One of the first songs that I remember really enjoying as a child, was Ice, Ice, Baby, by none other than the legendary, Vanilla Ice. It’s not a great song, he was not a great rapper, but it was catchy, and it was ubiquitous around my 7th birthday. And I loved it. I listened to it all the time. Some of you may know that Ice, Ice, Baby, samples a baseline originally made famous by David Bowie in his song, “Under Pressure,” which came out some 15 years earlier. While Vanilla Ice was a childhood favorite, I didn’t hear Bowie’s, “Under Pressure,” until college, and when I did I, of course, thought I was hearing Vanilla Ice. Even to this day, when “Under Pressure,” comes on the radio, my mind immediately begins singing, “Ice, Ice, Baby.” My familiarity with this re-interpretation is so much greater than that of my familiarity with the original that I can’t hear the original without hearing Vanilla’s version.
I bring up this incredibly important information about early 90s white rappers, because I think it illustrates some of the difficulties we may have in hearing the Bible stories that we read this morning. Our first reading was the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the garden and the second was Paul’s interpretation of this event and its relationship to Christ from the book of Romans. The story from Genesis was written at least 500 years before Paul lived, yet Paul’s interpretation of this story has become so influential in the time since, that it is nearly impossible for us to hear the original without hearing Paul’s interpretation speak through it. What’s more, in the 2,000 years since Paul wrote his interpretation, every important theologian since, has given their own reading of the original and of Paul’s interpretation. What this means is that there is around 2,500 years of baggage attached to this story, much of it wonderful, enlightening, illuminating reflection and interpretation that can help make the story relevant to our lives, and some of it, not so great, even oppressive and harmful. I’m going to do my best to speak to this story, to bring forth what I believe is its message, and try to make it relevant for us. What I hope you will do, is try to hear the story for the first time, try to let go of any baggage you have around it and concentrate only the story as I present it. Try to listen for Under Pressure, without hearing Ice, Ice, Baby. It may be that I only add another layer of unneccessary baggage to the story, but it could also be that you hear it in a new and important way.
I want to start not with the bible itself, but with my daughter Ruth. Ruth, like many children, was born into a world where things were given to her. She received milk, and love, and cuddles, and baths, and new diapers, and toys. Being remarkably fortunate, she received a loving family, and a caring Church, which both love her and claim her. Through no merit of her own she has been given countless gifts, literally everything she has. Ruth has also been given limits. There are certain things that we don’t allow her to do, to stand too close to the TV, to push her brother, to eat dog food. This last one, eating dog food, was a particular struggle with Ruth. As soon as she could crawl, Ruthie would race to the dog food bowl and start putting the little dry pellets in her mouth. We stopped her, and scolded her, and took the food from her, and put it somewhere else, but eventually we had to put the food where the dog could get it, and eventually Ruth would find it. Among the first words that Ruthie mastered was “Mine!” She would shout it anytime you tried to take something from her. I remember distinctly trying to take the dog bowl out of her hands while she clung to it and screamed at me, “Mine!” She has all the food she could ever eat, all the love a child could need, more toys than she will ever play with, she is blessed beyond belief, and yet what she really wants, what she insists is hers by right, is dog food. Despite all she has been given she wants is what she can’t have, what is bad for her.
The story of the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, tells a story quite similar to that of Ruth and her dog food. God created Adam and Eve from the dust and breathed life into them. They owe their very existence to God. Yet that is only where their blessings began. God also created a garden for them to live in. A garden that would provide all they needed and which they were given to tend. They had each other, they had God, they had all that they needed. But, there was one limitation. They were not to eat from one tree in the garden. Thats it. Just the one. “Don’t eat of that one, because it will cause you to die,” God told them. This is a pretty sweet deal, you get everything you could ever need, a beautiful garden home, a partner, and a vital relationship with a loving God, and all that you have to do is not eat the fruit of a single tree. Yet, as much as Ruthie liked bananas and sweet potatoes and strawberries, the second I stopped watching her with that dog bowl on the floor, she was crawling for it at a sprint. Adam and Eve, despite all God has given them, refuse to accept their limitations, they seek out what is prohibited, what will cause them harm.
In providing his own interpretation of this story, Paul argues that the disobedience of Adam and Eve caused sin and then death to enter the world and to spread to all of humanity, all of Adam and Eve’s descendants. When Paul uses the word sin, he is speaking of a power that binds us, that leads us astray, and separates us from God. Sin refers more to the power, the force, that causes Ruthie to desire what she can’t have, the dog food, more so than her action of eating it. This power of sin is universal, it holds all of us under its sway. It causes each and every one of us to desire that which is harmful to us, that which is prohibited.
It is at this point, that the objection is often made, that this seems to be a terrible injustice. Why should we, all of Adam and Eve’s descendants, suffer under the power of sin just because of a bad decision they made at the beginning of time? Where is the justice in that? What kind of God would allow that? These are understandable reactions to the story and Paul’s interpretation of it. Yet, I believe these objections miss the point of the story. Speculating about the justice and righteousness of God’s actions in creation and redemption is dangerous and unfruitful territory for us as finite and sinful human beings. The more question to me, is does this story and its teaching correspond to reality? Does it accurately describe our experience? Can it then provide hope and redemption?
If you could relate to the story of Ruthie desiring what she shouldn’t have, then you probably already know that this story does correspond to our reality. Haven’t you ever desired something that you shouldn’t have? Haven’t you ever done something that you knew wasn’t smart, wise, or good, and you did it anyway? Often when we do such things we wonder what is wrong with us. Why are we so defective? Why does it seem like we can’t do what is right? Think of the shame that people feel when they cheat on their spouses. When they take drugs that they know could ruin their lives or even kill them. Think of how people feel when they lie to someone they love, when they break promises, when they say things they regret. If you’ve done these things, you know how they can make you feel isolated, alone, and ashamed, as though you were the only miserable wretch in the world. Part of Paul’s point is that you are not the only miserable wretch, being subject to sin, doing the things we know we shouldn’t is part of the human condition. It is something that we all do. An ailment that we all suffer from. It is the universal power of sin over all of fallen humanity.
When we are feeling alone in our failings and sin, just hearing that this wretchedness is universal can be good news. We are not alone! We are not the only ones who feel like this, who struggle with us. We all do! Yet, that momentary relief of being in the same boat with others, passes quickly when we realize that the boat is sinking. The power of sin leads to death- to physical death yes, but before and possibly even worse than that, it leads to the death that describes separation from God. Your inability to resist the temptation of gambling, or of lust, or of drug induced euphoria, all of it can destroy your life. It can break relationships, it can outcast you from life giving communities, it can leave you isolated and miserable in your shame. Sin has real consequences in our lives. If we are enslaved to sin, we are doomed to this kind of separation from God, this kind of death. That is certainly not good news.
Fortunately, Paul, nor God, leave us in this situation. For Paul, the problem of the universality of sin and death brought into the world in Adam is solved by the grace, justification, and righteousness brought into the world by Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “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 and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ abounded for the many….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.” The problem of sin is solved by God condescending to take on the form of sinful humanity. In Jesus Christ, God becomes flesh, God takes up the whole of sinful humanity into the person of Jesus Christ. All of humanity is therefore imbued with a new life force, a life which is in direct opposition to the force of sin active in our old life. By resisting sin in his life, by accepting sin’s consequence of death, and by triumphing over both sin and death in the resurrection, God has defeated the power of sin and death in Jesus Christ. God’s grace and love are infinitely more powerful than sin and death. Because of God’s adopting humanity into God’s very being in the incarnation, and God’s triumph over sin and death in the crucifixion and resurrection, a new life force, a new power has entered the world and our individual beings. Through baptism and life in the Church this life of Jesus Christ lodges itself within us like a seed and begins to grow. Our life in the Church nurtures this new life of Christ within us, through prayer, worship, service, and fellowship, the life of Christ and its righteousness grow within us.
Although God’s victory of sin and death in Jesus Christ is final, it does not reach its completion in us or in the world before the coming of God’s kingdom. For now, we live in the interim period. Where the defeat of sin and death is certain, yet not fully fulfilled. We live in a fallen and sinful world in which God’s grace and righteousness is growing moment by moment. It grows within us and throughout all of creation. We still have to battle with sin in our live and the multiple temptations that it brings into our minds. However we no longer must face it alone with only our own power. We now have the power of Christ within us, and the more we nurture that power the less power sin has over us and the more free we become to live a life pleasing to God. It is true that sin has entered the world. It is true that it enslaves us all. It is true that it leads us to death in separation from God. Yet it also true that God has saved us. God has taken on our sin in Jesus Christ and defeated it. God has reconciled us to Godself by giving us the gift of new life in Christ. A life in which we are free to love and serve God and our sisters and brothers. May we remain ever grateful for this gift and may we always seek to nurture the life of Christ in one another. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast