Audio is available here: Undoing Adam
“Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, porneia sarkos, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.”
So says Article IX.
We’re starting with the article titled, “Of Original, or Birth-Sin,” to remind ourselves of our own tradition not simply as Anglican Christians, but as Christians in the Western or Latin tradition in general. Perhaps I’m question-begging here—do we need reminding? Well, I think so. This past January, the Church of England authorized a new alternative baptismal rite which, while the substance remained, dropped the words devil and sin rather conspicuously. You can imagine the reaction in the blogosphere. Some of our more conservative brothers and sisters lamented yet another “dumbing down,” (their words) of worship for the sake of accessibility. Some thought of our more liberal ones decried it as being “window-dressing,” for it still insisted, deep down, that the baptismal candidate was not already good. I found myself disagreeing with both camps—being a good, muddled Anglican, I wanted a middle way that could alter older language for the sake of comprehension, but did in fact preserve the intention of the original language.
And part of the intention of the original language is that whoever comes to the font—whether parent, godparent or child, or for older believers, whether sponsor or catechumen—whoever comes is a sinner. And baptism—no matter how old we are—is the sacramental way of confronting that problem.
So, let’s begin by granting that maybe we have forgotten just what Article 9 is getting at, and let me try to rephrase it in a way that is sensible to modern ears (if not sensitive to modern convictions). Original sin means that from the moment of our conceptions, we are in a mess. It is not merely a matter of bad habits; it is part of who we are. It is not that we are sinners because we sin; it is that we sin because we’re sinners. Sin is not merely a matter of bad habits that we can be educated out of by following a better example; it’s more like a deadly disease from which we need to be cured. We need a physician for the soul as much for the body.
What our Old Testament lesson this morning insists is that this state is an interruption in God’s original intention. Sin is not the first word. So it is that the lesson begins not with the serpent in the garden, but with the command of God to the first human not to eat of the tree. In the Genesis saga, human beings were, in their original creative intention, for the keeping and tending and even expanding the boundaries of God’s garden, Eden. But along with the positive instruction to tend and to keep came a negative command—do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat of it you will surely die.
What a strange command. Does God want to keep us in a state of ignorance and subservience? Some who have scorned this story have thought so. Mistakenly, I think. The clue to a right reading of the story is found in the serpent’s words to the woman. “You will not surely die. God knows that when you eat of this fruit you will become like one of the gods, knowing good and evil.” What the command to refrain enforced was a sense of place in the cosmos. On the one hand, human beings were exalted—created in God’s image, called to care for God’s creation, made (as the psalmist would later write, just a little lower than the angels)—and on the other, they were not divine. They had an exalted place; that place was fit for them. It was not God’s place. In eating the fruit, the woman and the man together grasped after a place which was not theirs, which never could be theirs.
It is unfortunate that the lesson stops there for it leaves out the hope with which the original story ends. Hope found in God’s promise that the seed of the woman would one day crush the serpent’s head. Hope found in God’s persistence with human beings—making clothes for them, making provision for them, so that they would not be completely alienated from each other and from God. I’ll say more about that hope in a moment.
To be sure, this story leaves lots of questions unanswered. And we don’t need to try to answer them all—not least because the story itself isn’t interested in asking at least some of them. Rather, it is a story that attempts to explain to its readers why they experienced the world in the way they did: a place where one toiled to survive, where rivalry between humans was the norm, where God all too often seemed distant, and so on. And the answer? It was not always this way; it is in some measure our own fault. The story of the Fall is not a story of an event in the remote past, a story toward which we are only spectators, clucking our tongues. It is one particular chapter in the Bible’s account of all of us. It is our story. It gives us a sense of space—this is where we are: we are fallen. And also of time—it was not always so: at its deepest structures, creation is, and human beings are, good. And finally of future—there is hope; God has not abandoned us.
It is that hope that animates the Gospel lesson this morning. And that means, first of all, when we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we are not to read it as we would one of Aesop’s fables—a moralistic tale with a “Go and do likewise” ending. This is not a how-to in the battle against the temptations we face. A just do what Jesus did—quote scripture, don’t argue, defer to the authority of God. To read the story in this way severely minimizes the reality and gravity of the temptations we face everyday, and is to turn what is a story about hope into a story of hopelessness because, as we all know, in spite of all the exhortations to yield not to temptation, eventually, we do.
Well, if it is not a fable with a moral, what is it? It is, from first to last, a battle. It is a battle that is a microcosm of the entire ministry of Jesus, that is a microcosm of the battle of God against God’s (and humanity’s) enemies. It is a terrifying battle. One human being will come alone to face the full brunt of the tempter’s power in the wilderness—the place of the tempter’s greatest strength. He will come shorn of every physical advantage, having fasted for 40 days. He will come to challenge the one who claimed his human prizes so long ago in the garden. How often do we see Jesus glibly swatting Satan aside, as though the temptations meant nothing to him, had no impact upon him. But look at them again.
Turn these stones to bread. Fill your belly. Do you hear the hunger pangs sharpening beneath each word of Jesus’ answer? “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on the Word of God.” I imagine him sweating, spitting out the words, so desperately hungry, feeling the reality of the temptation to the depths of his being. Make yourself a miracle worker! Don’t go on the way of suffering. A little shock and awe and people will believe in you! And Jesus, knowing what future lay in front of him, knowing that the slow steady climb to Calvary had begun, and wanting a different way, parries with the reply, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. Take the route of the political power! I can give you all these kingdoms for they are mine to give. Just worship me. And again, Jesus fights out the answer, Worship God and God alone.
This the story of the only human being ever to feel the full weight of the tempter’s power without buckling. This is the story of the triumph of the God who triumphs as a man and only as a man. It is from first to last a human victory. And not only a victory for that one man, but also a victory for all men and women who are is. As Paul put it in our Epistle today, if through the one man (Adam) all died, then through the one man (Jesus) all will be made alive.
Why is the temptation story a story of hope? The temptation of Jesus is a story of hope because it is the re-telling of the Fall, only in reverse. In the Genesis story, the serpent comes to the human’s place of strength—the Garden; in the Gospel, the human comes to the tempter’s arena—the wilderness. In the Genesis story, the tempter comes to thwart God’s intention and corrupt God’s creature. In the Gospel, the creator takes up the creature’s flesh, and in that flesh conquers the tempter. In the Genesis story two human beings stumble, and with them so do all their children; in the Gospel, one human being wins, and in him, so do all who believe. In the Genesis story, human beings are enslaved; in the Gospel, human beings are set free.
And not just human beings in general. Human beings with names like…. And not just temptations in general, but temptations toward anger, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, envy, and despair. The temptation I believe directed against us by that same ancient foe is that last one. Despair. Despair at the size of the task facing us with respect to our building. Despair that is the flipside of the nostalgia that tells us our best days are behind. These names, and these temptations—the Epiphany, Despair—are bound up in the destiny of the one who took the tempter on his own turf and bested him. That is why this story is a story of hope.
We embark on another Lent, not in despair. Nor in grim determination to make ourselves better human beings. We embark on another Lent in the hope that comes from a union with Christ. A union that we will have strengthened when we come, now, to his table. To feast at his banquet, to share in his life, to pariticipate in his victory.