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The First Sunday in Lent – Jesus, Adam and S. Irenaeus of Lyon

Mar 1, 2020, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4.1-11

One of the things about being a Christian that I treasure and enjoy is that sense of standing in a tradition stretching back through the ages. Of course that’s not the main point of being a Christian, but it is a great help to us in our generation that we have the accumulated wisdom of centuries of prayerful reflection on God’s revelation in the holy scriptures and in creation to draw on. And it is easier than ever for us to draw on that accumulated wisdom, because of advances in scholarship and advances in information technology. Of course there are also downsides to this – in 2000 years of Christian history there is much wonderful theology and devotional writing, but also much that we cannot be proud of, and when we get to Good Friday I plan to go into that in a little more detail. But today I would like to talk about what I think is a helpful idea from the writings of one of the fathers of the early church.

S. Irenaeus of Lyon was from the then Greek town of Smyrna which is now Izmir in Turkey, but he eventually became the Bishop of Lyon in France. Tradition has it that he learned the Christian faith from the martyr S. Polycarp of Smyrna, who for his part is said to have learned the faith at the feet of S. John the Evangelist. Irenaeus was born in around 130, and died in around 202. We don’t have an awful lot of Christian theological writing from such an early date, so the writings of Irenaeus give us a valuable insight into the doctrine and practice of the early church.

One of Irenaeus’ big theological ideas is what he calls recapitulation. Whereas if you were to ask a Christian today how Jesus saves us, they would probably point to the Cross, Irenaeus saw a unity in the whole of Jesus’ life as a work of salvation. Of course the Cross is an integral part of this, but rather than attempting to reduce our salvation simply to the Cross, Irenaeus has a more expansive view of salvation through the whole of Jesus’ life, which he understands in the context of the whole of God’s saving work from the very beginning of human history.

For Irenaeus, the whole of Jesus’ life is about salvation, because in Jesus human life is sanctified through Jesus’ divinity. And more than that, Jesus lives through the stages of human life, with its trials and its temptations, and at every step overcomes evil. This is what Irenaeus means by recapitulation. All of the missteps and failures of each of our lives and of the whole of human history are put right in the life of Jesus, who retraces the steps of our human journey whilst remaining obedient to the will of the Father.

This idea of recapitulation is really just a development of the teaching of S. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans that we heard earlier this morning. Jesus is the new Adam; in Adam, human beings, although made in God’s image, have become disobedient and flawed; human beings have abused the gift of being made in God’s image, and have abused the gifts of God’s creation; human beings have treated equality with God as something to be grasped and exploited.

In Jesus, this sad story is rerun. Jesus is the new Adam; as S. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, Jesus does not count equality with God as something to be grasped, he does not count it as something to be exploited, but he empties himself, taking the form of a slave, and becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross. In Jesus the human story is recapitulated, the human story is rerun and this time it is made good, and “therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Our gospel reading today is the well-known story of the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. It is a natural gospel for us to read at the start of Lent, as we ourselves venture into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and prayer. The story of the Temptation of Jesus is a story of recapitulation. It is in fact a very direct recapitulation of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years after the Exodus, during which time they are tested by God. Whilst the Israelites fail each time they are tested, Jesus is able to resist the temptations; this aspect of human history is recapitulated in Jesus and made good through his obedience to God.

But the story of the Temptation of Jesus is also a recapitulation of our Old Testament lesson from Genesis. Adam and Eve, made in God’s image, treat equality with God as something to be grasped, something to be exploited. They abuse both the power and trust that God has given, and God’s creation itself, for their own ends; they put God to the test by testing what the consequences of their disobedience will be; and they even commit a sort of idolatry by seeing the fruit of the tree as something more to be desired that God himself. But Jesus refuses to abuse his power by using it for his own ends, he refuses to put God to the test, and he refuses to worship that which is less than God. Jesus, the new Adam, is tested and yet remains obedient to the Father; in Jesus the sad course of human life is recapitulated and made good.

What does this mean for us? In one sense, it is simply something we should be grateful for. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we share in the triumphant recapitulation of human life that Jesus accomplished. Jesus has saved and is saving us through “the mystery of his holy Incarnation; by his holy Nativity and Circumcision; by his Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation; by his Agony and bloody Sweat; by his Cross and Passion; by his precious Death and Burial; and by his glorious Resurrection and Ascension” (see the Litany from the Book of Common Prayer). The whole of Jesus’ life has a saving quality, and our response to that must be one of simple gratitude.

But the implication of that gratitude is that we must be open to the transforming effects of Jesus’ saving work in our own lives. For us to understand all that Jesus has done for our sakes, and yet to put up walls against him in our hearts, would be the height of ingratitude. No, we must allow him in, to live out his triumphant recapitulation through us, to bring about the conversion of our hearts and the transformation of our lives.

But this will not always be an easy thing for us, because we too like Adam and Eve tend to see equality with God as something to be grasped and exploited. The current state of the world shows us the sad consequences of this. We too tend to abuse our God-given powers, the wonderful gifts of the human mind and of creation, putting them to the service of our own self-interest rather than the service of God and neighbour. We too will choose again and again the path of knowing pleasure over simple delight. In our own ways we put God to the test, and we put things that are less than God in God’s place. And this is why we are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness, and to keep this holy season of Lent as a special time of prayer and humility and simplicity and self-discipline: that we may be more open to Jesus’ transforming love to lead us to true conversion of heart and transformation of life, and thereby to restore us to a right relationship with God, with one another, and with the whole of creation.