“Sin and flesh; life and death”
sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on March 5, 2017
Texts: Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matt 4:1-11
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
March 5, 2017—Lent 1A
Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matt 4:1-11
We REALLY want what’s behind door number 2. It’s human nature, I guess; that’s why those game shows are so popular. We’ve been offered something good, a prize of some sort, but then we’re offered a chance at something that might be better. And man, we want it. We know it might be nothing. We know that what’s advertised as a “car” might be a matchbox toy or a rusted hunk of metal. We know. But still … we’re tempted.
Adam and Eve have a paradise. They’ve got everything, and can enjoy it all … except that God commands them (or is it that she warns them?) not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And they seem to be just fine with that, until the serpent comes along. It’s the serpent who makes that tree into Door number 2: sidling up to them and suggesting that they could become like God. You will be like God!
And there it is: the juicy worm that baits the hook that is the knowledge of good and evil. Being like God, that sounds tempting, especially if one doesn’t think too hard about what that would really be like. Especially if it just sounds kind of super-hero-ish, without all the heart-rending knowledge and the mind-boggling responsibilities that being God would actually entail. No, concentrate on the immortality and all those special powers. That’s some good stuff there!
So they bite on that worm. They choose door number two, and they get caught, right through the gills. Being like God? Not so much. God never said anything about that, really. But the knowledge of good and evil hits them right where it hurts. Because we humans aren’t like God: we have no protection against the onslaughts of good and evil. Being subject to good and evil, experiencing good and evil, being assailed by temptation and damaged by sin … it’s a pretty significant challenge for us! It transforms our lives into a struggle between our impulses toward creation, and those toward destruction.
Human history shows how difficult this struggle has proven. And so, when the time was right, God sent the Son. God sent the Son, and he too was offered door number 2. Out there in the wilderness, Satan tempts Jesus to give up his humanity. “You’ve got the in already,” he taunts, “so take it!” You don’t have to suffer human needs and vulnerabilities. You could be adored and worshiped. You could be like God!
Jesus, however, unlike Adam and Eve, refuses to take the bait. He knows that he needs to be subject to human weakness, human sin and death in order to break the power those things have over us. He will freely go through death, to prove that it will not have the final word. He will undo the power of sin by embodying the far greater power of repentance and forgiveness. And, not insignificantly, the sinless one’s death can also permanently alter our understanding of the link between sin and death.
This part should not be underestimated, because there is this deep connection in the biblical imagination between sin and death. And here we moderns are invited into unfamiliar territory, because most of us feel fairly clear that death is simply part of the cycle of life. But our Creation story speaks of an original state in which this was not so, did not have to be so for us. Our creation story sets sin and death as intertwined states that are to be fought against, that need to be overcome. And as foreign as that might seem to us, it might have something to teach us, if we take some time with it.
What kind of deep truth might lie within the biblical connection between sin and death? We know, as I have said, that death is simply a part of life. It can’t literally be a punishment for sin because all things die. But there is something there. Some connection between the thing that breaks our souls and the force that breaks our bodies.
At the very least, at its most basic level, we cannot deny that sin is destructive. It breaks things, and it breaks us. It chips away at our capacity for love, our capacity for work, our capacity to show the face of God into the world. It works destruction on our own self, through our unrestrained appetites and weaknesses. It destroys others, through our lack of caution, concern, or any degree of decency. It can even lead us all the way to death.
So, yes, there is a connection between sin and death, even if it is not quite so direct as the classic interpretation of Eden insists. It is the weakness of our flesh, after all, that leads inexorably, even naturally, to both sin and death. But we cannot ignore that our flesh also makes our greatest goodness possible. We have the capacity to imagine and to grow, to aspire and to sacrifice because we are flesh. We have the capacity to love because we are flesh. We have the capacity to create life itself because we are flesh.
Let us look to the story. Let us look, in fact, to Eve. For so long in Christian tradition, she has been cast as the “representative of sin, seduction, and the secondary nature of woman,”[i] her sin leading to our expulsion from the garden, the punishment of death, our toiling in the fields, and the pain of childbirth. Her female flesh, her seductive nakedness, her weak and wicked womanly ways … all this imagery underlying a theological mathematics linking death to sin, sin to flesh, flesh to woman to death to sin.
But the story contains no seduction, other than the serpent’s deceptively baited hook. The sin contains no nakedness, no sex, no plump, juicy bites: the forbidden fruit was godliness, not fleshliness. And as for the disobedience, it fell equally on both Adam and Eve, as did the consequences: You shall work to bring forth life, and you shall work to sustain that life.
Please note, at this point, that the task and purpose God gives humanity is nothing less than creation. We hear the name Eve and think sin and seduction, but the name, in fact, means life-giver. Life-giver. In the very next chapter she claims that power, declaring that she has “created a man, with the help of the Lord,”(Gen 4:1-2a) when she gives birth to Cain.[ii] (you have to admit, making a whole new person is a pretty astounding feat!)
This is what flesh can do. Our flesh that can lead us into sin, our flesh that will eventually weaken and lead us into death, it is also what makes our greatest goodness possible. We encounter this truth once again in Jesus, who knows that he must take on our full humanity in order to redeem our full humanity, and who also knows that flesh and spirit together have a power that spirit alone cannot match. Without flesh there is no hunger or pain, and without those things there is no compassion. Without flesh there would have been no sacrifice in his death on the cross. Without flesh, we would not have known the full force of “Greater love hath no man.”
A closer look at both Eve and Jesus can flesh out our theology of sin and death, reminding us that our bodies give us the capability to create as well as destroy. Our goal, then, is not to escape the flesh, but to nurture the life-giving parts of our nature while standing vigilant against our capacity for destruction. The season of Lent invites us into this work, reminding us year after year of the place of that work in our spiritual life. It is a holy task, and may we take it up with joy and seriousness. Amen.
[i] Carol Meyers, “Eve” in Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 79.
[ii] Ibid, p. 82