Sunday, 9 March 2014

Lent 1: Out of Eden

Be careful what you wish for, people say, because you might get it.

In today’s Old Testament story that seems to be exactly what has happened to Eve.
When the serpent sidles up to her in the Garden of Eden what he offers her seems to be exactly what she wants. She wants to have her eyes opened, and to know good and evil, just like God. And why not? Surely it is a good thing to have your eyes open and to know good and evil. So she and Adam eat the fruit, and what the serpent has said turns out to be absolutely true. Their eyes are opened, and they do know good and evil. Unfortunately what they see with those open eyes is that they are naked, and what they discover about good and evil is that you can know as much as you like about it, but that won’t stop you doing the wrong thing.

This is a story that has captured people’s imagination for millennia. The snake, the fruit, the couple who are seduced into taking just one bite. Even if people know little of the Bible, they recognise these images. The latest Smirnoff advert, (  for a vodka drink called Apple Bite, features a couple walking into a sophisticated night club where they are served by a bartender wreathed in snakes… It’s not explained, but it doesn’t need to be. We all get the reference. They are being presented with what seems like an irresistible temptation, and the implication is that life will be much more fun if they give in.

The story of Adam and Eve has been used in many different ways over the centuries, but often its original message has been twisted by the meanings we’ve thrust on it. That Smirnoff ad, for example, manages both to distort our understanding of sin, making it seem glamorous, and also to distort our understanding of pleasure, by making it seem intrinsically sinful, which isn’t the Bible’s view at all.

But if secular interpretations of the story have been misleading, Christian interpretations have often been just as bad. Christians have used the story to back up restrictive views of gender, sexuality, and the value of learning too; it has often been used as a tool to keep people in their place – especially women.  It has been distorted, as well, though, by being turned into the starting point for what I think is a rather contrived theological grand story, an explanation of life, the universe and everything which I don’t think it was ever intended to be. I’ll say a bit more about that in a minute.

This story almost certainly grew out of an early Middle Eastern folk tale. There are similar stories of the loss of innocence in many cultures, and there’s no evidence to suggest that those who first wrote this story down ever meant it to be read as history. There’s no evidence either that they thought it was going to become as significant as it later did. It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament after these early chapters of Genesis at all. And Jesus never mentions it in any of the Gospels either. Adam gets just one name-check in one Gospel -  Luke Chapter 3 - but only as part of the family tree of Jesus. Luke traces Jesus right back to Adam, who he describes as the son of God. There’s nothing about forbidden fruit at all, or any fall from grace.

The only Biblical writer who really makes anything of this tale is St Paul, as we heard in our second reading today. That‘s probably because he’d grown up in a particular type of Jewish background, in one of the many Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. These ex-pat Jews – Hellenistic Jews, as they were known - were far more influenced by Greek philosophical ideas and methods than those who lived in the heartlands of Judea. They wanted to try to make their Jewish beliefs sound more like the sophisticated Greek philosophy of those around them. So they tried to find patterns in what had been the disconnected books of their scriptures to create a unified whole from them.

Paul grew up in that milieu, so it is natural for him to try to find links between Jewish stories and the story of Jesus, to see echoes of one in the other, to want to make it all fit together somehow. So he talks about Jesus as a second Adam, whose obedience cancels out Adam and Eve’s disobedience. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” as he says elsewhere.

Through historical accident as much as anything else, Paul’s views came to dominate Christian theology, and soon this story came to be seen as a crucial part of the Christian message. It was cast as the problem to which Jesus was the solution, the question to which he was the answer. Humanity had become separated from God by Adam and Eve’s sin, said this view, and the only thing that could bridge the gap was the cross. The story acquired a name - The Fall, with a capital F - something it isn’t ever called in Scripture.
Legends grew up connecting the two events. When Adam lay dying, said one, an angel gave his son, Seth, seeds from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree that had caused all the trouble. Seth placed them in Adam’s mouth as they buried him. From them sprung a tree whose wood was eventually used to make the cross on which Jesus died. 

It has a satisfying neatness to it, but there are a number of problems with this grand story of Fall and Redemption.  
Firstly, to make it work, the story of Adam and Eve really has to be a historical event, located in some actual place and time rather than a myth or a metaphor. But few Christians now would take that view, and that means that the internal logic falls apart somewhat.
Secondly, it treats both the story of Adam and Eve and the death and resurrection of Christ primarily as a sort of metaphysical mystery, something that happened up there, out there, back there, in the distant past, in the heavenly realms. It becomes a sort of divine balancing of the books, utterly remote from us, nothing to do with the reality of our lives and our world, right here and right now.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important for today, it distorts the story of Adam and Eve itself. To make that Fall and Redemption story work, you have to believe that when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, a great gulf opened up, separating us from God, and that’s not what the story says at all. Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden, they lose that primal state of innocence and security, but the Old Testament is quite clear that God goes with them, out into the wilderness. They meet God again and again out there beyond the borders of Eden, in the shape of burning bushes, angelic visitations, prophetic visions and the still small voice that speaks from deep within their hearts. They might not always notice God or pay attention to what he says, but he is right there all the time, as they  wrestle with the temptations and the burdens of life. Old Testament writers sometimes say they feel as if God is absent or distant, but they just as often talk about his closeness and they delight his presence and blessing in the midst of their troubles.

And that brings us to the Gospel reading. The story of Adam and Eve begins in a garden and ends in a wilderness, where they discover that God is just as much at home as he was amongst the fruit trees and the pastures of Eden. And here is Jesus out in that wilderness too, making the same discovery. At the end of his struggle with Satan we are told that “angels came and waited on him”

In the ancient world the wilderness was seen as a place of great danger, filled with demons, rather than a place of peace. It’s the front-line of the struggle, not a place of retreat. Jesus doesn’t go there to find space or rest, but to do battle with the fears and temptations that would inevitably be in his mind as he started his ministry. Should he choose the easy route of power and popularity, or stick to the road God has called him to, a road of service and sacrifice, confronting oppressive powers and suffering the consequences?  His struggles in the desert prepare him for the life that lies ahead, and his death too. As he hangs on the cross, in a wilderness of pain and fear, the fact that he has discovered that his Father is present with him in this first wilderness – that there is no wilderness where God is not - will really matter. It will matter, too, for those he ministers to - the poor, the sick and the outcast . Their society might have told them that they were out in the wilderness, beyond the pale, but Jesus will proclaim that it isn’t so. In fact, God’s kingdom is growing first and fastest in them. They are the people in whom God is most clearly at work.

The story of Adam and Eve has often had such a weight of interpretation thrust on it, that its truest and most powerful messages have been crushed out of it, but they are still there if we care to look.
On the one hand it tells us something quite obvious. This world is not as it should be. Life is not as it should be. It’s natural for us to look around at the world and wonder how it came to this, what went wrong, why people aren’t kinder to each other, why bad things happen. We look at Ukraine or Syria, and think, “why can’t people just get along?” We look at ourselves and think “Why is it that I really mean to make the right choices and yet so often fall for the same old temptations?” The story of Adam and Eve reflects our awareness of the reality, and wrongness, of sin and suffering.

But the story also tells us something that isn’t at all obvious. That God is with us in these times of struggle and failure and confusion. He keeps pace with us as we wander about in circles. He hallows the stony, thorny ground of our lives with his presence as he comes among us in Christ, and he sows the seeds of his love in us, so that his kingdom can grow there, where it is most needed.


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