The First Sunday of Lent
2020 – Cycle A
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Psalm 51; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Are you responsible for the slavery that took place in our country from before its foundation through the Civil War? …or the lynchings of black people that occurred right up into the 1960s?
Particularly if you are of German descent, are you responsible for the Holocaust?
People often respond to such questions with, “You are not going to pin that on me. I wasn’t even born!” We distance ourselves and wash our hands of such historical events as slavery, racism and anti-Semitism as if they were in the past. Yet their residue continues to permeate and mar our society.
Slavery was and is a result of racism. So if no one today is responsible, why does racism still exist among us? Why are people of colour treated differently than Caucasians? Why is anti-Semitism on the rise throughout the world if no one is responsible? And why do many people continue to wash their hands of these situations as if they did not exist?
In a similar way, we might ask, why should I be held responsible for Adam’s disobedience? “Through one [human being] sin entered the world, and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all [humanity], inasmuch as all sinned…”
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? I didn’t take the fruit from the tree. Did you?
I’ve never lynched anyone or enslaved a person for my commercial benefits. Have you? I have friends who are Jewish. Do you?
Is it that simple?
Since the 17th century Enlightenment we have so emphasized the significance of the individual over and above, if not against, the community, can we even envision a collective identity as a human society, needless to say, a collective human guilt? And without that collective understanding, Paul’s analogy today may fall on deaf ears.
Do you see yourself as part of a greater whole – with responsibilities to the whole – or as independent and autonomous – with responsibilities only to yourself?
The answer to that question, I believe, may underpin the reason for the divisions in our society, world and church. How many of us see ourselves and live as only individuals? Relationships are thinner. Vows and promises no longer bind us. We move in and out of groups but never fully commit ourselves to the group.
Paul calls us back to the reality that we are involved in each other’s lives. The decisions each of us makes does affect the larger community. Earlier in this letter to the Romans, Paul states, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Thus Paul’s main point is that sin was introduced into the human condition and somehow passed on to the entire human race if for no other reason than that we are bound to each other.
Adam and Eve’s disobedience permeates the entire human condition like racism and anti-Semitism continue to permeate our society. We may not be directly responsible for its origin but either by our silence or by our active or passive participation these sins and all sins against God and humanity continue. It is as if we are caught in a web. Sin sticks to us. The problem of sin is much larger than ourselves. It is deeper and more insidious then we may think. Sin and death are not mere annoyances; they are central and destructive of our existence.
The enslavement of peoples, especially children, exists around the world in sex – trafficking and slave labour for the making of many products that are shipped around the world. How many of these products do you and I unknowingly purchase and use and wear? Why is anti-Semitism on the rise? Why does Islamophobia, xenophobia, and homophobia exist in our society? If we remain silent; if we do not ask questions; if we purchase such merchandise, if we do not counter bigoted remarks and actions, then are we not participating and supporting slavery, racism, and bigotry in its many forms?
Sin desires us to be blind and deaf; then we cannot see what we are really doing and hear the call to responsibility.
We are all familiar with the 18th century maxim of Alexander Pope, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Pope was wrong! To sin is not what it means to be human because sin is opposed to the goodness of God. Sin is not what God intends for us; it represents our worst selves and the worst of humanity
Paul is trying to impress on us that Jesus was crucified to save us from a mortal disease that lies at the core of our being.
Thus Paul writes, the gift of salvation is greater than the sins of humanity. Just as we are caught up in the web of Adam and Eve’s sin; see how more wondrously we are now caught by the embrace of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.
One act of disobedience, of autonomy, of a grasp for power, brought guilt on all humanity; so one act obedience, of solidarity with humanity, of absolute weakness brought acquittal to the human race through the passion and cross.
The ashes of Lent invite us into a spirit of humility to acknowledge our helplessness before God. The baptismal waters of Easter invite us into a spirit of gratitude for what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us that the Spirit of Jesus may infuse our lives so as to make a difference in our world.