Is Sin A Myth?
Is sin a myth? That may seem like an odd title for a sermon, and granted it is a bit provocative. I chose it because one of the first stories about sin in the bible is the one we heard in our first lesson, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The account of Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and their resulting expulsion from paradise is foundational to Judaism and to Christianity. It’s often been referred to as The Fall. It’s attracted theologians such as St. Augustine and poets such as Thomas Milton. When a young couple bring their newborn to be baptized, even if they aren’t churchgoers themselves, the story of Adam and Eve is probably somewhere in the background of their decision. Often when I talk to these couples and ask why they want baptism the phrase “Original Sin” comes up, which is the idea, however vaguely understood by the parents, that human nature is contaminated because of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and baptism is God’s way of fixing it. The church’s thinking on baptism has changed over the last century, but sin and redemption are still involved in that sacrament.
So is sin a myth? Perhaps we could defer that question for a moment while we ask if we think creation is a myth, since creation comes before the fall in Genesis. While many Christians accept the creation story as literally described in Genesis, many Christians do not accept the creation story, including Adam and Eve, as literal truth. Since Darwin’s time we have come to know too much about the fossil record, about biology, geology and anthropology to readily accept the Creation and the Fall as described in Genesis, even if we do have a common ancestry somewhere millennia ago. I remember last summer, standing on a beach at Joggins, Nova Scotia, and hearing a young and very smart curator speak in disgust of what he called “religious people” who rejected the fossil record as a trap planted by Satan to lure the faithful into doubting creation. For this bright young man, his science trumped the bible every day of the week because the Christian doctrine of creation had been discredited in his eyes by the Christians he had met.
Now when you see a fossilized tree sticking out of a cliff as you can at Joggins, it is very powerful proof that the world is a very ancient place, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t a created ancient place. The doctrine of creation is where all theology starts. As Christians, we believe that a generous God brought the world, indeed the universe, into being so that we might enjoy being in relationship with God and with one another. The preacher and evangelist John Bowen says that he wishes Christians who believed in literal creation and Christians who believed that God let the created world evolve could agree to disagree, since we aren’t saved by how we believe the world was created. What saves us is our faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross to save us from our sins.
I keep talking about sin without directly answering my question, is sin a myth? To finally answer my question, I would say that yes, sin as it is explained in the Adam and Eve story is a myth, if we accept myth as the Princeton University website described it, as “a traditional story accepted as history [which] serves to explain the world view of a people”. But there is nothing mythic about sin as it exists in the world we live in. The theologian G.K. Chesterton said once that “original sin is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved”. I don’t need to belabor this point because we all have some sense that there is something wrong with the world which can be explained by human actions. I said here on Ash Wednesday that the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis is really a story about how human choices and actions influence the world for better or, more likely, for ill. We who live in a relatively prosperous part of the world are blessed to be insulated from the most egregious things which blight the world –- war, famine or at best subsistence existence, poverty and stunning imbalances in wealth – we know all that from the news, but forget the news if yu want proof of the reality of sin. We don’t have to go far into sleepy little Ralston to find proof of that. Consider something I’ve talked about before, the terrible vulnerability of military families. How many homes around us are blighted by (and this list is not exhaustive) emotional numbness, gossip, verbal and mental cruelty, addiction , debt, indifference to parenting and to parental authority, adultery, depression, loneliness, anger and the other psychological wounds that afflict warriors and their families?
People of God, sin is not a myth. Adam and Eve may be mythic figures in the sense that the first hominids were likely quite different, but they are real enough that we can see ourselves in them. We see in them our capacity to be tempted by things we think good at the time. All of us have our own needs, things which seem to us, like the fruit to Eve, “a delight to the eyes”. The preacher David Lose asks this question: “Might it be that a part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition? To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill?” Adam and Eve thought that the fruit of the tree of knowledge would make them more complete. What Genesis describes is thus a response to human need, an attempt to overcome our limitation with more X or Y. For Adam and Eve it was knowledge. For us, we may think that we can make ourselves more complete through more money, more sex, more fitness, more prestige, a better car, a faster computer, a perfect spouse. For those who are wounded by our pursuits of these things and the disappointment they inevitably bring, we try to live with those wounds through anger, resentment, addiction, or other things that, like Adam and Eve, drive us from Eden.
None of us are immune to the temptation to fill our needs with things that lead us away from God. We are all Adam and Eve in that regard, which is why our gospel reading today is Matthew’s account of how Jesus resists temptation in the wilderness. Jesus confronts the same temptation that is part of the human condition, but he as St. Paul writes in Romans, Jesus is different from us. He passes the tests that we would fail because of his absolute faith in God. For Christians, the story of Jesus in the wilderness is a kind of temptation in itself, because we feel that the point of the story is to be more like Jesus. If we can just be more faithful and purer, we can resist temptation. Well, good luck with that. There is only one Jesus. I think the point of the story is to show the uniqueness of Jesus, that only he is righteous enough to resist temptation. Matthew shows him as the only one who has the power to save us, and the only one we can follow. The temptation story is a kind of spiritual battle fitness test, which Jesus passes to show that he has the power to fight for our souls.
As we begin the season of Lent, Christians are traditionally urged to examine our spiritual lives more closely, to pray or to read scripture more intensely. Sometimes we talk about giving up something for Lent as a way of making ourselves less distracted and more spritually open to God’s call. All of these practices are worthwhile and can work depending on your needs and circumstances. Ultimately, though, Lent is about becoming aware of who Jesus is and why we follow him these forty days to Jerusalem and to the cross. Only Jesus is uniquely blessed and equipped by the Father to go to that place where we cannot go, to do battle with sin and the devil on our behalf. Let’s follow him.