The Grammar Of Sin, The Mathematics Of Salvation, The Politics Of Discipleship.

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2014-03-09 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
9th March 2014
Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7,  Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11,
Matthew 10:24-25Luke 22:25-6 (referenced/quoted later in sermon)

Today, the first Sunday in Lent, I’m going to please Michael Gove by going back to basics. Much as I would like to have three points all beginning with R, they actually begin with G, M and P. Let’s hear the first reading:

Genesis 2:15-17;

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;
17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Genesis 3:1-7

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;Genesis
3 but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”

4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die;Genesis
5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

My letter G stands for the grammar of sin. It’s understandable that the serpent here is usually identified with Satan, the accuser of God’s people. This talking snake is indeed confrontational. It’s also understandable that this reading is paired with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, which we will look at later.

The first thing the serpent does is to try to convince the woman that God’s commands are impossible to keep. He expands the prohibition on one tree, to all the trees in the garden. Obviously this isn’t reasonable, since humans need to eat, and remember that Adam and Eve are vegetarian at this point, so fruit is vital.

We can all have times when we know what God wants, but it just seems too much effort. If we see God’s requirements of us as a set of rules we have to try to keep, we are all going to grow “weary in doing right”, as Paul puts it. The Lutheran solution, to say that all we need is faith, is not one that Anabaptists can accept. Our faith is meant to bear fruit. And the fruit is not our natural fruit, but the fruit of the Spirit: it is the Spirit of Jesus in us that makes it possible for us to have mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God.

Eve, however, is a bit too clever for the serpent. She knows that only one tree is forbidden. So he tries another tactic: that the forbidden fruit will make her Godlike, with powers above the basic human ones.

Now this is something I think appeals especially to women, since the world often makes us feel inferior. But remember the Bible describes Satan as “the father of lies”. He is still deceiving her, since being like God is something she actually already has. Genesis 1:26 has God saying “Let us make humankind in our own image.” How much more Godlike does she think we can be?

I can put this best by reading you a poem I wrote many years ago.


In Eden’s sun the woman basks,
she works, plays, loves as each day asks
and knows not she is God’s mirror and sign;
till, curving elegant his tail,
the serpent (who is surely male)
insinuates a lack of the divine.
To be like God” – a worthy goal
for any self-improving soul,
an offer she, or man, can scarce disdain.
Poor Eve! Why won’t she realise
right now she’s able, strong and wise
with nothing but the choice of good to gain?
Yet still the priests perpetuate
the lie that led to Eden’s gate
and raised the fiery sword our bliss to bar:
still women make the same mistake
and bow to some religious snake
who tells us we are not the gods we are.

So that’s the grammar of sin. We do wrong

a) because we believe we’re incapable of doing better,

b) because we think we will benefit in some way from our wrongdoing.

Both these beliefs are false. Let’s move on to the second reading, and the M, which stands for the mathematics of salvation.

Romans 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned –
13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.
14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God
16 and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin.
17 For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.

18 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
19 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life 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.

Here we have Paul’s riff on the passage we just looked at from Genesis. It’s a great feat of biblical interpretation. Jesus, he says, as the new Adam, is what humankind was always meant to be. By Jesus’ faithfulness to God, the door is opened for us to become like him, the true image of God. Remember in our series on Romans, we looked at how the phrase “faith in Jesus” could also be translated “the faithfulness of Jesus” – and in fact it was translated that way right up to the Reformation? For Anabaptists, this makes much more sense, because it doesn’t make our salvation dependent solely on what we believe, but also on how those beliefs are worked out in our lives. I also think it fits much better with the rest of the Bible.

However what I want to look at now is that little word “all” in the last but one sentence we heard: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all”. I’m currently doing something of a study of this word in the NT and its related phrase “all things” – as you will see if you read my new blog, The Reversed Standard Version.

How on earth have we managed to turn this into: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for a small minority”? Paul says it quite clearly: the sin of Adam led to sinfulness and judgement for all. If you don’t see Adam as a historical fact, as Paul did, that doesn’t make what the story tells us about human nature and less true. Now Christ’s obedience to God, says Paul, leads to salvation for all. There’s no ambiguity about it. Even if you give more weight to the use of “many” rather than “all” in the preceding verses, it’s significant that he’s saying “many” rather than “few”.

This connects with what Paul says in Colossians 1:20: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” “All things” – not “some people”.

The mathematics of salvation, then, is that the two sides have to match – you could call it the “equation of salvation”. Salvation is as broad in scope as our sinfulness. God’s desire is to save everything God has made, transformed into its true and unspoilt self. Rob Bell, in Love Wins, asks the question, “Does God get what God wants?”. I don’t remember what he says next, but my answer would be Yes. If God wants the reconciliation of all things through the cross of Jesus, that is what God gets in the end. Not a corner of reality where evil people are tormented by the fount of all evil for eternity. How would that fulfil the prophecy in 1 Corinthians 15 that God will ultimately be “all in all”? God wants to save and transform everyone and everything. Does God get what God wants? Can we help God get it?

Now for our third reading, in which Jesus faces the same kind of tests Eve and Adam faced.

Matthew 4:1-11

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him,
6 “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him,
9″All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Here of course is the origin of Lent, in which we stand in solidarity with Jesus’ forty days in the desert, by fasting or other self-imposed deprivations. I’m not giving anything up this year. I do however plan to join the one day fast on April 4th, called by the campaign EndHungerFast to express solidarity with the hungry in our own country. Half a million are reduced to food banks and sometimes not even able to use them, because they can’t afford the fuel to cook the food. If you want to join me, Google EndHungerFast (all one word).

This story is also my letter P, which stands for the politics of discipleship. Just to make the sermon more like the evangelical three point sermon, I’m splitting this point into another three. And they’re all about what discipleship is not.

First of all, discipleship does not mean God is a slot machine. God is not there to fulfill our fantasies, let alone to make us rich (when people preach the prosperity gospel, it’s usually only the preacher who gets rich on the donations of the congregation). At the end of 40 days Jesus is hungry – of course he is, he’s not Superman. But he refuses to do the stones into bread trick, not because he can’t, but because it would be self-serving.

Discipleship is about us serving God and others, not about God serving us. When Jesus said “I am among you as one who serves”, he didn’t follow it with “So what can I get you?”, but with a call for us to be servants too – of the humanity whom God loves beyond all reason. Yes, he later calls us friends, and because of that we are not slaves, ignorant of the master’s plans, but we are still called to serve, of our own free will.

Secondly discipleship is not a get out of jail free card. Jesus refuses to experiment on God to see if God will protect him. He knows that part of his calling, indeed the centre of his calling, is to suffer – not just on the cross, but in giving up a safe life, to preach good news to the poor. No marriage and family for Jesus, no knowledge of where his next meal is coming from, nowhere to lay his head. Living as a Christian is not about being spared from everything in life that might hurt or distress us. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus’ disciples are called to suffer with Jesus:

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.”

And Paul declares to the Romans that it is our privilege – not a sign of lack of faith – to suffer with Jesus:

“When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Both of these echo what Jesus himself says in Matthew 10:24:

Matthew 10:24-25

24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;
25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

Thirdly, discipleship is not a road to power over others. Jesus in his third test accepts that he can’t have both closeness to God, and worldly power. This is not to say, as some early Anabaptists did, that we Christians can’t take any political office. In their time, this made sense, because magistrates and other officials had the right to put people to death, something Anabaptists could never do. In our culture, things are different. Yet if we are elected to any sort of power, we do still need to remember that, in Jesus’ words in Luke 22:24:

Luke 22:25-6

25 “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors.
26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”

There is no justification in the Gospels for calling a bishop “Your Grace” – we just call ours Ruth. There is no warrant for using church leadership to make your congregation conform to your ideas of what they should be or do – their only call, as yours, is to conform to Jesus.

So: the grammar of sin, the mathematics of salvation, the politics of discipleship. We can’t learn them all at once, and if you only take one point away from this rather complicated sermon, I’ll be happy. Or even if you take one point away from the readings, rather than what I’ve said about them. As for Michael Gove, I’m not really fussed whether he’s pleased with my basics. Who wants to please Michael Gove?

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