Sunday 9 March 2014

Original Sin

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 9th March 2014, the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A

Temptation and sin are strong themes running through the readings set for today.
This is no accident, because today is the 1st Sunday of Lent. Lent is traditionally a ‘penitential’ season, a time when we are invited to reflect on our sinful natures, and to seek God’s forgiveness for actual sin.

The 1st reading (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7) is that old, familiar story of the Fall: how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The first sin – the original sin.

The 3rd reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 4:1-11) 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 (Romans 5:12-19), 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 theological doctrine that it is by God’s grace through Jesus Christ that original sin is overcome.

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

First let’s look at the story of the Fall.
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 many an old myth I think it captures an essential truth.

We don’t need to believe that Adam and Eve were literally the first man and the first woman, the ancestors of us all - but they are typical men and women, very 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 is part of what makes us human - we are moral creatures.

Adam and Eve could distinguish good from evil, and like us no doubt in their best moments they would 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 need to believe in a literal talking serpent, but 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 – Adam’s sin, Eve’s sin, and our sin too: 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. It is not so much a mysterious, theological doctrine as a truth about our psychological natures, derived from observation.

Matthew tells us how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, but resisted his blandishments.
But how did Matthew get the story? Since Jesus was alone in the desert, I think the source must be Jesus himself, who told it to his disciples. They in turn passed it on to Matthew, the Gospel writer, and so to us.

The devil tempted Jesus, we are told, just as the serpent tempted Adam and Eve. Jesus was human like us - he could hear that nagging little voice in his head too, but he had the strength to resist it. This should be no surprise, since we believe Jesus to be fully God as well as fully human.

Notice how the devil quotes scripture as he tempts Jesus: “He will command his angels concerning you … On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” – it is a quotation from Psalm 91. We should be on our guard, I think, when we hear someone use scripture as a weapon against an opponent in argument – it just might be the voice of the devil tempting us.

Notice also how Jesus quotes scripture too to rebuke the devil and to resist temptation. Perhaps we might do the same when we are tempted. Scripture can also be a tool to help us resist temptation. Now that’s a thought that might help us keep our Lenten resolutions!

So we come to Paul, and his contrast between the sin of Adam and the righteousness of Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I find his argument convoluted and difficult to understand. 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 seems to believe that Adam’s original sin causes our own, rather than being a consequence of our common humanity, as I do. But 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 Paul 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 language of psychology:
I feel shame for the bad things I do; the shame destroys my self-esteem; and I plunge into deep 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:
When I am truly sorry for the bad things I’ve done, I will change for the better, seek to make amends and cease to feel corrosive guilt, coming to accept myself for who I  am whatever my flaws.

So to sum up
Every one of us, without exception, should feel uncomfortable about original sin, because it is a reality: we all share the innate tendency of human beings to sin, which leads every one of us to be a sinner.

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, our sins will be forgiven.

And a final comforting thought for Lent: ‘Remember, I am with you always’, says Jesus. The essence 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 his confident, comforting voice: he encourages us to resist temptation, and offers us forgiveness when we succumb to it, if we come to him in penitence.

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