Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13 & Mark 15:33-39
The story of Adam and Eve has been called “The Fall” ever since Augustine, and serves as the basis for his theology of “Original Sin.” It’s one of the texts that John Calvin uses to refer to the “Total Depravity” of humanity. Personally, I’m not a fan of the theologies of “Original Sin” or “Total Depravity.” I’m not even a fan of referring to this story as “The Fall.” Because, I’m more concerned about the way the story reveals about humanity, specifically humanity’s internal drives and desires that lead us to sin. And in doing so, how this text can reveal the internal desires of our congregations that drive the decline of our churches, and thus help us to transform ourselves and ours ecclesiology and missiology for the Great Emergence.
And so I will not be reading this text from a Reformed or traditional or conservative or even progressive hermeneutic. Instead, I’m reading this text through the lens of radical theology – specifically, what is known as pyrotheology as developed by Irish theologian Peter Rollins. Radical theology is part of the Emergence movement in Christianity and applies other philosophical and critical theories – such as psychoanalysis and existentialism – to provide a hermeneutic that allows us to discover what it means to be human, specifically the human drives and desires working within these texts that are still affecting us and the Church today.
God tells Adam and Eve, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” If you want to guarantee that a child will WANT a toy, tell them they CAN’T have it. Because once something is prohibited it immediately becomes desired, and we are develop this drive to obtain it at all costs. For Adam and Eve, their drive for the fruit of the tree is established the minute God forbids them to eat it. And then the serpent comes along and calls into question the trustworthiness of God, causing Adam and Eve to be more aware that there is something they cannot have despite all the freedom they DO have. And as soon as they consider the possibility that God is NOT telling them something, Adam and Eve become insecure. And it is this “original insecurity” that points to their Lack – this feeling that there is something missing within themselves that can only be fulfilled by something greater than themselves such as the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the things which we believe will fulfill our lack are sacred-objects. The problem is, even though the sacred-object of the fruit promises to take away the Lack within them, once obtained, the sacred-object creates greater insecurity and increases their awareness of how much more Lack is in their lives. For it is only after they eat of the tree that Adam and Eve “know they are naked” and began to feel shame and guilt. Gaining knowledge does not make life easier – and this text shows us just how painful knowing the whole truth can be. That’s why ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is NOT the mark of human maturity. Running from or avoiding your inner issues isn’t going to make them go away.
So we avoid the painful truth about ourselves by scapegoating. In scapegoating, we believe the reason why we can’t obtain the sacred-object we desire is the fault of another individual or group of people (often marginalized people such as the poor, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ community, etc.). So instead of OWNING our Lack we PROJECT our Lack upon the scapegoat. Blaming it for our sins and our failings. Adam scapegoats Eve for his desire to fulfill his lack with the fruit of the tree. Eve projects her lack on the serpent’s deception. We do the same thing when we come across the poor in our streets, saying things like, “Don’t give them any money, they’ll just spend it on booze and drugs.” Or “Why should my hard-earned money pay to support lazy welfare queens?” We project our own spiritual and moral poverty onto them – blaming them for our immoral desires and sinful laziness. This is why Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.” Because you cannot alleviate economic poverty until you address the spiritual and moral poverty within yourself.
And when the drive for our sacred-object proves too challenging, we pursue substitute objects instead – wealth, power, fame, success, status, etc. – hoping they will be able to fill the lack within us. Yet, as soon as we obtain these substitute objects, we quickly realize how futile they are, and our drive for the sacred-object grows stronger.
So, how does this work in the Church? Do we have sacred-objects in the Church that we are driven to attain – believing that once we do, we will feel whole and complete again, that all our problems will go away? Now I’m sure most of us can agree that every church has its idols, its sacred cows. The things that if you touch them or move them or (God-forbid) RE-move them, heaven and earth will collapse! They often have a plaque on them with some dead person’s name. Or they are traditions that we repeat over and over again even though we have NO idea why we are doing them. (“It’s just how we’ve always done it.”) Or it’s that person or family who’s always in charge of a particular event, small group, committee, or always on Session.
Sometimes these idols are programs, annual events, bible studies, kitchens (don’t get me started on kitchens!), cliques, worship styles, decorations, familiar hymns, and even pews. But while many in the Church desire these things, they are not sacred-objects. They are merely the substitutes for the sacred-object that truly drives everything we do in the Church. And we create all kinds of scapegoats to blame for why we haven’t attained it. Because it’s much easier to create scapegoats for the death of the Church. Like Adam and Eve we would rather blame others than take responsibility for our dying church. Blaming things like: the community for not making the church a priority. Millennials for not taking their faith seriously. Lack of financial resources and/or volunteers for why we can’t start new programs to attract the idolized “young families with children.” But remember, we always project onto the scapegoat what is true about us.
We blame the community for not making the church a priority because we don’t make Discipleship a priority. We want church to be a simple obligation for us – a weekly euphoric experience of “feel good” worship that doesn’t challenge anything we believe, doesn’t force us to change anything about ourselves, and numbs our pain long enough until we can return next Sunday to get another fix at our spiritual crackhouse. Meanwhile, those who pursue true Discipleship don’t play the blame game. Churches that accept responsibility for their problems and confront them head on are doing Discipleship right.
Millennials are often blamed by older generations – especially Boomers – for not taking their faith seriously. Yet, who do they think raised them? The National Study of Youth and Religion – a 20-year longitudinal study of Millennials – found that the number one influence on a youth’s future faith commitment is their parents (pastor’s and youth ministers rank at the bottom of influence). Millennials don’t take faith seriously because growing up they never saw their Boomer parents taking their faith seriously. Young people know the difference between following Jesus, and just showing up for an hour lecture on Sundays. And we, as the Church, don’t take our faith seriously, because we lack the ability to take God seriously. Meanwhile, churches that do take God seriously also take the discipleship of their children and youth seriously – fully integrating them throughout the life of the congregation instead of isolating them into their own silo ministry away from the rest of the congregation.
We blame others for not volunteering meanwhile, what are you volunteering for Becky? When was the last time you ushered? When was the last time you helped teach Sunday School? What do you mean you’ve already “served your time?” I didn’t realize being a servant of Christ had a time limit. We lack volunteers because we lack the experience of being a servant. We pay people to do everything for us nowadays. Uber drives for us. Uber eats will deliver fast food for us. We pay a pastor to develop our spirituality and outsource our children and youth’s faith development to the youth pastor – as long as they make sure our kids graduate nice, sober, virgins who identify as Christian, but not so much that they would jeopardize their future by doing something crazy like being a missionary in a foreign country.
We blame others for the lack of our financial resources – meanwhile every pastor who’s seen the stewardship rolls knows that the people who complain the most give the least – if they even give at all. That often the people who earn the most give the smallest percentage. That many of our congregations are literally being supported on the backs of the poorest and oldest members of our congregation – because they are the ones who understand sacrificial generosity. Meanwhile the rest project their lack of sacrificial generosity upon others. And they do so because of the serpents in our world. The serpent of capitalism who tells us that you are nothing without the next best thing. The serpent of scarcity who tell you that that other marginalized group is coming for your resources, so you better do something or you will starve. The serpent of independence who tells us we can’t trust each other for help if something happens. The serpent of privilege who tells us we deserve what we had and others do not. The serpent of socio-economic status tells us we can’t be so generous that we sacrifice the status that material things give us. We lack understanding of sacrificial generosity because we lack understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. And so our collect drive towards the sacred-object keeps growing.
So, what is the sacred-object of the Church? I argue that our true sacred-object is the belief in Church Growth – developed out of the nostalgia for a church full of young families like believe we had back in 1950/60/70/80/90-something. How many pastors, during PNC interviews were asked, “What can you do to grow the church?” (raise your hands) And it’s because our biggest anxiety is that the Church is declining, the church is dying, and our particular congregation is going to close if it doesn’t grow. And if God can’t save the church, then can God save me?
But instead of moving forward, we keep falling back into patterns, programs, and polities of 30, 40, 50+ years ago. This is our “original insecurity” – believing that unless we use the patterns, programs, and polities we already know, we can never trust there to be the outcome we desire – Church Growth. Therefore, we have a choice to make in confronting this “original insecurity.” We can either 1) cowardly create scapegoats to project our lack upon and blame for our church decline (and watch our church die anyway) or 2) do the messy work of courageously facing ourselves, owning our lack as a community of faith, and seeking total transformation. And while we all know what we should do, and we also know we prefer to do. Fortunately, the Good News in the midst of this is found in the crucifixion – just not in the way you would think.
Traditionally, the crucifixion provides the ground of meaning for Christian soteriology (theology of salvation). And while the traditional, “Jesus died for you”, penal substitution model rallied by John Calvin promotes an intellectual understanding of the crucifixion and the atonement, it does not provide an existential understanding. An understanding that gets within your very being and transforms the way you see the world, causing you to “repent” – “to turn around” as the Greek word metanoia implies – and to live your life radically different. As I tell my congregation, “Repentance doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry. Because if you ask God to forgive you for something you’ve done without changing your way of life that lead you to do it, you are an unrepentant sinner.” We need to understand the crucifixion in such a way that it is no longer an intellectual exercise, but a transformation of our total selves: heart, mind, body, and soul. So that we can become repentant and walk away from our sacred-objects and walk towards the direction that Jesus is leading us – which, I hope we remember, is always to the cross.
And so a radical reading of the crucifixion is one in which the crucifixion does not GIVE meaning to life or religion, but instead represents the LOSS of all meaning. For Jesus to be crucified meant two things: 1) it religiously meant that Jesus was cursed of God because Deuteronomy 21:23 (and later Paul in Galatians 3:13) states that anyone hung from a tree is cursed of God. And 2) socio-politically, crucifixion was meant to erase your identity and your existence to the state. So in his crucifixion, Jesus’ life no longer has any meaning on both a religious and socio-political level. Jesus cries out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me.” because he has become totally meaningless to heaven and earth.
And at that moment of total meaninglessness, the curtain in the temple rips in two from the top to the bottom. The curtain – the prohibition that kept everyone else out of the Holy of Holies – the place where the very presence of God, the ultimate sacred-object, was said to dwell – rips open to reveal… NOTHING. Nothing is there. Now while there are many traditional interpretations of this, a radical reading argues that the presence of God was never there to begin with. The presence of God was only there virtually. It was all in our heads. It didn’t exist. And the only reason we desired it was because we were prohibited from attaining it like a child’s much wanted toy. The absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects. It’s a traumatic and shocking realization that is not just intellectual – but also existential. We feel it in our entire being. It forces us to no longer view God as the object of intellectual study, dogmas, and devotion. It forces us to abandon the idea of God as some subject of mystical contemplation and mystery we can never know but try to seek union with. Instead God is an uncontrollable event that changes our perception of the world, which in turn, transforms how we interact with the world, thus changing the world.
This is the Good News of Christianity. The removal of the prohibition – the tearing of the curtain – confronts us with “the ridiculous nature of our stubborn attachments” to sacred-objects that simply are not there. The Good News is that the absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects that can never fulfill our lack. The Good News is that we are saved FROM the sacred-objects of our desire – which would eventually become a Hell of our own making. We are saved from the oppressive substitute desires that take us from one meaningless moment to the next. We are saved from religious and socio-political serpents that instill insecurities to point out our lack in order to control us. We are saved from the rules of religion so that we can trust the promises of God. We are saved from the need to constantly pursue wholeness and perfection.
And as Peter Rollins says, “we discover that what lies on the other side of the [curtain]…isn’t qualitatively better…this insight… invites us into a different form of life, one in which we experience the disappearance of the sacred-object and the problems it creates for us” (71). We are saved to different form of life – not so we can attend feel good worship on Sundays. But so we can step deeper into life – with its pain, loss, and suffering – and discover the beauty and meaning that it already has. We are saved so we can love.
Love is the only experience of desire that is NOT oppressive. To love a person or a cause is to discover something that is both IN our world and gives weight TO our world. In love, desire is not consumed on the object of our love. Instead, our beloved fuels and sustains our desires. While this all sounds wonderful and ideal, the reality is we avoid love because it comes hand-in-hand with pain and suffering. Love requires vulnerability. And vulnerability puts you at risk of pain and suffering. Therefore, we have domesticated the Gospel into nothing more than a means of alleviating my pain and suffering and achieving my personal salvation. We avoid things in the Church that make us uncomfortable, that force us to face our own lack, and exchange it for false gospel of shallow, superficial, “niceness.” The only way to completely shelter yourself from pain and suffering is to avoid love. Churches that focus on being nice and keeping their members comfortable are Churches without love. And since God is love, they are also Churches without God.
The sacred is still there, but it returns in the form of a tangible depth – not some intellectual fiction. The sacred no longer shelters us from the secular, but instead springs forth from the secular. It’s a way of life in which we live as though everything has meaning instead of trying to seek meaning in everything. We discover the sacred is not about experiencing something positive, but about experiencing depth and density in all things. This causes us to shift from a desire for things we don’t have to a desire born out of loving what we do have, the things and people we’ve already encountered. Those who experience the sacred in this way are truly gracious and grateful for what they already have rather than concerned for what they don’t have.
For the Church, the Good News of Christianity is that the thing that we believe will save the Church and us – the sacred-object of Church Growth DOES NOT EXIST! It doesn’t currently exist because it’s 2019 NOT 1950/60/70! It NEVER did exist because it was the desire for Church Growth that got us to this moment of death and decline. That’s why sin results in death. Sin is the death drive towards the sacred-object. Forgiveness of sin is the removal of the sacred object, freeing us from that sense of lack within ourselves, and stopping our drive towards death. Churches that continue driving towards Church Growth instead of living into sacrificial love will be judged by the law – the law of natural selection – where failure to adapt results in death.
But the Church will thrive in places where the community embraces its Lack. Where the community confesses its flaws, faults, and failures, and seeks actual repentance – turning away from their sacred and substitute objects (including their church buildings) and turning towards the direction that Jesus is leading them. The direction of ministry over institutionalism. Of people over patterns, programs, and polities. Of love over buildings. The church that stops desiring the things they don’t have – such as members and money – and that is thankful for what it does have – their local community, compassionate love, and confidence in God’s promises – will experience eternal life – life in the fullest – even if the church closes.
The most powerful experience of “Church” I’ve ever had was when I was required to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for a seminary pastoral care class. AA is a community that embraces their lack. That acknowledges what is actually wrong. They know their alcoholism is “a manifestation of their own internal antagonisms.” And as such, “acceptance of one’s own issues…helps provide the atmosphere in which…positive transformation…can happen” (Rollins 46). Can you imagine a church like that? A church where acceptance of your own issues – your lack – creates an environment of love where you can be transformed – where you can truly repent and turn your life around? Where you can turn away from the sacred-object of your desires and turn towards the path in which Jesus is leading you. A church where the response to “How are you?” is the truth instead of the socially acceptable lie of “I’m fine.” Can a church do that? Can a church actually admit to its flaws and failures? Can a church confess its scapegoating of others? Maybe someone should create a 12-Step program for the Church. Maybe we don’t have a choice but to do so.
While it’s been a LOT more than 12 steps, embracing our lack is something we’ve been working on at Grace Presbyterian in Crystal City. We’ve been working on naming and embracing our lack. On accepting that we are not perfect. Of claiming our failures instead of scapegoating others. This has been a long and difficult journey, and we are still a work in progress. Some people easily embrace this. These people are typically more self-aware and emotionally intelligent. Other people, meanwhile, simply cannot go along with this because they can’t deal with the pain of confronting their own lack, their own inner issues. They can’t accept the reality that maybe, just maybe, they are not the “good Christian” they claim to be.
There are several things that we have been repenting and transforming what it means for us to be the church in the Great Emergence – but I’ve already preached too long for a Presbyterian pastor. So I want to acknowledge our newest missional endeavor called The Welcome Table. This idea is spearheaded by Suzanne & Diane DeWitt Hall, a married couple new to the congregation. Every Tuesday night from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, The Welcome Table serves a FREE community meal to anyone who wants it. This meal is NOT just for the homeless or poor – hungry for food. It’s also for the lonely widow – hungry for fellowship, the tired caregiver or parent – hungry for a break from cooking for one night, the spiritually lost – hungry for the presence of God, the marginalized – hungry for love and acceptance. Since the first night, seven weeks ago, we average over 40 patrons a night, – only 6-7 are members of Grace – and we average between 6-10 volunteers – several of which are members of the community. There are around 10 to 15 children and youth who both attend and help serve and clean up. The spirit of authenticity, of grace, of mercy, of generosity, of discipleship, of love during The Welcome Table is a powerful witness to the Good News. There is no desire for sacred-objects here – for praise or accolades. Our faults and failures are openly discussed. And there is a willingness to sacrifice one’s time and resources to offer love in the form of food, fellowship, and relationship.
Recently a thin, frail, young woman, fighting bone cancer, came in cautiously questioning if she could take a meal home to her mentally disabled grandmother for whom she is the caregiver. The young woman was shocked when she experienced the love and generosity of the volunteers in the program. Then Diane DeWitt Hall herself gave me the opportunity to witness Christ at work, as she graciously sat down with this young woman and showed her the genuine Christian love and hospitality that she needed. When the young woman said she couldn’t believe that anyone at the church would be that kind to her, Diane simply replied, “But that’s what love does. Love gives without expectation. And God is love.” For this young woman, the curtain was torn on the judgmental, patriarchal, and wrathful God that she had always known, revealing it was never there all along. Instead, she was able to experience divine love, that welcomed her and transformed her view of the world.
It’s time for us to repent of our sinful death drive towards Church Growth – because it doesn’t exist, it never did exist, and it never will exist – and free our minds of its virtual existence otherwise it will continue to insist that we distract ourselves with shallow substitute objects that will only turn us into the walking dead. To experience eternal life in Christ – not just a continuation of life later but a fullness of life in the here and now – we must learn from communities like AA and embrace our lack. We must stop retreating from life and begin diving deeper into it. That’s what salvation is about: freedom from our meaningless religious, social, political, and economic desires so we can experience the tangible, incarnate, and meaningful forms of the sacred immersed deep within the creation – especially among the marginalized. And in doing so, we live into love and discover – not the secret to Church growth – but the Christian faith for the first time. AMEN