“To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as ell as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4:19), and to be manifested in us. Christ’s work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarnate, crucified and glorified. Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man, so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.” Cost of Discipleship
Like some of you, I have heard and read scripture for most of my life. I also studied it academically and taught it for more than a decade. On top of that, I preach it regularly. While I am not one of those people who has memorized vast swaths of the text and from time to time I encounter stories or ideas that are quite new to me, many of the texts we read on Sundays are as familiar to me as the back of my hand or an old pair of blue jeans.
But that’s not the case for everyone. Even a story as familiar as the story from Genesis 3 that we heard this morning is unknown to many in our society. That basic ignorance of the biblical story came home to me during my last semester of teaching when I made an off-hand reference to Adam and Eve in a Religion class I was teaching and a student asked, “Who are they?” She may not have known the story but she had an advantage over those of us who are familiar with it. She could read it as it appeared on the page without the two thousand years of Christian biblical interpretation and doctrinal development. For the story we know is not the story that appears in the text.
To point out several obvious points—nowhere is sin mentioned; neither is Satan, nor fall, nor even temptation. Even the decision by the editors of the lectionary to read it today, on the first Sunday of Lent, in conjunction with the gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, contributes to our mis-reading of this foundational story of Judaism, Christianity, and western culture. Is it about original sin? If by original sin, one means the human condition, then yes.
The inclusion of the verses from chapter 2 helps us understand the authors’ perspective on human beings and on creation. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden, the Hebrew literally reads, “to serve it and to guard it.” Human beings were created to be in partnership with the garden, to protect it and preserve it. It’s a very different notion than that which appears in Genesis 1, when God commands the humans to have dominion, lordship, over all the animals and plants. We see here a sense of human beings cooperating with creation, given responsibility to protect it. One more point—there’s no sense here that before the fall, humans were intended to live in idleness, rather, they were placed in the garden for an end and a purpose. Created in the image and likeness of God, God intended them to flourish and to aid in the flourishing of creation.
But something happened. They met a talking serpent who gave them a different way to think about themselves and God. The serpent questioned what God had told them and promised them that by eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would become like God.
Everything the serpent tells them is true, if somewhat one-sided. They did not die after eating of the fruit of the tree and they did gain knowledge. And the fruit was desirable. Eve ate because the fruit was beautiful, good to eat, and would make one wise—all of these are appropriate reasons for her decision. And, I would add, of the two humans, at least the woman showed some agency: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”
What were the consequences? They gained knowledge; most immediately, of their nakedness. They were ashamed. So whatever intimacy the two beings, “bone of bone and flesh of flesh” had had was suddenly gone—they needed protection from each other. And they needed protection from God. Their nakedness and exposure broke the pair’s intimacy with each other; it also broke their intimacy with God. Instead of becoming like God, they becoming frightfully aware of their difference from God. They wanted to escape from God but God wasn’t done with them. God sought them out in their hiding place, and when God located them, God showed continuing care for them by sewing clothes for them from animal skins. Any punishment would come later.
It’s a story of disobedience and rebellion against God. God created the humans for a purpose, for relationship with God and to participate with God in the care of God’s creation. Rejecting that purpose, they chose to aspire to be like God and so spurned their true nature, having been created in the image and likeness of God. It’s the story of humanity; it’s our story. Like Eve and Adam, we grasp for the beauty and knowledge we can see; and in grasping for what we want, we turn away from God and deface the image of God in us. The knowledge we gain is knowledge of our own fallen humanity, knowledge of our shame and embarrassment.
In the story of the temptation of Jesus, Satan asks him, “If you are the Son of God…” This story follows immediately on Jesus’ baptism, when he hears the voice telling him, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” The temptations of Jesus are temptations about what that means to be the Son of God, just as, in the garden, the temptation was about what it means to be human. The temptations of Jesus are temptations about what sort of Son of God Jesus is. Is he the Son of God in the sense that Roman Emperors were sons of God—the most powerful men on earth with all the trappings of power, wealth, and status?
Or is he the Son of God in some other way? Satan tempts him with other ideas about what it means to be the Son of God. He also tempted Jesus to prove he was the Son of God by forcing God to act in a certain way. But Jesus rejected both of them and in the end, was the Son of God who died on the cross.
We are at the beginning of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, many of us heard those words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” They’re a reminder of our humanity, our frailty, and vulnerability. Today, in the Great Litany, we heard centuries-old language that confronts us with our sins and shortcomings, as individuals and as the human race. Lent confronts us with our humanity; it opens up for our reflection and inspection all of the ways we have fallen short of our human potential, all of the ways we have ruined the image of God in us.
But that’s not all. Lent is also about a God who loves us in spite of the fact that we have turned away from God, in spite of the fact that we have defaced God’s image in us. God loves us even when we hide from God like the man and the woman in the garden. Just as God continued to care for the two who had rebelled against God, sewing clothes for them from animal skins, God continues to love and care for us.
It’s easy to hear the language of sin in the Great Litany and throughout Lent as language of condemnation and rejection. It’s easy to recoil from that language, especially in our culture of self-help and self-actualization, our culture of gratification and enjoyment. We often want our religion on similar terms. Lent doesn’t allow that. But that’s not the end of the story or experience of Lent. It’s not the whole story of the Christian faith.
The purpose of our confession of sin, the purpose of our self-reflection in this penitential season is to receive God’s grace and love in all of its fullness. Lent is an opportunity for us to strip off our fig leaves of self-deception and self-protection, to allow others and God to see us as we are, and to let God begin to remake us in God’s image. Lent is an opportunity for forty days to experience briefly what the Christian life should be like 365 days a year, receiving God’s grace as we joyfully are remade in God’s image and fully realize the potential God has created us to become. I pray that all of us experience some of that joy and renewal in these forty days.Re