Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.

Chew on This

John 6:51-58

When we talk about Jesus being the bread of heaven, the metaphor can easily be misinterpreted as soft and nice, a phrase suitable for shiny church banners decorated with loaves and stalks of wheat.

When we delve into today’s text, however, we hear Jesus use the phrase in a gruesome, unrelenting way. His words continue to remind us that the saving grace God offers us so freely was purchased on the cross at a very high price. Jesus’ metaphor is an antidote to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” which is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus called himself the bread of heaven, bread was very much on the minds of the crowds following him. A day earlier, he had used five barley loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people all they wanted. The fragments of leftovers filled 12 baskets at the end of this vast picnic, and the people sought him, wanting more.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,” Jesus told them. This triggered a conversation that eventually led Jesus to startle them: To find eternal life, the people must eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Jesus of course was symbolically using “eating” to stand for belief in his work to come on the cross. The idea that the cross can save us would have to be swallowed whole by those who seek salvation. The metaphor was too difficult, however—it smelled of cannibalism.

The conflict became even worse as Jesus switched verbs for what is usually translated as “eat” in English. As the Jewish leaders began to question what Jesus said, he began to use a verb that had connotations of “chewing” or “feeding on” his body, creating imagery akin to a wild animal working on its kill. (This change in verbs happens in verse 54.)

Later, his disappointed disciples told Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Even today, we can struggle with the connection Jesus was making between bread and body, a connection now best expressed as the link between communion and Christ’s crucifixion. His unrelenting metaphor draws us into the deepest mysteries surrounding how we are saved.

Some preachers will try to tell you that how we are saved by the cross is easy to understand, usually pointing to a model known as “penal substitutionary atonement.” This is the notion that God the Father simply vented his wrath on God the Son, rather than on us. I’m not very comfortable with this easy answer, however, particularly when I consider the varying explanations found in Scripture.

To me, the workings of the cross are mysteries to be embraced and then wrestled with all of our lives, accepting that we will not fully comprehend how God has saved us until we stand before our Savior in the resurrection. We are to chew on the idea, employing discipleship and in particular, the taking of communion, to meditate on this supreme event in history.

Being raised in a different denomination, one where communion was not treated as the gateway to mystery, my understanding took awhile to develop. Let me share some stories of moments that enlightened me.

While serving as an associate pastor in Lexington, Ky., I helped with communion on a regular basis. One Sunday, I carried the juice, trailing another pastor who offered the bread as people lined up at the prayer rail.

A lady I recognized was there with twin 4-year-old granddaughters who apparently were new to church. She had dressed them in identical purple velvet dresses, the kind of dresses grandmothers tend to pick out for their granddaughters when showing them off to friends for the first time.

When the pastor ahead of me offered them the bread, saying, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” they looked startled and a bit perplexed. They could see it was bread, though, and took it.

And then I came along with cups of a red liquid, saying, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Twin Girl Number 1 took one step back; Twin Girl Number 2 formed a perfect “O” with her mouth as she inhaled to scream.

I quickly dropped to my knees, saying, “No, no, it’s okay, it’s just grape juice. See?” Number 2 didn’t scream, but both girls maintained their looks of horror as they walked away.  (I’ve since learned an alternate liturgy to use where children are involved.)

I was reminded: This is powerful stuff, not to be taken lightly. It was too much for these little girls, but as adults, should our response be at least a little more like theirs? After all, communion should make us very mindful of a broken, bleeding body and our dependence on that suffering.

I also took communion to our shut-ins in Kentucky, and had two thought-provoking experiences in those settings.

One came very early in my ministry. I had been an associate pastor in Kentucky for only a few weeks when it was suggested that I take communion to some of our church members in nursing homes. I dutifully set out on my mission, my portable communion kit loaded with juice, thimble-sized cups, tiny squares of bread and a miniature plate.

All went smoothly until I reached one elderly lady whose mind had been described to me as “pretty far gone.” She was sitting up in her wheelchair, her head slumped to her chest. I spoke to her. No response. I set communion up on a table in front of her. No response.

I went through the words of a simple liturgy, one employing words familiar to anyone raised Methodist. I then touched the bread and juice to her lips, which she slowly tried to taste with her tongue.

I packed up my kit, thinking, “Well, I guess that was a waste of time.”

Just as I turned to leave, her hand shot out, grabbing my forearm with surprising strength. I jumped like I had been bitten.

She looked up at me and slowly said three clear words: “I appreciate this.” She then slumped back into her previous position and remained unresponsive.

My other key communion experience happened late in my ministry in Kentucky. I took communion to Arthur and Edna, a husband and wife, both suffering from dementia. Edna had contracted it first; Arthur developed his disorder about a year later but declined more quickly.

By the time of my last visit, the two shared a nursing home room but didn’t know each other’s names, sleeping on separate mats. I went to Edna’s mat first. She seemed uninterested in my presence until I brought out the same little kit with juice cups and bread plate. She took communion eagerly.

When I went to Arthur’s mat, Edna sat up, her eyes following everything. Arthur also clearly wanted communion. I went through the brief liturgy again, giving him the juice and bread.

As I did so, I heard Edna’s voice saying softly, again and again, “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” She was still saying it when I left in tears.

God’s grace, particularly as it is expressed in the bread-body and juice-blood of communion, has the power to sustain us in all the phases of our lives. Take what is offered so freely whenever you can, knowing God’s grace will remain with you even when all else of value has fled.