Made to Love

Sunday 13th March 2011
Year A, The First Sunday of Lent
St Francis, Hassocks
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

Our two readings for this evening ask us to make a simple, even crude comparison: in the first, we hear about humanity's fall from grace, succumbing to temptation; in the second, we see Jesus resisting the wiles of the devil. Thus, we have the two theological positions of the human 'fall' or 'original sin' and the sinlessness of Jesus as a human being. And the further intention of these readings is to draw our attention, at the beginning of Lent, to our own sinfulness and the sinlessness of Jesus after his "Forty Days and Forty Nights" in the wilderness.

But it just won't do. Let me put to one side the human perfection of Jesus which is beyond controversy and look more carefully at the inferences we can draw from the passage from Genesis.

There are three grounds for not accepting any glib interpretation of what this Reading means. The first is obvious enough: the male clique that wrote the Book of Genesis (not Moses) couldn't bring itself to account for wickedness in the world by blaming men; so it was Eve that had to take the rap. If we are all in some way sinful - and I'll come to that in a moment - there's no evidence to suggest that women are more sinful than men; if anything, if we look at crime figures, we might draw a contrary conclusion.

Secondly, there is a long Jewish tradition which understands this passage in a very different way from that of the 'fall' or the existence of 'original sin'. There is a whole strand of Midrash which says that Eve, in opting to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was heeding the call of the serpent who is the symbol of wisdom; humanity was called out of its naïveté in Eden to establish a mature relationship with God where there were obligations on both sides.

And this connects with my third objection. What kind of scenario can we construct about God which shows him creating humanity and then allowing the devil, as the personification of evil, so to distort God's purpose for humanity that we are all tipped into a 'fallen' state, each of us being born with an 'original sin'? How does this square with the pivotal concept in Christianity that "God is love"? Can we honestly allow some strange passages in Scripture to lead us to think that there really was some kind of civil war in heaven? If there was, we would have to ask why God thought it fit not to overthrow the wicked forces. If we believe these passages at face value then the best God secured for us was a score draw.

Our way of looking at these doctrinal issues stems largely from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. Saint Paul, in struggling to establish a typology for Jesus, looked back to sinful Adam (note, not Eve) and saw Jesus as the historical counterbalance; human beings had 'fallen'  from a state of perfection in Eden into a state of sin and Jesus had been incarnated in order, by his passion and death, to set us free. Somehow - and some people actually believe that God exacted pain and death from Jesus to repay a debt to assuage his wrath - the death of Jesus became a transactional arrangement which exchanged the passion for our redemption. Saint Augustine, taking this idea further, saw human beings as fundamentally corrupt.

This salvation history is so ingrained in us that it is quite difficult to think our way out of it; what was firmly established by Saint Augustine in Western Christendom was confirmed 1000 years later by Luther and Calvin. But this view of events is not shared by, for example, the Greek Orthodox Church which does not accept the doctrine of the 'fall' and 'original sin' and tends to emphasise the aspirations of humanity towards the divine rather than the difference between the human and the divine represented by the notion of sin.

Now this is not to say that we do not commit wrong acts, both individually and collectively; we only have to look around our world to see the evil that is done by one human being to another; by governments to each other; and by governments to their own people, as in the current situation in Libya. But we should consider a different explanation from that of Saint Augustine.

Let me put it this way: we were created in love to love; but we all know that love is only possible if we make the choice, and even the sacrifice, to love; so love involves the ability to make choices; but choice is not possible in the Garden of Eden; so the knowledge of good and evil is necessary in order to allow us to choose the good. We are, in this account, created to love God and each other freely but this means that we are necessarily created imperfect; so we will be tempted; and we will make wrong choices. Our biological drive to propagate the race, our physical need for food and shelter, our in-built territorial and competitive instincts, our fear of something going wrong all lead us into moral hazard: we are tempted to be sexually unfaithful, to accumulate more than we need, to establish and defend territory, to concentrate on security. These are the intrinsic human urges that we struggle to moderate in order to create a better world where creating space for the other, risk and vulnerability are prized in the name of love; and where we trust God to care for us as we are properly careless of ourselves. But it isn't easy to give away all our money and hope it will turn out all right and deprive our grandchildren into the bargain of their rightful inheritance; it isn't easy to resist the peer pressure to overstock on bread and milk at the first sign of snow; and it isn't easy to be objective about immigrants who want to exchange their horrible lives to share our good life.

But we must not be too hard on ourselves; and we should take comfort in the Crucifixion of Jesus towards which we are travelling in Lent. The sense in which Jesus saved us was to show that no matter how badly humanity behaves - in this case murdering God in Jesus - we cannot impair God's mysteriously boundless love. What the Crucifixion says to us is that imperfect humanity, far from suffering from an 'original sin' is marked out to be united with God. But that does not mean that we can or should be careless of what we do. Contrary to Saint Augustine, I believe that we were created to love and that to love conforms with our createdness, our creaturely nature; to behave badly is to turn away from our Creator and the nature we were given in Creation.

Given our conditioning, this view might be difficult to accept but, I assure you, it is worth making the effort.