Lent 1 – John Conway, Provost – 1st March 2020

Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

The readings given to us by the lectionary for this first Sunday in Lent seem, on the face of it, to fit together neatly. From Genesis we heard of the eating of the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – an eating that will cause Adam and Eve to be expelled from Eden; from Romans we heard Paul’s summary of how that one trespass, that led to the condemnation of all, is overcome in the new Adam, Christ, whose act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all; and in our Gospel we hear how Christ overcomes that original sin – walks that path of righteousness – through resisting the temptations of the devil. So far, so straightforward we might think.

Except, I’ve never been convinced that that way of reading our story from Genesis – the Fall, to give it its usual shorthand – is very true to the text itself. I’d like to go back and look at the story again to see what it actually says, and how that might relate to our own experience of what it is to be human, which I think is the concern of the text. That might then allow us to look again at the story of the temptations, and what Lent might be about for us. The constraints of a sermon mean that a re-reading of Paul will have to be left for another time, you might be glad to hear.

But let’s go back to the Garden of Eden. Although of course the whole point is that we can’t go back – immediately after the passage we heard, Adam and Eve, humanity, are expelled, into a land that requires toil to produce food, and into the pain and risk of childbirth to ensure descendants that will keep their name alive. We can’t go back; can’t leave behind the suffering and pain, the toil of labour, that often characterises life. The longing for a return, a return to Eden, that ache suffuses this story.

The story begins in paradise, where Adam and Eve have been put to till and keep the Garden. And, at the heart of the Garden, God places the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God famously prohibits them from eating of the tree. That prohibition always strikes me as odd. Maybe the trees are put there simply there as a test, which Eve and Adam fail, with the tragic fall we’ve spoken of. In that case, faith is simply about obedience to divine precepts – do’s and don’ts, and Eve fails the test. But as any parent would tell you such a test is pretty poor psychology. If you want your child to avoid temptation then you don’t put it right in their midst! Any parent wants to protect their child from pain and suffering, but we also know that they will grow up and know of it. So are the trees there simply as a test? A parent knows there is a moment when the child will go off and do their own thing, will no longer simply follow the commands of the parent, but begin the path toward adulthood and maturity and discover things for themselves. Every child begins to eat of the tree of knowledge.

To describe it as the tree of the knowledge of good (on the one hand) and evil (on the other) makes it sound as if we are dealing with knowledge of do’s, on the one hand, and don’ts, on the other. This reinforces the sense that the basic sin of Adam and Eve, with its tragic consequences, is to disobey, to break a command. Faith is about observing the do’s and don’t’s. But, as the analogy of growing up out of childhood suggests, perhaps it is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – not good and evil as in black and white, but good and evil as in the whole range of possibilities: the knowledge gained in eating the fruit is learning something of the totality of things, the whole range of possibilities present in creation from good to evil, but most often a complicated mixture of the two. To grow in knowledge is to begin to realise the complexity of the world, and of our own need for wisdom and discernment. Knowledge makes us realise that a lot of the time trying to live a good life isn’t simply a matter of observing do’s and don’ts (although there are obviously a few that I think are important, and that you try and inculcate in your children). But as we grow up the harder thing is trying to sense what is the right thing to do; we grow in awareness of the complicated ways in which I relate to others, and they to me, and all of us to the world. Knowledge, wisdom, is about growing up, about gaining the maturity more adequately to navigate your way through the difficulties and challenges of life, navigate the complexity of good and evil in the world.

And I think the story captures that complexity perfectly: upon eating the apple, the eyes of Adam and Eve are opened, and they know they are naked. It is one of the basic elements involved in growing up – developing sexual awareness: the realisation that nakedness is about more than just having no clothes on. Suddenly we are aware of our bodies in a completely different way – we find ourselves relating to others differently – feelings have to be negotiated: life becomes more complicated. They become aware of their nakedness, and doubtless of the other’s too, and they experience that complicated emotion, shame.

And the other thing that immediately happens upon eating the apple – and again this is the bit after our reading ends – Adam and Eve indulge in a blame game – it wisnae me! Adam blames Eve for bringing him the apple; Eve blames the snake (despite the fact that the snake accurately told her that she wouldn’t die when she ate), and the snake has no one left to blame. This is how we so often react to the complex gift of the tree of knowledge: we seek to blame others. The human propensity to cover over our feelings of inadequacy and shame by blaming others, is as old as this story. We are constantly finding new ways to point the finger rather than respond to the gift of knowledge by taking responsibility. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is ambiguous indeed – shame and blame are unleashed as we try and navigate good and evil. And our social media age finds fresh ways to unleash that shame and blame.

So I think this is a story not about a fall from a mythical time when all was right in the world, but about growing up, about beginning to gain knowledge and not knowing always what to do with it. I spoke at the start that it is a story suffused with longing, and how many of us don’t long, from time to time, for that lost innocence of childhood, when life was, for some of us at least, straightforward and uncomplicated. But we are exiled from the Garden, knowledge cannot be unlearned. Once the apple is tasted there is no going back. The story tries to show, as the rest of the Bible will document, that life and faith are not about that return to innocence, but about deepening knowledge, growth, about soul-making in the midst of the hard work of creation, of childbirth; the wisdom found in the rearing of children and the hard work of cultivating the land. Wisdom and suffering and death flowing mysteriously together – these are the fruits of the tree of knowledge.

The snake in the garden doesn’t exactly lie when he tells Eve that upon eating the fruit her eyes will be opened and you will be like God. The problem is that the snake doesn’t tell the whole truth: that eating the apple doesn’t make you instantly like God – rather you are launched on a lifetime of growing into faith and love and hope, into that life of God. Eating the apple means we find ourselves in a complex world of relationships: between women and men – Adam and Eve are suddenly aware of each other as that; between us and God; between ourselves and our neighbour. I don’t find this story in Genesis a persuasive account of some mythical fall into guilt, a trap from which somehow Jesus springs us free; I do find it a suggestive account of the pitfalls and possibilities of growing up.

And if Genesis is a story about the work of growing up, then Jesus in the desert confronting the devil is what taking responsibility, refusing to indulge in shame and blame, and instead embodying wisdom, taking responsibility for himself and others, looks like. In the midst of his hunger, Jesus is offered the quick fix of material comfort, and he refuses, knowing that it is precisely hunger for God that will see him through; he hears the devil quoting scripture but refuses to see faith in God as some kind of test; he is offered all the riches of the earth in exchange for selling his soul and he casts out the tempter, orients his life and purpose toward the source and goal of all his longing. This is what taking responsibility for who we are, and where we are headed looks like: re-directing our longing from a nostalgia for an irrecoverable past, to a desire for a world where each takes responsibility for each, and we are all in all.

And so I invite you to consider this Lent what taking responsibility in your own life, and alongside others, looks like. How might we move beyond shame, and leave behind the easy blame game? In the face of the suffering and the toil of the coronavirus, what does taking responsibility look like? In the face of climate change, what does moving beyond both shame, and pointing the finger at others, involve? For we all have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; there is no going back; but we can walk in Christ’s footsteps and strength, so that we take responsibility, and enable others to do likewise. Amen.

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