Who are we? When we say we are Christians, how do we define that? [People give input.] Here are some more responses:
Children of God
Seekers of God through Jesus Christ
Members of God’s creation
Community of faith
Progressive Christians in a culture that thinks “Christian” means more conservative and evangelical
Builders of God’s realm
One small congregation in the United Church of Christ
We are people who want wisdom, creature comforts, power, progress. We want to show off once in a while. We want to be loved, to belong, to be accepted as we are.
We are broken, flawed, imperfect people seeking healing and wholeness.
Earthlings, of this earth: Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. You are stardust, and to stardust you shall return. We are all connected.
Both of the stories we read today are foundational to our Christian identity.
Eve, Adam, and the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden:
Temptation that introduces limits, consequences, mortality, sin
Jesus in the wilderness
Wrestling with temptation, with his own identity
Connected to God
Defining the parameters of his own ministry
Called to serve
Let’s start with Adam and Eve. Even if we didn’t grow up learning Bible stories or going to church, we know the main features of this story: garden, tree, snake, apple, Eve eats the forbidden fruit, gives it to Adam, banished from the garden forever. I love the moment when God says, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?” and they all pass the buck. In Bible study, one person talked about how this story seems unfair: God set up this beautiful tree with luscious fruit and then said hands off. That’s like setting out chocolate cake and saying don’t touch. What did God think was going to happen? It is human nature to be temptable.
The Eve and Adam story can be read as a metaphor for growing up, moving from a state of innocence to knowledge of good and evil, sexuality, our bodies, shame. Once we know these things, we can never unknow them. As kids we run around naked and think nothing of it. Parents take pictures, put them in the scrapbooks. When we’re older, we may be mortified by those pictures. And if you are my mother, you go back through the family scrapbooks and draw underpants on all those naked-baby pictures.
There’s no going back to that blissful Garden of Ignorance. We must navigate the world as the knowing, flawed, sinful creatures that we are, always tempted, always wrestling with the desire for more/better/bigger. Eve and Adam learn about limits and responsibility.
Some other takes on this story. Note that the words “sin,” “fall” do not appear here—those have been read into the text.
Kathryn Matthews writes,
[The story of Adam and Eve] is, after all, often called the first and foundational story of who we are, and lots of claims have been made, based on its characters and plot, so it no longer feels like a nice little Bible story for children. (https://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_1_2020 for the quotes by Kathryn Matthews, Sibley Towner/Richard S. Hanson, Barbara Essex, Henri Nouwen, and Jonathan Martin.)
Sibley Towner quotes Richard S. Hanson (in The Serpent Was Wiser), who describes it not as "a Fall narrative but a story of maturation, of risk-taking and adventure" and adds his own summary, that "life is a pilgrimage from innocence to maturity through a land fraught with the dangers of loving and hating, growing powerful and cowering in humiliation, living and finally dying. It is a story about God, too..." (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).
We are people who yearn for greater wisdom, new experiences. We are curious, want to take risks and try things.
Matthews cites Barbara Essex, who calls Eve a “seeker”
who “wants to be better, wiser than she was created to be.... She eats because the tree is beautiful and she seeks wisdom, not because she is willful and wicked. She is an adventurous risk taker—just like God! She is courageous—she eats the fruit without knowing what the future will hold” (Bad Girls of the Bible).”
Barbara Essex continues:
Mature faith and understanding come from having unsettling experiences and surviving them. In other words, we do not know we are strong until we have been tested. We do not know we believe until we have wrestled with doubts. The kind of faith that some want Eve to have can come only after she has been evicted from the garden (Bad Girls of the Bible).
So this story tells us something about who we are: We are people seeking wisdom, people who can be tempted and who sometimes give in to that temptation. We are flawed, we make mistakes. We are human. And God loves us anyway. In a part of the story that we didn’t read, God sews clothes for Eve and Adam before turning them out of the garden.
In the recent Mister Rogers movie, Mister Rogers invites a troubled man to take a minute to think about the people who loved you into being. We did this a few weeks ago. My people are all flawed, and our relationships were far from perfect. But love found a way there anyway, anyhow, and these people loved me into being, just as your people loved you into being the wonderful, beloved, loving people that you are.
Let’s look now at the story of Jesus tempted in the desert. This comes right after his baptism, where the heavens open and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
One of our first temptations may be to reject the notion that we can be beloved. So just take in that message for a moment: “You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Henri Nouwen says,
Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection....When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions....Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.
The voice of temptation wants to tell us we’re not beloved, that we have to do something flashy like jump off the temple to prove that we’re somehow worth noticing.
Jonathan Martin writes,
But that's one way we can identify the devil's voice: It always plays to our fears. It is the voice that tells us we must do something to prove who we are, to prove that we're worthy, to prove that we are who God has already declared us to be. When we know we are loved by God, we don't have to prove anything to anyone. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we are.
Notice the specific things the devil tempts Jesus to do: create bread, defy the laws of gravity, rule over all kingdoms. Jesus does eventually do all of these things, but not for the reasons the devil suggests. However we understand the stories of the loaves and fishes—that food miraculously appeared, or that people miraculously learned to share—a meal appeared for everyone gathered, where no meal had been before. However we understand Jesus walking on water or calming the storm, the appearance is that he doesn’t follow the usual rules of gravity or physics. And at the end of Matthew, in what is called the Great Commission, the risen Christ tells the disciples to go out into all the world to spread the Good News. Which they certainly did. All the kingdoms learned about Jesus.
Lent began this past Wednesday: 40 days (minus the Sundays) to Easter. Jesus took 40 days in the desert. The Israelites took 40 years in the desert. This was a time of wandering, hunger, discernment: Who are we going to be? How are we going to be with each other and with God? These 40 days are a time to examine who we are with God, how we are with God and with each other, to confront whatever holds us back from giving God a full yes.
Who we are as Christians is not about having all the answers, having an easy, comfortable life. It’s about saying yes with our whole body and soul to God’s call, even when that means going hungry, even when that means giving up power, even when that means things don’t turn out so well for us personally but we recognize that it’s not about us—it’s about the greater good.
Some of you have been participating in the “Beyond Belief” class about Marcus Borg and his theological insights. Borg did his own wrestling with God and belief.
Believe à agnostic à atheist à mystical experiences of God’s presence à circling back to God
[T]he Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit. And a Christian is one who lives out his or her relationship to God within the framework of the Christian tradition. [Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 17.]
How we perceive God and Jesus shape how we understand our role as Christians. If Jesus is our personal savior, it’s all about us as individuals. If Jesus is a social justice movement-maker, then we see our role as working for social justice for all of creation. If God is angry and punishing, then confession and repentance loom large. If God is the source of all love, then we talk more about being called to become our best selves. Different frame, different emphasis.
Like Eve, Adam, and Jesus, we encounter plenty of temptations along the way. How we respond in these pivotal moments shapes everything that follows. Do we give in? Or, like Jesus, do we realize we have to set the bar high? He determined that his ministry was not about his own power, his own comfort, his own glory.
Who we are is disciples, people who follow along the way of Jesus. We seek a close relationship with God and through that relationship a transformation of ourselves and our world. Somewhere in our psyche we have experienced that banishment from Eden and we yearn to find paradise again. Somewhere in our soul we know that searching, wandering time in the desert, that time of discernment about how our lives will be in relationship with God, how we will respond to God’s call. Let us set the bar high, challenge ourselves to show up for that relationship, to be our best selves both individually and in community. May they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.