Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday of Lent, 22nd February 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7: Romans 5:12-19

Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, in the single which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1965, sang:

‘The purpose of a man is to love a woman:
The purpose of a woman is to love a man:

So come on, baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love ….

It started long ago in the Garden of Eden,
When Adam said to Eve
‘Baby, you’re for me,’

So come on, baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love, love, la la la la, love.’

I don’t think that you would really listen to it – enjoyable as it is – as a serious description of how the world works, or how human biology or evolution is to be explained.

But you might notice essential similarities with our two lessons this evening. In the Old Testament lesson, we are in the Garden of Eden: admittedly, we’ve got past the bit where Eve was created, either at the same time as Adam, if you follow Genesis 1, or from Adam’s rib, if you follow the version in Genesis 2.

We’ll let that go: they’re in the Garden of Eden, and Eve is being tempted by the serpent, who was more subtle – ‘subtil’ – s-u-b-t-i-l, in the King James Version – than the other beasts. More cunning.

Then in our New Testament lesson from Romans we have the antidote to the Fall, to Eve’s giving in to temptation and becoming sinful, separated from the goodness of God: the antidote to that was the ‘free gift’. ‘For as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.’ (Romans 5:19, NEB)

How gloomy are we supposed to be as we embark on our Lenten observance? I went to an Ash Wednesday service – not here, I have to say – where I was treated to an extremely gloomy sermon, emphasising the fact that ‘we are all ‘fallen’ human beings: sin has dominion over us, the Devil is ever-present, and ‘there is no health in us’. But the sign of the Cross in ash on our foreheads is a foretaste of the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, the ‘propitiation for our sins’, as the ‘Comfortable Words’ in the Prayer Book put it.

But just as I would be rather reluctant to elevate Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders to a position of any authority in relation to human biology and evolution, so I would want to suggest that the doctrines of the Fall in creation, and the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, are not to be taken literally. They reflect the way that people thought, 2- or 3,000 years ago, and to take them literally is to ignore the whole history of the Enlightenment and indeed, the riches of scientific discoveries from Darwin onwards.

That is not to say that I don’t believe that God created the world, or that God is our creator and sustainer. But I think that it is a mistake for us to take these beautiful stories as being the same thing as scientific analysis. Indeed if we start to take things like the Fall literally, we are then confronted with difficulties over whether in fact God made us in His own image; whether God is a good god, who always wants the best for us; or whether in some sense He is a cruel god.

And if we adopt a view of what Christ did at Easter as being some kind of a blood sacrifice, again, the implication is that God is some kind of cruel god, demanding human sacrifices.

These stories – they are just that, stories; remember that creation is a much earlier story than the one in the Bible: it resembles closely the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was even older – these stories are perfectly valid metaphors, helping us to try to understand what is beyond our understanding, which is, the nature of God.

But there are, of course, many things which we can draw from these stories which are very relevant to our Lenten reflections. If there is a purpose in creation, are we as God intended us to be? The idea of the Fall implies that we are not. We are ‘sinful’.

Sin is alienation from God: missing the mark, άμαρτια (the Greek means, ‘missing the mark’), falling short; it may indeed include doing bad things: but it is also a question of being somehow defective or falling short of what God intended us to be, and thereby losing our intimacy with God.

Satan tempted Jesus for 40 days in the desert, we are told. But it is very difficult for us to understand what Satan is, unless he is a mythical being, a personification of what it is to be on the opposite side from goodness and the light: to be separated from God.

If Satan indeed exists, or existed, that would imply that God created pure evil: which is not what we believe.

Something very relevant to our Lent reflections, something which I think was a wholly positive contribution by our church to our public life came out this week. It was the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter to all members of the Church of England, called, ‘Who is our Neighbour?’ It is intended to help us, as members of the Church of England, to approach the General Election in a constructive spirit, informed by our Christian belief. Of course, no sooner had the Letter been released than there was one MP on the TV, apparently, saying that it was inappropriate for the Bishops to say anything to do with the General Election, although she admitted that she hadn’t actually read the letter at the time she was spouting off.

So perhaps we should discount that, together with a number of newspaper columnists, who similarly flew into print, denouncing the letter as a leftist tract, which I have to say – and I have read it – it isn’t. What it is, is a really good tour d’horizon of all the major issues which confront our national life, which any politician who hopes to be elected at the General Election ought to be dealing with. The objective is not support for one ideology or another: the market or the state, taxation or free enterprise, or any of these other supposed dichotomies or dogmas, but rather what is going to reflect Jesus’ command that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.

The bishops are concerned to bring us closer to God, to what God intended us to be, the opposite of sin. What will make for a good society, based on compassion, on charity – the word in 1 Corinthians 13. Although wedding couples always have this piece as a lesson, and the word ‘charity’ is expressed as ‘love’ – you know,

Now abideth faith, hope, love,
These three;
But the greatest of these is love

– which is the ‘giving’ type of love, the Good Samaritan type of love, rather than the sort of love which Wayne Fontana was singing about.

I’m not going to give you a potted guide to the bishops’ letter. It is 50-odd pages long, but it is in quite big print and it has neat signposts which give you a running commentary as it goes along. So it’s an easy read, and it’s very well expressed. I will make sure that it is on the church website – which unfortunately it isn’t, yet – and I’ll see whether we can have at least one copy printed out and put in a binder at the back of the church for people, who don’t have Internet access, to refer to. [Click on https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf to read the letter]

If anyone is in that position, and would like me to give you a printed copy, I will be happy to do so if you mention it to me after the service.

So I would say, please don’t get too gloomy in your reflections during Lent. I don’t think that it’s right that we should give ourselves a hard time, on the basis that we are, in some sense, irredeemably fallen. The whole point is that we are redeemably fallen. We may become estranged from God: we may lose touch with His purposes in creation: but if we follow the commandments of Jesus, and in particular the commandment to love our neighbours, we will be redeemed.

So

Come on baby, let’s start today
Come on baby, let’s play
The game of love:

But not that type of love.

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