Lent sermon: ‘I Am Because We Are’

In a Holy Communion service produced some years ago in Kenya, at the Breaking of the Bread, the text draws on the words of the African theologian John M-biti.  The text ran:

I am because we are.
We are because he (Christ) is.

For M-biti this idea of ‘I am because we are’ reflects a strong African sense of corporate identity and solidarity – in stark contrast to much European and North American thinking since the Enlightenment, which often stresses the individual. Margaret Thatcher’s infamous statement, ‘There is no such thing as society’, perhaps typifies this tendency towards individualism.

I am because we are.
We are because he is.

This morning, I would like to ponder the issue of solidarity from our two readings from Genesis and Romans.  The narrative of Genesis 2 and 3 is profound.  Yes, we recognise that it is a theological story, a myth.  But the narrative is wonderfully constructed. You will know that in Genesis 1 and 2 we have, in effect, two creation stories.  The first is the 7 days of chapter one – an ordered sequence culminating in the creation of man and woman in God’s image. The second is quite different.  For example, God has a name, the Lord.  And the order is different.  God creates the heavens and the earth, he then creates water, and then a man, a male.  He makes, or moulds – the image is of the potter – this man from dust, but the man has no life, so God breaths into the man’s nostrils and he becomes a living being.  He then creates a garden, Eden, which means ‘delight’.  He places the man in the garden, and the man is to tend the garden and care for God’s creation, and he may eat of any tree except one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then God desires to provide a partner for the man, a helper, the Hebrew has the sense of completing him.  So the Lord God creates the animals and birds, and brings them in procession to the man, and the man gives each of them a name – it’s a wonderful picture of fascination and variety – but he finds none of them suitable as his partner.  So the Lord puts the man into a deep sleep, a kind of spiritual anaesthetic, opens up the man and like a surgeon removes a rib and from it creates a woman, and he gives her to the man.  At last, he cries out, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

It’s a fascinating narrative.  It speaks of the goodness of God, his creative fashioning, and of the relatedness of human beings to the rest of creation.  And there is sense of delight, a beautiful garden, a benevolent God, the dignity of human beings, the sociability of human beings, and even if the narrative betrays its origins in a deeply patriarchal and ‘male-ist’ society, and in our full awareness of how in history that has been grossly abused, nevertheless, the sense of love and delight between two human beings is clearly represented in the narrative.

But it’s too good to last.  Enter the serpent.  And immediately there is a kind of tension, an uneasy relationship between this creature and humanity.  The serpent is declared to be crafty.  He asks the woman a false question.  ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ ‘Not so’, said the woman, ‘all the trees are ours for food except the one in the middle – if we eat of it we shall die’.  Notice the serpent has tricked her into mentioning the forbidden fruit.  And then doubt is introduced: ‘Of course you will not die’ – quite the contrary, you will become like God.  And as they say, the rest is history…..the woman and the man ate of the fruit of the tree and delight is replaced by shame; instead of enjoying the delights of Eden, they grovel in the undergrowth in an awkward attempt to hide the realisation of their nakedness.

That’s where our lesson finished, but the next couple of verses are truly devastating.  In the unself-conscious quasi-human way in which God is portrayed, the Lord God, walks in the garden, and not seeing the man and the woman, cries out ‘Where are you?’  But it’s not a hide and seek, ‘Where are you?’ – It’s a searing cry of dereliction.  It’s not just that humanity has somehow lost God, but God has lost humanity.  And of course, the upshot is that the man blames the woman, and the woman blames the snake and at the end all are judged. The man, formed from dust now must work the dust of the arid soil, outside of Eden, until eventually to dust he shall return.  For there is no way to life: the tree of life is now unreachable.  The snake and the woman also are judged.

Now I think we misuse this story, if we try to see it as some kind of historical paradigm.  A perfect creation and then our first parents wrecked it and we are picking up the tab, because through them we have inherited a fault line.  I think rather that the narrative is trying to make sense of life as it is.  A life with absolutely immense possibilities.  A sense that at the heart of it is a good and wise God.  But mixed in with it, is the human desire for power which we then abuse; the human desire for independence, which takes us away from those who are nearest to us; the feelings of frustration because the earth is against us, the reality of pain and the crisis of death.  And as the primeval myth in Genesis 1-11 continues, so murder, lust, violence enter the picture.  And yet, the situation is never entirely hopeless, always there is the sense, that no matter how much we fall short, the hope of redemption and divine help is still there, if only we rise beyond our natural inclinations and see the invisible.

Which is why solidarity matters. And in Lent we recognise our human solidarity in our sinfulness.  Whatever good we might aspire to, and even if we keep a check on our outward words and actions, we know we nurse the thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, and untruths that are common to all humanity.  We pass the buck, blame the woman, blame the man, blame the snake, blame God, as much as the rest of them.  We get caught up in pride, arrogance, competition.  We find ourselves insidiously drawn into temptations, so apparently pleasing to the eye and delightful to contemplate.  We covet power and then misuse it.

Which is why in Lent, we stand before God in solidarity with the human race in its wars and divisions, in its petty but so disastrous attempts to unthrone God and claim for ourselves the knowledge of good and evil.  And, of course, it is when we see what human beings can do, that we see where the seemingly little sins, like eating a forbidden fruit, actually lead us.  I am because we are.  I am sinful because we are sinful, and if I try, over and against you, to protest my innocence, I have constructed an individual fantasy which is highly dangerous.

Well, no such story in Romans 5.  Rather, some dense theology.  And yet, look again and there is a story, a story which St Paul knew, and to which he alludes.  For in Romans 5, we find the language of solidarity, of absolute representation.  Paul is well aware of Eden, for he cites Adam – the primal disobedient man.  He alludes to the taking of the forbidden fruit; he alludes to the consequences of judgment and mortality.  That tree in that garden is important.

But he speaks of another man, a Second Adam, a new Adam – a new human being.  And Paul is well aware that that man also had dealings with a tree.  He knew that that man also had dealing with a serpent – not of course the cunning trickster of Genesis 3, but in the later theological development, the personification of utter evil.  So Paul, using this representational language, contrasts the first Adam and the Second Adam.  For, he says, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification or acquittal for all.  For just as by the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

And that’s the other side of the equation.  Because of our faith and our baptism, we have received Christ’s righteousness and a share in his Holy Spirit.  Which means that again we can never view ourselves in individualistic terms.  For we are joined to Christ and through him to each other, as people of the new creation.  Which means that we see all the possibilities that were so evident in Eden, the possibility of friendship with God, the possibility of living in harmony, as far as we can, with creation, the possibility of taking God at his word, the possibility of knowing our proper human limits, and even when we do mess it up, the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness, rather than judgment.  And the reality of knowing a God who in Christ has found us again.

Which is why the Church continues, when it is true to itself, to be a beacon of hope, even in the darkest night.  Not because of ourselves, but because of the Christ, the Second Adam, whose obedience has overcome the destructive powers of evil, so that we can sing redemption songs:

I am because we are
We are because he is

And Lent is the time when we let the great story and truth of our redemption touch us once again.  We live in troubled days.  Our calling is to be involved.  No individualistic – ‘I’m all right, Jack, I’ll wash my hands of all this mess’.  We stand with humanity in our falleness and sinfulness; we stand with Christ and all his people as we strive for his righteousness and seek to be obedient, and tirelessly look for redemption.  Which is why our sins matter, our faith and prayers matter, our acts of love and service matter.  We know what our disobedience costs, and cost the Lord of glory.

But if Christ’s obedience meant the salvation of the world, what might our obedience this week mean?

I am because we are.
We are because he is.

Preached on 18 February 2018 by David Kennedy, for the First Sunday of Lent.

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