What was the Fall? Why is it something that we should think about? What relevance does it still has as part of a Christian understanding of the world?
This was part of our sermon series on Understanding Christianity, based on the RE resource produced for schools. I found the book God, Darwin, and the Fall (edited by R J Berry) helpful in writing this sermon. The photograph of the waterfall is by Margagnoni.
Fall; Reading: Romans 1:18-23
The world’s an amazing place isn’t it? You can see that by just walking out onto the fields behind the church. Particularly when the sun’s shining, you can see the trees, hear the birds, and so on.
But, the world’s also a pretty horrendous place as well, isn’t it? Rape, murder, wars, health scares, environmental destruction, lies, economic woes, persecution, conflict between nations. And that was just yesterday’s news. Unfortunately, “the goodlessness and wickedness of people” that Paul talks about is just as evident today as it was 2,000 years ago.
At the moment in our services we’re looking at the big picture of what we believe. We’re working through the same topics that the children in Hartshorne school are being taught as part of their RE on Understanding Christianity. We’ve thought about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and how at the heart of God is love. We thought last week about God’s love leading him to create our beautiful world, and how as a reflection of that we are creative in all sorts of different ways.
As Paul says in the passage that we heard
since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.
We can look around, see the beauty and creativity, feel the awe and wonder that they provoke, experience the richness and diversity, and in all that catch glimpses of God’s power and love. So we can be drawn to worship the immortal God, give thanks to him, and know his glory.
But, of course, that isn’t the whole story. That’s the problem. We see wickedness. We experience unthinking, casual cruelty. So, what’s going on? Is this part of God’s power and nature too?
No, says Paul. He lays the blame firmly at our door:
the wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
People have clearly seen God’s eternal power and divine nature in creation and so “are without excuse”. But still, our thinking frequently becomes futile, our hearts are darkened, and we worship anything but God.
This is our fault. Because the choices that you make, that I make, are not always good ones. People have been hurt by my actions, by my words. By what I did and what I didn’t do. And people have been hurt by your actions, by your words. By what you did and what you didn’t do. By the piece of gossip you passed on. By that encouragement you didn’t give. By the choice you made.
We are part of the wickedness of the world. That’s what sin is, that’s why we have a time of confession each week, to say sorry for what we have done wrong and not done right. To hear the words of love and forgiveness from God, to receive again the gift of his forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. Because of course this isn’t the last word. God’s love and power are the last word and so he sends Jesus to sort out the mess that we’ve created.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Bruce Almighty. Basically, it’s about a struggling TV reporter, called Bruce. And Bruce spends a lot of time complaining that he could do better than God, if he was given the chance. Well, God gets tired of this, so he appears to Bruce and gives him all his powers, which he can use however he wants. And we see the chaos that comes from Bruce’s misuse of God’s powers. In one scene we see Bruce answering ‘yes’ to every single prayer in his town. This leads to multiple lottery winners, rioting and widespread destruction. The film suggests why quite a lot of our prayers aren’t answered in the way that we’d like them to be.
But, there are also two rules that God gives Bruce. Bruce can’t tell anyone he’s acting as God. And Bruce can’t mess with free will. “Can I ask why?” asks Bruce “Yes” says God “you can. That’s the beauty of it.” Which is the sort of answer that God spends quite a lot of the book of Job giving to Job. Job has suffered, is outraged that he has suffered and complains to God. And doesn’t really get a better answer than the one God gives to Bruce. Yes you can ask, that’s the beauty of free will.
Towards the end of Bruce Almighty, Bruce has split up with his girlfriend and is trying to work out how to win her back. He asks God “How do you make someone love you without changing free will?” To which God replies “Welcome to my world.” We’d like other people not to have free will, we’d like other people not to be able to hurt us, but we don’t want to give up our own free will. God gave us free will so that we could freely come to him, come to know him and come to love him. But, that pretty much inevitably means suffering and pain, because free will means we can misuse our powers.
Can we ask why? Yes. That’s the beauty of free will. We can ask. We can complain. We don’t have to like it, or like evil or suffering.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That’s the start of Psalm 22, it’s the Psalm that Jesus quoted as he was dying in agony on the cross. We don’t have to like the evil we see in the world, the suffering that we experience or see others experiencing, we can complain about, we can rant and rail about it. And there’s lots of psalms that will give us the words if we don’t have them. We don’t have to like it, God doesn’t like it, and God has done something about it. He sent his Son to suffer and die, to bring about the new heaven and the new earth, where, we’re promised “there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain”. And so we can do something about it as well.
The picture in the North Aisle that’s been produced as part of the Understanding Christianity resources shows creation as a whole load of paint pots. Of light, and trees, and birds, and, gold, rocks, colour, and all the other amazing things we see in our world. But then comes the Fall. People have crossed the ‘don’t cross’ tape and have cascaded down the waterfall into chaos and darkness. The colour has gone and most of it doesn’t reappear for quite some time. Have a look at the end of the service.
The first telling of the events of the Fall is of course the start of Genesis. Adam and Eve use their free will to freely do the one thing that God has asked them not to – and things go wrong from there. In the passage from Romans we heard, Paul identifies the two main ways that things go wrong for us. Later on, he talks about how they go wrong for everything else as well. But, for us, the two main ways that things go wrong are wrong thinking and wrong worshipping.
Wrong thinking. What we think matters. What we actually believe matters. Because what we believe leads to what we do. And because people didn’t glorify God and give thanks to him, says Paul, their thinking became futile. They thought that they were more important than God, so they didn’t worship him. But, because we have an impulse to worship, because worshipping is part of who we are and how we were made, we don’t stop worshipping. We just stop worshipping the right person, God, and start worshipping the wrong things. Anything else.
And even when we do re-start worshipping God, as we seek to do here, we don’t fully, truly manage it. We worship other things as well. Our families, ourselves, our jobs, our hobbies and interests. We let them, sometimes, for a bit, take centre stage. Or we worship a god who is made a bit more in our image than his. We worship a god who has the same opinions as us, tells us what we want to hear, likes the same people as us, reads the same books and newspapers as us, watches the same TV as us, votes the same way as us. That’s one of the many reasons why its so important to come together to worship, and to discern together when we think that God has something to tell us.
We worship a God who is beyond our imagining and we need to catch glimpses of what that looks like through worshipping and praying and talking and listening together.
It’s also our wrong thinking and worshipping that lead us into acting on our temptations, on acting on the things that are wrong. It’s those that lead us to fail to recognise what is good and what is evil, because we’re very good at convincing ourselves that whatever we think is clearly right and good. The Fall has happened. We are fallen and that distorts our thinking, our worshipping, our lives, in ways that we often only partly recognise, if we recognise them at all.
But, in the same way that there are different ways of understanding God’s creation, there’s also different ways of understanding how the Fall happened. A Christian writing only a couple of hundred years after Jesus was quite certain that these first few chapters of Genesis shouldn’t be taken as the literal truth. This isn’t a new idea brought about by scientists’ understanding of evolution. So, whether you accept that or not, doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that the Fall was a historical event, somehow, somewhere. Our ancestors used their God-given free will, and their awareness of God’s power and nature to say to God “not your will be done, but our will be done”. And we’ve been saying that ever since. In all sorts of different ways, big and small. We’ve used our free will and our creativity to hurt others, cause suffering and destruction.
And because God created us to be the stewards of his creation, to be his representatives on earth, to reveal his love, his nature and his power to creation, that’s messed everything else up as well. Because of our rejection of God things have not gone how God originally intended.
Later in Romans, Paul tells us that our misuse of the free will that God has given us has created even more problems than we usually imagine. Paul tells us that, because of humanity’s rejection of God his plan, not just for us, but for the whole of his creation.
Paul tells us that mess of natural disasters, the mess of illness and decay is not what God wants for us. But, we’re told, we failed to take our place as God’s representatives. Creation is waiting, waiting with eager longing, for us to take our place so that the freedom that flows from God to us will flow from us to the whole of creation. The freedom from bondage and decay, from suffering and pain, flows from the suffering of the crucified, risen God to all that he created.
All this means that what the Bible tells us that evil isn’t something that God intended, isn’t something that’s built in to how the world works. If you want a creation with free will, if you want a free creation, then you run the risk of evil and suffering. You run the risk of people misusing their powers, and you run the risk of the freedom of creation causing suffering. But that wasn’t the intent, that wasn’t the original plan. Which also means that it’s something that can be got rid of, removed. Which of course is where God’s promises to his people, and his sending of Jesus come in.
So, this isn’t theoretical. This isn’t something that only theologians have to worry about. This matters. It matters because it tells us that it doesn’t have to be this way. Things can be better, will be better. Evil will be removed, can be removed. And we’re called to work for the eradication of evil. We’re called to work to liberate the whole of creation from bondage. We’re called to worship the immortal God, to recognise his qualities of love and power in creation, in the people around us. We’re called to seek the power of God in our lives, so that his love and power can overflow from us into those around us. And when we mess up and get it wrong we’re called to seek his forgiveness, not to remain trapped in guilt.We’re called to think rightly, worship rightly, and seek to show God’s love and power in our lives and through our thinking and actions. Amen.