Today sees the expulsion from Eden commemorated in the services. It is also the Sunday of Forgiveness. We do not need to dwell on how literal the Genesis accounts are. They show us that our present state is a result of sin.
The understanding of the Church is simple enough. We all fall. Only one human being has ever been sinless. The one of course is Christ Himself. The Genesis account show that Man was to achieve immortality, Adam (Man) was designed to achieve perfection, yet he chose to disobey. That was falling short of what was asked. He and Eve were expelled from the garden because otherwise they would be able to eat the fruit of the tree of life. The expulsion was in fact an act of love that meant man was confined to animal nature, subject to death. Without death to end suffering and sin, life would indeed grow painful and tedious. It would be a sort of eternal death.
The big point is that our own sin, for each of us, stops us getting to the state God designed us for. We fall short, which is what sin is. It is falling short of the target of a God-centred life..
However there is another way. Man can achieve true delight and true immortality through the grace of God. The reason for our existence is communion with God.
Whereas Adam sinned Christ did not. With Christ as our model we can achieve the immortality God wants for us. No one says it is easy, it is anything but, as we have to seek, constantly, to repent. But repentance is not mere being sorry for our sins, it is a constant turning ourselves towards God. Lent helps in that.
The hymns for Matins today include the comparison of Adam who fell through eating, and Moses who had a vision of God because he fasted and cleansed the eyes of his soul. In the words of the canon-“If we desire to see God, let us, like Moses, fast for forty days”.
Fasting is a way of bringing ourselves under control. It makes our prayer all the keener. It is not a simple change of diet, rather by giving up some things which are good in themselves, in the way of food it means we can more easily learn to abstain from things which are bad for us. It means we place God first.
The full rigour of fasting is not for everyone, it is almost impossible for some, because of their work load, or age or health. I would urge you to do what you can, but even if circumstances mean simply replacing meat with fish we are still doing what we can to turn to God.
Yet it is not to be self-indulgent. Christ warns against ostentation in the Gospel today: “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” It is like the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee we heard recently. Being proud of our holiness is a mistake, being modest and quiet about our efforts gets results. The fast is a chance to turn to God in a way that is also physical. Embrace it, as you do any form of prayer.
Today is also the Sunday of forgiveness. It is a good thing to have a clearing out of grievances and actively think of all the wrong we have done to others, and the harm that we may have suffered, and to let the resentment go. Forgiveness is asked of us as a part of God forgiving us. It is not that He does not love us; rather that we stop His love working in us by hardness of heart.
Forgiveness is not some warm fuzzy feeling of being restored. The emotional response can come; but first and foremost forgiveness is an act of will.
To forgive is hard. We tend to love the status of innocent victim. Yet the very anger we feel is corrosive. Anger without an outlet is a source of illness. Yet it is not supressing anger to let it go. Forgiveness is not to forget the hurt. It may be that we do not forget. But very often the hurt is healed from the very act of not wanting to see punishment or suffering. Some things are not that easy to forget. Sometimes there are good reasons to remember and even avoid certain situations again. However we can forgive; we can cease to blame or hold resentment against someone. We can grant pardon for things. That means we no longer want to see a penalty.
One thing is certain; whilst you want to see the other person suffer you cannot love them. And if you cannot love you cannot expect to be loved back. Also, by ceasing to love, you put obstacles in the way of loving God, and in the way of His love for us. God, I am sure never ceases to love us, the question is do we love Him and accept His love?
I have one other thought to offer. The problem of belief in modern life is not that people do not believe. They believe all sorts of things. The problem is that God looks unlikely in the current fashionable view. Part of the role of the Church, and that lies with all of us, is to demonstrate the reality of God. We do that through the demonstration of real love for each other. I know it works; I talk to visitors and inquirers. They arrive and sense something here, for which we give glory to God.
So recognising our failings, repenting and underlining that repentance by our control of appetites, and in forgiving each other we may truly be open to God. Then we are seriously storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven, as the gospel says “where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Let us recognise our failings, and search this Lent to truly repent. Let us truly forgive each other and embrace the fast as a joyful season, a chance to turn back to God and do ever better in our walk with Him.