Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Roman 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Good morning. We began our service today with the Great Litany, the history of which you can read on the front page of the insert. It is a prayer with quite a pedigree. And it has become a tradition in the Episcopal Church to pray it every year on the first Sunday in Lent. I know it is long, but I think it is equally powerful. As we begin our Lenten journey, I find it comforting to pray this very thorough prayer, and to remember that we worship not only as part of this congregation, but as part of the unending procession of Christians all around us, and before us and after us, praying the same prayers at the same time. This continuity is, for me, one of the greatest strengths and comforts of Anglicanism.
Another tradition for the First Sunday in Lent is the reading of the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. Immediately after his baptism the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. It is clear that the devil is focused on power as his particular line of temptation – all three temptations are about power and authority. Some say this harkens back to Genesis, where the serpent tells Eve that if she eats the forbidden fruit, “you will be like God.” [Genesis 3:5].
Theologian Douglas John Hall says that the first variation on this power theme is “the temptation to attempt the miraculous.” Turning stones into bread would not be a miracle performed out of compassion, as the later miracles the gospel will attest to, but instead a setting aside of the laws of nature and full display of Christ’s “Godness,” just because he can. The second variation is a “the temptation to spectacle,” performing a conspicuously heroic deed (jumping off of the temple, knowing he will be rescued by angels) just to be noticed and celebrated. And the third variation is “the temptation to political power,” the devil’s offer to make Jesus the ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth. That seems most basic, and the most tempting, of all the devil’s efforts.[i]
But Jesus remains resolute throughout, not succumbing to these temptations as we, the listener, know we might. I think that’s why this story is included in the gospel canon. It is meant to build credibility for this Messiah—to show that he has the fortitude to stay the course, to undertake the hard work ahead of him. It helps us understand that this Jesus is indeed who the writer says he is, and that he has and will fulfill the promises made.
And that brings me to this morning’s reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans. You may recall that some of the letters of Paul are written by others, as tributes to Paul and to further delineate his theology; this letter is one that scholars believe he actually wrote. What’s more, scholars say that this might be the last Letter we have from Paul—it is the work of the mature man, writing around 57 BCE, after two decades of teaching, preaching, and writing.
But, like many of you, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Paul. Paul can be hard to pin down. One commentator has said, “Some Christians look to St Paul as the guardian of a narrow doctrinal and moral purity, and cite his writings to ‘prove’, for example, the sinfulness of homosexual relationships. Others criticize him for the parallel reasons, seeing him as oppressive of women, gays and others. Indeed he is sometimes regarded as radically altering the faith Jesus founded, replacing freedom in Christ with rule-based religion.”
Too often the words of Paul have been weaponized by some to support their worldview. It can be easy to do because his writing is often complex and circular. When a passage is not clear, it becomes easier to skew the meaning to the reader’s worldview. So I find myself a bit on guard when Paul starts talking about sin. All these references to Adam make me a bit skeptical about the passage, and about just exactly what Paul is up to.
But if I understand that Paul is simply talking about the human condition I become a little more open. Remember that it is in this same letter, just two chapters later, that Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions…. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” [Romans 7:15a; 19-20]
Paul is working in this passage to convey the grace and power of Christ. In order to do so he first sets up the human dilemma. His talk of Adam’s sin is a way to talk about what it is to be human. By our very natures, we are sinful creatures. That’s the idea behind “original sin” – humanity has existed in a state of sin ever since its beginning.
This brings to mind for me The Lord of the Flies, the British novel by William Golding that I suspect most of us read in school. You remember its basic plot: a group of English schoolboys are marooned alone on a deserted island. They begin to work together to ensure their survival and rescue, but factions soon begin to form. Fueled by their fears and their base nature, they become violent and brutal. As one commentator has said, “the tale of the boys’ descent into chaos suggests that human nature is fundamentally savage.”[ii]
I believe it is an essential part of our humanity that we must be inspired to become more. We need guidance to choose selflessness and love over self-centeredness and apathy. Paul writes all of these letters to the early church to encourage them in making these choices. As this new religion is being formed, there are many conflicts within the community. Paul writes to help them see that the way of Jesus points them to a better way to live—the way of love.
And this particular letter is very important in that canon. Scholar N.T. Wright says that Romans is, “by common consent [Paul’s] masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.[iii]
Yes, as with so many of Paul’s writings, this particular passage is one that confuses me a bit, but also inspires me. As that quote says, it presents an arresting vision—it makes me think. And I believe it makes a wonderful jumping-off point for our Lenten journey.
But I do find myself a little lost in the words. I was particularly intrigued, but also confused, by the middle paragraph, the one beginning, “But the free gift is not like the trespass.” [Romans 5:12-17. So I took a look at this passage in The Message, the contemporary English paraphrase of the Bible prepared with great care by Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson. Here is how he presents this section of the letter:
Yet the rescuing gift is not exactly parallel to the death-dealing sin. If one man’s sin puts crowds of people at the dead-end abyss of separation from God, just think what God’s gift poured through one man, Jesus Christ, will do! There’s no comparison between that death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift. The verdict on that one sin was the death sentence; the verdict on the many sins that followed was this wonderful life sentence. If death got the upper hand through one man’s wrongdoing, can you imagine the breathtaking recovery life makes, sovereign life, in those who grasp in both hands this wildly extravagant life-gift, this grand setting-everything-right, that the one man Jesus Christ provides?
This makes it all clearer for me. Paul is pointing to the greater good. He acknowledges who we are, and how helpless that might make us feel to become anything more. But he quickly reminds of the great gift that is given to us in Christ: Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are shone that love is much, much more powerful than sin. He contrasts the death-dealing of sin with this life-giving gift of grace through Jesus Christ.
That gives me hope in this time of fear and animosity. Indeed, there are many things in our world today that want to divide us, to subdue us, or just wear us out. But Paul reminds us of the gift we have been given: Jesus leads us on the path of love! We are invited to stay focused on that gift—to continue on our faith journey knowing the power of love over sin. As we strike out yet again (or still) on the journey to the cross and the empty tomb, let us remember that love is the gift. Jesus embodies for us that love—and it is a personal gift for each one of us, if only we will reach out our hands and take it.
As we face into our fears, let us all recommit to a focus on Jesus. I urge you in these days of Lent to commit to focusing on Jesus every day, in whatever way is best for you. It might be prayer, or reading, or quiet contemplation, or holy conversation, or something else. But I urge you to work at bringing that gift into sharper focus in your life: grasp in both hands this wildly extravagant life-gift, this gran setting-everything-right, that is yours through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] Hall, Douglas John. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 44, 46.
[ii] Somers, Jeffrey. “‘Lord of the Flies’ Summary.” ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, https://www.thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-summary-4178764, accessed 2/29/2020.
[iii] Wright, N.T., as quoted from The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans, accessed 02/28/2020.