Assurance of God’s Love

Assurance of God’s Love

Readings Genesis 1 and Romans 8: 12-16

Original Blessing
God created, blessed and called it “Good,” “Very Good”. That’s what we just heard in the reading from the first chapter of Genesis, the story of the beginnings of the cosmos that Christians have, at least nominally, embraced. That original blessing from God on the whole of the created order, including humankind, is set as primary in our Judeo-Christian scriptures.
It doesn’t take very long, though, for the worm to turn. By the very next chapter, the blessing seems to be forgotten and by the end of Chapter Three, the second Creation Story has been interpreted to see humankind as sinful and disobedient, not only in the acts portrayed in that story but for all time. Fallible and imperfect we most certainly are, with free will to follow or not follow the lure toward the good (in the language of Process Theology) in any situation. However, if God created us, then he/she created us exactly the way we are, with all our foibles and shortcomings, and still called us Very Good.
The notion of human sin, though, has had an immeasurably greater impact on the development of religious doctrine through the centuries than has the story of the original blessing of Genesis, Chapter One. Why was sin emphasized and blessing not?
The writings of Paul were extremely important in terms of the development of what came to be called the Doctrine of Original Sin.
In this morning’s reading, Paul tells us to forget that we are “fleshly” humans and asks us to strive to put away a part of what makes us human.
Elsewhere in his letter to the Romans, and more to this morning’s point, Paul has stated: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, … so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Paul used Adam-death associations, that is, if Adam hadn’t sinned, Paul says, there would be no death. For Paul, Adam’s act released a power into the world by which sin and death became the natural lot of humankind.
For the first hundred years after the letters of Paul were written, Christians wrote little about the story of the fall or Adam and Eve more broadly. It was only from the second half of the second century onwards that the story of Adam’s fall became a focus of increasing interest to early theologians and preachers.
Early Christianity had no specific doctrine of original sin prior to the 4th century. The idea developed incrementally in the writings of the early Church fathers in the centuries after the New Testament was composed, notably St. Augustine, the first author to use the phrase “original sin”.
Augustine himself deserves a word or two, as he was an interesting character, with several lovers and concubines over the course of his life. Prior to his reaching adulthood, when he was only 11, Augustine was sent away to school. His first insight into the nature of sin occurred when he and a number of friends stole fruit they didn’t want from a neighbourhood garden. In his autobiography, Confessions, Augustine remembered that he stole the fruit, not because he was hungry, but because “it was not permitted.” His very nature, he said, was flawed. “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.” From this incident, he concluded that the human person is naturally inclined to sin, and in need of the grace of Christ.
In his later life, Augustine’s mother tried to arrange a suitable marriage for him to draw him away from taking concubines. It’s said that his emotional wound at giving up his concubine was not healed, and it was during this period that he uttered his famously insincere prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
It sounds like Augustine was working out his own stuff and generalized it to apply to all humans. Introduced by Augustine, original sin was brought into the official lexicon of the Church by the 6th century. The Doctrine of Original Sin holds that humans, merely through the fact of birth, inherit a tainted nature with an innate tendency to sinful behaviour. In fact we are born sinful and condemned to hell even without having taken any action at all. Sinfulness is born into us, like a genetic code because we have inherited sin from Adam and Eve.
As the Catholic Church further developed its doctrines, only baptism could expiate original sin. Without baptism damnation is, the traditional doctrine holds, inevitable.
I experienced the pervasiveness and power of that belief early in my ministry journey. I was approached by a young, single woman who wanted her baby baptized. I asked many questions, including the question of why she, as a person of no faith practice, wanted her son baptized. Her candid answer was, “I don’t want him to go to hell.” I was saddened by the thought that what she knew of faith, of God, of God’s relationship to humankind, involved not blessing, not love, but condemnation related to the Doctrine of Original Sin.
The concept and doctrine of original sin still persists, unfortunately, to this day. Over the centuries, though, other voices have emerged to celebrate that story of original blessing and goodness. Meister Eckhart, a 14th century Dominican theologian, philosopher and mystic said: “Whenever we talk about God the Creator we are talking about goodness.”
Creation Spirituality, which focuses on the blessing of creation as good, is a theological movement that gained recognition in the latter part of the 20th century. Associated most widely with the work of former Dominican priest Matthew Fox, Creation Spirituality seeks to shift the emphasis of Christian life, belief, and practice from a focus on redemption (in other words, expiation of original sin) to a focus on creation, blessing, goodness and wholeness.
Not surprisingly some of the more conservative members of the church hierarchy, Catholic and Protestant, have been very skeptical of this shift in emphasis away from the innate sinfulness of humankind. Matthew Fox says, “How some theologians and church leaders … dive into the Adam and Eve story as if that were the first story in the Bible baffles me. That is, until one asks some political questions about the compulsion to control and to feed guilt and shame as a device to control and to more successfully carry on empire building married to religion…
The universe has been an original blessing from the get-go. That is what Genesis one is saying in its cosmology story, telling us repeatedly that various moments and beings are “good” (or “beautiful” – the Hebrew word can mean either), and, when humans arrive, “very good” (or “very beautiful”).

The importance, for Fox and for our understanding of our place in God’s creation, is the blessing of the whole in Genesis One: the blessing of the cosmos and its 13.8 billion years of existence before we humans ever arrived; the blessing of the earth on which we live; the blessing of all the creatures that play an integral part in this web of life, and; the blessing of humankind as part of God’s beautiful and good creating. It is as a part of the whole that we were, and are, blessed.
The focus on the second story in Genesis has not served us well, neither the idea of original sin nor the idea of seeing ourselves not as part of a beautiful greater whole but as somehow above it in importance. (If we are the pinnacle of creation, how did the cosmos do without us for 13+ billion years??)
We are an interdependent part of this Creation. I am put in mind of the African concept of Ubuntu, one understanding of which is: “I am because you are.” Original blessing is Ubuntu writ large; I am blessed as part and parcel of God’s universal blessing. From the beginning, what we inherit from God, our creator, is “original blessing.” This blessing is from God, and as such is irreversible, unalterable, and untaintable. No matter how corrupted or imperfect our nature may be, original divine blessing remains within us because original blessing came first, and sin came second. More to the point, original blessing comes from the Divine; original sin comes from the distorted human mind.
In Eugene Peterson’s biblical version, “The Message”, Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, takes on a more positive meaning: “God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go! It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next!?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who God is, and we know who we are: creator and creation.”
May we celebrate the gift of being an integral part of God’s original blessing!

 


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