I have spent the whole of my adult life reading and reflecting on the Bible, and have been preaching on it regularly for about 36 years. And interestingly the more I do so, the more firmly convinced I am that Scripture truly is the living word of God. There will always be some passages within it that remain baffling and resist easy interpretation – but for the most part, even the most familiar texts continue to speak to me in new ways, however often I return to them.
To speak of the Bible as the living word of God, is a very different thing, however, from regarding it as simple historical fact – despite what some of our more fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters assume. Take, for example, our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, which describes the fate of Adam and Eve after that fateful incident involving the piece of fruit. Was the incident that it describes historical, in the sense that had any of us happened to have been there with an iPhone, we could have filmed it? No, of course it wasn’t – because what it describes is something that is far more important and far more significant than that.
Indeed, on this issue I stand solidly with one of the most distinguished Biblical scholars of our own day, John Dominic Crossan, who wrote this:
‘My point… is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.’
Or, to put it another way, what we encounter in the early chapters of Genesis is something far more profound than mere human history. Because it provides us with an extraordinary window on some of the most timeless truths of human existence – truths that no single incident from the past could even come close to encapsulating.
So let us revisit that familiar story of the first man and first woman told in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, in that light. What do we find?
It begins with an account of Creation which reveals God’s original intention for our world, for living species, and for the role of humankind within it: the life for which we were created. A life in which human beings lived in harmony with the natural world, with the animal kingdom, with one another, and with God. It is a life in which they had everything they could possibly want or need in an existence marked by peace and tranquillity.
And what brings all of this crashing down, to be lost for ever, is something so recognisably human, that it is startling in its insight. Because in the midst of all this joy and peace and abundance in a life in which there is no anxiety, no fear, no regret, and no shame, enters a small subversive voice. In the story it is attributed to the serpent, but it is a voice that I am sure will be familiar to many of us, in the different guises that it takes. It is the voice that says – just think: you could have even more than this; just think, someone is preventing you from having it; just think, what harm could it do? After all, it’s only a piece of fruit (or whatever the equivalent is).
And in reaching out to seize the extra that they do not need, not only do they lose everything that they already have (but in that moment fail to recognise and appreciate) – but they are also plunged into an existence characterised by concealment, shame, guilt, accusation, and mistrust. A life spent in unity and harmony is suddenly torn apart from the very roots, not only are human relationships sundered, but the relationship that human beings have with the natural world: the earth will no longer give of its bounty freely without human toil; and in time, human beings will abuse and desecrate the natural world that was once integral to their existence in a quite different way. The die was cast.
What this story does, brilliantly and insightfully, is to give us a compelling account of why it is that within a divinely created and ordered universe, the gift of a God of goodness and love, there are forces of disorder and chaos at work, even at the level of the individual human life. And the fault-lines of separation and disunity are at work between nations, within societies, within communities, within families, and within each one of us. That is a grim fact of human existence, which confronts us every single day, in some form or another. And I am sure we all recognise the truth embedded within the heart of that story: that in reaching out for more than we need, we can end up losing even what we have.
During lockdown I read a biography of the artist Stanley Spencer, who is well known to have had quite a complicated personal life. He ended up wanting to be married to two women, having to support each of them, yet losing them both. One of his exhibition curators wrote: ‘Spencer had wanted two wives, the spiritual support of [his first wife] Hilda, and carefree excitement from [his second wife] Patricia, but effectively ended up with none.’ It is a human story that has had countless manifestations throughout the centuries.
As most of you will be aware, we do not select the readings that we use at these services each week ourselves, because we follow the prescribed readings set by the Church of England lectionary. I much prefer it that way, because I don’t choose the biblical passages that I have to preach on, which is a much better discipline for preaching. And I am often fascinated to see the particular readings that are juxtaposed for a given service by the lectionary.
And interestingly enough, in our Gospel reading today from St Mark, we see a really good illustration of the forces of disunity that I have been describing at work – even within the family of Jesus himself. Not only have the scribes and the religious authorities turned against him, accusing him of being out of his mind and possessed by the prince of demons, but we are also told that his own family have come to seize him. For the most part, Jesus did not bring peace and tranquillity with him during his ministry – rather the opposite. Because by exposing the hidden fault lines that are at work within communities, within relationships and even within individual human beings, Jesus gives the appearance of creating even more divisions than were previously apparent.
But note also what happens next. Because in the very same incident we see in addition how Jesus refuses to collude with the conventional categories within society that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ ‘You are my mother and my brothers!’ Jesus, by his lived example, is already pointing us towards a different way of living, in which society’s unspoken assumptions about the distinction that separated clean and unclean, the respectable and the disreputable, the holy and the ungodly, simply crumble. Because ultimately all that Jesus sees – and the only thing that concerns him – are hurting, damaged, broken and frightened human beings who are in need of the healing love of God – and the arrogant and the proud who have separated themselves from his love.
We see him living this out in his earthly ministry. But that in itself is merely a pointer to a much more significant and powerful reality. Because through Christ’s sacrificial death and his resurrection, what becomes available to us is not merely a model that we can emulate; but a new and transformed way of being that is ours for all eternity.
This is why St Paul in our second reading from 2 Corinthians encourages the members of that young Christian community not to lose heart. The Christian faith is not an insurance policy against bad things happening to you. Nor does it bring with it the promise of a comfortable and easy life – because we are called to live out that faith in the world – a world that is still torn apart by forces of division and chaos – that is the reality that we inhabit. But what it does bring is twofold: firstly a perspective on the reality of life that enables us to see beyond the darkness and to speak with authority on the hope that will get us through it. And secondly the knowledge that God’s Holy Spirit is there to guide us, to support us, and to comfort us, as we strive to become bearers of light in our own small part of God’s world.
For as St Paul writes:
‘We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen: for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’
For that reason, ‘we do not lose heart.’ And thanks be to God for that.