First Sunday in Lent - March 1, 2020
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 + Psalm 32 + Romans 5:12-19 + Matthew 4:1-11
Repent and believe in the good news for the Kingdom of God is at hand! + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
In the course of my ministry here, I have encountered on a regular and consistent basis a struggle among so many with the question of “worthiness,” or better with a persistent experience of “unworthiness” that, without exception, has a deleterious effect on one’s personal life, spiritual progress, and psychological health.
Often, persistent feelings of unworthiness in adulthood are rooted in a person’s formative years, in which their family of origin inculcated these feelings through emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. Other times, religion itself has played a role in generating these feelings through an excessive emphasis on sin, guilt, or shame. And still for others, society at large has served as the primary culprit through marginalization, prejudice, and judgment. And very often, it is a particularly noxious combination of these that have conspired to instill a life-long struggle with a sense of unworthiness that one must eventually learn to confront head-on, or forever be subject to the deleterious effects of a negative self-image.
As many of you know, I have and will continue to confront this “demon of unworthiness” whenever I discern its presence. It is a demon that very often cannot be exercised once for all, but requires persistent assaults with truth, compassion, and counter-narratives that slowly chip away its power over us until like Christ in today’s gospel we might finally say, “Away with you, you have no power here, go! Before someone drops a house on you too!” Oh wait! That was Dorothy, not Jesus. Matthew tells us today he was much more terse, “Away with you Satan!”
And make no mistake, persistent feelings of ‘unworthiness’ are nothing more than a powerful ruse of Satan, designed to keep you from the one thing that will open the way to a life of deep intimacy with God: And that is, “failure and the ability to admit failure.”
To be seized by a cycle of perpetual feelings of unworthiness is to ensure you will spend a lifetime trying to “please God,” trying to “achieve salvation,” trying to “win favor or approval from God and others” – all of which are ultimately antithetical to the radical freedom, or what Paul calls today “the free gift” held out by the gospel.
Let me put that more simply: A lifetime of trying to prove your worthiness before God and others is contrary to the radical freedom in Christ held out by the Gospel. Persistent feelings of unworthiness are the primary culprit because it induces a kind of “spiritual death” that prevents one from every really being fully alive in Christ.
The constellation of readings proclaimed from the lectionary today make this case forcefully. But to understand the power of their message we must understand something Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that could easily be overlooked. You can see this on page 8 of your bulletin, in what is verse 14 (or the last line of the first paragraph):
14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
I want you to notice two things about that verse:
That before Christ (that is, from Adam to Moses) death exercised its dominion;
And that Adam is a “type” of Christ (the one who is to come)
Let’s look at each of these in turn. First, that before Christ death exercised its dominion: Notice how many times Paul refers to the free gift of Christ in this passage starting in the second paragraph at the bottom of p. 8 and top of 9 [on bulletin]. To be clear, the translation here of “free gift” in English is actually being drawn from three different Greek words that Paul uses throughout this passage: charisma, dorea, and dorema
While these three words do indeed have roughly the same meaning: “free gift,” their nuances in Greek offer slightly different connotations. “Charisma,” for example, which Paul uses in the first and third occurrence in this passage, has a clear sense of a “divinely conferred benefit” – that is something that can only be given by God. It is where we get the English word, “charisma” or “charismatic.” The other two Greek terms that Paul uses here do not necessarily convey that same sense of “God-given” though in this case clearly imply it. I say this only to demonstrate the richness of the Greek that can often be flattened in English. But to tease these out further here would take me too far afield.
Secondly, then: To understand the power of this “free gift” we have to know something of what Paul says here about Adam as Type of Christ.
Paul is again using a very technical term here in Greek, and that term is “typos” – here translated accurately as “type.” In other words, by claiming that Adam is a Type of Christ, he is relying on a method of interpretation that we call “typology.” Or again, in his letter to the Romans Paul is suggesting here a typological interpretation of Christ. And herein lies the power of his message; a message which has direct implications for Christianity’s most radical teaching on the issue of ‘worthiness.’
So what is typology? In Christian theology, Typology is a way of interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by which certain events, persons, or prophetic statements, in the Old are understood to ‘prefigure’ Christ or events in his life. This is what Paul is saying in Romans about Adam: Adam prefigures Christ. Or Adam is a Type of Christ who ultimately is seen to supersede him as the “antitype.”
In another example, the Prophet Jonah is often seen as a “type” of Christ because after being swallowed up by a sea monster he emerges again after three days just as Christ emerged from the tomb after three days. Jonah is the “type” of Christ who is swallowed up because of his disobedience to God, where as Christ, the antitype supersedes Jonah as one who emerges from the tomb precisely because of his fidelity to God.
Typological interpretations derive from the Greek noun “typos” because typos referred to the making of an image through an impression, particularly the impression made by stamping an image onto a coin. Thus the stamp had the original image or “type” and the was impressed into the metal coin reproducing the identical image but in reverse, or what we call the “antitype.” Similarly, one might think of a wax mold creating in perfect symmetry the ‘anti-type’ on the object being created.
To look then specifically at a typological interpretation of today’s readings, notice that Paul’s Letter to the Romans is situated between two important Scriptural texts. An OT text about the failure of Adam who gives into temptation and a New Testament text about the victory of Christ who overcomes temptation.
First, we heard the mythical story of Adam and Eve through whose disobedience sin and death are brought into the world. It is essential here that we attend to humanity’s “failure” here. Adam and Eve represent all of humanity. Second, in the gospel of Matthew, we read of Jesus’ temptations in the desert by which he overcomes all of the temptations of Satan.
Paul, in his letter observes a typological correlation between Adam and Jesus:
Adam is the one through whom sin, death, and condemnation enter the world.
Whereas Jesus is the one through whom the free gift of grace enters the world. Thus, Adam is the type and Jesus the anti-type.
Now, too often the relationship between Adam and Christ are mistakenly interpreted historically as a kind of before and after, or cause and effect. In other words: First, Adam sinned, and thus as a result Christ then had to fix the problem.
But as Paul insists in Romans today, we cannot understand the relationship Adam and Christ unless we understand them typologically: Adam as Type and Christ as Antitype.
Since Adam is indeed mythical and not a historical figure we know that in fact, there was no past moment in history when humanity, however long ago, existed in perfect harmony with God. We are products of evolutionary history. Thus, to try to interpret the relationship between Adam and Christ historically – as a cause and effect, before and after is to miss the point entirely.
And Paul’s typological interpretation holds the key. The comparison between Adam and Christ is not ultimately a comparison between two “people” but a comparison between the two WORLDS that they represent:
Adam: A world of exile, where we don’t know or see or experience the great intimacy of God who is always and everywhere in search of us. A world born of an illusion of our separation from God in which we strive and struggle and strain to prove ourselves worthy, to make ourselves right…in which sin and its alienating power keeps us small and frightened – unable to see and know and realize ourselves as infinitely beloved of God.
This is the world of judgment and criticism, self-loathing and guilt, shame and put downs. And because I fear it so deeply from others, I myself become not part of the solution but part of the problem: consistently judging others to ensure that I have already diminished them in my own mind so that when they judge me (as they inevitably will), I can dismiss them and the poisonous effects of their disdain.
And so we are caught up in a world of forever trying to prove ourselves worth and put down others as self-soothing medication. This is the world so many of us have been wounded by.
But Christ, and the world he ushers in as “the Kingdom of God” is the world of free and radical grace, the world of the free gift of God’s love and joy over each one of us. The free gift of radical freedom to love others without the need of love in return, and the pure gift of radical freedom from the tyranny of the rant in our heads perpetually judging others. Now we understand Jesus’ teaching” “Judge not lest ye be judged.” To “judge not” not only frees the object of our judgment but first and foremost is born of a life of our own inner freedom in Christ.
When we understand the World of Adam and the World of Christ typologically we begin to glimpse the fact that the relationship between the two are not so much Christ ameliorating the sinfulness of Adam’s disobedience, but serving rather as the Anti-Type.
They are related as a photographic negative to its positive print, or as a mold to the clay that is shaped by it (Gopplet, Typos, 127-129, esp. 13 on “Allegory” vs. “Typology”). The negative determines the photograph; the mold determines the shape of the clay; and Adam’s world, determines the shape of Christ’s Kingdom.
Insofar as Adam symbolizes all of humanity, Paul’s typological interpretation of Adam and Christ makes it clear: Christ as the ‘antitype’ is molded precisely to fit the very world of Adam that begs for redemption from self-loathing and judgment. That is to say, the very person and life of Christ as antitype reverses and negates the world of Adam – with all of its judgment and sense of self-worthlessness. Christ literally cancels out Adam’s world (our world!) of judgement with its very opposite: the free gift of God’s love, or in Paul’s words making us forever “righteous” before God.
If we were reading the relationship between Adam and Christ historically, before and after, cause and effect, we might say: once you were unworthy but now you are made worthy in Christ. A typological reading insists unworthiness has nothing to do with it and never has. In the world of Christ—the kingdom of God—there is only love. There is only the free gift: Notice it is not earned or worked for, or strived after: free means free.
The coming of Christ and his kingdom is molded precisely to counter the world of self-loathing and judgment. It is its direct counter-opposite, its antitype.
They don’t go because they don’t understand what is being freely offered. Paul is holding out the same free gift for us today. The only question that remains is whether you will dare to accept it. And I Hope you do.
Image Credit: Theodore Schluenderfritz