‘Madonna and Child with St Anne’, Ambrosius Benson, Netherlandish, c.1527 – National Galleries of Scotland
There is a Christmas Carol, Adam lay ybounden, which I must have heard hundreds of times. Sometimes I don’t get beyond the second line, with its reference to 4,000 winters and therefore a timescale with far too many naughts missing, drawing its dating, as it does, from simplistic biblical mathematics. This adds up the ages of the first people listed in the Old Testament and arrives at a wildly inadequate span.
“Adam lay ybounden,
bounden in a bond:
four thousand winter
thought he not too long.”
If I do listen further it talks about if the apple had not been taken from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then there would have been no need for Christ’s redemption. Blessed then be the time that the apple was taken, for it resulted in the coming of Christ through the childbearing of Mary and the redemption of humanity he brought.
The story behind this was our first reading (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7). And it has often puzzled me why choosing to know the difference between right and wrong is such a bad idea. Surely that is to take moral responsibility and that lies at the core of what it means to be human. We know the difference between right and wrong, can assess that difference, and are conscious in the present moment sufficiently to hold those notions.
And that is the code breaker for this strange forbidden fruit eating myth. The image of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually about what it means to know anything. We can only know through experiencing, not just as a result of mere academic instruction. In today’s education speak, that would be labeled as the need for self-directed learning pathways. So to know we have to experience at some level and participating in human experience involves mortality. Being human is to be free because humans are not pre-programed robots. To live is to choose, to makes decisions, and in choosing we will inevitably pick the right and the wrong ways and thereby we are part of fallible, fallen, fault ridden humanity. We enter the world of sin, the biblical word for this state. The consequence of sin is death and so to be truly human, to know the difference between good and evil, is to be mortal. And that is the gist of the second reading (Romans 5:12-19).
The Genesis story is not an explanation of how this all comes about, despite its vivid depiction of a garden with a couple picking fruit and a talking snake. It is more a description stating this is how it is. And the talking snake is not the devil in any personified, third person, sense. The story predates the emergence of that concept by several hundred years. The idea of a devil as a separate being and mischief-maker did not emerge until after the exile in the 6th century BC. This story from Genesis is thought to be nearly half a millennium older. So the snake is not external to the man and the woman but more the personification of temptation, more within them than outside them. It portrays the human condition, what it means to try to fathom out which course to take and get it horribly wrong at times. Because we do that we are mortal.
So the story of the Garden of Eden, with its innocence, is a story of not being fully human because to be fully human is to sin and to get it horribly wrong and face death. To be without sin is to be without death. Which makes Jesus quite an interesting character as the sinless one, and why our fellow children of Abraham, Jews and Muslims, find his death so abhorrent. To their view, if Jesus died he could not be God because to die is to be subject to sin and to be mortal, fallible and therefore not on a par with God. That is why the Gospels are careful to use the language of Jesus giving himself up to achieve what he achieves on the cross, through death and the power of the resurrection. He chooses to become like one of us, to the point of sharing humanity in its fullest form, even death and therefore embracing sin, taking sin into his very self. It is powerful language. The only way the hope we have in him can be revealed is by one who dies and rises from the dead. Our hope is that this will be ours too. And that is the message we affirm at every funeral and baptism.
Hence that 15th century carol, Adam lay ybounden, hit the nail on the head with its reference to the ‘blessed time that apple taken was’, because through it, because of it, Christ comes to redeem.
Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. The marking on our foreheads with the ash was a reminder that we are born of dust and to dust we shall return. By turning to Christ we embrace the hope he brings in the redemption which deals with the consequence of the human condition, expressed by that blessed apple, and Christ embracing our humanity fully, dying and rising, redeems that situation, removing the impending state of doom.
This is mind-bending stuff. But it has profound significance for us. In a time when walls are being proposed by Donald Trump to keep people out, and Banksy has just opened a hotel in Bethlehem next to the wall separating Israelis and Palestinians, Jesus as the new Adam, builds a bridge between God and his creation. We are not separate from the divine, as if God lives on a far away, remote planet, only making the occasional visit to check up on what we are up to, get a bit cross and throw a few thunderbolts about. God is in the mix, in the thick of it all, and because of that there is hope. This dust, this mix, has purpose and tingles with God’s love. This makes those temptations of Jesus in the wilderness a denial of the loving purpose at the heart of everything (Matthew 4:1-11). And Jesus’ replies call us back to that central hope that God has established a bridgehead, indeed there cannot be a separation: it is a false claim to say that he is absent. The apple taken is a blessed apple because of this.
The first temptation is to turn stones into bread. Jesus’ reply is that bread is not the only point to life. We don’t live by physics alone, though we can’t live without it. We depend on the word, the purposes of God, for our reason to be, our causing to be, and our continued being. The second temptation is a crazy suicide stunt. “Jump off a high tower and watch the squadron of angels come to your aid.” It is the temptation to deny the full humanity that comes from that blessed apple. By taking it, by embracing the cross, Jesus fulfills for us the hope that our fallible, sin-ridden, state is not retched and hopeless. So when the cross comes the mind-worm is sown to call on the snatch squad to get him out of it. That is the central theme of Martin Scorsese’s 1980s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. For all its controversy at the time, it was a reworking of this temptation: when the time comes just cut that dying bit and go straight to heaven. Well that doesn’t help us, because we don’t cut that bit, so if there is to be hope it has to be hope after death, not instead of it.
And then there is the third temptation. This is the one about worship. We worship God because God is God. It is the response of awe and wonder, of thanks and praise for the blessing that is life and new life in Christ. To worship something else is a false orientation; we face the wrong way. We can worship ourselves – remember the snake is not outside us, but inside us. We can worship false hopes: money, experiences of ecstasy or various levels of pleasure, image and power. And power is the invidious one here. The voice of the Tempter offers ultimate power to the one who has it any way and has chosen to give it up so that he can be one with us that we may be one with him.
The temptations are a challenge to Jesus fully taking on the state that comes from the apple being taken, to be fully human and therefore mortal. And in turn, it challenges the purpose of this coming among us to redeem, to bring hope where there would otherwise be doom. Life is not pointless, but filled with the hope and love of God. By Jesus embracing this project, the apple of doom becomes blessed, for its consequence is redeemed. The purpose of life is found in the love of God, and while it is fragile, fallen and fallible, formed of dust to which it returns, it is also held in embrace of God in Jesus Christ fully one of us. For that we reject the final temptation and worship the only one to whom it is due, God.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 1, Sunday 5th March 2017
Image: ‘Madonna and Child with St Anne’, Ambrosius Benson, Netherlandish c.1527 – National Galleries of Scotland. Blessed Virgin Mary and her mother, St Anne, offering the Christ-child an apple, they forbidden fruit Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden, symbolising his bearing the sins of humanity.