Sunday, February 26, 2023
The First Sunday in Lent
An Alternate Look at the Garden of Eden Story
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77450
Lent is a time when we focus on sin and repentance. Now we Episcopalians tend not to speak that much of sin, yet this Sunday with the Great Litany we cover just about every sin that comes to mind. Remember sin is the breaking of relationship with God, another person or creation and there is more than enough of that going on in today’s world.
Lent is a season of repentance, fasting, what some people say making ourselves right with God and that is all fine and good. Yes, we do need to examine what we have done, look at our sins, repent and return to the Lord as is described in our prayer book and the bible. However, this is not about doing these things to make God love us, because God already loves us. It is about our restoring our relationship with God. Part of the challenge in all this is what you do and believe about sin, the doctrine of original sin, how we get to heaven and how we are supposed to live while here in this world. This is a huge question and one that there is plenty of room for differing theologies.
Today I want to encourage you to go back to the beginning, in today’s case all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Now I have never preached on the Garden of Eden here at St. Paul’s, but I had the chance 10 years ago while talking to a rabbi to get an insight into this that may change the way you approach the story, the subject of sin and how you approach Lent.
Ten years ago in Virginia Beach I took a bible study class down to the conservative synagogue down by the beachfront. I had become friends with Rabbi Mandel through an interfaith group of which I was a part. The topic of the Garden of Eden came up and he explained that the doctrine of original sin that we get from this story is not a part of Jewish theology. He said, “You guys invented that, we don’t believe it at all.” No, he said, the Garden of Eden story is all about the completion of the creation of humanity.
You see prior to their eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge humankind was not ready for the world. Adam and Eve needed the protection of the garden. Now stop and think for a moment, if you tell a child “Don’t touch that,” you know full well that as soon as you turn your back you know what they will do! God was waiting for them to use their own initiative to eat the fruit and gain the knowledge of good and evil. Then not only were we ready for the greater world but were now complete creatures with abilities far beyond the rest of the animal kingdom. We then had to be sent from the garden to fulfill what we were created for to be fruitful and multiply and have a life where we are more than the other animals in the garden. It is our knowledge of good and evil that makes us human. So the essence is that the creation of humanity was finished when they gained the knowledge of good and evil.
Then he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. Since Jesus was Jewish and original sin did not become a doctrine of the church until Irenaeus in the 2nd century began to write about it and especially with Augustine in the 4th century who tied it to sexual relations, then Jesus would know only the Jewish interpretation. He and the disciples would never have heard of original sin as we know it. Let that sink in for a moment.
Richard Rohr in his video series Exploring an Alternate Orthodoxy challenges us to open our minds to some other ways to read scripture that are part of the Christian tradition, but not necessarily as widely known. It is in this series where I first heard him speak about the Franciscan teaching that, “Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.” You see if we look past original sin, which is a doctrine developed by the church, this eliminates the need for a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God who is mad at us for the whole Garden of Eden episode. It changes the nature of atonement and the nature of the cross. It becomes a restoration of relationship from our side, not from God’s side. This re-establishes a connection that is already there, but we need to be the ones to act for we are the ones who have broken the connection. This also moves it from a transaction to a moment of transformation. Please note that what I am saying is accepted Franciscan theology, I’m not making this up.
This means that Lent becomes an opportunity to deepen our connection with the God who loves us. This is more than a relationship with God.
Many people run the other direction when we talk about a personal relationship with Jesus or God. This sounds like we are on a date with God and moves into what Rohr refers to as the gooey world of romantic love. In Greek the eros side of desire or even the philio, friendship. Connection with God is about agape love, the love that is central to the Trinity and to how we enter into the Trinity; a constant outpouring of love. This is limitless self-giving by God to us.
Many people have struggled and continue to struggle with an image of God where it is hard to imagine God as constantly pouring out love for us. Our culture is full of the wrath of God stuff. Just listen to the number of pastors who talk about natural disasters as God’s vengeance on some group who in their mind have sinned.
Now this is not to say that there isn’t plenty of sin in the world, for there certainly is a great deal. What this does imply is that we are not miserable sinners and there is no health in us. That BTW is from the 1928 Morning Prayer Confession.
With all this in mind listen again to the invitation to Lent from the Ash Wednesday Service. Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
What I want you to sit with, to pray with is what is it that we do that separates or breaks our relationships with God, other people and creation. For that is our definition of sin. Then ask, what do I need to do to repent and return to the Lord. How do I re-establish that connection? The thing is that this doesn’t have to be a painful experience of depravation. At the end of the bulletin I have listed a series of fasts and feasts for you to consider. As I said on Ash Wednesday take some time and pick just one to work on for a while, maybe even all of lent. But make this an effort with some joy in it.
I want to close with a prayer for Lent by Fr. Edward Hayes that conveys the joy we can find in Lent:
From the ashes of fires of blessed palms
To Alleluia fires of Easter eve
May Lent’s forty days
Be dancing flames of love’s delight
May you live these Lenten days not in purple penitential denial
But in the joyfulness of the intimate embrace of your Beloved God.
May you hear on the Lenten winds your Beloved calling you daily
To go apart from your routine time
To spend desert time with your God.
Then your heart can freshly be aflame
With a lover’s delight in your God.
 This is a prayer by Edward Hayes, that a spiritual director gave me. I unfortunately do not know which of his books this is in.