First Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Christchurch Cathedral Grafton
1 March 2020
[ video ]
Perhaps not surprisingly on this first Sunday in Lent, the Bible readings chosen for today tends to focus on temptation and sin.
For sure there will be sermons in churches all around Grafton and all over the nation about sin as the great reality at the heart of human existence, and about how we all need to use these 40 days of Lent to turn away from sin and embrace the good news.
I am going to take a different line today.
Most likely that will not surprise you.
Rather than focusing on solidarity in sin, I want to focus in solidarity in blessing.
In doing that I am not blind to sin, although I prefer to call its by its proper names of ANGER, EVIL, FEAR, HATRED, INJUSTICE and VIOLENCE.
What tend to be categorised as ‘sin’ seem mostly to be low level moral failures that cause very little harm but arouse the passion of the theological thought police, while those things that really are evil and which cause devastation to individuals, families, communities and even the planet as a whole tend to escape the label ‘sin’.
To the extent that we want to turn away from sin this Lent, let’s search for ways to address these larger and more potent forms of evil and avoid a self-serving focus on moral failure and religious laziness.
Each of us is flawed—hence the phrase ‘broken things for broken people” as I invite you to the table of Jesus.
But each and every flawed human being is capable of the most amazing acts of courage, generosity and love.
Contrary to the theological fear-mongers, sin is not what characterises us most deeply. Rather, our true dignity as human beings and as Earth creatures is that we are made in the image of God and have the most amazing capacity for good.
Next time you look in the mirror, congratulate God on her fine work rather than berating yourself for some marginal improvements that may be long overdue.
Our first reading today comprised two excerpts from the book of Genesis in which the first people make choices about being human:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Gen 2:15–17 & 3:1–7)
This is one of two creation stories in Genesis and one of several creation texts in the Old Testament, yet this is the story on which the Christian West has been fixated.
In this story God sets boundaries to the freedom which Adam and Eve may enjoy. They could eat any fruit from any tree, except for the ‘tree of the knowledge of good evil’.
Of course, we know there never was such a tree and that this is a mythical tale about the loss of paradise. Yet we never pause to wonder why God would want to ban humans from knowing good and evil, or whether God was right even to make such a rule.
Let’s stand back and look at ourselves—at our Christian selves for almost 2,000 years—and wonder how we can be so short-sighted in the way that we engage with this story.
We have used this story to explain to ourselves why life is not perfect, and we use this story to put the blame for that reality on ourselves as humans.
I think we can read that story in a more affirming and positive way, but let’s put it aside for now and focus on the other two readings set for this morning.
We, not me
When we look at the reading from Romans, we can immediately see why it was chosen for today, but we can also see that at the heart of the text is a concept of human solidarity that we mostly ignore.
If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:17–19)
Our culture celebrates the individual rather than the whole human bio-system of which every individual is a part: families, households, clans, clubs, churches, tribes, nations, race, humanity itself.
Paul clearly accepted that Adam’s choice in Genesis 2 was a bad move and had inflicted suffering on every human being ever since. Note, however, that in the opening verse from the larger text for today, Paul says this was because everyone else also sinned.
That’s an interesting correction to the dominant sin-and-death cult of Western Christianity at least since Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430 CE).
According to Paul the same consequences that Adam experienced as a result of his bad choices were experienced by everyone else ever afterwards … because they also all made the same kind of bad choices. Not simply because they inherited bad genes from the first human being.
Notice how Paul sees the choices made by Jesus as also having consequences for everyone else.
Writing to the Corinthians a few years before his letter to the Romans, Paul used the parallel of the ‘first Adam’ and the ’second Adam’ this way:
Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:45–49)
The device of contrasting Adam and Jesus was part of Paul’s theological toolset.
In today’s reading from Romans he is, in effect, saying:
Adam – bad choice – everyone dies
Jesus – good choice – everyone lives
Notice, by the way, that Paul says ‘everyone’; not just the religious and not just the Christians. All humanity.
Our job as people of faith is not to scare people out of hell, but to love them into heaven. Jesus has already secured their entry. It is theirs for the taking. Hell will be empty.
Jesus makes good choices
Our third reading today from the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus making the right choices.
Like every ancient hero inside the Bible or outside the Bible, Jesus had to overcome a series of tests before he could begin his task.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1–11)
Again, this is myth not history. It is how people saw reality. And there is truth in the story even if there is very little history.
Like Adam and like Jesus we get to make choices.
Making choices is a sacred human attribute.
Sometimes we make bad choices, and those bad choices may cause hardship for other people, even those who we love.
But sometimes we make good choices, even brave and holy choices. Those good choices will also have consequences for other people; those close to us and even people we may not know directly.
We need to make more good choices and fewer of the bad choices.
The choice is ours.
The consequences will not be just for us.
And this first Sunday in Lent is a good time to ask God to help us make more good choices and to fix the consequences of any bad choices we have made in the past.
Maybe that is our prayer today as we come to the Table of Jesus?