First Sunday of Lent A — 5 March 2017 — Giving Up Sin for Lent
Lutheran pastor Dawn Hutchings, wrote these words about Lent: It is a season when we are reminded over and over how sinful we are. So, we thank God that Jesus died that bloody death on the cross to redeem us.
Where did we get this notion that we are such bad people and that Jesus had to die to save us? As I look around this church I don’t see any really bad people. Go ahead. Look around. Do you see any really bad people here?
The English philosopher, John Locke, like other later Enlightenment thinkers, believed that humans were born clean and pure, and that it was society that caused evil. We are innately good human beings until, of course, using a free will, we make bad decisions that can be sinful.
As we embark on the season of Lent — forty days of fasting, praying, reconciling, almsgiving — we ask ourselves why exactly was Jesus’ death on a cross the only way for us to be saved from our sins? This season focuses on that teaching. Commentators tell us that without this sense of personal and corporate sin we will fail to grasp the necessary role that Christ plays as redeemer.
But why would God, who stopped Abraham from slaying his son and who established a motherly covenant with the Israelites, send Jesus, God’s only son, to be sacrificed? Couldn’t the all loving and merciful God who created everything and everyone come up with a better plan?
This perplexing question begins with Adam and Eve in that familiar but non historical narrative about creation. Eve is often blamed for the sins of humanity but it was not her fault. If you read the verses before the ones we heard today we learn that Adam was warned by God to stay away from that tree of good and evil.
But Adam never told Eve! So Adam (a name that means “humankind” or “of the earth”) was the problem. That act of disobedience set the stage for a history of salvation whereby we would have to be saved by someone other than ourselves.
The second reading provides further clues about why Jesus had to die to save us from our sin. Theologian Kevin McMahon wrote that Augustine developed the notion of original sin in the 6th century. He did so after reading Paul’s discussion of sin in the letter we heard this morning. Jesus, unlike Adam and Eve, was obedient to the will of God. He died on the cross not so much because he chose to do so freely but out of an acceptance of God’s will.
It wasn’t until the 11th century when St. Anselm reasoned that redemption could only be the work of a sinless man who was also divine. This is called atonement theology. It teaches that Jesus’ life and death makes it possible for us to be “at one” with God. By following the life of Christ as an exceptional model of human behavior we can restore our relationship with God and live in harmony with each other.
Jesus knew first hand how difficult it would be for us to continue his mission. He himself struggled to overcome temptations like the ones listed in today’s gospel. New Testament scholar Audrey West, suggests Jesus beat the devil, a symbol of the cultural pressures of his time, because he refused to be distracted from his mission by alternative temptations.
No doubt we are both saints and sinners. We cannot negate the Catholic theology of atonement and the importance of Jesus’ redemptive life or our reliance on the grace of God given freely to us. Our prayers and song lyrics during this season are infused with that language.
We can however look for ways to focus less on our potential for being bad. Instead we can concentrate on the goodness of God’s creation and the innate goodness of humanity. It is not to ignore the need to forgive and be forgiven but to recognize that God is still at one with us.
Through our faith, our hope and our social action we can appreciate and celebrate that, fundamentally, we are really good people who occasionally make bad decisions.