Sermon preached by the Precentor, the Reverend Canon Gavin Kirk, at the 9.30 Eucharist on the first Sunday after Trinity.
Today’s first lesson (Genesis 3:8-15) is so well known as to need no further explication, or so one might think. The Genesis creation story - or I should say stories, for there are two contrasting accounts in the first two chapters of this book - has for more than a century now been a key text in drawing parameters around varying approaches to Scripture, to history, to science, to truth and, indeed, to being a Christian. There are those who believe that “the” Genesis account of creation (although, as I’ve just observed, that doesn’t actually exist) must be historically accurate because it is in the Bible, and the Bible, being God’s word, must be TRUE! That is to say, there must have been a time when there were only Adam and Eve around, that there was a tree in the middle of their garden which they weren’t allowed to harvest, and that disobedience of that prohibition, occasioned by a talking snake, brought about a loss of innocence and a shame about being naked.
The discoveries and calculations of scientists over the last century or so have questioned the historicity of such narratives, and the ensuing crisis have produced one or two blind alleys. Some people, realising that Genesis may not be a reliable history book, have concluded that it and the other sixty-five books in the library we call the Bible are not “true” We can’t rely on the statements made therein because science, and indeed sometimes reason, suggest otherwise. They may be valuable as testimony of the belief of former ages, like ancient temple ruins in Peru, but they have long since ceased to have any relevance to today, so God doesn’t get a look-in any more as he’s one of the erroneous statements.
Others believe that the Bible is true. That is to say, they believe that what it says is true in whatever sense you interpret that word, historical, cosmological, ethical, biographical and so on. Anything which purports to suggest otherwise on one or other count is misguided and dangerous, as it will lead to a lack of faith in the principal means by which God has chosen to communicate with his people. What is needed is greater faith to understand that this book, and everything it contains, is actually true: it’s just our lack of knowledge or understanding or our downright liberal wrong-ness which prevents us from seeing and accepting it. God does get a look-in, so long as he’s not attempting to say or do anything now which is contradicted by what is written in the Bible.
I’m happy to argue the toss with anyone who espouses either position, neither of which I’m afraid is a caricature, though there’s a whole range of understandings in between. What I’d rather do this morning is to have a little look at the Eden story again and ask ourselves what we mean by Truth.
The Ancients were great story-tellers, and they have had in almost every generation their successors who have sought to articulate their response to the world in which they found themselves, and their experience of what gave them meaning and direction and hope in life. One has only to read the Metamorphoses of Ovid or the Fables of Aesop to find deep and penetrating questions about all manner of life-issues and possible interpretations of scientifically-observed phenomena.
One of the most enduring experiences of life must surely be holding a baby, particularly one’s own. Here is this miniature human being, perfect in every respect, with all the experiences, achievements and possibilities of life ahead. Yet only two things are certain at that moment: that sooner or later this new life will be overtaken by death, and that its owner will commit some acts which are wrong during life. That wrong may be nothing more than laziness or occasional hurtful words, or it may extend to the perpetration of genocide or ruthless extortion of the underprivileged.
Well, we reflect as we look at the happily gurgling innocent bundle in our arms, that’s only being human, and life is what we make of it. This is exactly what the composers of Genesis were reflecting upon as they put together the narratives which have caused such controversy. Why do things go wrong in the world? Why do innocent people suffer and guilty people seem to go scot-free? Why can God seem so remote or unwilling to act? What is it about being human that means that even the most perfect baby with the best start in the world will do wrong from time to time?
Genesis posits a situation where not babies, but fully mature individuals, are so at one with God that they can converse with him easily and fearlessly, have no sense of shame or embarrassment, and live in a blend of perfect freedom and perfect responsibility. Perhaps that could have gone on for ever; perhaps not, but man and woman are tempted to disobedience of God by the implication that he is in fact pulling one over on them, and that their faithfulness is causing them to miss out on an even greater freedom and self-realization. (Apologies, Karl Marx, but I’m afraid you’re only mainstream Judaeo-Christian in this!)
And so they suck it and see, so to speak, and find that four things ensue. Four things that well might form part of our own examination of conscience as we begin the long season of Ordinary Time.
First is an unwillingness to take responsibility, or more accurately, the knee-jerk response to shift the blame. What is this that you have done? says God (about the act of disobedience, note, not the fact that it was an apple). Adam’s response: It was her fault: she gave me the fruit. Eve says: Blame the serpent, he tricked me into it. How easy it is to point the finger at someone else when things go wrong. Insurance companies, management consultants, litigation specialists, even some appraisal schemes, make it their business to apportion blame … somewhere else, of course. How very much harder to say: I’m sorry: that was my fault. Please forgive me and support me in trying to do better.
Second is the putting out of kilter of the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation. I will make you enemies of each other, you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It’s not, I think, about fear of snakes, but about our inability to live properly within the created order of which we are stewards. Small wonder that year after year we hold conferences in which that relationship, and our performance as co-workers with God, is re-examined. How hard it is for us to choose for our planet rather than our own convenience, even to the level of switching off light bulbs or sorting waste material for re-cycling. Accursed shall be the soil because of you, says God.
Allied to that ecological disorder is a shift in the nature and experience of work. The man and his wife were put into the garden to cultivate and take care of it. presumably a positive and fruitful experience. Yet God says It shall yield you brambles and thistles … with sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread until you return to the soil. In other words, work becomes toil, creativity gives way to drudgery, and one of the things in which we are most God-like - our ability to be creative and collaborative - becomes something that we have to do to earn a living, rather than that we choose to do in order to beautify and care for the world. How easy it is for us to do just enough to get by in our work, or to find excuses for not doing it; how hard for us to accept that in the mundane monotony which characterises at least part of most people’s working lives lies the possibility of partnership with God; how harder still to grasp the fundamental injustice of the denial of that potential to the unemployed.
Fourthly, the other thing in which we are most God-like - our capacity for relationships - is compromised by the disordering of human sexuality. Your desire shall be for your husband, yet he shall lord it over you, is the sentence, and I shall greatly multiply your pains in childbearing. Even the most cursory glance at the Church Times shows how very easy it is to use the Bible to say that some people’s sexuality is disordered. Other people’s sexuality, naturally, but in fact the message of Genesis is that ALL sexuality is compromised by our tendency to use it for our own ends, to be exploitative, manipulative and selfish, to delight in its rewards but eschew its responsibilities. And more broadly, we tend to delight in what we have a sneaking suspicion ought to be shameful, and we sew together fig-leaves in order to hide it from other people.
Well, if these four results of what theologians call the Fall are ringing any bells in your life - and they certainly do in mine - then you will see that the Genesis narratives just discussed are true with a capital T: that is to say they are a way of conveying to each generation important and enduring facts about humanity’s experience of living with and sometimes against God, not a statement about snakes and ladders. They need to be examined critically, to be sure, to be placed in context, most certainly, but above all to be engaged with as the means by which God can continue to speak to us and bring about his saving effect in our lives.
I haven’t, you will notice, offered any answer to the four results of the Fall. That is because the Scriptures, however much they contain the Word of God, point towards our engagement above all with him who IS the Word of God, the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ our Saviour. A fortnight ago, we celebrated in Pentecost the completion of God’s initiative of salvation with the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Last week we paused to consider the essential mystery of God himself, the God who is Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Last Thursday we observed, somewhat damply, in the feast of Corpus Christi Jesus’s gift of himself in Holy Communion, and our responsibility to carry him in our lives, in our very bodies, to the world he came to save. This trio of feasts gives us some insights as to how in his death and resurrection he overcame the fallen-ness of our human nature. It is our co-operation with him, our readiness to allow his life to permeate ours, his will to cleanse and direct our own, his responses and his saving work to hallow and direct our lives and actions, which will make this year, and indeed the whole of our Christian journeying through this life, fruitful for God and for the rest of the world.