Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Lent – March 13, 2011
May God be in our beginning, our center, and our ending. Amen.
Once upon a time, an Eskimo hunter went to see the local missionary who had been preaching to the village. “I want to ask you something,” the hunter said.
“What’s that?” asked the missionary.
“If I did not know about God and sin,” the hunter said, “would I go to hell?”
“No,” the missionary responded, “not if you did not know.”
“Then why, “asked the hunter, “did you tell me?” I suppose the story supports the old saying that that ignorance is bliss. The reading from Genesis we heard today is a very familiar story. It’s importance in the development of a theology of sin, forgiveness, redemption, and grace cannot be overemphasized.
Eventually, the church would use this account of Adam and Eve’s actions in the garden as part of the foundation for its teaching about what it has coined as “original sin” and for baptism being the way to cleanse us from that inherited sin. I have more to say about that theological perspective later.
What really happened in the garden that day? Simply stated, a man and a woman made a choice to eat the fruit of the one tree in that garden from which God told them they should abstain. So of course from that moment on it was the only thing they wanted.
The snake explains to them what God did not—they will not die if they eat this fruit. In fact, their eyes will be opened and they will be like God. So in this first recorded act of human initiative, in spite of the Creator’s admonition, they decide what is best for them. They exercise their freedom to do as they pleased and wind up being evicted from the good life they once knew standing out on the curb and looking in.
But the snake had told them the truth. They did not die. They just lost everything—among which was their innocence.
We can relate to the story because it is true for us. Can you recall the time you lost your innocence? When you knew you had made a really stupid decision—and got caught in the act? I remember at the age of about four how my mother caught my cousin and me crayoning all over the wall paper in my bedroom. We had exercised our freedom and decided what was best for us and it was a foolish decision—and it had consequences.
If we move from the garden to the desert we find a similar story. The snake is now unmasked as Satan and the target is Jesus who has been fasting for forty days and forty nights—a rigorous discipline that makes our observance of Lent look like a walk in the park. But there is a huge difference about the temptations the devil offers him and it is important that we are aware of that.
These temptations are not about humanity’s free will and the potential to use it to do good or evil. The temptations in the desert are about Jesus as Son of God. The question for Satan is not whether Jesus is the Messiah but rather what kind of messiah is he going to be? A messiah who acts the way the “kingdom of this world” works, or a Messiah who acts in the standards of the Kingdom of God? Jesus was being tested about the kind of Messiah he was going to be.
This might be a good Sunday to revisit our understanding
of original sin the church has taught it, largely based on the story of Adam and Eve—which is a wonderful story in that it tells the truth about the way things really are. We really are free to make terrible choices and our choices do have consequences. But nowhere in the Genesis story is the word “sin” mentioned, much less the concept of “original sin,” and it was not until the fourth century—a long, long time after—that these terms were introduced by Augustine of Hippo.
There is a different understanding of the Genesis story and its implications for us—one developed by our Celtic ancestors in the faith—saints like Columba, Brigid, Patrick—that was suppressed because of the dominance of the Roman/Latin Church and its political and religious power and influence. In the Celtic tradition, the Garden of Eden is not a place in space and time from which we are separated. It is the deepest dimension of our being from which we live in a type of exile. It is our place of origin, our beginnings in God. Note that in the Genesis story, the garden is not destroyed. Adam and Eve become fugitives from the place of their identity.
Celtic theology—that which was developed by the ancient Christian communities in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales—has a problem with the concept of original sin as something we have inherited because of the decision of Adam and Eve and the resulting need for the entire human race to offer retribution for that, especially the suggestion that Christ’s death in a payment for that sin.
The assumptions behind this notion of original sin are that God requires payment from judgment to forgiveness and that we are so sinful that we cannot make a worthy payment. So God provides a substitution: God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
In Christ of the Celts, author J. Philip Newell writes: “It is easy to ridicule the logic of a doctrinal system in which God offers God payment. Much more important is to try to name what the preciousness of the cross is for us who have intuited that it is dear to our inheritance but have ended up hiding it under the floor boards.” Newell continues to say that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is opposed to our deepest experiences of forgiveness—namely, that forgiveness is by its very nature absolutely free.
It is Christ who by his death on the cross leads us into the experience of forgiveness at the heart of life, and into the practice of forgiveness in our lives and relationships.
What we learn from the temptations of Jesus is that the deepest impulse of God is not for God’s Son to seize the opportunity to get comfort, power or prominence. The deepest impulse of God is self-giving. Everything God does is a pouring out of love and the whole of creation is an ongoing offering of self.
The cross does not teach us about payment but rather about the ultimate disclosure of that love and its cost. We come closest to our true self, being made in the image of God, when we pour ourselves out in love for one another, when we give our heart which is the whole of our being. It is when we fully understand God—not as our judge but as our lover— that we can be transformed and open up the hidden wellsprings of new beginnings all around us. We will still continue to make stupid, even disastrous decisions and they will still have consequences. We will still feel like we are living in exile when, instead of trying to honor that empty space we feel deep inside of ourselves— stuffing it full of all sorts of things we don’t need—we ponder the question of what kind of new life God may be calling us to.
So here we are on this first Sunday in Lent stuck between the garden and the desert—both places that are full of living things, albeit very different sorts of things—both places where we are invited, like Adam and Eve and Jesus, to exercise our freedom, to make choices. We can look back to the garden—for whatever that may be a metaphor in our life—and bemoan what we left behind there or we can embrace the desert to which Jesus calls us today, a place of unlimited imagination and possibilities, waiting to be filled with new creation—where we are invited to enter into partnership with the Creator and reclaim our true identity as icons of God in the world.