First Sunday of Lent - Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

It was the apple’s fault

No argument – the apple was to blame.  If it hadn’t been so juicy, so desirable, if it hadn’t hung there so provocatively from the branches of the tree – if it hadn’t looked so delicious – obviously it would be the sweetest apple you’d ever eaten – if it wasn’t so red and obviously so juicy – it would’ve been a sin not to eat it – letting an apple like that fall from the tree and rot on the ground, it was only right to reach out and pluck it and eat it – and, of course, share it.  There was nothing selfish in any of this – this was an apple waiting to be eaten.  It was the apple’s fault.

It was the boy; it was the girl; they were asking for it; the car window was down; the drink was flowing freely; the drugs were available; no one would be hurt; it was a victimless crime; no one would know; it was just me and him; me and her; no one else was involved; it was virtual; it was online; it was out there; it would’ve been wrong not to have done it, eat it, drink it – they’d never miss it; they’d more than enough – and I did share it!

We can justify our sinful action very easily – we can even feel quite comfortable about what we’ve done after a time.  We can effectively shift the blame, can squirm out of the guilt and, at the end, not feel too bad about our self.

The story of the fall is an account of passing the buck – it wasn’t me, it was her, it wasn’t me it was that talking snake.  Unfortunately the snake wasn’t quite quick enough to lay the blame fairly and squarely on the apple – which presumably couldn’t talk.

I imagine them all lined up by God in the mode of a furious headmaster – moving along in front of them, like that fantastic scene in Ken Loach’s film version of ‘Kes’.  A group of boys had been caught smoking – they were waiting outside the Head’s office.  Then a little lad arrives with a message from his teacher and is dragged in with the naughty boys.  Unable to plead his innocence and deliver his message, the Head discovers the stash of cigarettes that the big boys had planted on him.  And punishment was administered to the innocent as well as the guilty.

Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake.  But they all get punished – and we get punished with them.

They’re thrown out of the garden, the gates are barred and the hard labour, the punishment imposed on both man and woman, comes to typify their lives – the hard manual labour given to the man, the pain of labour given to the woman.

‘And all was for an apple, an apple that he took, as clerkes finden written in theire book’ as it says in the 15th century poem, ‘Adam lay-y-bounden’.

That poem ends with a line which picks up words that we’ll be singing in a few weeks time as we gather for the Easter Vigil.  ‘Blessed be the time that apple taken was, therefore we may singen ‘Deo Gratias!’ Into the tomb-like darkness of this cathedral the new light will be carried and the Deacon will sing an ancient song of praise ‘The Exultet’ and in that song – sung now for almost 1600 years - there’s the most intriguing phrase.

‘O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam which gained for us so great a Redeemer’

The fall necessitated our redemption – because paradise was lost it had to be regained, to use Milton’s words.  We were born for eternity but exposed to our mortality – but we yearned for our true home and our true destiny which our first parents had forfeited through their disobedience. We needed a second Adam, we needed a second Eve.

We needed to be rescued – and God rescued us in Jesus.  It’s in the season of Lent that we see particularly that plan being played out and the sin and the implication of the sin of Adam and the sin of Eve being unravelled.

My grandma was a great knitter and a great one for making do and mending – for reusing what we had.  So she was very keen on taking hand-knitted jumpers that we’d grown out of – taking them apart and knitting the wool back up again. That used to involve us standing still for a long time, holding out our arms while she made skeins of wool around our aching limbs.  And woe betides you if it all got tangled. It would mean finding the end in the mass of knots and messed up wool, tracing it through and unravelling it until order was restored.

Adam and Eve were banished to the wilderness and this is where Jesus begins.  He begins the process of our redemption in the place where we are – he finds us in the harsh place of our banishment.  And from that point he unravels what has happened – he takes us by route of another tree, of which he now becomes the fair fruit, to a garden where paradise is regained – from the wilderness, the barren place, to Calvary and the cross, to the tomb in the garden from where new life begins – where a woman and a man stand together in a place which is like paradise on earth.

St Paul explains this so well in our second reading, in his Letter to the Romans

‘Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so the act of righteousness of one leads to justification and life for all.’

The invitation – no, it’s more than that – the challenge to us today is to grow up and take responsibility for our choices and our actions.  It’s children who blame each other, it’s as children that we want to blame the apple.  But it’s we who are so often seduced by the tempter.

Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as we’ll do shortly in this Eucharist, we say ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’.  What we’re asking of God is for the ability, the strength to resist temptation.  Temptation is of course always happening – it’s part of being human, part of who we are, part of the business of making choices.  Of course we’re tempted and there’s absolutely no sin involved in that.

Where the sin lies is in giving in to the temptation – in tasting the forbidden fruit.  That temptation will be personal – I won’t be tempted by quite the same things that you’re tempted by – I imagine.  But we’ll all be tempted and of that I’m certain.

Lent begins with an object lesson in how to resist what we’re tempted to do.  Jesus resists the temptations of the devil with scripture – he fights the devil armed only with the word of God.  St Paul describes it as being armed with ‘the free gift of the grace of God’.

We’re adults, not victims – we cannot blame the apple – we have to learn to take responsibility for our actions, for our choices, for our weakness – knowing that the grace we receive freely through word and through sacrament enables us face temptation fully in the face and do what’s right – in the free grace of God.

In this Eucharist both word and bread are broken and we feed on them.  In the strength of that word, in the strength of that bread, we resist reaching out our hand and taking hold of our forbidden fruit; we take control of our lives and actions, living as mature Christians, children no longer, worthy of the paradise that’s been opened to us.

We look the serpent in the face and resist the apple he offers knowing that in Jesus we’re given a better fruit to share – fruit that gives life not death – word and bread and Jesus, who is both, the fair fruit of the fair tree from which we should eat.