The First Sunday in Lent
13 March 2011
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan; Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
For a long time now, I have felt that there is no truer story in Holy Scripture than that of the Temptation and Fall in Genesis. When I say “true” I am referring to the way in which it gets at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means not to be God. The man and the woman are living in Paradise and God sets out for them one rule: “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.” Seems simple enough. But along comes the serpent, who “was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made,” and he says to the woman that the real reason God does not want you eating the fruit of the tree is because if you do, then you will be like him. So the woman, attracted to the idea that she can be like God, takes and eats the fruit and in turn gets the man to eat the fruit as well.
Now, I am not going to get into the whole question of gender: whether it has significance that the woman was tempted first or whether we can read anything into the woman getting the man to eat. I believe it could just as easily have gone the other way ... and here is why. There is no more natural situation imaginable than someone tells you that you can use every toy, for example, in this room except for that one and, of course, the only thing you can think about is the thing you can not have. Furthermore, there is no greater temptation than to think that that one thing will be all you will need to somehow make you better or more perfect, in short more like we imagine God to be. The situation faced by the man and the woman—as representative of human kind, like the Old Testament idea of the sons of Man—is at the heart of what it is to be human. We are tempted every day, we seek to be like God, and we get ourselves into trouble.
Each and every one of us is flawed. Each of us makes mistakes. In short we are human, we are not God. This is, as far as I am concerned, the true meaning of Original Sin. Our separation from God, our imperfection. And it seems that this is how God made us. We can get hung up thinking about "original sin" in very negative and unhealthy ways. Rather, We need to embrace our humanity, embrace our flaws, and know that God loves us just as we are. We also need to know that both in the fulness of time and in the here and now, God calls on us to live our lives in accordance with the law of love, as best as we can. Ancient Israel needed that law to help guide them given our propensity to err. Now that the rest of the world has been called into this same project, God sent Jesus to give us power to keep on cooperating with God in his work of love.
This is why the story of Jesus’ temptation is so important. Jesus was in every way tempted as we are, but without sin, because although he was fully human—able to experience life and love and loss—he was also God. When Jesus, as we read in Matthew's Gospel, is tempted, he is able to resist in a way that we can not. The devil in the story asked Jesus make bread from stones, prove his divinity, and to worship him in return for dominion and power. Jesus did not have to demonstrate his power and he did not need earthly power. He is God and his priorities are God's priorities.
While we are imperfect, we get power from God in Christ to resist those temptations that come across our paths. We will not always get it right—many of us don't get it right most of the time. Nevertheless, God in Christ loves us and calls us to this work. As long as we keep on trying, we are on the right path.
It is only when we think that we have it all down, when we are better than others at making the right choices, certain that we always do what God wants us to do, overly certain of what God wants us to do, when we get into trouble. The reality is that when we get into this spot, we have substituted the priorities of our narrow self interest for those of God. Our certainty can blind us to the truly loving choices.
All the choices we make are to be the choices that are the most loving to God and to our neighbour. These are nearly impossible standards for, as Joseph Fletcher pointed out in a slim and controversial volume forty five years ago, “everything is allowed and yet nothing is allowed.” We are called to discern, through prayer and reflection and through seeking the advice and council of those with whom we are connected, those with whom we are in community, the best path. It is, in fact, impossible to do alone, especially alone without God.
Does this mean we are dependent, wretched, weaklings, bound by some old idea of original sin? No. Quite the contrary. We are complex, beloved children of God who at the same time are capable of amazing feats of love and amazing acts of cruelty. We are imperfect. We are not God. We are human, and we are called by the God who made us, who loves us at our best and at our worst, and who sent Jesus Christ to show us how love is more powerful than sin and death, into relationship with him and with each other and do our best. In the midst of this relationship with God and with his Church, together we can support each other when we fail and celebrate our work of love.
The Temptation of the man and the woman and the temptation of Our Lord remind us of both our limitations and all our possibilities. They show us the true meaning of original sin lies in our common humanity. In this Lenten season, we are called to celebrate and acknowledge who we are at our core so that we can best cooperate with God and with each other. This is why we take on our Lenten practices, so that we may do this work of discernment and see that we are called to the perfection of our humanity, which is a very different thing from our divinisation. We are called to know who we are, at the profoundest level, understand our weaknesses and strengths, so that we can turn our lives to the carrying out of Jesus' command to love God and love our neighbours as our self.
Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Lenten Feria 11 March 2011
© 2011 Andrew Charles Blume