By Bob Kaylor –
I recently did one of those Ancestry DNA tests – you know, that test where you send in a small capsule of your spit and $100 and they send you back a multi-page, full-color profile that tells you who’s been swimming in your personal gene pool. It used to be that if you had a striking physical resemblance to one of your parents or grandparents that people would say that you were their “spitting image.” Who knew that we would one day use actual spit to found out why?
When I took the test I was hoping to find out a little more about my own background. I was adopted as an infant and knew very little about my birth family. When I was a kid, I used to fantasize that one day my birth family would discover me, and that they would somehow actually be a royal family that had misplaced me. I dreamed that they would take me back to Scotland (where I always imagined I was from) and set me up with the castle in the highlands that I had inherited, where I would spend my days ordering servants around while gnawing on huge turkey legs and guzzling goblets of chocolate milk. Such were the dreams of an exiled, secretly royal 8 year-old!
Like many people who do these DNA tests, I was hoping to discover something interesting, if not royal, in my genetic makeup. Alas, however, while I am 28 percent Scottish, my DNA is not of the royal sort. It is the Scots-Irish DNA of poor Presbyterians who left the isles in the 1740s and hacked a life out of the frontier woods of western Pennsylvania.
But there’s a little more to my DNA than that. A few years before I took the Ancestry test, I contacted the agency that handled my adoption. A sympathetic caseworker actually contacted my birth mother, who was still alive. While my birth mother didn’t want contact with me (I was still, apparently, a family secret), she did give the caseworker some of the story. At age 24, she had me in a Salvation Army hospital in Pittsburgh. She had become pregnant after a brief but passionate affair with a young man – not unusual. I was the result of that mistake. What was unusual, however, was that my biological father was an officer in the Army – the Salvation Army – a clergyman in the Wesleyan tradition. It took a moment, but then it hit me: I am the result of clergy misconduct.
I had already been pastoring for a couple of decades when I found this out. The good news is that I seem to have been wired all along to be a pastor, despite taking various detours in my life like ten years as an infantry officer in the Army. I was meant to do this. Then again, I also have the wiring to be a very bad pastor. The dual nature of that reality is something that I think about all the time. It causes me to be mindful and vigilant. It keeps me connected to two other pastors in a weekly band meeting. I want to live the best part of my wiring while avoiding the worst.
My story is not unique. In every one of us is the genetic wiring, the spiritual wiring, to be people who reflect the image of God. We were created that way. But we also have the potential to reflect a different image, a different identity, which is grounded in brokenness and sin. Understanding the image of God for which we were created, profiling our original spiritual DNA, is the key to living an abundant life that glorifies God.
My adoptive family was of the same DNA mix as me and thus staunchly Presbyterian. And it wasn’t just a Presbyterian church we attended, it was a really Presbyterian church – like, Shiite Presbyterian. It was a church that took doctrine seriously (for which I am grateful). When I was in 9th grade, for example, I went through confirmation where we had to memorize the entire Westminster Shorter Catechism and then explain it in our own words in front of the church elders. It was such an arduous task that only one other guy in the youth group and I actually did it. The other kids were apparently into other things like “dating” and “having fun.”
The first question of the Catechism is the one that I still remember most vividly. “Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Then again, I think there is another reason this question and answer has stuck with me. It’s always been a reminder to me, as a child who was born out misconduct and mistake, that it’s not where you start that matters, it’s where you end. The “chief end” or the “chief purpose” of being human doesn’t depend on the circumstances of your birth, the quality of your upbringing, or whatever is in your DNA. Instead, it’s about finding your identity, your glory, in glorifying God and enjoying an eternal relationship with him.
The catechism invites us to remember that being truly human is about being part of a story that began long before you and I were born. It’s the story that transcends all of our stories, whether they are tragic or triumphant, and gives each of our stories meaning and purpose. And when we learn that story, when we live that story, we come to know that our existence isn’t a mistake. Indeed, we are shocked to learn that all of us – every one of us – is, indeed, actually part of a royal family!
This the foundational truth that the Bible expresses at the very beginning of the story: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and of the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
In the world of the ancient Near East in which Genesis 1 was written, kings and pharaohs were often referred to as the “image” of a particular god – the human embodiment of that god, who ruled in the place of that god. The “image” was invested in the king alone. Often there was a temple with the king’s image in it in the form of a statue, a concrete symbol of the god’s reign through the king.
In that context, Genesis 1 is a bold statement declaring that there is one Creator God whose image is invested not in a singular king, but in all of humanity – both male and female – who are to be concrete, embodied symbols and stewards of God’s reign on the earth. It’s not a matter of birth or one’s family tree, it’s a gift of the creator. Humans were made to be royalty.
Psalm 8 reflects this reality. “You have made [human beings] a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (v. 5). John Wesley called this the “political” image of God in humanity – a vocation to be “the governor of this lower world” (his sermon, The New Birth).
But while there is a “political” nature to the image of God, there is also a “moral” image, which Wesley found to be even more compelling. It’s the image of “righteousness and true holiness,” the moral characteristics of the Creator God himself. Humans were not merely to reign; they were to reign as a reflection of God’s character and glory. They were, in other words, to bear a family resemblance to God. One of the explanations for the origins of the term “spitting image” is that it’s a mashup of saying “spirit and image” together quickly. Spirit ‘n image: spitting image. We were made to be spitting images of God.
But it’s a quick trip from the glory and spitting image of Genesis 1 and 2 on to the unraveling of God’s image in Genesis 3. The snake showed up and convinced the archetypical humans that they could be more than the image of God they were created to be – that they could be gods themselves. This was a lie, of course, but they were hooked. They grasped at determining the knowledge of good and evil for themselves and, instantly, they were dethroned. Instead of ruling God’s creation as kings and queens in a fellowship of equals, they instead began comparing themselves and sought to rule over one another. Instead of having dominion over the earth, they are ruled by the fallen creation’s resistance to their efforts. Instead of stewarding God’s kingdom, they begin to build their own. Instead of living a royal life in the castle garden God had created for them, they found themselves to be spiritual paupers, hungry exiles in a strange land hacking their existence out of the hostile and unforgiving soil.
This is the story that the Old Testament tells. It is a story in which the image of God in humanity fades quickly, replaced by a constant battle with idolatry. This is the image of God turned inward. It’s the story of mistaken identity; of missing the mark of what God intended for us, which is the very definition of sin. Sin clouds our ability to know who we really are; it strips us of our royalty; it enslaves us to being ruled by things that make good servants but terrible masters – things like money, sex, power. It puts us at war with our bodies; it makes our eyes wander, our hearing selective, and our speech self-serving. It binds us to our past mistakes. In fact, sin convinces us that we are a mistake.
This is the situation in which we find ourselves: We all have the royal image of God and royal vocation of God in our DNA – and we all have the potential to be really bad at it. As Wesley put it more succinctly: We were created able to stand, but liable to fall.
The image of God fades in the biblical narrative after the opening chapters of Genesis. But then, powerfully and unexpectedly in the New Testament, the image reappears. This time, however, it is not just a human being made in the image of God, it is a human being who is the image of God. He is the crystal-clear image that replaces and reboots the image that was marred in Adam and distorted in us. The New Testament writers announce his arrival: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” says Paul in Colossians 1. “For in him all things were created: things visible and invisible … He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “For us and for our salvation,” says the Creed, “he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” The perfect image of God was embedded from the beginning of creation – the model for humanity – revealed at the right time in the person of Jesus Christ.
As the perfect image of God, Christ completes the original royal vocation of humanity and, at the same time, reveals what true humanity, what real royalty looks like. In the great hymn in Philippians 2, Paul proclaims that Jesus did not consider that royal image of God something to be grasped or exploited but humbled himself and took the form of an obedient servant, walking the way of perfect submission all the way to the pain of the cross. He shows humanity who they were intended to be – servant kings and queens – and then, through the cross and resurrection, frees them from the slavery of sin and death so that they can live that royal vocation. He offers that new life, a new birth, a new name, a new identity, a royal vocation, a place in the family, a community of love. When we receive him, we discover the family from which we have long been estranged. We receive a new birth story. “To all who received him, who believed on his name,” says John, “he gave power to become children of God who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
In other words, when we receive him, we share a common new birth no matter how we came into the world, no matter what the DNA test says about us. Our lives become restarted, renewed, and rewired. The long-lost exiles become part of his royal family again. We were created by him, through him, and for him. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:29, we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son.” This is true humanity. This is our true identity. This is the goal, the chief end for which Christ has come – that we might glorify God as his royal created image once again. To put it another way, Jesus became like us so that we might become like him.
This is the foundational aim of Methodism, the “one thing needful” according to Wesley. Renewal in the image of God is the goal of sanctification, the means of grace, the aim of preaching, the work of the Spirit. We have a theology of new birth that doesn’t leave us as infants but invites us to grow up and claim the identity for which God has made us. Our theology is not so much about where we begin as where we end as the result of God’s grace and the work of the Spirit. We are all adopted children growing up together in that grace. We band together to remind one another who we are and to name the false identities we take on, the sins that would bind us, and spur one another on to perfection in Christ.
And we go forth to carry out our royal vocation. Think of the Great Commission, for example, and notice how much it parallels the vocation God gave humanity in Genesis 1: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” says Jesus – royal authority delegated from King Jesus to his royal representatives. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – proclaim new birth, leading to a new family, in the model of God’s own family, the Trinity. “And teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” – give them a new vocation. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” – a Christ-empowered movement, leading toward a new creation!
One of Ancestry’s slogans is, “Everyone has a fascinating story. We’ll help you find yours.” Well, our goal is to help everyone find themselves in the story. My story doesn’t begin in a Salvation Army hospital in Pittsburgh. It began at creation. So does yours. And this is the good news we need to share with the world: You are not a mistake; you were made to be the spitting image of God! You are not your title, your career, your degrees, your desires, your preferences, your sins, your past, or your present. Friends, you are royalty. Your destiny has always been to be a part of the royal family of God. This is the good news we proclaim to all those who wrestle with their identity, who think they are a mistake: the king has been looking for you, lost though you may have been, to give you a royal inheritance of abundant, eternal life.
It’s the kind of news that calls for a celebration. Turkey legs and chocolate milk for everyone! Better yet, how about bread and wine? That’s the sort of feast prepared for real royalty by the world’s true king.
Bob Kaylor is the pastor of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument, Colorado. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Tulsa in November.