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First Sunday in Lent

Readings: Genesis 2:15–17, 3:1–7, Romans 5:12–21 & Matthew 4:1–11

I’m sure that most of us here are old enough to remember, or at least be aware of, the concept of Original Sin, which is a Christian belief that humanity has existed in a state of sin since Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

By its very nature, the Church doctrine of Original Sin has always had very negative connotations. And so a focus by the Church over many centuries on this doctrine, together with teaching on the topics of sin more generally, and of judgement, left many Christians carrying great feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and in today’s modern world has contributed to the ‘Church’ being labelled as “out of touch” and “irrelevant”.

The doctrine, or teaching, of the church on Original Sin does differ by denomination, and it is actually one source of the division that exists between various denominations of the Christian Faith. I don’t intend to go into those differences in doctrine now, but I just want you to be aware that they do exist.

From an Anglican perspective, the doctrine of Original Sin is contained within article nine of the thirty-nine articles of religion that were agreed upon by the clergy of the Church of England in 1562. If you’re interested in reading this, you can find the thirty-nine articles of religion at the back of ‘A Prayer Book for Australia’ which is the green book located on the bookshelf in the foyer of the church. A word of warning though, it is written in the “old English” language of the day, so it is not necessarily that easy to understand. 

A more recent description is the doctrinal statement from the 1938 report Doctrine in the Church of England which says: Man is by nature capable of communion with God, and only through such communion can he become what he was created to be. “Original sin” stands for the fact that from a time apparently prior to any responsible act of choice man is lacking in this communion, and if left to his own resources and to the influence of his natural environment cannot attain to his destiny as a child of God. 

This statement itself is still not that easy to understand is it? My own interpretation of it is that, “Human beings can only fully become what they were created to be if they are in relationship with God, but throughout all of human history, they have been lacking in that relationship.”

I find it interesting in today’s passage from Genesis that God said to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen. 2:16–17 NRSV) Adam and Eve did eat from the tree, but they didn’t die, at least not in the literal sense. Ultimately though they would die. As a result of their actions, they were given over to mortality; there was an end date applied to their lives that wasn’t there before, and to the lives of all human beings who followed them. But more importantly, from my perspective, they were separated from God. They were cast out of the Garden of Eden away from God’s presence.

The reason for that is that they overstepped their limits. God had provided them with everything they needed, and had given them complete security. But they wanted to go beyond that to decide for themselves. If we think of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for humankind, then the very notion of temptation, is for humankind to overstep its limits. For humankind to think that it no longer needs God.

Is that not in fact the issue with the growing secularism of Western society today? That even if people believe in God, they don’t necessarily need Him? They have other things in their lives that make them happy. They find happiness and comfort in money, wealth, power, status and possessions. They are so comfortable with their lives and with all of the “creature comforts” they possess, that there is no room for God.

Our gospel reading today presents us with a different perspective. In this passage it is Jesus who is being tempted. Perhaps the greatest temptation that Jesus had to contend with was actually not what he faced in the wilderness. As the Apostle Paul wrote so beautifully in the Letter to the Philippians, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.’  (Phil. 2:5–8 NRSV) 

Jesus was both human and divine–“born in human likeness” and also “in the form of God”. Perhaps the greatest temptation he faced was to exploit his divinity, to take advantage of the power he had at his disposal, but he chose not to. The Gospel of Luke records that while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus did experience a brief moment of temptation when he said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me”, which was a reference to the suffering and death that awaited him, but it was a fleeting moment of faltering. He quickly gathered himself and said, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.” 

The idea of “free will” often goes hand in hand with the notion of Original Sin. Free will can be described as the ability to choose between different possible courses of action without interference. Adam and Eve chose to ignore God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, even though they knew there would be consequences for them if they did. They gave in to temptation, whereas for Jesus, obedience to God’s will was more important.

Writing to the Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul suggested that sin came into the world through the actions of Adam, and that death came through sin, and spread to all people because all people had sinned in some way. Interestingly Paul said that sin existed in the world before the law, which refers to the time between Adam and Moses, but that it wasn’t counted against people at the time, and yet, those people were still subject to death, even though their sins were nothing like the sin of Adam. Paul was really just making the point that all people, regardless of whether they sin or not, are subject to death because of the transgression of Adam, . 

Paul then contrasts the figure of Adam with Jesus, emphasising the grace of God that has been granted to humankind in the gift of Jesus, so that, just as sin had control over death, so now grace has control through Jesus which leads to eternal life. So just as humankind had been subject to death because of Adam’s transgression, now by the grace of God, through the gift of Jesus Christ, it is possible for all people to enjoy eternal life.

Not only is humankind able to enjoy eternal life through the gift of Jesus Christ, but it can also enjoy a relationship with God. For whereas humankind had been separated from God, as a result of the transgression of Adam and Eve, through the death and resurrection of Jesus humankind is reconciled to God.

It is perhaps easier today, than at any other point in human history, to overstep our limits, and to give in to the temptation to think that we no longer need God. But only by being in relationship with God, can we fully become who and what we were created to be.

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