A lesson from the Garden

The reading from Genesis this morning brings with it memories of flannel-graphs and Sunday school art of a man and woman hiding behind shrubbery, a half-eaten apple discarded in haste, and a snake lurking in the branches of a tree.  There it is, we say; the FIRST SIN!

That is the set up, at least, for the text that we read this morning (Genesis 3: 8-15).  For we are quick to point out the moment that “sin entered the world”, but we don’t like to linger on the consequences.

Among the consequences of sin is that, eventually, every sinner is held accountable.  Not always quickly  – (theologically, not even death can keep us from judgement) – but somewhere out there, someone is ready to ask “why did you do that?”

This morning, it is God, out for a morning stroll – enjoying the fruits of all that creative labour; eager to commune with the best parts of Creation…but the man and woman are hiding.  Afraid (he says).  Ashamed at having been tricked (she says).  Naked and exposed by their actions, which they knew to be wrong.  They try to avoid their responsibility, but nothing doing; actions have consequences – that’s part of the pattern of the Created world – and God purposely sends them out into the wide, wide world.

This morning, we stop with the punishment of the serpent. But that is not the last act of judgement, just the most telling, because for all the misery we attach to the disobedience of the first couple, the serpent modelled original sin quite well – and the punishment reflects that.

Scripture reveals that even in our exile from paradise, humanity has found favour, and ultimately forgiveness from God – the serpent, not so much.

Still eating “dust” – still going about on its belly – because it is a serious mistake to mis-represent the mind of God.

Maybe you’ve never thought of the Genesis story in that way – maybe it’s always been about OUR sin and the road back to paradise, but the text does not ignore the role of the serpent, nor does it diminish the serious nature of  the serpent’s suggestion that it knew better than God what God intended for humanity (read Genesis 3: 4-5).

It is that idea – that particular sin (the “knowing better than God”) – that is at the heart of this morning’s gospel lesson.  Jesus is followed by huge crowds; some eager for miracles, others, curious at his motivation.  His family tries to rescue him, thinking that he’s lost his marbles, and that suggestion provokes a speech that is difficult for us to understand:

‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

An unforgivable sin?  Really?  What about the enduring love of God?  What about the ‘power of forgiveness’?  What about God “who sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved…”?

But here is a link to that first story, that first couple, and the first sin.  A sin “against the Holy Spirit” – a slander on the character of God, that suggests that the sinner knows more about God’s mind than God does.

Consider the crowds – the “Doctors of the Law”, who offer their judgement on the source of Jesus’ power; “he has a demon.  He drives out demons by the power of the chief demon (Beelzebub).”  These folks, who appear faithful, see miracles and decide they are mischief.  Can’t you hear the voice of the serpent?  “That’s not what God wants…that’s not how God acts…trust us, we know God; in fact, we know better…”

It may be a sin to deny God (a classic definition of sin is separation from God, so any act, thought or declaration that separates us from God – including denial, fits the definition); but such sin can be remedied and forgiven.  So much greater the sin to assume the mind of God, or presume to know completely the will of God.  This ‘sin against the spirit’ has no remedy, says Jesus, and that’s not surprising; for those who believe themselves godly have no need of God’s liberating Spirit.  To know the all-knowing with complete certainty defies simple logic, but it’s the pride behind the idea that contains the sin.

Don’t believe in an all knowing power?  That’s fine – just make sure you’re not acting like one.  And rest assured that those of us who do claim faith in the Almighty are not immune to these ‘godly delusions’.  Church people with all the answers; those ‘fundamentalists’, who offer absolutes in their interpretation of Scriptures, and unswerving belief that theirs is the right way of thinking about God / faith / life…as though God were whispering in their ears.  Those who reach out in faith to new cultures or different religions with the confidence that what they offer (in terms of religion and culture) are superior to all others.  Plans that hinge on the notion that “God is with us” (a position maintained by both sides during World War II).

Such dangerous positions as these have desperate and predictable consequences – no matter what faith tradition is the starting point.  So much suffering is brought about when we take the role of the all-knowing power for ourselves.

The good news is that we need not stay “…on our bellies, licking at the dust”.  The good news is that God has given us discerning minds and hearts that can be moved to change.  The division in the body of Christ between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches has not disappeared, but humility has allowed us to live in relative peace with one another for the last several generations.  Wounds are still being healed between the church and the First Nations, but our certainty has given way to what I hope is a genuine desire to learn more about one another, and learn from one another.  Ecumenical movements continue to recognize and celebrate similarities between and among a wide variety of denominations in the Christian Church, allowing faithful people of widely different traditions to band together in our service to the wider world.

We are learning to disagree in faith, and that is no small thing.  It is, in fact , a sign that we are beginning to learn the lesson of the Garden; that God’s wisdom is greater than ours, more mysterious, more full of grace; and that no amount of certainty in us can replace the gentle, loving nurture of the Spirit of the Living God.

Jesus opened the family of God to those “who [do] the will of God…”  To do the will of God, we must be open, and humble, and ready for the Spirit to move us “like the wind”.  Thanks be to God, that Spirit moves among us still.  Praise God, for the gift of humble service that is for us, and for all, modelled by our brother – our Saviour – our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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