Good morning friends,
For some irresistible reason, I can’t stop myself from wishing you all a “Happy Lent” as well as a Holy Lent. I know it is contrary to what we may have heard about this somber season of repentance and fasting and sacrifice… but as I have grown in the faith I have become ever more thankful and even joyful for this time and encouragement to be deeply honest with myself about who I have been, who I am now and who I hope to become. Perhaps, this season of reflection and preparation can serve you in the same way.
I don’t suppose any of us can remember precisely when the word “sin” was first spoken in our presence or had any real grasp of what it might mean at that point. For your sake, I hope it was in a healthy loving way of truth telling although I know very well that is not always the case. I remember as a child a kind of dawning awareness that the people who were using the word seemed to be accusing me of crimes I had never committed; were telling me that I was defective in some profound way and that there was nothing I could do about it because someone in the dim past had eaten an apple they weren’t supposed to eat.
Well, I discovered that I could, in fact, reject and resent the whole concept. It just seemed ridiculous as if it didn’t apply to me in any way. Though I didn’t understand the implications very well at the time, it proved to be the first step on a long walk apart from the life and teachings of the church as I knew it…so you might have some idea about how amazed I am to find myself standing here preaching on the subject.
Looking back, I have the impression that in the church of my childhood it was just “sin, sin, sin” all the time… and then finally Jesus on the Cross looking down at the wretched sinners. It was like a perpetual Lenten mood without either the Epiphany or the Resurrection of Christ to guide us on this fragile journey of discovery and transformation. And that, as I see it now, was the problem.
It’s not hard to understand why repentance has such a bad name in our day. I found a list of 172 synonyms for the word in a thesaurus such as contrition, regret, remorse, guilt, self-reproach, and shame. Who really wants to dwell on such things if that’s all there is?
Somehow, by God’s grace, I was led back to a church tradition that taught that forgiveness follows repentance- repentance understood as a change of mind and heart that is both a turning from sin and a turning toward God. If the season of Lent in our life is about giving anything up that might cause us grief and suffering it is also about preparing to receive the gift of forgiveness, of healing and the clarity and strength to accept a better way of life…and that is ultimately a source of thanksgiving and joy not lamentation.
It can be quite illuminating in this light to read again the familiar stories of scripture that speak to this issue and seem to come with readymade, off the shelf interpretations. Take the account of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, for instance.
Most Bible’s today introduce the passage with a kind of superscript title such as “The First Sin and its Punishment” or “The Fall of Man” so that we are relieved of the burden of having to decide for ourselves what we are reading. As a further aid to our comprehension we have centuries of commentary drawing out the meaning for us under the head of “Original Sin” with a kind of Cliff’s Note version telling us in brief summary- “it’s Eve’s fault”.
Leaving aside any consideration of the devastating impact that such a dogmatic teaching has had on women over the ages let me just say that Adam and his spiritual descendants are never going to wriggle their way off the hook of culpability until they repent of their primary responsibility for the harm and injustice done on their behalf and then work to redress it.
Nevertheless, we still must recognize that any thought or recognition for what has been properly called our “Original Blessing” is- in that old Original Sin framework – cast altogether out of the picture, out of sight, out of mind even though it is the entire basis for our hope in Christ that we may recover our identity as the People of God.
Just imagine what it could mean if we recognized and recovered a living sense of our foundational story as originating in the blessing of all life and not upon the fall from grace or the curse that soon followed. After all isn’t our whole quest from paradise to heaven somehow rooted and nourished by the revelation that we are all, male and female, created in the image of God?
This story of the first family is certainly among the most ancient of the memories of the Hebrew people. I imagine it being told around the campfires on their forty-year journey in the wilderness while trying to come to terms with what it means to be a human being in God’s sight. It’s not so much about assigning blame to either Adam or Eve it seems to me as it is a deep intuition that “Once upon a Time” a Man and a Woman opened their eyes and knew that they were naked before God and each other. When the “other” came into being they were fully exposed -physically, emotionally, and psychologically vulnerable-and so they were afraid and tried to hide. In short, they became self-conscious and everything they knew began to change. There are still unplumbed depths to this story I am sure but to my mind this is a message that speaks poignantly to our time and place.
There is no human being in this room or on this planet past the age of five who hasn’t lived their lives with the consequences and the burden and the power and the responsibility of such a god-like awareness that is unique among all that lives. Knowing good and evil comes at a heavy price. Something died in us on that day. Perhaps our innocence, certainly our ignorance. But from the day of disobedience in Adam the Spirit of God has moved steadily, faithfully to the birth of the New Adam as St. Paul so clearly teaches to the One who was obedient in all things, even unto death- Jesus of Nazareth.
It is ordinarily and authoritatively taught that the Coming of Christ into the world was a sort of corrective plan B to offset the original sins of Adam and Eve or maybe even a plan C considering the fate of Noah’s generation but I wonder. Isn’t it curious that one of God’s own creatures was cunning enough to whisper in Eve’s ear the very thing that she would find most tempting. Does that make God complicit in the first sin? Could it mean that God didn’t know or couldn’t prevent the outcome? Simply allowing it isn’t much better. But what if, as some of us are beginning to wonder, the Coming of Christ into the world as He did was always the one and only Plan A. It is something to think about. More of God’s mysteries are yet to be revealed for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
What we do know for certain is that Jesus accepted the baptism of repentance from John and turned to God in a way that opened his entire being to the love of God in body, mind and soul and was received and revealed as the Son of God when the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove.
Then another remarkable thing happened. Whereas Jesus taught us to pray that we would not be led “into temptation” but rather “delivered from evil” the same Spirit that had just descended on Jesus led him into the wilderness to confront the Tempter who spoke in the same beguiling voice that Eve heard only now telling Him of the things that He in His majesty would find most tempting. And just as everything began to change when Adam and Eve said “Yes” so everything began to change when Jesus said “No”.
When we are tempted, when the beguiling voice of the tempter comes whispering in our ear, or assaults our sense of touch or taste or sight, when even the scent of some reckless desire comes close we can draw strength from Jesus’ example and the Spirit of God to confront the tempter ourselves for the knowledge of what is good abides in us as well. More than this-when fear and anger, terrible sorrow or grave injustice tempt us to do harm to ourselves or others let us turn to God and each other for help and companionship as we pray for the courage and conviction to follow Jesus to the Cross, to the empty tomb and to the resurrected life. What a joy it will be to lay our sins and our sorrows at his feet at last. Happy Lent everyone!