The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      1st March 2020
Lent 1
Jan Rushton

Each year as we set out on the first Sunday of Lent

we begin by staying a while with Christ

as he enters what must have been some sort of mental collapse

following his baptism by John out in the Jordan river.

Collapse, as the full weight of recognising who he is, falls upon him:

the enormous power he has at his command -

and the mission he senses God calling him to.

Jesus is tempted forty days in the wilderness.

Tempted by what? Tempted as we are?

This year our lectionary readings couple our journey

with the well known yet enigmatic story

of Adam and Eve eating that apple! The story of ‘The Fall’!

So, a thorough dose of temptation and its dire consequences!

Eve tempted by the Serpent.

To eat of the forbidden tree, that tree of the knowledge of good and evil,

for it is a delight to the eyes - and to be desired to make one wise!

She takes and eats - and shares the fruit with her husband!

Adam tempted by Eve.

But now, with their new knowledge, they become aware of their nakedness,

an awareness which troubles them -

and they experience a new emotion: shame.

They need cover!

And hurriedly sew fig leaves together as loincloths.

Now, afraid, they hide from God.

Building on Paul’s reflection on this ‘story of the Fall’,

through the early centuries of the Church,

and culminating in Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin,

this story has become read,

not simply as an allegory about suffering in the world,

but as warning of the dire perils of sexual relationship!

Sexual relationship come to be seen indeed,

the source, and means of transmission of our sinful condition

from generation to generation - corrupting even creation itself!

Sex, the ‘original’ sin! The fatal consequence of which is death!

Better beware the profound dangers which surround

that astonishing creature, woman!

But is this right? Is the primordial transgression in this story, sex?

Is it sex which wreaks such catastrophic consequences on the whole world?

According to the account of their creation,

this pair have already experienced the joy of sexual union!

God created woman to be companion to ‘Adam’, God’s man that is,

and when God presents him with his woman, the man delights in her.

They cleave to one another and become one flesh.

Thus the notion that sex has newly entered the world

at this point of disobedience in the Garden -

destroying the goodness of God’s created order,

such an idea is not present in this allegory.

Such thinking is not Hebraic. It is rather a perspective strongly influenced

by classical Greek notions of the intrinsic corruption of the material world.

So if not sex, what is this dangerous, tempting fruit,

the knowledge of good and evil?

What is it that God has wished to protect his first created couple from?

What is their lost innocence about?

Contemporary scholarship has suggested a different focus.

This story in the Hebrew is written with a sharp pun on words!

The adjective used to describe the serpent, arum, means ‘clever’, while

the word arummim describes Adam and his woman as ‘naked’.

In the closeness of these Hebrew words, is the suggestion here,

that these first humans, in their disobedience have now become ‘clever’?

This story compiled in the time of the early Israelite monarchy,

the figure of the serpent is not an intrinsicly evil being,

such as much later notions of the figure of Satan.

And maybe we should be taking the naming of this forbidden tree

more literally! In the eating of this fruit is the acquisition of knowledge,

a knowing of the difference between good and evil -

and thus the loss of innocence.

Here God’s first humans have gained power to control, power over creation - and the struggle for power over one another.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it like this:

‘In God’s Garden, as God wills it, there is mutuality and equity.

In God’s Garden now, permeated by distrust, there is control and distortion.’

Potential for exploitation has entered the world,

the tragic unravelling of the connectedness

that had been an integral part of God’s creation.

And there are consequences. In our vulnerability

human beings will live by the sweat of their brow,

and women shall experience, rather than partnership with men, domination - expressed in the man at this point, naming his woman - Eve -

a name which means ‘to give life’.

God had warned them, eating of the forbidden tree spells death.

But they do not die. Please note they were never immortal!

In God’s change of mind we may see that the prohibition on taking, eating

this fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,

was imposed for their protection.

They will loose that exquisite intimacy they had enjoyed with God,

but God is still very much present around them.

He continues to protect them, giving them the skins of animals for cover. And will, in the fulness of time, enter human society in human flesh,

will come to redeem this Fall.

This story is a meditation throwing light on life

as the people of Israel experience it: a troubled, anxiety-ridden existence.

The gross inequalities between rich and poor

were becoming ever more exacerbated

in the abuse of power by the elite of the royal court.

The significant and remarkable thrust of this story,

is that it tells us such hierarchy, exploitation and inequality

are precisely not God’s plan for humanity.

The abuse of human freedom and power is the root of evil and suffering.

This story filled with the suggestion that life could be another way.

The temptations faced by Jesus in the wilderness are each

those of using the divine power he possesses

for quick-fix, self-centred purposes;

gaining a following and the adoration of the crowd

by offering bread without work -

we know how important quality work is to our well-being;

by dazzlingly with miraculous feats defying the laws of nature -

the circumventing of the real work of caring relationships;

selling his soul in manipulation and deceit born of his superior abilities -

an overbearing focus on self and an absence of loving kindness,

the breaking down of trust in thoughtless self-assertion.

So where do we exercise abuse of power?

At the collective level, two weeks ago

our Church held its winter gathering of General Synod.

They had some serious matters to discuss - and one they wished to avoid.

Safeguarding of young people and vulnerable adults.

Historically the Church has chosen to protect its own image and status

rather than address the profound needs

of those it has failed to protect from abuse by a tiny group of its clergy.

Thankfully the Church has repented of this self-regarding position,

and there is today, a real desire to make amends for these victims.

Then Archbishop Justin gave a deep and emotional apology

for the institutional racism still lingering within the Church.

We must do better - I know that senior clergy

are keenly addressing this issue.

And lastly the issue that just won’t go away -

despite the deepest desire of our senior bishops.

It seemed to me ironic to be apologising for racism,

serious prejudice over a God-given physical attribute - skin colour,

while holding it would seem, with serious determination, another prejudice, that against those with equally God-given, differing sexual orientation.

I have mentioned before, the astonishing film, The Two Popes.

A story of redemption.

There is also on Netflix a new and deeply moving documentary

about Pope Francis, titled: A Man of his Word.

What for me made this documentary so startling

was the focus of Francis - Francis who holds so lightly to his title,

his intense focus on the needs of the people of the world

whoever they might be -

and never the merest glance at the perception, status of,

himself or his Church.

Or any mention of ‘opportunities for evangelisation’.

Francis is his own highly able ambassador for Christ!

In him we witness the power of power laid down.

There are times when I wish our own Anglican Church

would stop navel-gazing. Yes, our numbers are falling. This does matter.

A growing church remains fresh and vibrant for everyone!

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling we could be doing much better

if, as Pope Francis, we resisted the temptation

to be concerned with, focused on ourselves.  And rather focused, on fulfilling Jesus’ call to make known the love of God in the world, to establish justice and mercy in our communities, and the well-being and flourishing of God’s people - all God’s people!

Returning to the personal, are there areas in our own lives: where we seek power over others - or, equally, areas where we relinquish responsibility which is actually ours?


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Sermons from previous years are here | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005