In the name of God ☩ Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
In February, our own Dr. Trevor Eppehimer led a fantastic Sunday school class on The Powers That Be. The premise of the book that inspired the class is that there are real forces in this world that, though invisible, very much impact societies and individuals. Think of getting swept up in something that you’re not very interested in. I know this might make some of you think less of me, but I’m just really not a soccer fan. But when the US team was playing well in the last World Cup, I kind of got swept up in the fever. I watched them play and cheered on the goals. Or think about the Olympics, how many of us ordinarily care about curling? Well, that same thing is true for things like selfishness, or retaliation, or fear. These forces are real and by ignoring their reality we only make ourselves into unwitting slaves to them.
The question then becomes, how do we resist such forces? In the session last week, Trevor talked about how some people answer this question with a philosophy known as “Christian realism.” This point of view says something like, “Look, Jesus is our Savior, but maybe he’s not our best role model.” After all, none of us are the Son of God; none of us are perfect. And Jesus didn’t have to worry about the sorts of things that we do. He has disciples and benefactors to take care of his needs, so he didn’t have to work. He didn’t have a spouse or kids to be present to. He didn’t live in a democracy where he had to wrestle with which candidate to vote for. So, the Christian realists say, we have to make some concessions and adaptations to Jesus’ teaching for the modern world where we do have to contend with a stock market, politics, careers, and families.
It’s the question that we all wrestle with – what impact should my faith have on my life, and what impact should my life and opinions have on what sort of faith I practice. And while it might sound obvious that the answer is not to say “Jesus has little to do with the ethics of modern life,” the reality is that we are all Christian realists. It’s been said that preachers generally are preaching to themselves and letting other people hear the conversation. And, in this case, that’s absolutely true. I’ll speak for myself, trusting that I’m not the only one who struggles with this question.
The things that I profess don’t often show up in my actions. When it comes to how I use power, authority, and money, I make concessions all the time when it comes to the example of Jesus. Whenever I get an earnings statement, I ask myself, “And what did the industries which I find morally repugnant do this quarter to finance my retirement?” This is really complicated stuff. The way of Jesus is difficult, if not impossible, for us to follow. But we know he’s got the goods, so we don’t want to walk away from Jesus altogether. So we make concessions and become Christian realists who want to say there’s a difference between Jesus and the real world.
As we see in today’s readings from Genesis and Matthew, this is not a new conversation. Satan was the first Christian realist. To be clear, Genesis doesn’t actually refer to Satan, there’s a serpent, but for our purposes, we can understand them to be one and the same. Satan actually is best thought of not as an individual, but rather a role. That’s why at one point in the Gospel, Jesus calls St. Peter “Satan,” because Satan isn’t a person, it’s a character that any of us can play. The word “Satan” means someone who tempts, deceives, sabotages, slanders, or leads astray, and the serpent does that and deserves being called Satan.
What the serpent does it to encourage God’s prohibition to be violated. Adam and Eve were in the garden, they had every need taken care of, and they knew no evil. But God does not withhold anything from Creation or rule as a dictator, so there is an option available to them. There is a tree within the garden that is for the knowledge of good and evil. Now, because Adam and Eve already knew God, they knew about good. But they did not yet know anything about evil. Nor was death a fact of life at this point. Everything existed within the peaceful rest of God. The prohibition against eating from that tree was for their own good, it was to protect them from the knowledge of evil and the resulting death. It’s not so much about allowance, but rather caution, as when we tell a child to not touch something hot. But the satanic serpent encourages them to violate this prohibition.
And the way this happens is through a perversion of permission. God had given every tree in Creation to Adam and Eve except this one. God’s provision was wide. But the serpent narrows that sense of abundance and says a version of “God is keeping something from you.” Instead of resting in their abundant provision, he perverts God’s wide permission to eat from all the other trees into a narrowing restriction. This is how Christian realism works – we take the words of God and twist them to make a meaning suited to our own purposes. Notice how it happens, they end up talking about God instead of talking with God. It’s a reminder to us of the dangers of doing theology or ethics too far away from the altar.
The result is that the serpent gets Adam and Eve to neglect their vocation. God had placed them in the garden to till and keep it. But this sacred vocation was abandoned in their disobedience. It’s not so much that they are punished for this transgression, rather, they get exactly what God told them they’d get – knowledge of evil which leads to the experience of death. And so they are no longer capable of tending and keeping God’s holy garden. This is how the Powers work, they bind our hands, they distort our priorities so that it becomes impossible to fully be obedient to God.
Even if we choose to interpret the Creation story of Genesis in a mythic way, it still describes the reality of the world in which we find ourselves. And ever since this cataclysmic event, we have been dealing with the effects of Sin and Death which come into the world through our disobedience, through our ethical accommodations, through our susceptibility to Satan who leads us astray. You can simply pick up a history book, a psychology textbook, read the rest of the Bible, or look in the mirror and see that this is true.
When Jesus encounters the devil in the wilderness, Satan is up to the old tricks of trying to get someone to adopt a realist perspective and make a concession to the covenant that God has given us. Notice that none of the temptations are pure evil; in fact, they’re all rationally defensible. And that’s how we get stuck, Sin often makes sense, or, we can make it make sense. We can adapt our morals to make it seem like what we’re doing really is a good thing, even though it is not.
The first temptation is for Jesus, who has been fasting for forty days, to turn some stones into bread. Seems fairly harmless, right? No victims, other than the rocks. Clearly though, Jesus doesn’t need the food. So it’s a temptation for comfort, for putting our trust in ourselves instead of God to provide, for using our power just because we can. This is the realm of ego – we do things that are unnecessary because it makes us feel powerful, or in control, or more comfortable. And it’s so easy to excuse such actions by saying “I didn’t hurt anyone.” This is one kind of Christian realism, we say that as long as we’re not hurting anyone, we can do what we want. But there is great harm done anytime we forget we are dependent on God.
Temptation number two is about putting God to the test. “I don’t need to care for the poor, God will take care of them.” Or sometimes it’s more nuanced, “I can’t solve all of the problems of the world so I’ll just do what I think is best instead of what God has told us to do.” Realism sets in anytime we abdicate responsibility with the assumption that those aren’t our problems.
The third temptation is most challenging – bow down to me and you’ll have all authority. This is, of course, idolatry, but with a really good pay off. I can easily argue why I’d want to take that offer. Sure, I’d commit idolatry and deal with that, but when I’m in charge, I can then eliminate poverty, and war, and famine, and disease. This is where Christian realism wreaks havoc. Idolatry is the worst thing that any Jew, or Christian, can do.
The problem with this offer is that if we bow down to the devil and gain all power, no longer are obedient to God and all of that power will be abused. Once we are corrupted by idolatry, we can do nothing good. It’s the law of unintended consequences – we think we’re doing something good, but we just end up making it worse. It’s because we’ve made concessions before we got started. It’s like trying to bake bread with bad yeast; it’s just not going to work. Anytime we put our trust in a politician, an ideology, a denomination, a technology, we’re going to lose out. Over the course of human history, we’ve tried just about everything, except really doing what God has told us to do – love God, love neighbor, love yourself. We dismiss non-violence as a utopian ideal despite the fact that it’s never really been tried. We say that eliminating poverty is just too hard, so we don’t do it. We hold grudges, resentments, and correctness as if they were our most valuable possessions instead of having reconciling conversations with one another. We say that faith is a priority, but our lives say otherwise. Satan encourages us to make compromises, to take shortcuts, to talk about what God wants us to do instead of talking with God through sincere prayer, Scripture reading, and discernment.
And the result of these various temptations and our disobedience is that, as St. Paul puts it, quoting Psalm 14, “There is no one who is good, not even one.” Once we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we haven’t been able to forget the evil. Yes, Jesus has defeated Sin and Death on the Cross, but we still have that knowledge of evil and we choose it. St. Paul puts it so well later in Romans, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” And this is where we are stuck.
But then St. Paul goes on to exclaim, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Our only hope is Jesus Christ. None of us are going to be any better than Adam or Eve in resisting temptation or ignoring Satan. We all make concessions in our faith, we all do what we know we shouldn’t do, we are all disobedient. The purpose of these texts from Genesis and Matthew aren’t to teach us how to resist temptation, outsmart Satan, or be perfectly obedient. That’s just not within our power.
But it is within God’s. Jesus Christ is obedient. Jesus Christ did not make accommodations to the faith, but rather said “Not my will, but thy will be done” and then he showed his steadfast obedience, abundant grace, and amazing love on the Cross. We have a God who knows us, who knows all of the ways in which we are imperfect, who knows the desires of our hearts to do good, who knows the mistakes that we make, and yet loves us all the same, who forgives us for all our disobedience, who wants us to forgive others just as we have been forgiven, who longs for us to talk more with God instead of about God. And then God came to us in Jesus Christ so that we’d know it.
You and I are going to mess up real soon. But God already forgives us. And this forgiveness liberates us from trying to get it perfect. The gracious forgiveness of God obliterates Christian realism because Christian realism is built on the idea that we can “get it right.” But that’s ludicrous. We don’t need to worry about getting it right or finding the perfect solution, because we’re not going to get it perfect. Instead, we can strive to seek first the Kingdom of God in all things, we can do our best to trust in God and love our neighbor as ourselves, we can task the risk of love. And when we invariably fall, God is mighty to save and has forgiven us already. Enjoy your forgiveness.