Sunday 10 February 2008

Original Sin

1. Temptation and sin is the strong theme running through the readings set for today.

This is no accident. Today is the 1st Sunday of Lent, and Lent is a ‘penitential’ season in the traditional Church calendar. It is a time when we are invited to reflect on our sinful natures, and to seek God’s forgiveness for our actual sins.
  • The OT reading from Genesis is that old story of the Fall, which we all learned in childhood: how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they sinned by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
  • The Gospel reading from Matthew tells us how Jesus resisted the temptation of the devil in the wilderness. He did not sin.
  • In the Epistle reading from his letter to the Romans, Paul contrasts the sin of Adam with the righteousness of Jesus. This passage is very important historically for the development of Christian theology, because it’s a scriptural foundation for the doctrine of ‘original sin’.

It’s this uncomfortable idea of original sin that I want to explore today.

2. First let’s look at the story of the Fall (Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7).

What vivid images it conjures up! They have inspired artists and writers through the centuries.

But surely this is just an old myth, with no relevance to sophisticated people like us today? Well, yes it is a myth, and a very ancient one. But like so many old myths, I think it has been preserved over the generations because it captures an essential truth: despite being moral creatures with consciences, we human beings, endowed with free will, all too often choose to do what we know to be wrong – in other words we have an innate tendency to sin.

  • We don’t have to believe that Adam and Eve were literally the first man and the first woman, but they are typical of men and women, like you and me. God forbade Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they did so, and became like God, able to distinguish good from evil. We can all tell good from evil, can’t we? We call that capacity conscience: it’s part of what makes us human, and humans are moral beings.
  • Adam and Eve could distinguish good from evil, and no doubt like us they would like to prefer good to evil. But that doesn’t mean to say that they would always choose good over evil, any more than we do. Like us, they had free will. They were tempted by the serpent, and they chose to eat the forbidden fruit, because they desired it: because it was good to eat, because it was beautiful, and because it would make them wise. So many rationalisations for their bad choice! We don’t have to believe in a literal talking serpent, but we all know about temptation don’t we? We’ve all heard that little nagging voice in the head, haven’t we? Prompting us to do something we know in our heart of hearts is wrong, for what we pretend are jolly good reasons.

This is original sin: to know what is right, but to be tempted by our desires to do what is wrong, and all too often to give in to our desires. We all suffer from it, without exception. We know we are all sinners, even though we may try not to be, and even though we do not always succumb to temptation.

It is not so much a mysterious, theological doctrine as a truth about our psychological natures, derived from observation. In fact scientists are now studying our behaviour as moral beings. Harvard biologist Hauser has found that people of all races and religions share at an unconscious level what might be termed a universal moral grammar, which drives their moral judgements. Yale psychologist Milgram has found that perfectly ordinary people can be manipulated to perform heinous acts, analogous to Nazi war crimes. Others have explained how the mechanism of natural selection can result in altruistic behaviour. People like Richard Dawkins use their findings to attack all religion, including Christianity. But I believe the scientists are really expressing old religious truths in the new language of science.

3. Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) tells us how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, but resisted his blandishments.

We are told that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. It is often said that Lent lasts forty days to commemorate Jesus’s fast, and it is an ancient tradition to fast during Lent, or to give up something you like. But if you check on the calendar you will see there are actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. To make it 40 days you must exclude the six Sundays in Lent, which are traditionally seen as mini-Easters, days of celebration. No fasting on Sundays! If you’ve given up something for Lent, you might or might not find that thought helpful!

The devil tempted Jesus we are told, just as the serpent tempted Adam and Eve. Jesus, like us, could hear that nagging little voice in his head. But Jesus had the strength to resist temptation. That is the difference between him and us.

I think it is significant that Jesus quotes scripture, his own Jewish scripture, to rebuke the devil and to resist temptation. Perhaps we might do the same when we are tempted. Scripture can be a tool to help us resist temptation. Now that’s a thought that might help you keep your Lenten resolutions!

4. So we come to Paul (Romans 5:12-19), and his contrast between the sin of Adam and the righteousness of Christ.

I find his argument difficult to understand and convoluted – Paul can be so irritating sometimes, when he seems to deliberately make things obscure – but he ends up crystallizing matters in these words:
‘For just as by the one man’s disobedience (Adam’s) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (Christ’s) the many will be made righteous’.

Paul sees the reality of original sin only too clearly: all human beings, like Adam, are inevitably sinners; like Eve too for that matter, though the old misogynist leaves her out! Later on in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul expresses the human dilemma perfectly:
‘I do not understand my own actions… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’

What a mess we are all in! Our sins convict us; they cut us off from God; and we inevitably suffer spiritual death. Or to put it another way, in the modern language of psychology: I am ashamed of the bad things I do; the shame destroys my self-esteem; and I plunge into depression.

But Paul also sees another reality: the reality that God offers us a way out of the mess. The way out is God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ. By following Jesus’s path of obedience to God, our sins will be forgiven and we will be made righteous. Again, to put it in the language of psychology: if I am truly sorry for the bad things I’ve done and seek to make amends, I will cease to feel corrosive guilt, and I will learn to be better in future, accepting myself for who I am, with all my flaws.

5. So to sum up

  • Every one of us, without exception, should feel uncomfortable about original sin, because it is a reality: we all share an innate tendency of human beings to sin, which leads every one of us to be a sinner. We are all guilty as charged. We all deserve to burn in hell.
  • But as St Paul saw so clearly, that is not the end of the matter. God offers us the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ. If we follow his way and repent of our sins, they will be forgiven. We will be released on parole.

And a final comforting thought for Lent: ‘Remember, I am with you always’, says Jesus. The consequence of original sin is the nagging little voice of temptation, which we personify as the serpent or the devil. But if we trust in Jesus and listen for it, we can also hear Jesus’s confident, comforting voice, encouraging us to resist temptation, and when we succumb offering us forgiveness if we repent.

Let’s try to listen for his voice, really listen, as we travel with Jesus on the way to Calvary this Lent!

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