal share in the Kingdom? Can it really be true that the Kingdom is open to all? When does the Kingdom begin? Where is the Kingdom of God? Is it limited to our universe? Do we go somewhere else? So many, many questions have arisen since the Resurrection and first appearance of Jesus to his followers.

One thing is certain, none of us can earn an entrance into the Kingdom. That is critical to remember. No matter how well we live our lives, no matter whether we are blessed with earthly success and its trappings or are the poorest of the poor, none of us is guaranteed anything except the love of God. Yet the promise remains. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.”

I suggest that the other readings this day offer a glimpse into this mystery.

Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel, the prophet and judge of Israel, at the request of the people. Israel had long been under attack by the Philistines who lived to the west of their land. The Judges, including Samuel, had led the defense of Israel. But surrounding peoples had kings and the Israelites believed they would be stronger with a King. Samuel, following the Lord’s instructions, anointed Saul as their king. Later, Saul fell out of favor with the Lord because he and his men took animals and other valuable things from one of the enemy peoples whom they battled. They had been instructed to destroy everything living, but they kept the valuable things for themselves.

Samuel was then instructed to anoint Saul’s successor. A shepherd boy named David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem, was the one chosen as the Lord’s anointed to succeed Saul. Saul and David had a long history together, but as David became a popular leader in war against the Philistines and other enemies of Israel, Saul became jealous and decided to get rid of his rival. Saul didn’t know David had been anointed as next king already, and he didn’t want to take any chances his own sons would not succeed him.

As our story begins today, Saul has taken a break from the fight with the Philistines and gone after David in the desert of Ziph. (1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23) Saul has 3,000 men with him. David has about 600. David is badly outnumbered and things don’t look good.

Then one night, as Saul and his army slept, David and his men found where they were camping. David and Abishai slipped into the camp, into the very tent in which Saul and his soldiers were sleeping. Saul’s spear was thrust into the ground near his head, ready for use at the slightest danger.

Abishai whispered to David that he could easily kill Saul with one thrust of that spear. But David refused the offer. “Do not harm him, for who can lay hands on the Lord’s anointed and remain unpunished?” Instead, David and Abishai took the spear and a water jug from beside Saul’s head and left the tent. Amazingly, no one in the camp stirred.

David and his men retreated to a hillside far across the plain from where Saul and his men were camped. David called out at dawn to Saul and his men. He spoke to Saul as well in a section of the account that is not included in this reading. Saul invited him to come to the camp and offered not to hurt him, but David kept his distance. Instead, he replied “Here is the king’s spear. Let an attendant come over and get it … Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” Saul and his men retreated from chasing David. David and his men retreated into other territories and battled against enemies of Israel from the lands in which they were now living and raising families.

Eventually, David became King of Israel and established a dynasty of rulers. But those stories are for another time and place.

David’s refusal to harm his mortal enemy is the image that speaks to me today. This is the kind of behavior that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom as envisioned by Jesus and the early Christian community – a foretaste of the image of the heavenly kingdom and its inhabitants.

The Psalmist sings of the mercy and kindness of the Lord (Ps 103). The Lord’s willingness to forgive, heal ills, save his people from destruction and crown them with kindness and compassion. Again, a different response from the typical earthly human response to bad behavior or disobedience.

Finally we get to the Gospel, where St. Luke shares Jesus’ words with us. (Lk 6:27-38) This is a continuation of his instructions in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus has already spoken of what makes people blessed and warned of the dangers of having earthly success and acclaim. Now he gets specific about behavior.

His is a culture in which Honor and Shame are defining characteristics of human interaction and the social standing of individuals and families. Families, large extended families, are the fundamental social unit. Individual members matter little as individuals. Their importance is as members of the larger extended family. What each person says or does contributes to the perception of the family as honorable or not. Bad behavior or failure to respond to insults from others is shameful and reflects badly on the honor of the entire group. People are killed for behaving shamefully. Honor is a REALLY big deal.

Now along comes Jesus with a totally different set of expectations. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you … to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well…” These are totally counter-cultural expectations. It would be absolutely shameful not to respond in kind to an insult such as being slapped in the face. Conquering armies and occupying forces might strike a person with impunity, but an honorable person would only put up with that behavior because they are members of a conquered nation and then only from those soldiers and government officials. Whenever possible, efforts would be made to get even or overthrow them.

But Jesus changes the lens through which we are to look. Yes, humans would respond in kind, but God does not. He points out that even those far from the Kingdom forgive those who forgive them, love those who love them. Even sinners and Romans do that, for heaven’s sake! Those who are part of God’s kingdom must love their enemies and do good to them. They must lend without expectation of return. They must be merciful as their Father is merciful. It is in refusing to judge others and in forgiving and sharing generously that we become open to receive forgiveness and acceptance and everything else we truly need. As we learn to do this, the abundance of gifts which we will be able to receive from the Father will be unlimited – “good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing … For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Wow! Good news? Certainly worth pondering. The world might be a very different place if we all lived this way.

How open am I to trying to live this way? Does it matter if I’m the only one trying? If I live this way, would it be easier for others to live this way too? Can I remember a time when I received forgiveness that was totally unwarranted? How did I feel when that happened? Can I offer that tender gift to others now?

We bear the image of the earthly Adam/Eve, our first parents as humans. Now we are called by the Spirit to grow into the image of the second Adam, our brother Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one of God, the heavenly one. Together we go – onward on the journey of transformation, bearing the image of the heavenly one.