Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word, that comes from the mouth of God.’ – Matthew 4:4
LENT is an important season of reflection on what Jesus Christ has done for us in terms of his life, death and resurrection, and what that means for us as Christians today.
In this short reflection, I wish to try to highlight some of the ways the ‘tempter’ tries to lure us away from the Gospel, that is, from the “Word of God on whom salvation depends” (Basis of Union paragraph 5).
The aim is to help us to stand firm with confidence on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”.
Jesus, in his baptism, begins his public ministry by declaring his total and irrevocable commitment to us as sinners; a commitment that would entail going down the via Dolorosa or the way of the cross.
God the Father is indeed pleased with his Son because of his willingness to stand in complete solidarity with us ‘even unto death’ (Philippians 2:8). In his baptism, Jesus commits to fulfilling God’s plan of salvation on the cross by becoming the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, he is led into the desert where he fasts for 40 days and for 40 nights and is tempted by the devil.
Each of the temptations in their own way pose an alternative path of salvation to Jesus other than the way of the cross. That is, Satan questions the necessity of the cross, particularly because, as Satan stresses, Jesus is already ‘the Son of God’ who has the power to turn stones into bread. Why take the way of the cross when you can have your glory now, Satan argues.
It is Satan’s method of trying to change the course of salvation history that is of particular interest here.
In the second temptation (Matthew 4:6) it is striking that the devil cites Holy Scripture in order to lure Jesus away from fulfilling God’s plan of salvation.
Satan quotes Psalm 91, which speaks of the protection that God promises to those who believe.
Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) argues that Satan comes across in the guise of a Bible expert, one who can quote the Psalm exactly. That is, Satan poses as a theologian or a great Scripture scholar.
In other words the second temptation takes the form of a dispute between two Bible scholars.
This should not be seen as a rejection of scholarly biblical interpretation (as propounded by paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union), but as Razinger writes, “an eminently salutary and necessary warning against its possible aberrations.” That is, a warning against the misuse of scholarly exegesis to try and destroy the figure of Jesus and to dismantle the Christian faith.
Ratzinger put it in this way: “The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history – that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity.
And so the Bible no longer speaks of God, the living God; no, now we alone speak and decide what God can do and what we will and should do.”
To further highlight the stealthy nature of the devil’s temptations, let us look at the way Satan tempted Adam and Eve.
Genesis 3:1 reminds us that “the serpent was more cunning than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.”
The serpent poses to Eve the question, “Did God really say, ‘you must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”
The serpent simply tries to create doubt in the minds of the human beings by suggesting the possibility that perhaps they have misheard God, or perhaps God did not mean it in that way.
Famed German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “the decisive point is that through this question, did God really say the idea is suggested to the human being of going behind the word of God and now providing it with a human basis—a human understanding of the essential nature of God.”
That is, as Bonhoeffer states, “the question is thus one that is put by a forked tongue, for it plainly wants to be thought of as coming from God’s side … The serpent claims to know more about God than the human being who depends on God’s word alone.”
The cunningness in Satan’s question, is that it comes across as being innocuous and harmless. But, it is precisely in its being innocuous that “evil wins its power in us and through which we become disobedient to God”.
How can we recognise the truth in the light of falsehood?
Jesus said (John 8:31): “If you continue in my word, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”.
As Bonhoeffer contends, “not through free research, not through disinterested thinking and searching for it, but solely through the free attempt to base one’s life for once completely on the word of Christ; for once to live totally with him, to live by following him, to hear him, to obey him. Only the one who has completely dedicated his life in this way can judge whether Christ speaks and is the truth. Only in living does one know the truth.”
May God grant us the strength to stand firm with confidence on “every word that comes from the mouth of God”.
Rev Dr Hedley Fihaki
I have worn a cross around my neck every day for the past 20 years. It was a gift from a friend, Kathleen, who was our minister at the time. I wear it to remind me that I am a follower of Christ – the One who is the giver of new life and hope for the whole world.
Many people wear crosses. They are displayed in churches, homes, schools and in sacred spaces throughout the world. It may seem odd that what was used to execute criminals during the Roman Empire has become so prominent as a Christian symbol. Jesus was executed on a cross, because there were those who were threatened by his ministry – his message of love and justice, his advocacy for the poor and marginalised.
For Christians the cross reminds us of Christ’s suffering for the life and ministry he lived. In Christ, we experience a God who compassionately seeks to alleviate our suffering. The cross also reminds us that death and despair could not contain Christ. In Christ’s resurrection we witness and experience God overcoming all that threatens to diminish us, all that may try to alienate us from God, from each other and from ourselves.
When Jesus died, his followers were thrown into confusion, disbelief and grief. Jesus’ followers were fearful – hiding in locked rooms. Their hopes were dashed.
The Risen Christ came to them –reassuring them, overcoming their fear.
Their lives were transformed – they dared to hope again and live courageously embodying God’s love and healing in their own lives.
This hope and love is expressed today, as millions of people all over the world celebrate the central message of Easter and of the Christian message – Christ is Risen!
I have recently spoken with people whose life experiences have been marked by suffering and trauma. Life has been a struggle. And yet, their experience of a living relationship with Jesus has transformed their lives. Their lives are sustained by God’s love and hope.
People experience today, in Jesus, God’s message of hope that we can live differently. Love can shape our relationships. Equality, justice and peace can be the foundation of our societies. We can be reconciled to God and to each other. Healing and new beginnings are possible.
As we celebrate Easter, may you dare to hope, as we recall once more Christ’s message of love and peace for all the world.
Dr Deidre Palmer
President-elect of the UCA
In the 21st century, what should Christians make of the concept of “sin”? A long-gone relic or a necessary corrective in a society seduced by moral relativism and the cult of victimhood? Simon Gomersall explores sin, Easter and atonement.
It is now conventional to assert that the language and concept of sin is irrelevant in both 21st century Australian society and church. Society has moved beyond sin.
The church finds the concept quietly embarrassing. A by-product of Western society’s journey from theism (belief in a living God integrally involved in his creation) to deism (belief in a distant God merely watching a self-contained world) to naturalism, pantheism and a variety of other ‘isms’, has been the shedding of previously assumed moral categories.
If God is redundant, or worse, non-existent, then humanity becomes its own frame of reference in moral and ethical thinking.
Alistair McFadyen – author of Bound to Sin – set out to explore the Christian notion of sin in a society where pragmatic atheism (even if we believe in God, we live as though we don’t) has the narrative advantage. He acknowledges the church’s complicity in this state of affairs, referring to the legitimate “suspicion that sin is a language of blame and condemnation encouraged by its flourishing in religious enclaves where it is used to whip up artificial and disproportionate senses of personal guilt and shame”.
God-talk – let alone sin-talk – seems superfluous to the conversation we use to make sense of the world and our place in it. Suspecting that psychological, sociological and philosophical language carried inadequate explanatory power to describe concrete pathologies at work in the world, McFadyen explored two phenomena which he found everyone agreed were categorically wrong: the Holocaust and child abuse. Beginning from these existential reference points, unpacking the nature of the events, he concluded: “Sin is an essentially relational language, speaking of pathology with an inbuilt and at least implicit reference to our relation to God.”
So perhaps there is a relationship between our capacity to see currency in the concept of sin and the degree to which we are attentive to and dependent on God?
To be sure there are numerous biblical words and images within the conceptual boundaries of ‘sin’. The most common New Testament word used to describe ‘sin’ is hamartia, which means to ‘miss the mark’. An archer shoots an arrow and misses the target.
Another is parabasis which means to transgress or trespass, stepping beyond aboundary. Another is anomia, often translated iniquity. This word means ‘without law’, implying the rejection of a prescribed regulation.
Asebeia (ungodliness) means literally ‘no worship’, living without any reference to a Creator; parakoe (disobedience) means ‘refusing to hear’; opheilema (debt) speaks of owing to another some degree of obligation. At even at a casual glance, these are strongly relational images and make little sense without an active deity setting targets, drawing boundaries, inviting worship, speaking guidance and entering into social contract.
English theologian Alan Mann (author of Atonement for a Sinless Society) explores the impact of the loss of moral categories for contemporary society: “The stories we tell seldom, if ever, attribute sin, guilt or wrongness to ourselves. In turn, geneticists, sociologists and psychologists increasingly legitimise our narratives and allow us to live in the confidence that we do no wrong.”
Mann goes on to describe the ‘cult of victim’ gripping the Western imagination. It is always someone else’s fault: our parents, teachers, the government or, increasingly, the church. Philosophically, we assume the postmodern virtue of prescriptive relativism (that the presence of difference denies the affirmation of particular ideas or behaviours over others). All views are equally valid. We each define our own morality. What is right for you, might not be right for me.
As young people are assured that classifications of right or wrong are relative and personal, they are simultaneously bombarded through electronic media with pervasive images of personal ideals: visually attractive, socially competent, vocationally successful and compassionately altruistic.
They end up being torn between an artificially created ideal self and their real self. They are told there is nothing wrong with them, yet they live with a persistent and niggling feeling that they are falling short of something.
When our real self never matches up to our ideal self, instead of feeling guilty (no need to, because there is no moral standard to transgress) we instead live lives of quiet desperation and shame. Shame is a powerful emotion. It drives us into a self-imposed isolation from God, others and even self to cope with its internal dissonance.
What we need is ‘atonement’ (at-one-ment). We need to be made whole. The disparate parts of our ‘self’ need to be woven back together alongside our relationships with others and, foundationally, our union with God.
Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement – turned into a 2007 film (starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley) – has given some currency to the word. It is the story of a young girl, Bryony Tallis, who falsely accuses her sister’s boyfriend of rape, sending him to jail and then to war. His life is ruined. The book is the story of Bryony’s guilt: her desperate seeking to somehow atone for what she has done.
Instead of living in her wealthy parent’s estate in the safety of the country, Bryony trains as a nurse, working in the most dangerous part of London during the blitz in World War II. She wants to do anything she can to make up for her terrible deception. Reading the book or watching the film, one senses the deep need we all have for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Christian faith proclaims that each of the breakages in our lives and relationships are symptoms of a much deeper rupture, a wound that lies at the very heart of creation. John Henry Newman put it: “We live in a world that is out of joint with the purposes of its creator.” Though not a Christian, McEwan, expressed it: “You cannot ignore it when something deep has gone wrong. Something needs to be done to make it right. Atonement needs to be made.”
This is, of course, the very thing we celebrate at Easter.
In the Easter event, atonement was made. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25)
God stepped forward in Christ to be “delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)
Creation’s rupture was ‘covered over’ (the literal meaning of the word ‘atonement’) with the Creator’s love and justice. Though the exact mechanism of this transaction might elude us (Charles Wesley’s words are helpful: “’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies, who can explore this strange design?”) the result is an invitation to be ushered into the fullness of life Jesus offered in John 10:10.
Easter is not so much about the darkness of sin as the wonder of forgiveness, restoration, liberation and new beginnings.
But, as Lord Byron once said, “The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity”. Or to pinch a line from Don Francisco’s Christmas Song, “The rudeness of the setting ignites the jewel’s fire.”
As we take the time on Easter Sunday to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death, let’s also enter fully into the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday traditions of quietly and deliberately searching our own hearts, naming rather than excusing our sin and self-interest. By doing this we might experience the truth proclaimed in Hebrews 9:14, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
Simon Gomersall is a project officer (Gap Year and Leadership programs) at Trinity College Queensland. Trinity.qld.edu.au