The Free Gift and the Trespass

Sermon for Lent 1 by Graham MacFarlane

Lectionary Readings: Genesis 2.15-17;3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

Lead us not into temptation, Jesus taught us to pray.  But every spring, we follow Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days, where he was led by the Spirit, according to Matthew, in order to be tempted by the devil.  So what’s going on?  Is observing Lent disobeying Jesus?  Well it would be if it were an annual celebration of heroic moralism, if we tested ourselves in order to prove our holiness.  If we flirted with, rather than fled from, the devil.  Lent is not about heroic moralism.    It is, rather, a time designated for acknowledging and repenting of our ongoing solidarity with Adam, with whom we make common cause in his opposition to God.  It is also a time for commemorating Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness, as an acknowledgement and thanksgiving for our solidarity with Christ, who has made common cause with us, by taking upon himself our iniquities.

Now, what does it mean to say ‘our solidarity with Adam’?  Who is Adam?  Adam means Man.  The parable of Eden is not the story of the first sinners, but a story about all sinners.  Adam is us, humanity in its opposition to God.

If Adam is not a historical person, what is Paul talking about in today’s epistle reading?  He says: “sin came into the world through one man, and through sin death, and so death was spread to all men because all men sinned.”  It very much sounds like he’s saying that Adam really was this utterly primitive individual person, who is responsible for introducing sin and death into the world, and so bears responsibility for our sinful natures.  Paul says: “The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.”  That is, he seems to be setting up a perfect parallel between Adam and Christ.  Adam was one historical man, his trespass brought condemnation.  Jesus also was one historical man, his free gift brings justification.

But if Christ forms a perfect parallel to Adam, like two sides canceling each other in an equation, and if the trespass is Adam’s and not mine, then the free gift is also Adam’s, and not mine.   But this is not at all Paul’s argument.  For one thing, he is clear that Adam’s trespass is my trespass, they’re the same thing.  And secondly, Christ and Adam are not parallel, but rather form an emphatic contrast.  He says the free gift is not like the trespass, and again, the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin.  Christ and Adam are not commensurate; Christ is immeasurably greater than Adam.  The burden of the passage is to show that, on the one side, Adam’s trespass is our trespass, that we as humans collectively own that trespass, and so collectively belong to Adam, and on the other side, that there is only one man who bears the whole responsibility of the sin of the world, and that’s not Adam, but Jesus Christ, who takes it upon himself.

It’s perfectly possible – I think highly likely – that Paul did think of Adam as a historical person, but that’s neither here nor there, it’s not what Paul is arguing, nor is it a premise of Paul’s argument, nor a necessary presupposition.  Adam’s theological importance according to Paul is that he is “a type of the one who was to come”.  Type here means image or reflection.  But they’re not mirror images of one another; rather, Christ is like a man standing in a puddle: his reflection in the puddle is an image of him, but it’s upside down, insubstantial, and distorted.  This is how Adam is to Christ.  Christ is immeasurably greater than him, in power, status and authority.  We can see this by comparing Christ’s temptation to Adam’s.

Adam is created by God, and is given an appointed place within the created order.  He is given power, status and authority appropriate to this appointed place.  He has dominion over the all living things, he is given the task of naming them.  And he is permitted to eat the fruit of any tree of the garden… save one only.  The one tree is the limit to Adam’s power and status and authority.  As a created being, he has parameters, and this one tree lies outside those parameters.  It’s across the line.  And what is the first thing that Adam does?  He crosses that line.  He is unsatisfied with the parameters of his merely human power and status and authority.  He decides that he would prefer full equality with God.  The serpent says as much: You will be like God. His decision to overstep his parameters is his undoing, because it is fundamentally a denial of the very basis of his being.  By opposing God, he opposes God’s creation, and so opposes all that is, including himself.  This is what it means to say that sin brings death.

Jesus, on the other hand, is God, become man.  He comes with a mission, to redeem the world by taking its sin upon himself.   Jesus as God and man possesses divine power, status, and authority, but also possesses human desires.  This combination gives rise to the form of his three temptations.  In the first, the tempter suggests that Jesus turn stones into bread: that is, to use his divine power in order to appease his human hunger.  In the second, the tempter suggests that he throw himself off of a tall building, since there will surely be angels to break his fall.  That is, to prove the quality of his human faith by testing his divine status.  In the third, the tempter offers Jesus total dominion on earth, if he will acknowledge the legitimacy of the tempter’s worldly rule.  The temptation for Jesus here is to allow his human political goals to harness his divine authority.  In all three cases, the problem with Jesus using his divine power or status or authority in service of his human desires is that it would be regarding equality with God as something to be exploited, it would be straying from his mission, and this would constitute disobedience.

Adam decided that he should be equal with God, and so exalted himself, becoming disobedient to the point of death.  Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Phil 2.6).  Here, at the outset of his ministry, Jesus commits himself, his whole being, divine and human, to take upon himself the sin of the world, and to bear that burden on the road to Golgotha.  He is obedient to his mission.

So to return to our starting point: what is Lent?  It is a time designated for acknowledging and repenting of our ongoing solidarity with Adam, with whom we make common cause in his opposition to God.  It is also a time for commemorating Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness, as an acknowledgement and thanksgiving for our solidarity with Christ, who, while we were in Adam, made common cause with us, taking upon himself our iniquities.  To acknowledge our solidarity with Christ is to profess that our lives are hid in Him.  Which means that our iniquities don’t get the last word.   Their power, status and authority is overruled.  For the free gift is not like the trespass.  It is immeasurably greater, and it always gets the last word.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s