Bent toward glory

When I was little, I enjoyed watching my mom do things around the house, especially in the kitchen. Whatever she did, I watched how she did it, and then asked her to let me try.

When I peel an apple, I peel it just like she did. When I chop an onion, I chop it just like she did. When I fold my shirts and socks, I fold them the way she did. I can’t tell you how many things I learned simply by watching her. Listening to her, though, is a different story.

She loves to tell me about the day when she was ironing and my eyes were following the tip of the iron across the ironing board. I was little and I remember my fascination with the hissing sound of the steam, and how I loved the smell of freshly ironed laundry. She set the iron on its back while putting something on a hanger or in the basket, and she said, “Don’t touch it, it’s hot.” She laughs every time she tells me that, as soon as she turned around, I touched the iron. Many parents seem to think this has something to do with their children’s need to test boundaries or challenge parental authority. I don’t think so. What I remember is that I was curious about the meaning of ‘hot,’ and I learned to use a bit more caution when it comes to my desire to know – not every lesson has to be painful, after all.

There is truth, though, in the parents’ suspicion; we do like to push the boundaries, just to see what will happen or how far we can go. “Don’t play in the creek,” says the parent, “the water’s too high” – “Well, let’s see about that,” says the little one.

“We use the scissors only for cutting paper, don’t even think about cutting your sister’s hair” – well, dear parent, you know that you just planted an irresistible idea in your child’s mind, don’t you?

Some say that the story of Adam and Eve, the tree and the serpent has something of that dynamic. God says, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, just not that one.” Suddenly that one tree, among all the trees of the garden, is the most fascinating and attractive.

I don’t know if this dynamic is part of the story; I doubt it. The story of Adam and Eve is not about children testing boundaries in order to build confidence and discover limits. To me, this is a story about what it means to be human.

Adam is named after adamah, the Hebrew word for the soil from which the human being is made. The story reminds us that we share an identity that is even more basic than our identities as men and women – we are earthlings. Adam is the embodiment of humankind, and humankind is given three gifts: A beautiful, bountiful garden that is our home and our calling: we have a purpose as keepers of the garden; earth and earthling belong together. The second gift is God’s permission to freely eat of every tree of the garden; the garden is ours to fully inhabit, enjoy and explore. The third gift is a prohibition. As creatures of God we have limits, and within these limits life flourishes as God intends. To be human is to live with this God-given purpose, in God-given freedom, and within God-given limits.

Then the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the earthling, and when they awoke, they were male and female – and that’s when things got complicated. Now we look at humankind not just in relationship to God and to the earth, but to each other.

The story of Adam and Eve and the serpent is incredibly fertile. More than almost any other story, it has shaped and reshaped our views about moral freedom, male-female relationships, sexuality, shame, and sin, and it comes with hundreds of years of footnotes and commentary. Some of the footnotes have caused a lot of pain, especially for women. One of them we find in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where we read,

Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

I can’t follow that argument. If anybody was actually deceived in the garden, it was both of them together, Adam was there, after all. It’s not like he came home after a long day at work and ate his dinner of forbidden fruit. You could make an argument that if he’s that clueless, he – the man – shouldn’t be teaching anybody, but rather learn in silence.

But this story is bigger. It is bigger than its use in blaming others or silencing the voices those in authority don’t want to hear. Let’s take a closer look and see what we discover.

The serpent was just that, a serpent. Many footnotes want to identify the serpent with the devil, but the story says that the serpent was one of the animals of the field God had made. It was part of God’s creation, not some intruder from outside. It was crafty, cunning, smart, wise, yes, but not evil.

The serpent began a conversation, and you may think a talking snake is curious – but this is not the first story you’ve heard that has talking animals in it, is it? I find far more intriguing that this was the first conversation that wasn’t with but rather about God, and the topic was what God did and didn’t say. The woman quoted the divine command not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, and the serpent replied, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This is a crucial moment in the conversation. The serpent tells the humans something God didn’t tell them, and so the word of the serpent puts the word of God in question. Did God keep something back? Why didn’t God tell them the whole truth about the matter? Does God really have their best interest at heart or is God jealously protecting divine privileges? The question of who knows what and who doesn’t; the question of what kind of knowledge is good for the flourishing of life and what kind is not; the question now is one of trust. What will they do?

Here’s what they don’t do: They do not turn to God to hear what else God might say about the limits that make life full. Nor do they turn to each other to discuss their options and decide how to proceed. Instead they turn to the tree, its possibilities and promises, and they take of its fruit and eat in silence. It turns out that the serpent hadn’t deceived them, but rather told them the truth; perhaps not the whole truth, but who knows if it knew the whole truth.

We are created for relationship with God and with each other, but our relationship with God is not simply part of our genetic program. It is rooted in trust. The story shows what happens when mistrust creeps in: alienation and estrangement grow, silence and shame drive out joy. Mistrust disrupts the fabric of creation and puts life on a trajectory away from communion with God, and death creeps in. Death creeps in – not in the form of mortality, mortality is part of life – death creeps in in the breakdown of the relationships that make us human: our relationship with God, with the created order, and with one another. Sin invades creation from inside like an alien power, breeding death, perverting and unmaking all things, thriving on anxiety, fear and mistrust, and threatening to drag the world back into chaos. Life is no longer how it’s supposed to be.

When Paul writes that sin came into the world through one man, it’s not so we can all blame Adam as though Adam were somebody else. We are Adam the earthling, created for communion with God, yet unable to escape the dominion of sin after we have given it access to God’s world. Sin is too big for us; bigger than the sum total of the wrong we have done and the good we have not done, bigger than all our loveless thoughts and thoughtless words together. What Paul wants us to see is that sin is not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition, but an upper-case power that stands over against God and enslaves us, keeping us from being who we are meant to be.

But Paul doesn’t want us to see that because he enjoys gloom and doom and sin talk. He wants us to know that big, upper-case, creation-enslaving Sin has been dealt with and defeated. Paul points to Jesus as the one human being who lived the life God intended for humankind. Jesus was fully at home in his relationship with God and God’s creation and with all of us. Mistrust could not enter; rejection and injustice could not break the bond of love. Sin and Death had their way with him, but death’s dominion ended at the cross; the reach of sin ended at the cross.

God raised Jesus from the dead, making him the firstborn of a new creation where sin and death are no more. And just as Adam was our life pattern in the oppressive, sad solidarity of sin and alienation, Jesus now is our life pattern in the liberating, joyful solidarity of grace. Just as we were one in Adam, our true identity now is our freedom and unity in Christ. The relationships that make us human are restored in Christ, and life in fullness begins.

We are free because in the story of Jesus God’s power to redeem all of creation is revealed.  We are free because through the Holy Spirit we already participate in the life of this new creation, and we are being conformed to the image of Christ. By the grace of God, the ancient trajectory of death has been ended, and the universe is bent toward glory.