*the full text of my sermon on asylum seekers from women’s chapel at Moore College this morning.
Two months ago, our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a new policy on asylum seekers. This was it:
One month ago, Australians dismissed Kevin Rudd and installed Tony Abbott as our Prime Minister. If anything, the treatment of asylum seekers has worsened, not improved under this new government. Now, as well as removing all chance of being resettled in Australia, the government is refusing the release of information to the media about boat arrivals. It’s almost farcical.
We have a problem. It is, perhaps, a problem unique to the inner city, politically left-leaning people among us. Nevertheless, it is a problem.
Thousands of people are fleeing from their countries of origin to seek asylum in Australia. This is not new. Australia has a long history of resettling displaced peoples during international and regional crises. However, this issue has escalated in recent years, and even further in recent months.
Apparently, these changes have been introduced to stop people smugglers and to stop further loss of life at sea. It’s an admirable goal.
But the country is in an uproar. Why?
Initially, at least some of the objections arose out of the political nature of the debate. Others were concerned with our international obligations. With the change of government has come a shroud of secrecy surrounding boat arrivals leaving Australians uninformed and frustrated. Yet others have applauded the hard line taken by both Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seeing the hard line policy changes as a necessary step in dismantling networks of people smugglers. Christians sit on both sides of this debate.
Perhaps you don’t feel it. Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in essays and exegeticals and exam study. Maybe life at college is all consuming. Maybe you’re busy trying to keep up with your family and your friends. Maybe you are worried about your parents failing health. With all that, you might feel like you don’t have any more mental or emotional energy to think about this issue. Perhaps you are perplexed by the complexity of the issue. Perhaps you cannot see a way through. It seems easier to not think about it.
I get that. I really do. I wish I had an answer. I don’t. I can see valid points on both sides, but I recognise that there is not one simple solution. A multi-faceted approach is required, but this will take time, creativity, and regional co-operation to say the least. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to carve out a way through the political rhetoric, through the emotive language, and through the general state of overwhelmedness that many of us feel.
With such a complex and emotive issue we need a multi-faceted approach. And here it is.
The image of God.
The humanity of Jesus.
‘us’ and ‘them’.
Three massive topics. One little sermon. Put your thinking hats on.
First, asylum seekers are in the image of God.
This argument is both pervasive and persuasive. It goes something like this: we should care about people because they bear the image of God.
Christians often argue that that the dignity of the human being is grounded in the fact that he has been made in the image of God, usually citing the famous passage in Genesis 1:26-27.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
But let’s be real about this.
We have here only 2 chapters worth of description of the unfallen human life. And descriptions of what it actually looks like to have dominion and to rule in the unfallen world are not exactly profuse. The image is described largely in terms of responsibilities (having dominion, ruling, subduing, filling) rather than the mental abilities or emotional capacity of Adam and Eve.
This has led to an enormous amount of ink being spilled over the question of what it actually means to be in the image of God. At least part of what it means is to be relational. God speaks to them, and they speak back. This is one of the major differences between man and the animals.
Much more has been made of the idea of rationality and reason as those human characteristics that image God. Those who are steeped in our tradition have suggested that
‘the rational soul is made to the image of God in the sense that it can make use of reason and intellect to understand and consider God’ (Augustine).
There is something very appealing here. We are educated, upper middle class Christians. Most of us have one, if not two university degrees. We are rational. And we value rationality in others. If being in the image of God equals possessing a rational mind, then many of us can be confident that we are in the image of God. It is persuasive because we can point to faculties that we possess to assure ourselves that we are in God’s image.
This isn’t grace. If I can rely on my rationality to be assured of bearing God’s image, I am no longer relying on his generosity in making me in his image in the first place. We are made in his image, and we bear it still, even though we are plagued by sin.
It is true: all people are made in the image of God. But the question still lingers: what does being in the image of God actually mean? Answering this question will help us navigate a way through the complex issue of asylum seekers.
Casting our eyes to Jesus, we see the one who bears the image of God fully and perfectly. Jesus is the true image bearer. Colossians 1:15 says,
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
He shows us what it truly means to be a human being in the image of God. We can learn a lot more about bearing the image of God from Jesus than we ever could from Adam and Eve.
Jesus took on human flesh. Paul tells us how it is:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:5-7).
So also John:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
The gospels tell us the story of why Jesus took on the likeness of men. It was so that he could stand in our place, take the punishment for sin that we deserve, and redeem sinful humanity, thereby opening up the way for humankind to once again be in a right relationship with God.
This was God’s decision. It was not based on the inherent worth of the individual. Once before he had made a different decision. Cast your minds back to Genesis 6.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
But he promised to never do that again. Never again! This promise was yet another example of God’s enduring commitment to his people
In the incarnation of Jesus we see this commitment take on a whole new level of self-giving as God the Son takes on flesh and enters the world as a human.
The incarnation is not a new attitude towards humans. It is the actualisation of God’s self-giving love for his people that he has always had for them. It is the next step in salvation history and yet another declaration that he is committed to his creatures. It is God’s declaration that human beings are valuable. And their value is derived from God’s own attitude towards them. This attitude is marked by love and sacrifice.
The sacrifice of Jesus was his death. His vindication was his resurrection. And his resurrection was nothing less than miraculous! He was raised to life in an actual physical body. Not an apparition. Not a ghost. Not a spirit. An actual body.
Jesus coaxes the disciples to touch his resurrected body to prove it:
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39)
A human in his life. A human in his resurrection. There is continuity. If there were not, then death would not really be defeated.
‘But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead’ (1 Cor 15:20).
The resurrection of Jesus signals Christian hope for bodily resurrection in the age to come. In a profound sense, I am my body.
If we thought God’s commitment took on a whole new level in the incarnation, in the resurrection of Jesus we see him raising it even further. The resurrected Son of God affirms the goodness of the created order.
Even this is not all there is! As the physically resurrected Jesus, he is taken into heaven. Luke records it for us:
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (Luke 1:9).
There is nothing in the creeds of the early church to suggest that when Jesus ascended to heaven, he somehow left his body behind. And any view of the incarnation that ceases with the ascension is actually a sentence of condemnation.
If he dropped his humanity, our humanity, then he has effectively dropped us.
What we have here in Jesus is a summary of God’s attitude towards humans. They are the objects of God’s love. He has declared it to be so in his Son.
If this is true, then it changes the way that we think about humans.
It changes the way we think about asylum seekers.
We are not the first to think this.
The 1860s saw a great deal of racism directed towards Chinese immigrants. A group of Christian ministers penned a letter to the public in response. It read:
We need not remind you that the record of redemption lays down the grand principle that God made of one blood all the nations of men. Common in their origin – one in their fall – the objects of the same divine compassion – they are sharers of the nature of him who was found in fashion as a man. He lived and died and rose again for the redemption of all mankind.
Much has changed in the intervening 152 years. The world is a very different place. But in many ways, nothing has changed. Racism is rife. People still need to be reminded, perhaps more than ever, that all mankind shares in the nature of Jesus.
They need to be reminded because we live in a nation of racists. And it’s not just out there. It’s in here. In this room. In my heart. In our hearts.
And Asylum seekers are different to us, aren’t they? They have a different culture. A different religion. Different family structures. A different language. They are not the same as us.
But let’s not jump universally condemn this differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It might actually prove to be a little bit useful.
To begin with, this is the way that God exists in relationship with himself. Yes, I am talking about the Trinity.
In John 14-17 Jesus says,
‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ and ‘All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said to you that [the Holy Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you’.
This could be the subject of a whole sermon, but here’s the take home point: Within the Trinity, each person dwells within the other. Each is distinct. Together they are one. This is very hard to understand. Don’t think about it too much. It’ll make your brain hurt.
As we have already traced, he gave his Son to bring the offer of redemption to all humans. This is simultaneously the declaration of the value of the human, and the revelation of his self-giving love for people. Jesus Christ the man gave up his life to welcome God’s enemies into his eternal communion.
We know that he did it for his enemies because of Romans 5:6-8:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Did you notice that? Again, it’s God’s enduring commitment to humanity. For those who are his enemies.
God the Father relates to the Son and the Spirit as ‘others’. Now we see that as the Trinity, they are the ‘us’. We are the ‘them’. We, the sinners.
On the cross,
‘we, the others – we, the enemies – are embraced by the divine persons who love us with the same love with which they love each other and therefore make space for us within their own eternal embrace’ (Volf, Exclusion & Embrace).
The life of the Son is the gift of the Trinity as a whole. He gave his life to make space for the ‘other’, the sinners, to enter into communion with God.
Such an offer of embrace was costly for God. It cost the life of his beloved Son.
The offer is extended to all people. But it is not unlimited. The death of Jesus is both a yes and a no. God will not embrace every person. Nevertheless, God’s self-giving provides a model for welcoming the ‘other’ and the ‘stranger’ into the Australian community. God’s own response to his ‘other’, his enemy, is to open up himself and extend the offer of welcome.
As tensions escalate and frustrations are expressed, the Christian may bring a word of surprising comfort.
Every person is both an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. It is a matter of perspective. This must be held tightly together with Jesus being the true image bearer. God has declared the eternal value of human life through the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ.
By willingly donating his life, Jesus has opened up the possibility of moving from being God’s other to being part of his eternal communion.
In the same way, we may pursue sacrificial giving of our social expectations and our very selves. We might do this so that we can welcome others as God has welcomed us.
Yes, it will open up the possibility of rejection, failure and even violence.
But it will be a response to asylum seekers not driven by fear of the ‘other’, but by the love of God.
Now that’s a better place to start.